Sam Harris and I share something in common. Both of us are atheists and skeptics who also greatly enjoy the martial arts. Judging from his blog posts I’ve read he seems to have about as varied of martial arts experience as I do, having studied multiple systems. He also seems to have a good grasp of what real self-defense is about, which is a somewhat uncommon feature with a vast number of martial artists. I agree with his eclectic approach and his willingness to train in multiple arts and with weapons. His acknowledgment that ground fighting can be dangerous in the real world (see footnote #1) is a breath of fresh air in a time when Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts are wildly popular. What is my point of disagreement, then? It’s that he’s chosen Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (henceforth referred to as BJJ) as the basis for his ground fighting skills.
Most of my readers are likely aware that many of the subjects I often write about are science, religion, history, politics, and philosophy, so what makes me qualified to write about this subject? While I may be a self-admitted amateur in the aforementioned subjects, the one subject I have studied most of my life is the martial arts. This is one area my critics could never disparage me due to my lack of credentials. I’ve been training in and learning about various martial arts, combat sports, and hand-to-hand combatives for the last twenty years. 
Before I get into the reasons why I firmly believe Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to be ill suited for street combat, I’d like to say that when it comes to martial arts I wholeheartedly embrace the motto that “knowledge is power,” and that I think it’s great when martial artists aren’t afraid of exposing themselves to arts that are vastly different than the one they usually practice. In this way, you are knowledgeable of the different techniques and tactics someone may use against you, should they attack you with an ax kick (from Taekwondo) or attempt a guard sweep (BJJ) if you happen to be on the ground with your attacker. By experiencing the various ways someone could attack or control you, your chances of successfully stopping their attacks rises because it’s something you’re familiar with and the attack doesn’t take you by surprise.
This leads me to a second point. It must be understood that my focus is purely on self-defense, not sport, not competition. It’s a sad fact that in today’s martial arts world many people are under the impression that sports-based fighting systems are one of the most effective ways to learn how to fight and defend yourself. This is horribly wrong and for several reasons: 1) sport-based arts do not teach you about weapons, neither how to use them, nor how to defend against them realistically, if they address them at all (one BJJ instructor I know of actually advocated grabbing the blade of the knife if attacked!); 2) sport-based arts do not train you to be aware of, and how to effectively deal with, multiple attackers; sport-based arts do not teach you to be aware of your surroundings; nor the legal/moral use of force, and most sport-based arts are limited to a one-on-one confrontation and do not address sucker punches and ambushes. In sum, there is a whole hell of a lot more to learn than mere strategy and how to kick, punch, and wrestle in order to be prepared for a real self-defense situation.
To be clear, I don’t doubt that if a person studied numerous sport-based arts diligently that they wouldn’t learn a thing or two about fighting, but fighting for sport and fighting for self-defense are two entirely different beasts. They may share many of the same techniques but the ways in which they are applied, and the skill sets needed are as different as night and day. This is the issue I have with those who believe BJJ is the best martial art to learn self-defense based ground fighting skills.
Before I begin with my thoughts about this post by Sam Harris about BJJ, I’d like to state up front that I agree with most of what he has to say in his post on three principles of self-defense (linked to above). My concern is that he’s chosen a competitive martial art as the basis for his wish to acquire real-world ground fighting skills.
In the post titled “The Pleasures of Drowning” Mr. Harris begins by suggesting how many reader emails prodded him to learn this particular ground fighting style known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. For those who are not aware of this martial art and the phenomenon of mixed martial arts that was made famous in the United States in the early 1990’s by the Gracie Family I’d suggest reading a little about them. They are an interesting (and huge!) family. Quite frankly, I would have loved to have been taught martial arts beginning when I could barely walk!
Ever since the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championship there have been several myths about ground fighting and self-defense in general that have weaseled their way into the folklore of the martial arts world by the Gracie family in order to hype and popularize their ground fighting style of martial arts (I will give the Gracies this, however: they are great salesmen! Even I began to learn grappling after watching the first few UFCs). I detail the errors in one of those myths in a book review I’ve written for a manual about how to beat MMA fighters by a so-called reality-based martial arts instructor.
Harris then presents a few videos of an Aikido practitioner who seemed to believe he had magical powers by summing his internal energy (or Chi, also known as Ki in Japanese or Qi in Chinese), but when he comes up against someone who wasn’t cooperating with him, he was soundly and quickly defeated. I agree entirely with Harris when he wrote, “[I]f you are a martial artist, or have even a passing concern with safeguarding basic human sanity, you will take some satisfaction in seeing a collective delusion so emphatically dispelled.” I believe more martial arts frauds need to be exposed in this way.
Next he writes,
Unfortunately, a similar form of self-deception can be found in most martial artists, because almost all training occurs with some degree of partner compliance: Students tend to trade stereotyped attacks in a predictable sequence, stopping to reset before repeating the drill. This staccato pattern of practice, while inevitable when learning a technique for the first time, can become a mere pantomime of combat that does little to prepare a person for real encounters with violence.
Another problem is that many combative techniques are too dangerous to perform realistically (e.g., gouging the eyes, striking the groin). As result, students are merely left to imagine that these weapons decisively end a fight whenever deployed in earnest. Reports from the real world suggest otherwise.
I agree that many martial arts train in this manner, but he must not forget that good martial arts, those whose sole purpose is self-defense, such as reality-based martial arts, do not train with attackers predictably striking the trainee. All attacks (once the basics are learned) ought to be random, swift, and hard. In this way the student gets used to being attacked with random techniques and with a good degree of realism. Once the student becomes proficient at stopping a variety of techniques he/she can then begin applying their offensive techniques to really make the drills come alive. Once these skills are perfected weapons and multiple attacker training come into the mix.
On to the subject of eye-gouging, biting, and groin attacks. I would agree that there are very likely stories of people who have poked or gouged someone’s eye and the person was unharmed, or was not phased much by the action. However, I’m sure there are there are also stories where peoples have at least temporarily stopped an attacker by gouging the eyes. Regardless, being able to see is critical in a fighting situation and attacking someone’s eyes can at least temporarily cause disorientation and create very brief openings for attacks. I do agree, however, that anyone who believes that doing nothing but biting or eye-gouging will most likely not be effective. Like any other technique it must be used at the opportune time and in the right situation to be most effective. For example, if you try to gouge or bite after your opponent has secured a figure-four arm lock, doing anything other than using your grappling know-how to escape is likely a waste of time. However, if you gouge a grappler’s eye while he is in side mount prior to any attempt at a submission, this will likely force the opponent to move away from you, giving you a few precious seconds to try to maneuver out from under your grappling-trained attacker. It may even cause temporary blindness or blurry vision, making his ability to stop further attacks from you more difficult.
These concerns make BJJ and other grappling arts unique in two ways: BJJ can be safely practiced under conditions of 100 percent resistance and, therefore, any doubts or illusions about its effectiveness can be removed. Striking-based arts can also be performed under full resistance, of course, but not safely—because getting repeatedly hit in the head is bad for your health. And, whatever the intensity of training, it is difficult to remove uncertainty from the striker’s art: Not even a professional boxer can be sure what will happen if he hits an assailant squarely on the jaw with a closed fist. The other man might fall to the ground unconscious, or he might not—and without gloves, the boxer might break his hand on the first punch. By contrast, even a novice at BJJ knows beyond any doubt what will happen if he correctly applies a triangle choke. It is a remarkable property of grappling that the distance between theory and reality can be fully bridged.
Mr. Harris is touting the same so-called advantages to grappling that I heard back in the early 90’s when the UFC first came out and Royce Gracie was kicking butt and taking names. Injured hands are a real possibility, but they are greatly lessened if you know exactly how to punch and where. Sure, your adversary’s random movements could cause you to slam your fist into his skull, but should that happen if you have a properly formed fist your bones are not likely to break. Obviously, there are so many variables that it’s impossible to say one way or another whether or not you’d break your hand, but I think it’s illogical to simply assume that if you use striking in a fight you’ll break your hand. As I noted before, I firmly believe this is just another form of misinformation spread by grapplers in order to popularize their arts and in turn fatten their wallets.
I think this sentence by Harris says it all: “By contrast, even a novice at BJJ knows beyond any doubt what will happen if he correctly applies a triangle choke.”
Yes, if you properly apply your techniques they will be most effective. This applies as much to striking as it does grappling. But I could just as easily argue the opposite. Let us argue that what if the BJJ student fails to apply the technique properly, or the opponent moves in such a way that they neutralize the choke, giving him lots of time to take that knife out his pocket and stab the BJJ student, perhaps fatally. Or the person in the choke grabs and crushes the BJJ student’s groin, obviously causing at least some discomfort, forcing the BJJ student to move, limiting the effectiveness of the choke and creating an opportunity for escape. As I’ve said, there are countless scenarios one could hypothesize about. What it ultimately comes down to is each person’s skill level, amount of knowledge, well roundedness, and a will to survive.
Whether you are an expert in a striking-based art—boxing, karate, tae kwon do, etc.—or just naturally tough, a return to childlike humility awaits you: Simply step onto the mat with a BJJ black belt. There are few experiences as startling as being effortlessly controlled by someone your size or smaller and, despite your full resistance, placed in a choke hold, an arm lock, or some other “submission.” A few minutes of this and, whatever your previous training, your incompetence will become so glaring and intolerable that you will want to learn whatever this person has to teach. Empowerment begins only moments later, when you are shown how to escape the various traps that were set for you—and to set them yourself. Each increment of knowledge imparted in this way is so satisfying—and one’s ignorance at every stage so consequential—that the process of learning BJJ can become remarkably addictive. I have never experienced anything quite like it.
I completely agree here. However, this could equally apply even to a skilled striker, had one never boxed before.
Most students of the martial arts have been aware of BJJ for years—since its emergence in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. The UFC was the first series of “mixed martial arts” (MMA) tournaments to get serious attention. The great novelty of these events is that they allow any style of fighting to be pitted against any other. Combatants from all disciplines—karate, boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, muay Thai, kung fu, judo, tai kwon do, sambo, kickboxing, sumo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, etc.—are simply placed in a ring (or, at the UFC, in an octagonal cage) in pairs. In the first years of the UFC, there were no weight divisions, rounds, or time limits and very few rules. In fact, there were no judges, because every fight ended by knockout, submission, referee stoppage, or a fighter’s corner throwing in the towel.
Many people found the resulting spectacle horrifying—a modern version of the Roman games. But to the martial arts community the first UFC events were a science experiment that had been centuries in the making: Finally, there would be an answer to the one question of perennial interest to fighters everywhere: “What is the best method of fighting?” After a few hours, the answer seemed clear—and it wasn’t boxing, wrestling, karate, or kung fu. Whatever a man’s size, strength, skill, and prior training, a relatively diminutive practitioner of BJJ, Royce Gracie, could completely dominate him.
This revelation has acquired a few caveats in recent years, but two decades of pressure testing has confirmed its central truth. In the absence of rules, fighters of all styles tend to defensively grab hold of each other and grapple vertically. The significance of this “clinch” is disguised in sports like boxing and kickboxing because the referee repeatedly separates the two combatants. In the UFC, or in a real fight, the clinch tends to persist, often with the result that the bigger, stronger person, or the more experienced wrestler, takes his opponent to the ground. Once a fight goes to the ground, there is no substitute for knowing BJJ.
I would agree that the first several UFCs woke everyone up and forced them to realize that an eclectic approach is better than than sticking to one art, and Royce Gracie dominated every opponent, but look at later UFCs and other events Royce participated in, and how the Gracies began to lose a lot of their fights. This was because the Gracies were not well-rounded. Later on, many of them did eventually implement striking into their fighting repertoire, but this proves my point. Neither grappling, striking, weapons, or any other technique or style is the “ultimate” answer for self-defense because there are no exact situations that would always make one form of fighting better than another. In many situations, a grappler might lose to a striker because the striker is simply better at managing space than the grappler. Everything is situational and individual, based upon each person’s own skills and abilities, and are all based upon the environment you find yourself in when the chips are down.
In a controlled situation, like these mixed martial arts competitions, grappling is a highly effective tactic. However place these fighters out on a city street where a few broken bottles might be laying on the ground, cars or poles could be used as obstructions, weapons could be employed, and multiple adversaries might come into the mix, and then see what the “ultimate” martial art is. I can assure you that it wouldn’t be grappling. No matter how real these competitions may seem they aren’t real and they often give participants a false sense of security.
Mr. Harris wrote, “Once a fight goes to the ground, there is no substitute for knowing BJJ.”
On the contrary, I’d argue that learning a good reality-based martial art that incorporates street oriented grappling skills would better prepare someone for a violent encounter. BJJ instructors are not the only guys on the block who know how to fight on the ground. And even then, it’s highly questionable whether or not a BJJ instructor would make his or her students aware of the dangers of grappling and how to best prepare for them. These dangers are dirty tactics, such as biting and eye gouging, weapons, multiple attackers, and modifying your grappling skills for the real world.
Let’s take a real-world example here. I forget the precise Pride Fighting Championship that I was watching, but the reality-based martial arts world was abuzz when it was reported that Renzo Gracie got into a fight and broke his knee. I found out about this during an interview Renzo did during this particular Pride. As he was standing there wearing a knee brace and on crutches, he explained to the viewers briefly what happened. He said how he had gotten into a fight, shot in (meaning, the act of quickly closing the gap between you and your opponent immediately before making contact in preparation for a takedown or throw), and said that’s how he broke his knee. While many reality-based martial arts instructors were very cautious in using this episode as an example of the failure of sport-based training for real fighting, given what I personally have seen, having watched dozens of Renzo’s fights and after hearing his description of how the fight happened during the taped interview, I think I have pretty good idea about what happened.
After putting together all of the facts here is what I know: First, Renzo in the interview said he shot in for a takedown and felt his knee pop. Having watched him fight many times, every time he’d go in for a takedown he would slam one of his knees into the canvas of the ring in which he was fighting. As the old adage goes, you fight how you train, and this was never truer than in this case. Given Renzo’s sport-based training methods, and his lack of awareness of grappling on hard surfaces, he did not modify his techniques for use in the real world. In this case, instead of a soft mat during his takedown attempt, he slammed his knee into the concrete causing it to break.
There are also legal issues that sport fighters aren’t aware of, and as it so happens, Renzo Gracie in another altercation broke every rule of thumb and every law in the books, as they relate to self-defense. He was lucky he was not thrown in jail for assault. In addition, in response to what Mr. Harris said before about hands breaking, as Renzo’s own pictures and Twitter posts show, punching in this case didn’t break his hands, even though from what I’ve seen Renzo isn’t the greatest striker.
In the last few paragraphs Mr. Harris sums up his piece with the following:
From a self-defense perspective, practicing BJJ exclusively can introduce one dangerous habit: Because BJJ is geared toward fighting on the ground, and is so decisive there, you can easily acquire a bias toward going to the ground on principle. When rolling on the mat, perfecting arm locks and chokes, it is easy to forget that in a real fight, your opponent is very likely to be punching you, or armed with a weapon, or in the company of friends who might be eager to kick you in the head (facts that are given cursory treatment in most BJJ training). To spend years perfecting the art of ground fighting is to risk forgetting that if a fight starts, the last place you want to be is on the ground.
To study BJJ for self-defense, therefore, is to prepare for the worst-case scenario—but the worst case remains a high probability in any sudden encounter with violence. If you are ever attacked by a bigger, stronger person, there is a very good chance you will find yourself on the ground, wrestling in some form. The difference between knowing what to do in this situation and merely relying on your primate intuitions is as impressive a gap between knowledge and ignorance as I have ever come across.
I agree with a lot of this, but I do not agree that the knowledge that BJJ gives you will prepare you to deal with a real self-defense situation. He is 100% correct to say that it’s not wise to go to the ground in a fight, but as he said, it’s a situation you must be prepared for. As I’ve explained, BJJ is not the best place to learn real-world grappling skills because their skills sets are very limited and their kind of training keeps students ignorant about the dangers I’ve discussed. While Harris claims that many BJJ schools give “cursory treatment” to some of these issues, I’ve yet to see any good examples. Even the Gracies, in their book on “self-defense” (I honestly cannot call this a book about self-defense, but that is a whole other post for another time) do not go to the ground in the majority of the scenarios they depict.
Our disagreement is a very specific one. It is the usefulness of BJJ in preparing you for a violent street fight where so many things could happen. Yes, you must learn ground fighting, but you must learn the kind that will give you the skills you seek. If you want to win trophies go study BJJ. As Mr. Harris has said, it is a very fun art to learn. However, if your goals are to learn skills for self-protection, a reality-based system that contains good street grappling skills will be your best bet.
1. I began my training in 1993 with a Karate course at a local community college. This experience led me to study Tai Mantis Kung Fu, Taekwondo, Hapkido, Submission Wrestling, and Judo. Over the years, with my ever expanding library of martial arts books (which later branched out into books about science, history, religion and philosophy), I taught myself other martial arts, including Chin-Na (a Japanese version of jujitsu), wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (though my Judo instructor did bring in Sambo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructors to train us on occasion, once by a student of the famed Rickson Gracie), boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, and military hand-to-hand combatives. After nearly ten years of hopping from one art to another I’d finally found the type of martial art I’d long been searching for: a reality-based martial art, which I trained in for nearly a decade. After so many years of training in this particular martial art I was awarded a second-degree black belt and instructor certification.