27 February 2009

Prepare for attack

Gracie Jiu Jitsu is not only a fantastic, and realistic, form of self defence - it's also a great workout and lots of fun. Health24 took to the mat to try it out.


There is something quietly satisfying about knowing how to defend yourself. It gives you an intangible, almost smug confidence that puts a little extra spring in your step. Ironically, this confidence might be the reason you're never in a situation where you'll need to physically defend yourself.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu (also known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) is a realistic self-defence technique that anyone can learn how to do. It's also a really fantastic workout that will leave you, literally, panting for more.

The background
Gracie Jiu Jitsu is named after Helio Gracie, who adapted it from Japanese Ju Jitsu. Gracie was not a man of great physical stature and realised he couldn't match the physical strength of large opponents, either in the sport or in real life. This led him to rework the basic moves into moves that would be effective on the streets - and to discard those that wouldn't work in a real-life street fighting situation.

One of the key techniques he developed was the use of leverage rather than strength when fighting. And once he was satisfied that his practical method would work in any fight situation, Gracie took it to the one place he knew would put his moves to the ultimate test – the fighting arena. He sent out an unprecedented challenge to fighters from all kinds of fighting backgrounds – boxers, wrestlers, martial arts masters, and so on. He fought them all - and won fight after fight, together with a fair amount of grudging respect.

According to the Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in Cape Town, the most memorable fight was in 1932 when Gracie challenged a top US national wrestling champion who weighed 95kg, 30kg more than Gracie himself. The fight lasted two hours, and was only stopped because in Brazil at the time no event was allowed to continue past 2am. At the end of the fight Gracie went home and the wrestler went to the hospital.

The basics
There are many forms of martial arts, and many approaches to self defence, but proponents of this form of Jiu Jitsu claim that this self defence discipline works uniquely well in a real life situation when the adrenaline is pumping and your life is on the line.

James Smart and Gary King run the Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in Parklands, Cape Town, and have been practicing Jiu Jitsu since the early 90s. They're the only Combatives instructors in Africa and were the first civilian instructors. They teach the Gracie Combatives programme, which has been officially adopted by the US army.

In the picture on the right, Gary (underneath) and James (in the white shirt) perform a move called "Upa Escape from under Top Mount". Your attacker has pinned you on the ground and is straddling you, about to strangle or punch you. He has the advantages of weight, opportunity and strength to inflict damage or control you.

How the move works: Gary bridges his hips – which forces the attacker to put his hands on the ground and abandon any thought of landing a punch. Gary grabs and firmly secures one of James' arms against his chest, which prevents him from putting his hand out to the side. A special Jiu Jitsu grip on the wrist and elbow makes it almost impossible for James to free his arm.

Next , Gary uses his foot on the same side as the trapped arm to trap James' leg, and bridges his hips as high as possible before rolling to the side of James' trapped limbs, and onto his knees. Now Gary in can get up and run, or progress to a more dominant position in order to finish the fight.

Health24 takes the plunge
When I signed up to give Gracie Jiu Jitsu's combative programme a go, I was a little apprehensive: I'm not a confrontational person, and have never been in a fight that's involved anything more violent than slamming a door. I do, however, believe self defence should be on everyone's list of things to do, and even if I never need to use anything I learn, at least I'll feel more confident and get fit trying.

The programme consists of 34 techniques, spread over 22 classes, which equip the students with the ability to defend themselves against the most common attacks, such as punches, kicks, headlocks and grabs.

The first evening was spent catching up on what Gracie Jiu Jitsu is and how it works. While I sat listening to Smart, I was sneaking a few peeks at what was going on behind him. There was a class consisting mostly of men, of various shapes and sizes, strengths and weights. When they got onto the mat to practice the moves King had just demonstrated, I noticed, differences didn't matter. This was encouraging.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu doesn't care how strong you are, how tall you are, or what you weigh. It's all about knowing the moves an attacker will use, and knowing how to deflect them, and incapacitate him long enough to get out of harm’s way.

In the move below, James acts as the attacker on his petite wife Karen, illustrating the Escape from rear choke (dragging) move. James has grabbed a student, Karen, from behind. His arm is around her throat and he is attempting to drag her backwards – a common move in a rape scenario.

The first thing Karen does is relieve the pressure on her throat by grabbing the inside of the crook of James' arm with both hands She then pins her own elbows into his ribs.

As she is being dragged backwards, she pivots on her foot so she can spin through 180 degrees, and ends up facing the opposite direction to her attacker.

Since the attacker's objective is to drag her backwards, his momentum causes him to trip over her right foot (try to place this as close behind his legs as possible). If this is done fast, the attacker will hit the ground hard, and this is the opportunity to run away.

Taking to the mat
After the introduction we were taken to the mat and shown how to perform the shoulder lock, which looked easy enough but took a few practices to get right. Although once I had the hang of it, things clicked into place and I felt ridiculously pleased with myself.

The rest of the moves went the same – Smart or King slowly performed the move for the class in stages, then the students practiced it on each other.

The feeling of getting it right really is something to smile about because not only have you learned something that could potentially save your life one day, but between the warm up and the moves, you're also getting a great workout.

The difference
Smart and King say Gracie Jiu Jitsu differs from the other striking arts such as Muay Thai, Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu because "a fighter needs to know how to grapple if he’s going to win the fight".

They claim that Gracie Jiu Jitsu complements other forms of martial arts as it adds a different dimension to the student’s fighting skills.

"Some martial arts such as Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Judo have evolved into more sportive forms, so adding Gracie Jiu Jitsu would help to make you a more practical, potent fighter who is able to finish a fight in a real environment. After all ‘winning on points’ doesn’t count on the street," they say.

Below James and Gary perform the "Arm Bar from Guard" move. Gary is the attacker and is between James' legs trying to force his arm across his throat to choke him. In Gracie Jiu Jitsu the 'Guard' as it's known (where your attacker is between your legs so you can wrap your legs around them) is a great place to be.

The first thing James does is relieve the pressure from his throat by bringing the arm on the same side as the choking arm across the top, and using the hand to cup the attacker's shoulder. This enables him to stop Gary applying pressure.

Next James reaches down the inside of Gary's leg with his hand and cups behind his knee, giving himself the leverage to perform the next steps. By uncrossing his feet, he brings the leg on the same side as the cupped leg under Gary's armpit.

Meanwhile the other leg swings round over Gary's head trapping his choking arm in between his legs. He then grips Gary's wrist with both hands and by pushing down with his feet on Gary's back and neck James hyper extends his attacker's elbow - causing pain or even breaking the arm.

The verdict
I feel a lot more confident about my chances against a potential attacker even with the few moves I have learned. I'm fitter, and more supple.

Psst: Ryron Gracie, the oldest grandson of Helio Gracie, will be holding a seminar at the Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in Cape Town at the end of April. He will be the first direct descendant of Helio to ever visit South Africa, so to book a place contact the academy directly at 0861 GRACIE.

Source: Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy, Parklands, Cape Town Phone 0861 GRACIE (0861-472-243) or visit

(Amy Henderson, Health24, February 2009)


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