Training with Lions: The Golden Age of Grappling, or a Rebirth

If you were to ask yourself, or if someone were to ask you, what was the best time and place to be a grappler, what would you say?

Ancient Greece, training amongst the Spartans, Theban or the Athenian hoplites? Or maybe the folk style wrestling of India, Senegal and Mongolia with its rugged, no nonsense methods and their styles of throws and takedowns is more appealing to you. Perhaps you’re a bit of a romantic and have always had an obsession with Samurai and the feudal age of Japan (like me), and you would choose to be a student in a provincial jujitsu dojo training among the local Samurai. Or, even at the later stage in jujitsus development, when Jigoro Kano opened his first academy and began selecting students and created Judo. Some would dismiss all those ideas, instead dreaming of the bygone days of the original Gracie challenge matches, dojo storms and severe training of the 1960’s – 80’s (or even earlier, you could argue).

Whatever your ideal world of grappling, and regardless of who you think gets the “biggest badass” award, the argument could be made that, generally speaking, the current era of expert/master grapplers hold highest level of skill in grappling history. 

Allow me to explain.

None of the techniques that are used today in jujitsu training are new.

At some point in grappling’s ancient history, somebody somewhere has twisted, pulled, turned or rotated every movable part of the human body in such a way as to incapacitate or choke an opponent. And due to the stability of most of the world, we can now spend whole lifetimes in the search for knowledge and higher skill.

Look at John Danaher, or Rickson Gracie for example.

They are veritable libraries of martial knowledge. Professor Danaher heads a stable of extremely skilled, talented fighters he has nurtured from martial infancy and who have built a reputation around using the legs as the focus for incapacitating the opponent. (Want to know what it’s like to train at Renzo’s NYC? Our own Tom O’Hagan stepped into the lion’s den and was kind enough to share his experience with us.)

Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet and their affiliates, the various Judo teams world wide, especially in Japan and Russia, and the current crop of American powerhouse collegiate wrestlers are also all contributing to grappling’s overall growth.

Keenan Cornelius has developed unique guards and strategies around the Gi among other things. Rafael Lovato Jr., Kron and Nieman Gracie, and Garry Tonon have had success showcasing jujitsu against strong strikers in a professional fighting arena.

Grappling is king of the weaponless martial arts. There is no dispute.

However…

…it could also be argued this is not the pinnacle, that this is just a renaissance. Grappling is as old as man himself. Many other cultures (the Samurai especially) spent literally hundreds of years in analyzing, studying, and developing grappling techniques. Their knowledge of all aspects of armed, open hand, in the Gi and no Gi grappling was higher than almost any other culture. This enabled Kano to train a stable of fighters that, with few exceptions, and usually only when greatly disadvantaged by size, was able to beat anyone they fought in no holds barred arenas. 

That argument is valid.

It wasn’t just the 90s and the first UFC events which could be considered the beginning of the current grappling phenomenon, it was also the growth of submission grappling tournaments. Of course, without UFC 1, 99% of people outside of Brazil would probably have little or no idea what BJJ was, but even still, it was several factors which have come together under the right circumstances to allow the art to propagate the way it has.

Consider this: all throughout history, grappling was regarded in terms of battlefield survival.

The arts were taught with this always to be in the back of the mind. Even among the Greeks, the ones who also used it as the backbone of their athletic competitions, there was always an air of martial utilitarian usage, especially in Thebes and Sparta.

One additional aspect which cannot be ignored, but is nonetheless a factor, is age. We all get old and we die. But 500 years ago, people died far earlier on average than now. If you managed to live to 65 and had all your teeth you were considered super human.

A typical man of the warrior class, who began his training at around 11 years old, entering the real, severe training of a disciple of a certain system at usually 16 or 18, would have to deal with the risk of actual battles every spring and summer. He would at the best, have just okay, and at the worst, horrible nutrition or even, in some cases, starvation (sometimes self-induced for religious reasons) to contend with. Historically, this would keep the average size of a full grown man approximately 5’4” – 5’8”, and his weight at an average of 120 – 155 LBS. Not too big. Muscle mass percentages would be much lower, as would fat content.

Basically, imagine Joseph Benevidez, or Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and you have the average size of a Hoplite or Samurai.

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But, due to generally poor nutrition and hygiene habits, people lost teeth early. They got arthritis early on, especially when injuries accumulated from constant training. Thus, by the ripe old age of 50 – 65, men died. And maybe, as in the case of the Mesoamericans, who still we can be sure grappled and wrestled in their own way, your culture is slowly wiped away and the things taught are gone forever.

All that knowledge, gone. All those years of tips and tricks learned, gone. 

Compare that with the average professional grappler of today. You go to the supermarket and load up. You have a diet plan. You eat well. You sleep well (usually). You have a dentist that keeps your mouth clean and healthy. Your doctor and trainer keep your body strong and healthy. You are able to put on lots of muscle and keep fat down (and of course it’s all clean too, never with PEDs. We all know everyone who competes is 100% clean). The average height of a man now is 5’9” – 6’0”, with weight being aprx. 175 – 200 lbs. And due to your health, you most likely will live to be at least 75 – 80 years old, on average. As stated earlier, in most places, due to political stability you are not worried about having to go to war unless you volunteer. You won’t deal with pestilence, and you wont starve due to a freak drought or horrible harvest.

You can spend your whole life focusing on one aspect of the art developing it to a point not seen before. 

Or – at least – not ever recorded. Did any of the Chinese, the Indians, Aztecs, or Mesopotamians ever obsess over heel hooks? Did they or some Greek, or Persian or Japanese man ever spend a whole life time focused on a certain choke, or other joint lock?

We can be sure they did.

As an example, we can again turn to Greece and India, who were the pioneers in the takedown area, and the Japanese who specialized in the choking of their opponents. However, there is no evidence that any of those cultures were able, or even tried, to incorporate all of the styles and techniques found currently in the curriculum of any high level competition academy into their training regimen. 

At the end of the day all of these arguments always boil down to opinion. Many of the factors about the history of martial arts are lost to history.

In the end, we can be sure that we are living in a unique time in grappling’s history.

It will continue to change. It will continue to grow. And it will continue to be a fascinating area of study that a student can never stop improving in. 

Giles Alexander

Giles Alexander is a purple belt residing in Seattle and representing Kindred Jiu-Jitsu.