With competition jiu-jitsu still in its “offseason” stage, I feel that this week’s segment would be a perfect opportunity to lay out to you, the reader, the evolution of jiu-jitsu over the years. Today, we will be covering just how much the sport has changed in technical aspects since the first World championships way back in 1996.

Back in the early days when guys like Royler Gracie, “Comprido,” Mario Sperry and Fabio Gurgel dominated the competition scene, the style of play was completely different from what you see today at the biggest competitions. Back then, the game and the strategy looked a lot simpler.

When you were fighting from your back, there was closed guard and open guard where athletes would simply have their legs wrapped around their opponent or not. Then, when fighting on top, there were only one or two common guard passes being used, and they were very basic compared to today’s guard passing technique.

Another thing that was very different back in the early days of competition was the lack of defense that some competitors had when their guard was being passed; many just didn’t care at all! The approach then would be that they did not find it necessary to waste too much energy defending because they believed that they’d eventually get those points back or submit their opponent. This strategy was clear in numerous big matches back in the late ’90’s and early ’00’s, as there would be many bouts where opponents would go back-and-forth with guard passes, back takes and mounted positions, and the scores would usually be very high.

But as the years went on into the mid-2000’s, the jiu-jitsu world began to see a change in the techniques being played and the strategies being used. The guard would soon become the most deadly position in the sport as different guards would be invented and developed as the years went on. From the deep half guard, to the X-guard, all the way to the 50/50, there soon became an endless amount of weapons and styles of guard play being used and brought on by different athletes.

The same can be said for the top position. Although there hasn’t been as much of a development on top as there has on bottom, the standard guard-pass style has certainly changed since the ’90’s. During those early days, athletes usually preferred to use their weight and put pressure on their opponents to pass the guard, making things uncomfortable for the man on bottom. Nowadays, with competitors such as the Mendes Brothers (Rafael and Guilherme) to look up to, almost everyone is using “speed passes” to get around their opponent, and not using as much weight or pressure to score.

Unlike in the early days, competitors’ strategies have changed immensely. Now, everyone refuses to give up points! Once a common position, the side-mount control is almost non-existent as competitors would rather turn away and give up their back than give up side mount, believing it is easier to defend from the former compared to the latter. The thought process in most top competitors today is that it is so hard to score points on opponents that they mustn’t allow points either or it will be hard to come back. This is why in many matches (especially with top black belts), if there are any points, it is only in an exchange of sweeps, and matches can be relatively low-scoring.

A big question that is always asked is: “how do these changes in the game happen?” Well, the developments usually start with someone trying to work on something new, possibly to counter a certain attack. Then, with technology nowadays and people having access to the internet and YouTube, everyone sees how effective the new technique is and then they want to try it. Soon, the old position is out the window and everyone is using the newly developed and more technical position.

An example of this can be seen in the development of the “berimbolo” technique used religiously by both Rafael and Guilherme Mendes. Although the brothers had been using the technique since they were purple belts, no one else knew about it until it was released on to YouTube, and from there the video exploded. Now, in 2012, the berimbolo, a technique used from a De La Riva guard to either take the back or sweep, is one of the most commonly used moves in the sport from blue belt on up to black belt.

What else can I say about the evolution of this sport? Well, there is still so much more to develop. Although right now the berimbolo is one of the most dominant techniques out there, there is someone working on a defense for it, and when an effective one is discovered everyone will begin to use that defense. Then, soon after that, there will be a counter to that defense, and it just goes on and on and on.

In ten years, the style used in competition will most likely be completely different and even more technically sound than what we see now. This sport hasn’t stopped growing and changing since day one, and it doesn’t look even close to slowing down anytime soon.

Photo: “Cobrinha” (L) in the finals at the 2012 Worlds versus Rafael Mendes (John Lamonica/GracieMag)

About The Author

Gianni Grippo
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Contributor

Gianni Grippo is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Marcelo Garcia and trains at the Marcelo Garcia Academy in New York City. Besides being a big fan of the sport, Gianni is also an avid competitor and has ranked among the best in the World from blue to brown belt winning 6 IBJJF World titles and 7 Pan Championships. Still at 21, Gianni looks to continue to compete for many years to come as his main goals are to win the World championships at black belt and win the ADCC title.