A Detroit Bouncer Answers, “Is BJJ Good in a Street Fight?”


Article by Daniel Vee

I got my first job as a bouncer the day I turned eighteen. I watched Roadhouse as a teenager and figured being a bouncer would not only make me the toughest guy on the block, but a Patrick Swayze level chick magnet. I couldn’t wait to start. All through school I’d struggled to be tough and meet girls. That’s why I originally began martial arts in 1987. Being a bouncer in Detroit was my chance to put everything I’d learned on the mat to the test in the real world.

First off, I didn’t meet many girls. And, judging by my teary eyes during the final episode of Altered Carbon, it didn’t make me all that tough either. But it did let me ply my techniques in real-world scenarios and showed me the reality of a blood-and-guts street fight. The five years I spent as a bouncer in Detroit did more for my self-defense skills than all thirty years in various martial arts. So, my opinion on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s efficacy in a street fight isn’t theoretical, it’s based upon experience.

I was eighteen years old the first time I saw a man beaten to death. I was in my car on the way to the bar for work. I stopped at a light. Four guys were fighting a fifth in an empty parking lot. The outnumbered guy, a young, thin black man had his back to the front bumper of a car. He was overwhelmed, trying to cover up. But you can’t use two arms to cover up from eight. As the blows hit him, he fell back against the hood of the car. He went stiff the way you do when you’re badly knocked out. He slid down the front of the car and landed with his butt on the ground and his shoulders leaning back into the bumper. They put boots to his head and face. One kick sent him sliding further down so the back of his head cracked against the pavement under the bumper. All this took just seconds, and as I ran the red light the last thing I saw was one guy violently jerking him up by his shirt and slamming his face into the underside of the bumper again and again. I could tell by the way his head flopped, almost disconnected, that his neck was broken.

So when someone says “street fight” that’s what I think of. I don’t think of a frat boy with arms outstretched and fingers splayed yelling, “Come at me, bro!” although I guess that qualifies too. And, when someone talks to me about “the ground” in a street fight, that’s what it means to me. One guy on the ground, four others crowded around trying to get shots in.

Of course, I know not all violent encounters are so serious. In the United States more than 95% of reported assaults are just simple assaults. Simple assaults, as the law defines them, are assaults wherein there is no threat of death, great bodily harm or sexual assault.

We can define a street fight as the continuum between these two points. The first is a mere simple assault, like a couple shoves between angry drunks at a ballgame. The second is a four-on-one in an abandoned parking lot. This is important to understand, because too many “experts” focus only on one end or the other of the continuum when deciding how effective Jiu Jitsu is.

World renown military combatives trainer Kelly McCann says, “You don’t want to go to the ground in a street fight. But the reason can’t be you suck on the ground.” That about sums it up for me. If you wind up on the ground, mounted, or in rear naked choke and you don’t have Jiu Jitsu training — it’s over for you. If you can remain on your feet, throw a few strikes, and get away, that’s usually better.

With that in mind, let’s look at why.

Why You Need Jiu Jitsu in a Street Fight

I heard a Jiu Jitsu black belt compare going to the ground without Jiu Jitsu to falling in the water without knowing how to swim. “And if it’s with me,” he added, “there’s also a shark in the water.” These words should be considered carefully by anyone thinking they can skip training in Jiu Jitsu and rely on stupid stuff like eye-gouging, biting and finger breaking to do their grappling for them. No one wants to find out what happens when a drowning man pokes a shark in the eye.

In the case of simple assaults the restraint and control afforded by Jiu Jitsu training will be invaluable. More than just saving your ass, it can save you jail time and thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Personally, I’d rather get my ass kicked than be convicted of assault, so the not-going-to-jail aspect of Jiu Jitsu is critical to me.

Another key advantage of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu over other martial arts, particularly over other grappling disciplines, is its emphasis on leverage and technique instead of strength, size and athleticism. I’ve seen hundreds of fights and the truth is, size matters. It’s why combat sports have weight classes — even Jiu Jitsu. However, Jiu Jitsu can help smaller people to defeat larger people through superior technique.

Jiu Jitsu’s methodology of taking someone down and holding them until their efforts to escape have totally exhausted them has proven itself to work better than any other method for winning one-on-one, unarmed encounters. It’s why Royce Gracie dominated the first UFCs, and why MMA fighters of any level have to dedicate significant amounts of time to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

However, on the street you can’t guarantee a fight stays one-on-one or unarmed. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has its gaps, particularly for those who focus only on sport Jiu Jitsu.

The Shortcomings of Jiu Jitsu in a Street Fight

I’ve eluded to the biggest shortcoming of Jiu Jitsu: it’s inefficacy against multiple assailants. There are many positions in Jiu Jitsu to protect you from the strikes of a single opponent and none to protect you from the strikes of that opponent and his two friends. The best you can do is endure the beating, choke one guy out, grab the next guy and choke him out and repeat with the hope everyone is unconscious before you are.

In my experience, fights are one-on-one only until someone starts losing. No one is willing to watch a friend or loved one get beat up in the name of fairness. Once someone ends up in a dominant position and starts to apply a choke, lock, or serious ground and pound people come out of the woodwork to rescue them. Sometimes even passers by will wrongly assume the guy on top must be the bullying aggressor and intervene.

I once saw a girlfriend beat a guy mounted on her boyfriend with her high-heel until her weave came out. We bounced her and the two guys out, but didn’t discover we hadn’t bounced out the weave until the lights came on at closing time.

Rener Gracie, who I respect and admire greatly, agrees that BJJ is not helpful against multiple attackers — but in a “Gracie Breakdown” video says nothing is. Here, I respectfully disagree.

Choking someone out takes a lot longer than knocking someone out. In a multiple attacker situation the first step is clear: reduce the number of attackers. Diligently training strikes can enable someone to quickly disable assailants with blows to the head, throat, knees or groin.

Weapons present another significant challenge to the Jiu Jitsu practitioner. Guns and knives are a particular problem because they do not require momentum. They are deadly even when someone is smothered and unable to generate to hit. But, concealment is the real issue. Jiu Jitsu is actually quite good when used to control the weapon you can see. The problem is an individual, even one trapped under a dominant position, can access and use a concealed weapon outside the line of sight of the Jiu Jitsu practitioner.

One such case was that of George Zimmerman who fatally shot Trayvon Martin while mounted and being struck. Whether Zimmerman was right or wrong the encounter illustrates the problem with being on the ground in a street fight. One second someone is in the mount, raining vicious ground and pound, winning. The next second — bang — they’re dead. Shot by a gun they saw too late, if they even saw it at all.

Jiu Jitsu practitioners tend to think of their dominant positions as being safe. A place where they can attack, but cannot be attacked. On the mat or in the cage this rings true. In the pavement arena, where guns, knives and accomplices can come out of nowhere, such dominant positions can give a dangerous, false sense of security.

Finally, most Jiu Jitsu classes do not focus enough on counter-striking. Just as there are Jiu Jitsu black belts whose superior skill makes someone feel absolutely uncoordinated and helpless on the ground, there are strikers just as masterful on their feet. Fighting is not rock-paper-scissors and Jiu Jitsu doesn’t automatically beat boxing like paper beats rock.

So should you abandon Jiu Jitsu to train something geared more for the street? I’m not saying that. I am saying it would behoove you to augment your Jiu Jitsu with additional skills.

Tuning Your Jiu Jitsu for the Street

As a bouncer, I saw significant number of fights end up on the ground. To this the Jiu Jitsu practitioner replies, “Great! I live on the ground! Welcome to my world, punk!” However, not all ways of ending up on the ground are equal.

Sometimes a fight ended up on the ground because someone got sucker punched in the back of the head and face-planted. Other times it ended up there because someone slipped mid-fight and fell. Most often the fight went to the ground because combatants couldn’t gauge distance when throwing wild haymakers, collided into each other, tangled up, and toppled over. When I say “ended up on the ground” these examples are what I’ve seen cause it. Rarely, if ever, was it a slick takedown.

If Jiu Jitsu is the base of your self-protection, you must train takedowns in every session. Not guard pulls. Not judo throws in the gi. Not single legs that don’t account for uppercuts. You must train your takedowns, and train them against someone who is trying to punch, kick or stab you. Make sure you’re hitting no-gi classes for this.

Once on the ground, you should train your Jiu Jitsu in a way that accounts for someone trying to hit you, gouge your eyes, pull your ears off, and rend your flesh with their molars. Desperate people do desperate stuff. So do their friends. Make sure you’re constantly thinking, “what would happen if a second person wanted to hit me in the head right now?” In that vein, consider the advantages of knee-on-belly over the mount.

When you roll, make a mental note of when and how you might hit someone. Imagine applying submissions ballistically, instead of gradually. Think about getting a break instead of a tap. Consider how to use your Jiu Jitsu in the most unfriendly manner possible.

You should learn to strike. This is not to say you should enroll in Muay Thai classes, rather it is to say you should put a few strikes in your arsenal that you practice as regularly as your hip escapes. Approach learning to strike the way modern combatives are approached: a small but brutal set of tools that are easily recalled and reliable under extreme adrenal stress. Palm strikes, eye strikes, hammer fists, knees and a good slap go a long way when deployed as preemptive “sucker punches.” ��If you’ve got a chance to hit with them, you also have a chance to be hit by them. You need to augment your Jiu Jitsu with a basic understanding of how to cover up and move your head in a way that positions you to launch a counter attack.

You should also train against common knife attacks, what to do if someone pulls a gun on you and how to get inside the arc of something like a swinging baseball bat or tire iron.

All of these things can be learned by attending a few weekend seminars, and for a fraction of what you pay to do Jiu Jitsu all year long. I recommend the aforementioned Kelly McCann of Kembatives. (www.kembativz.com) Kelly has a boxing, Muay Thai and catch wrestling background, and has taught combatives to everyone from podunk police departments to the U.S Navy Seals. It’s well worth catching him when he’s teaching in a city near you.

If you really want to be prepared to defend yourself and your loved ones, you must consider the full continuum of assaults. Your Jiu Jitsu training will do a lot for you, but if self-defense is a priority you will need to go beyond sport Jiu Jitsu. Learn to hit, it’s important. Learn not to get hit, that might be even more important. Learn to defend yourself from knives, guns, bludgeons and so forth. Develop your skills of awareness — be seen seeing your surroundings. Do this, and this old Detroit bouncer thinks your Jiu Jitsu will do just fine on the street.

– Daniel Vee

About the Author: Daniel Vigil is an MMA coach and writer. He is available to write for martial arts school websites and blogs and can be followed at The Fighter’s Pen. www.facebook.com/thefighterspen




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