Fundamentals, Paradigms, & Presuppositions: The Case of Rickson Gracie
Written by Stephen Whittier on August 20, 2019
In a recent article, one of the best black belt competitors in the world, Keenan Cornelius, took another shot at the "old school." He was quoted as saying:

"BJJ is kinda like that (Turkmenistan- an autocratic country ruled by an egomaniac dictator). If you say anything about Helio or Rickson, like if you say that their Jiu-Jitsu wasn’t good. People will be like “are you kidding me? Rickson is the greatest black belt of all time”.

I get that you have to show respect to pioneers who came before you but their Jiu-Jitsu was definitely not as good as it is today. Their level was probably tough purple belt level…"

It's a common sentiment, essentially saying: "There's no denying that the level athletes of the current era is greater than the level of the older eras, so let's give credit where it's due but move past the hero worship and get real."

There's a lot of truth to that, but sometimes this argument leads to missing the forest for the trees. I'm here to talk about that.

I’ve spoken and written about this before, but I’m always fascinated by the direct correlation in Jiu-Jitsu between technical innovation and technical presuppositions. 

If we imagine Jiu-Jitsu as an ever-evolving system of branches and nodes, it’s easy to see how the technical development moves at such a rapid pace, especially in the area of competitive BJJ….

All the branches originate from the fundamental movements and applications, then through the adaptive process of live training defenses and counter-offenses are developed, then new offenses are developed and tested in response to those, and so on. 

Every new node – every new guard or passing “style,” every new sweep strategy, and every attacking system we see get traction in the Jiu-Jitsu world – begins as a branch, a response to certain previous adaptations that were made to counteract the previous node(s). 

There are countless examples…

In vale tudo / mixed martial arts, the overhook game from closed guard developed because double underhooks were being easily countered by wrestlers from inside the closed guard. Those wrestlers in turn developed a whole style of "ground & pound" from inside the guard that was not predicated on trying to pass.

In sport Jiu-Jitsu, modern guards like half guard, spider guard, lasso, de la Riva, inverted guard, and 50/50 all evolved into entire guard retention and attacking systems in themselves, as answers to counters and passing styles that were developed to defeat classic guards. 

And on a micro level, we see certain techniques like the berimbolo sweep or the kimura trap become a staple part of competitive attacking strategies for a number of years.

The beauty of Jiu-Jitsu is that it’s empirical. Every theory is tested for validity and repeatability according to the scientific method. But as we see all the time in science, scientists must constantly be asking themselves: what unrecognized biases and presuppositions are making their way into our methods for testing? An important question, because these biases and presuppositions can always skew the results.

Sometimes an entire system takes place and is proven to function perfectly well, only to give way to a paradigm shift in another direction. Why? Because the old paradigm was revealed to be based on an incomplete and/or faulty set of assumptions.

Again, it’s not that the old paradigm didn’t “work.” In fact, in BJJ there’s so much emphasis placed on what’s working today within the technical paradigms of high level competition, it’s easy to overlook the assumptions in which those paradigms are rooted… after all, one would have to wade through so many branches and nodes extending back decades in order to get a sense of this.

And for me, this is where Rickson enters the equation. The fact that he was the Gracie family champion and this legendary Jiu-Jitsu fighter almost problematizes what I believe should be his most significant legacy: the greatest Jiu-Jitsu innovator of all time.

There are real, material reasons that you keep hearing that Rickson’s Jiu-Jitsu (whether by training with him or from one of his senior students) “feels different” than everyone else’s Jiu-Jitsu. That’s the contribution to the art he refers to as connection – the key ingredient of “invisible Jiu-Jitsu.” 

Of course, it’s also the reason that even in his 40s, training only with his own students (very few of whom were even black belts), he was able to easily defeat many of the great sport Jiu-Jitsu champions at the time that we’ve heard about (Ribiero, Gurgel, Traven, etc).… all of whom were training essentially as professional athletes in laboratories with other elite black belts with the goal of winning world championships.

Were those men and all the other Gracies and Machados who have rolled with him, and who are all legends today in their own right, the equivalent of tough purple belts by today’s competitive standards? No, but that’s a good game to play because it’s hard to prove that apples-to-apples.  

Instead of focusing on the man himself and whether he was the G.O.A.T. (which I do believe), I prefer to focus on what he meant when he said that he wanted to make sure that Jiu-Jitsu could work optimally even for people who weren’t fighters like him. He explained that there’s a lot of great Jiu-Jitsu out there that works well at the highest levels, but is still rooted in “partial connections.” So what he did was go through all the positions in Jiu-Jitsu and work out the “full connections.”

My response to criticisms about Rickson from top competitors in the current era would be to separate that statement from the individual and understand what that means….

Rickson’s Jiu-Jitsu feels different and achieves that optimal effectiveness-efficiency balance because of the connection he was able to identify, implement in real time, and teach others how to implement in real time. 

I believe this was our greatest but least understood paradigm shift in Jiu-Jitsu to date not because he was “really good at the basics,” but because his invisible Jiu-Jitsu revealed all of the incorrect presuppositions upon which every branch and node that have extended off the fundamentals of the art have been based.

Such as:

• “You can’t break open the guard from knees against high level opponents, you have to stand.”
• “You should always have three points of contact when playing open guard.”
• “You must have a diagonal control of your opponent’s torso with your arms to prevent them from escaping the back position.”
• “Grips are the most important factor in passing the guard at a high level.”
• And endless other examples.

In other words, the fundamental techniques Rickson would use to control and finish the best of the best with were not the fundamentals everyone else (thought they) knew. Beneath the surface layer of those techniques was an ocean of depth they didn’t see, so they developed innovations of their own based on that incomplete knowledge.

Of course, Rickson isn’t the even the only example of these higher principles at work. We have a similar phenomenon in recent times with Roger Gracie, who makes an easy claim to greatest sport Jiu-Jitsu competitor of all time:

• A very “fundamental” game, yet in his last Mundials finished all 10 opponents in his weight and the absolute with mounted collar chokes.
• Trains primarily with his own students.
• Able to adapt his game to nullify a multitude of styles.
• Virtually invincible submission defense.
• After many years layoff from competition, was able to completely shut down and quickly submit arguably the greatest heavyweight competitor of the modern era the moment the match hit the mat.

But it’s interesting to see how many of the same critics seem to read right past the real reasons for Roger’s success as well.

For my part, I’m interested in all of Jiu-Jitsu, but far less in the branches and nodes, the developments in the game that trend for a while but don’t hold up over time as across broad populations of practitioners. 

As long as people equate competitive Jiu-Jitsu of certain era with the highest level of Jiu-Jitsu, this will be an ongoing “debate” – but a debate based on certain false premises.

As a coach, my job is to be the smartest scientist…. not by inventing a new style, but by identifying where the Jiu-Jitsu I know, however “proven” or mechanically effective, could be limited by certain presuppositions. It’s about constantly striving to achieve that optimum balance of effective and efficient, and that path always moves in the direction simplicity, of deeper understanding of the fundamentals of human movement, rather than complexity.

Stephen Whittier

Stephen specializes in helping heath & fitness experts grow their businesses by six figures part-time by installing a predictable system to attract and serve their clients online.

After founding and operating both successful brick-and-mortar and online businesses, he began to expand his focus to helping other skilled entrepreneurs to develop and scale their service-based businesses.

His clients have included physicians, health and fitness experts, gym owners, podcasters, bloggers, and digital publishing companies, but his primary focus is on serving the health, fitness, and wellness professionals. He has also served as an executive team member and acting Chief Marketing Officer for one of the largest online entertainment content networks (with over a billion annual podcast downloads).

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