How Jiu-Jitsu is Represented in the World of MMA
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Jiu-Jitsu has been represented in mixed martial arts (MMA) since Royce Gracie competed in some of the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events, revolutionizing the martial arts world by proving the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu to a broader audience. The Gracie flag was carried outside the UFC as well, over at Pride Fighting Championships in Japan, with many of the Gracies fighting there, including the legendary Rickson.
The Gracie name has become synonymous with Jiu-Jitsu, sometimes even referred to as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. While the Gracie legacy will forever have its place in the sport, many fighters outside the family have done well representing Jiu-Jitsu in the ring or cage as well. Before taking a closer look at some of these representatives, we will delve into the key differences between Jiu-Jitsu as a single art and its application in MMA.
When comparing Jiu-Jitsu to MMA as separate sports, there are inherent differences in the rules as Jiu-Jitsu is purely a grappling sport, while in MMA, you can use strikes in a multitude of different ways. For the guard or bottom player, it is imperative to be able to defend against strikes in an actual fight. If you allow your opponent too much space from the top position, they will be able to rain down with punches or elbows (aka “ground and pound”). As Grandmaster Carlson Gracie Sr famously said, “Punch a black belt in the face, he becomes a brown belt. Punch him again, purple” . It goes without saying then that strikes totally change the dynamic.
Another interrelated element is the way in which Jiu-Jitsu matches are scored/judged, versus an MMA fight. Looking at the closed guard as a case in point, this is an advantageous position for the bottom player in a Jiu-Jitsu match, as they will have the opportunity to attack with various sweeps and submissions. The top player, for the most part, is limited to trying to open the guard. Even if the match ends with a tied score, the guard player will typically win a referee’s decision. In an MMA fight, it is almost the opposite, with the top player having a better-perceived position.
Wrestlers such as Tito Ortiz have made entire careers out of beating guys up from inside the guard. Even if the guard player is attacking the whole time, and the top fighter doesn’t do much damage, the top fighter might still win the round for the simple act of staying on top. Top time is scored as superior control. From the open guard, with the top player standing above their opponent, it is a much different scenario. While in Jiu-Jitsu, the top player needs to engage or risks getting penalized for backing away, in MMA, you have every right to step back and call your opponent back up to their feet.
With these key differences in mind, certain athletes have done better than others at making their Jiu-Jitsu work for MMA. Demian Maia has perhaps been the most successful and pure representative of Jiu-Jitsu in MMA. Maia has won and placed at the IBJJF World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, as well as the prestigious ADCC Submission Fighting World Championship. Currently, the number eight ranked welterweight in the UFC, Maia has been actively fighting on the roster since 2007. A two-time UFC title challenger, he has fought and beaten some of the biggest names in the organization.
I would consider Maia to be a true Jiu-Jitsu specialist, not just in the way he fights but also in his mentality towards fighting. On his UFC fighter profile, Maia is quoted as saying, “My favorite technique is to submit my opponent without him hurting me or me hurting him” . Maia has never been the fastest or most athletic fighter, and at forty-three years of age, he’s still amongst the best in his weight class. To me, this is a true testament to where his skills lie and how effective his Jiu-Jitsu really is.
Without making the list too exhaustive, some other notable Jiu-Jitsu competitors to have crossed over into MMA include Roger Gracie, Kron Gracie, Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza, Gilbert “Durinho” Burns, Ryan Hall, Rani Yahya, Rafael Lovato Jr., and Mackenzie Dern. Souza and Burns have both had incredible success in the UFC. Without taking anything away from their Jiu-Jitsu, it is worth noting that both men are explosive athletes who possess knockout power, factors that shouldn’t be ignored. Roger Gracie, despite being the most accomplished Jiu-Jitsu competitor on this list, wasn’t able to find nearly the same level of success in MMA. Roger is quoted as saying, “Seventy to eighty percent of what I do in submission competition I couldn’t do in an MMA fight” .
This brings us full circle to how the element of striking changes everything, and being able to adapt to the ruleset is such a huge factor. It will be interesting to see in the future which other Jiu-Jitsu competitors make the leap to MMA and how well they can adapt. Most recently, Gordon Ryan signed to ONE Championship. This is another name to keep an eye on, especially considering how Ryan is revered by some to be the best grappler on the planet.