BJJ Competition and Training Strategies with Brandon 'Wolverine' Mullins
In this interview 2 x World No Gi Champion Brandon ‘Wolverine’ Mullins shares his best competition and training advice. The questions come from my newsletter readership, who I polled to see if they had any questions for Brandon, especially about training, competing or holding their own against bigger opponents. Boy, did they ever!
We then sifted and sorted hundreds of emails to pick out the very best questions for him, and this in-depth conversation was the result. Maybe one of my best interviews ever!
You can read, listen to, or download the interview several different ways:
- Read the transcript of the entire interview below, and/or
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- Subscribe to the Grapplearts Podcast in iTunes (RECOMMENDED, because this allows you to also listen to previous interviews and podcasts).
Stephan: Today, I’m really happy to be talking to Brandon “Wolverine” Mullins. Brandon is one of the hardest working and most respected grapplers active in North America today. He’s medalled in a ton of competitions, including judo, freestyle wrestling, and especially gi and no gi Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Brandon has taken some time out of his busy, busy training schedule – and you’ll see just how busy he is – to talk to us and answer some of the questions from the Grapplearts.com readership.
So, Brandon, how are you doing today?
Brandon: I’m doing great, Stephan. Thanks for having me.
Stephan: You’ve dedicated years and years and years, a huge part of your life, and a ton of energy to training jiu-jitsu and finding what works for you. And as part of that you compete an awful lot. You put yourself into the crucible and test your material to make sure that it works.
In fact right now you’re about a week out from your next tournament. So why don’t you take us through where you are in your tournament preparations and what you’ve already done today to get ready for that tournament.
Brandon: This next week I’m still going to be doing a lot of training, but not as super-intense as in the weeks before. My training now is more to maintain my weight and also to get rid of those last few pounds.
I’m hovering between 125 and 126 right now, which is where I need to be one week out. Today all I did I came in and we had an open-mat session at the gym here at Gracie Barra Texas; I did about 30 minutes of just free training and then another 45 minutes of positional training after that, just to train in some specific positions, keep my sweat going and stuff like that. And now after this interview, I’ll probably go to my gym and do some running, as well as a kettle bell workout too.
Stephan: Cool. Well, later in the interview we’ll really go over your competition training routine and the things you specifically do to get ready.
But first, why don’t we introduce you to people? Talk a little bit about your background, how you got into this crazy sport of rolling around on the ground trying to twist people’s arms to make them say “uncle,” and what led you down this path of combat sports?
Brandon: Okay; my progression was basically from wrestling, to judo, and then to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’m from Texas and when I was going into the eighth grade that summer we moved to Oklahoma and stayed there for two years (my dad worked in an oil company and he got transferred).
School hadn’t started yet. I came home one day and I remembered I was really excited because eighth grade was the first year like you had electives; you could pick certain classes. Everybody had to take math, science, and those kinds of things, but you’ve got to pick something like art class, or shop, or sports. I was really excited about going out to the school and signing out for my classes.
I mentioned it and my dad said “We already did that for you.” I’m like “What?! I wanted to do that” and he goes “Yeah, we signed you up for wrestling.” I’m tried to tell him “I’m not doing wrestling” and he goes “Yeah, you are.” My dad is pretty kind of like authoritarian, a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of guy. He actually forced me to wrestle and no amount of pleading or crying, and there was crying, would change his mind.
He forced me to do it and his whole intent was so I could do something new to toughen me up (which I definitely needed), and also he knew that I would make friends playing sports (and I did). That’s how I got started with grappling sports: my dad basically forced me to do it!
Once I got used to the other kids trying to murder me on the mat after a month or two, I would get paired up with some newer kid realized what technique was. That changed the whole experience for me. I realized if you do things correctly and you use the principles of leverage and technique then you can beat bigger people. That was incredibly cool to me as a little kid; I was a little kid, I wasn’t that big.
I wrestled at 75 pounds when I was in eighth grade and I had no trouble making weight. I remember I’d still be eating on the scale and all my friends who still need to weigh were cussing me…
So that’s how I kind of got started with combat sports.
And then – I think it was the off-season of my ninth-grade year – we had an off-season wrestling coach. His name was James Ticket and we showed up for class one day. Normally we would basketball, lift weights, work out with the cross-country tream or do some things that were related to wrestling…
But this day he brought in a TV. He put in a VHS cassette of UFC 1 and we got to see Royce Gracie beating up all those people; the karate guys, the boxing dude with one glove, and the kickboxer guy. And when it was over, we didn’t really know what to expect; we were in ninth grade so we really didn’t know what we had just witnessed.
Then he was like “All right, we’re going to do this,” and we all kind of looked around and we’re like “We have to fight each other?” and he said, “No, knuckleheads. We’re going to learn how to do this submission stuff.” I don’t know where he had learned what he showed us, but he basically showed us a submission grappling style.
He showed us all the basic submissions and then a few sweeps. We learned the double-ankle sweep from the guard, we learned what the guard was, and we learned armlocking, guillotining, the Kimura, the basic foot lock, the Americana armlock and that kind of thing. These are the basic submissions and we just mixed them in with our wrestling.
And in doing this submission grappling style we always did no-time-limit matches, because that’s how the UFC was…
At that time, in the UFC, there was no time limit, and no weight classes. And when he would make us train, that’s how we did it too: no weight classes and no time limit. I remember that I could beat those same kids who would demolish me in a six-minute wrestling match: we’d have a 30-minute or a 60-minute long marathon grappling match and eventually I would submit them.
I remember there was one kid in particular. He was my friend but he also was really, really good wrestler and was two weights above. In wrestling he would murder me; it was horrible. I remember very specifically submitting him with the Kimura from the guard after we’ve been submission grappling sparring for about an hour. After that happened I said “Man, this is something. I want to learn more about this.”
After that year, my family moved back to Texas. I didn’t have the chance to wrestle and there was no jiu-jitsu there either. But my frien and next-door neighbor, a guy named Jeremy Schiff introduced me to judo which I hadn’t known about at that time. And we saw that Judo had submissions and I thought “Well, I know it’s not jiu-jitsu but it’s close…”
We started trying to teach ourselves judo. We were in Midland Texas at the time and there were a couple of people in town that were doing some judo. We basically just training on his trampoline trying to throw each other and then I’d try to do my submissions and my wrestling…
I remember the first tournament we went to – I hadn’t had any formal training at all up to this point – I just had one match. I double-legged this guy, got on his back, and finished with a rear naked choke that was actually more like a rear naked face crank…
But I was still happy with it, with the results, and it was cool, and then…
Stephan (interupting): So that was your first win by submission in a tournament.
Brandon: That was my very first win by submission in a tournament: rear naked face crank! I’m not too proud of that specific technique now, but it was certainly was really cool back then. We did this kind of training by ourselves for about three years, and then I was able to wrestle again as a senior in high school. There was a club team that I joined and it was a really great experience.
When I graduated from high school, we moved to Houston and there I met a person named Paul Thomas and he was actually training in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu.
Paul was going back and forth from Houston to Brazil to train with my current boss and current jiu-jitsu guru, Prof. Draculino. He told me about Draculino, and even though he was teaching us judo he was always trying to show us what he’d learned in Brazil. I think he was a BJJ blue belt or a purple belt at that time…
And in the next year, in ’99, I moved to Lubbock to go to Texas Tech University and that’s where I met Klay Pittman, a black belt under Carlos Machado. That was the start of my official BBJ training and I went from there.
I got my black belt in October 2007 and moved to Brazil shortly after that for about six months. Now it’s 13 years later and still going strong.
Stephan: You know it’s funny because I think there’s a whole generation of North American jiu-jitsu practitioners who started BJJ because of watching Royce Gracie in the early UFC’s. I was certainly like that for me: the early UFC’s and the Gracie-In-Action videos before the UFC started really inspired myself and a bunch of my fellow Kajukenbo Karate students to start beating the snot out of each other grappling on the mats after class.
We didn’t really know what we were doing at the time, and were kind of making it up as we went along, taking a little bit from here, a little bit from there. I’d done a little bit of judo and shared with guys who had done some Japanese jujutsu, and we sort of figured it out. But I think that a whole lot of other people from that era were inspired by videos of the Gracies beating people up…
Brandon: Yes, people watched the first UFC, they wanted to do it but they didn’t know how and there weren’t any instructors. They didn’t know how to contact anybody, so they just kind of learned what they could from judo or wrestling or wherever. They just started going at it and eventually avenues for training opened up.
It’s funny you brought up the Gracie-in-action videos. When I first started teaching at a jiu-jitsu school, showing those Gracie-in-action videos was actually part of our introductory lesson. And people would actually walk out. We’d put the video on and then go do office stuff until it was over, we’d get up and the potential students would be gone. There were people fighting on there , and at the beginning of the video a lion is taking down a gazelle, and that kind of stuff . It freaked a lot of people out. It was funny.
Stephan: They didn’t know what they were in for…
Brandon: Man, they had no idea and I guess they always saw themselves as the gazelle instead of the lion and just got the hell out of there.
Stephan: So has competition always been a strong focus for you? I guess you wrestled in high school and in grade school, so you were introduced to competition early and that’s remained a focus for you.
Brandon: Yeah, I always competed in wrestling. In jiu-jitsu you often kind of practice for the sake of the art itself, but in wrestling, you were always practicing to go compete, to go to the tournament. That was always the goal – to go to the tournament and see how you did. So when I started doing wrestling, it was all about competition. You wrestle and practice so that you can go to the competition.
But judo was more like jiu-jitsu. When I started doing judo, at first I approached it like wrestling. I’d say “Well, when do we go to the competition?” Some people were like “What are you talking about?” But other people would say “Yeah, we’re going to go to this one this weekend.” I remember driving all over Texas, and sometimes the nation, trying to get into judo tournaments here and there.
And then when I started doing jiu-jitsu, it was the same thing. Even though I enjoyed wrestling, judo, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the sake of themselves, I also always felt that competition kept me motivated. Both because it motivated me to continue to train hard because I was winning, or motivated me train hard because I was losing. Either way, I felt like it was a benefit for me to compete. I’ve always done it, since I was in about the eighth grade.
Stephan: Do you, or did you ever, get nervous when you compete?
Brandon: Man, I always got nervous. I still do. And I can remember my very first wrestling match was like a street fight. I literally thought it was like a fight. I went out there just fought as hard as I could, without throwing punches or anything.
All through my wrestling career, my time in judo, and up until I was a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I’d have a match, and then I would come off the mat ask my friend “What happened?” I’d be so pumped up on adrenaline, and so into the moment, that all I was doing was reacting. And that’s why I wouldn’t really remember much of the match. I usually remembered the first thing that happened and the last thing that happened, but in between, it was kind of a haze because it all happened so fast and I’d just be reacting to the situation.
But now I’m much more calm. Even though I still get nervous and still feel anxious and still get that adrenaline dump, over the years you learn how to deal with it, just like anybody who’s competed for a long time. You get used to it and you learn how to use it to your advantage, as opposed to letting it get in the way, slow you down, or make you freeze up.
Stephan: Well, that’s interesting but clearly you’re the exception. You’ve been competing at a super high level for years and years. You compete at multiple competitions in a year, multiple competitions in a month, and I’m sure there have been weeks where you’ve had multiple competitions…
Stephan: Well that puts you apart from a lot of the recreational-level guys who want to train and maybe do a single competition a year, perhaps using that single competition to focus their training to help them get their blue belt or purple belt…
So what advice would you have for them? Because saying to them “Compete for years and years and years and years and eventually you’ll learn how to deal with it” is true, but not really super useful. What advice would you have for recreational players that they can use right away, to help them do that one competition a year?
Brandon: First of all I would recommend that everybody compete at some level. As long as you train jiu-jitsu, you should compete at least a bit – once a month, once every six months, once a year. I think it’s great to focus your training, like you said.
As far as advice for people compete, there are two things that I want to say…
One is to develop a routine, some people call it a ‘trigger’, that lets you know that it’s time to get in the zone, or that actually puts you in the zone.
I’ll use myself as an example. I like to get to a tournament maybe an hour or two hours early, just to relax and get used to the environment. But then I have a very specific warm-up routine that I do. It’s not very long, it takes me about maybe five to ten minutes, but it gets me into the zone. It’s a very simple yoga routine. I’m sure you’re familiar with it: it’s the ‘sun salutation,’ the most basic kind of yoga stretch routine you can do. I do the sun salutation, coupled with a few other things, and I once do that, I just feel like I’m ready to go.
A lot of times I even do that routine before I train. If I come to an open mat or am just training with a friend then I’ll do that same routine. That way my mind learns that after I do that routine it’s time to train, it’s time to fight, it’s time to go. It just get me mentally focused on what’s about to happen.
A lot of other people do the same type of thing by listening to music. They have a certain playlist that they listen to before they fight. One thing I would recommend is they incorporate that same playlist into their training. Pick out three to five songs – it should be relatively quick because you may not have a lot of time to warm up. It shouldn’t be a 20-song playlist.
Then listening to these songs on your way to the workout, lets you know that it just got real and that now it’s time to get out there and perform, whether it’s training or competition. Having that routine and building that trigger is very, very important for helping you get ready, and also helping you to deal with the anxiety and the emotions and the apprehensiveness that comes with the time before the tournament.
Stephan: So whether your music is Raffi, Zamphir, or screaming death metal, it doesn’t really matter so long as it’s familiar to you and tells your body and your brain that it’s just another day at the office. And let’s get to the optimal state of arousal, but let’s not go way, way, way beyond it either…
Brandon: I listen to music too, but like I said, that’s not really my trigger. I definitely like having my headphones on…
Stephan: What do you listen to? I know you don’t use it as a cue, but what are you listening to on the way to a workout, either to amp you up or to calm you down?
Brandon: It’s about amping me up to some degree but also making me feel comfortable. I have a pretty eclectic musical taste but in general what I listen to is mostly a mix of punk rock, some regular rock and roll, as well as some rap and some hip-hop mixed in there as well.
When I first get to the tournament, before I’m ready to warm up, that’s when I listen to that music. Both to get relaxed, and then to get amped up. When I’m ready to start the trigger warm-up routine, I normally I turn it off. The routine is what gets me into the right mental state moreso than the music. The music is secondary for me. For other people, it’s more primary.
The second thing is to make sure they stay in a positive state of mind using visualization. And if you think about it, most people already use visualization a lot…
If someone wants to quit their job then they’ll be in their car rehearsing what they’re going to say to their boss, how they’re going to tell their boss off. Or if you’re going to go to a job interview, you’re going to visualize what you’re going to say when they ask a question. Or if you’re going to go on a first date, you’re going to visualize that the jokes and the anecdotes that you’re going to tell to the girl, or how you’re going to make your move, or whatever. You’re going to visualize it. Everybody does it.
And so, what happens in the weeks or months leading up to a tournament, is that you visualize yourself competing. And what used to happen to me is that I would visualize a lot of negative things: going out there and getting submitted, or losing on points, or my jiu-jitsu going haywire on the mat…
What I realized over time by reading sports psychology stuff, which I’m a big fan of, is that no matter what situation you’re visualizing your thinking about, you need to finish it up with a positive thought.
So let’s say you had a bad day at training and now you’re at home, in the shower, or in bed. And now you start thinking “Man, when I go to that tournament I’m going to get armbarred.” Well, you need to continue that thought until you escape that armbar, reverse the position, submit your opponent, and have your hand raised.
Always try to end any sort of thought about the tournament – or training for that matter – on a positive note, no matter how bad it may get in the midst of that visualization session. Make sure you end it on a positive note with the referee raising your hand.
Stephan: So that also reduces the pre-competition anxiety a little bit, because your brain isn’t going “I’m going to get murdered. I’m going to get murdered…”
Brandon: Yeah. Those exact words have gone through my head so many times – “I’m going to get murdered. I’m going to get murdered.” And sometimes that happened and sometimes that didn’t happen…
But I can tell you that when I have positive thoughts, I always do better. I may not always win the match, but I do better, I feel better, and things go more according to plan than if I have those negative thoughts. So regardless of who you’re fighting or what the situation is, just be positive!
I read a quote one time and it said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” I thought that was a really powerful statement. I’ve experienced the effects of that concept in my own training and in my own competition experience – to a large degree it’s true. If you believe you’re going to win, then most of the time you do.
Stephan: So how much of a game plan do you have? I suppose your game plan would change as your level goes up; initially when you’re competing as a blue belt or purple belt, you don’t really know who you’re going to face. But now you’ve got a pretty good idea who you might be facing in the black belt division of the world championship. So how much of a game plan do you have, and how often do you end up following it?
Brandon: I really have two game plans. I have a takedown game plan and I have a guard-pull game plan.
If I’m scouting an opponent, there are two things that I initially look for.
One: will they pull guard or will they go for a takedown?
Two: what’s their stance – right leg forward or left leg forward? That helps me to determine what I’m going to do as well.
But if I have someone who I’ve never seen before and I don’t know either of these things, then I may just go with whatever I feel strongest, or what I’ve been training the most, whether it’s pulling guard or using my takedowns.
I’m a big believer in game plans and I try to follow them as best that I can. Obviously, sometimes things go wrong, but a lot of times things go just like you planned.
I can remember the very first black belt match I ever had. It was my first time in Brazil, my first time competing in Brazil, my first time as a black belt; so there was a lot of pressure. The day before, my roommate came in with kind of a strange look on his face. He asked me if I wanted to know who I was fighting. I told him “No, I don’t care. No, I don’t want to know. I’m just going to go out there and do the same thing anyway.”
I had just learned a new triangle setup maybe a month and a half before, and I was really excited about that specific setup. I would think about it every single night; I would visualize myself getting to the position, and executing the triangle from exactly that setup. This went on for about a month and a half.
And then I go to the tournament and had to fight some guy I never heard of and never seen before. So I went out there, pulled guard, used the setup, submitted him in about two and a half minutes, and walked off the mat a winner.
I really excited, like I said, it was my first black belt match, first match in Brazil. Now my roommate is giving me another strange look – I could tell that he had thought I was going to lose the match. He told me “Man, that guy was world champ two years ago at the brown belt level. I didn’t think you’re going to win.”
To me, that was a really great example of how visualization can work out and how and game plans can happen exactly how you see them in your mind.
That’s not the first time that happened to me. It’s happened to me a lot of times. Some of the best performances I’ve ever had are because I visualized a certain game plan, or a certain strategy, and it had played out exactly according to plan.
Stephan: There’s a quote that I love which says “No plan of action survives contact with the enemy.” But you’re saying that your plan of action not only survived contact with the enemy, but things went exactly according to plan, which is really interesting…
Brandon: It’s worked for me a bunch of times. A really big point in my career was the second time I fought in the Pan-Ams as a purple belt… The first time I fought in the Pan-Ams I lost in the first round; I got submitted.
The next year I was still a purple belt. I went in and this was my game plan – I’m going to take the guy down, pass his guard, get on his back, and choke him. That was my plan, and all my training revolved around that, and I had to incorporate some new techniques to fill in some holes.
I ended up having three matches that day, and the first two matches that’s exactly what I did.
In the first match the guy pulled guard, I passed his guard, I made him turtle, I got on his back, and choked him. The second round, the same exact thing happened: I went for the takedown and the guy kind of stuffed it and then he pulled guard. I passed his guard, got on his back, and then I choked him.
And then in the final, I was on my way to do the same thing but he ended up taking me down. This screwed me up a little bit, but I recovered, and caught this guy in the triangle choke and held him there for a long time. I ended up losing on points – two to nothing, or four to two – and so I got silver that day.
But the first part of the tournament went exactly according the plan. So I’m a really big believer in visualizing and having game plans.
Stephan: Okay. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the fact you’ve got two game plans. You said a guard pulling game plan and a takedown game plan…
Given that you’ve got such a strong background takedowns, both from wrestling and from judo, that I was a bit surprised to see you pulling guard in competition and now to hear you talking about guard pulling being a part of your game. I would think that your wrestling and judo background would point you towards a top game.
So how do the different arts – the wrestling, the judo, and the jiu-jitsu – influence each other in your training and competition?
Brandon: When I moved on to judo after wrestling, I still always tried to incorporate some wrestling in the judo. And then when I moved to jiu-jitsu I always tried to incorporate the wrestling and some of the judo as well.
I really think that takedowns are important for tournaments and for self-defense. I mean you’re not going to start off on your knees in a tournament, nor in a streetfight.
For me in competition it’s just about the specific opponent: where do I think I have the best chance to win? Like for me, competition is relatively simple. It’s kind of like a math problem; my objective is to get to a position where I feel I have the highest percentage chance of winning as soon as possible. Sometimes, that position is the closed guard, sometimes it’s on top passing the guard, working for side control and the back position.
And so whether I pull guard or whether I do my takedowns, depends a lot on the person that I’m fighting. When I know the person that I’m fighting, I evaluate how their game stacks up with my game, and then I make my decision.
If I’m fighting someone who I don’t know, then I’ll try to evaluate their body type. A lot of times people who are tall and lanky are going to be guard players. People who are short and stocky are often more takedown-based top players. So I use that basic archetype to help me make my decision about people that I don’t know. I also know that Brazilian opponents are more likely to pull guard than American competitors, and so nationality also influences my decision on whether I’m going to pull guard…
Stephan: So if you were going against a guard-puller you’d be more likely to pull guard yourself and try to take them out of their element…
Brandon: Yeah, if I know a guy is a guard puller, then a lot of times I want to pull guard first and put him in a weaker position. Now, even though he’s on top, I know he’s going to feel uncomfortable.
And against wrestlers I’ll try the same approach just to take them out of their element. I have a lot of confidence in my takedowns, and if this guy is trying to take me down and I feel like I can take him down, then I will, just to take him out of his element, put him on his back, and then I’m going to be able to pass his guard and do whatever…
Stephan: Do you also have different game plans for gi and no gi? One of your claims to fame is that you won the no gi world championships at black belt level two years in a row. But I know you train a lot with the gi…
So where do you stand on cross training. Do you have completely separate games for gi and no gi, or do you try and have the same game for gi and no gi and just avoid collar chokes? How do you navigate the murky area of gi versus no gi training?
Brandon: I really try to have a game that doesn’t change much from gi to no gi. Let me explain a little bit about that…
I started off in wrestling which is no gi. Then I did judo and jiu-jitsu which is primarily with the gi. But I was lucky at my first BJJ school: we always did no gi. Maybe not a whole lot, but we would always do no gi least once a week, and also in the summer time we’d do a lot more no gi. So I was always exposed to no gi grappling, in addition to my wrestling background.
I always want my jiu-jitsu to work regardless of what the person is wearing. So to put it in really simplified terms, let’s say I had two equally valid techniques for a given situation. One technique was applicable only with the gi, and the other was applicable both with and without the gi, then I would always pick the technique that was usable with and without the gi. I did this for a long time, and that definitely let me have…
Stephan: … a transferable game?
Brandon: Yes – that was really my goal. I enjoyed no gi, and I really wanted to do it in addition to my gi training. Especially in the beginning I would totally avoid positions that I thought you needed a gi to use it, like spider guard or various fancy collar chokes. But what I realized over the years is that if you’re going to do both gi and no gi, then you’re going to encounter certain situations in the gi that don’t exist without the gi.
With the gi you’re going to encounter the spider guard, or somebody controlling your pants. Without the gi, your pants aren’t there, so you’re not going to have the problem of somebody controlling your pants and trying to do a bullfighter pass. But in the gi you will have that problem…
So what I learned is that if there’s a gi-specific problem, you shouldn’t be afraid of picking a gi-specific answer.
You don’t need worry about having your spider guard defense techniques transferable to no gi, because spider guard – for the most part – doesn’t really exist in no gi. And similarly there’s no reason why you can’t grab his sleeve as part of your collar choke defense, because there’s not going to be a collar choke in no gi.
So that’s a philosophy I’ve really adopted over the last six year; that it’s okay to use gi-based answers to gi-based problems. It won’t influence your no gi game at all because those positions don’t exist without the gi.
Stephan: Absolutely. It’s like worrying about how riding a bicycle will affect your cooking. They’re separate things to some extent…
Brandon: Exactly. About 70% of jiu-jitsu is going to overlap between gi and no gi. That will leave you with about 30% that doesn’t – pure gi stuff. There’s no reason you shouldn’t incorporate those gi techniques to work in those gi positions because they’re not going to negatively affect your no gi game – they’re not going to be there.
Stephan: Well, I’m not sure I can talk that tortured analogy between riding a bicycle and cooking but let’s just move on…
Let’s talk about your preparation for competition. Obviously you’ve got to do sparring, drilling, and conditioning. In my experience that’s how most competitors divide their training. How do you prioritize those aspects of your training, how do you allocate a fixed number of hours in the day to training, and what does a typical day look like for you, say, right now?
Brandon: I’m a big believer in getting as much training as possible. I don’t really think that overtraining is real; I think underresting is the problem. You don’t really overtrain; you don’t get enough rest to recover from the training.
So I’m in a favorable position because I work at a jiu-jitsu school. We have morning class and we have a night class and we have a break at a middle of the day. And so I’m able to get a lot of rest and naps when my training picks up.
I’m a big fan of drilling and a big fan of positional training. Of course live training is important too, but normally from Monday to Friday I would get at least an hour a day of just straight drilling – just repeating techniques over and over with no resistance.
Most of my live training and sparring comes through the classes that we have at my gym.
And any training outside of class is almost exclusively positional training, like passing the half guard, passing the closed guard, defense against rear mount, defense from side control, attacking from side control. I train in specific positions with specific goals if I reach those goals, then I reset..
Stephan: So I might have you in side control, and if you get out and put me in the guard then we’ll stop and go back to side control. We won’t continue rolling…
Brandon: For positional training, if it’s a guard position, then the rules are always going to be the person on top has to pass the guard or submit to you, and the guy on the bottom always has to sweep or submit.
If we’re doing other positions like the mount or back position, then the person on the bottom has recover guard or get on top, and the person on top has to advance the position, stay out of the guard, and submit you.
Stephan: So you do a lot of training from bad positions. Do you do a lot of submission defense training, starting in an arm bar position but your hands are locked? Or starting in a triangle choke?
Brandon: I do a lot of bad position training now. I used to do a lot of submission defense training, but I don’t do quite as much of that as I used to, just because it started to be kind of hard on my body. You’re in a triangle and guy is cranking on your neck trying to pull your head down. Or in an armlock situation, even if you’re not getting armlocked there’s still a lot of pressure on your elbow. So I don’t do as much submission defense training as I used to…
Now I focus more on bad positions: side control, mount, back mount, and other more specific positions that I might be having trouble with.
I try to have specific training goals so when I come to class. For example, when I come to class I may want to start off each of my sparring sessions fro a bad position. If that’s the case then I’ll slap hands with my partner, immediately let them pass my guard, and start the match in side control. So then I have to escape, recover, sweep, pass and then submit the guy.
So I definitely do a lot of training on defense. I think that’s really important for anybody whether you’re a white belt or a black belt. You have to work your defense.
I’m not a huge football fan but a lot of times in football they say that offense wins games but defense wins championships. I think that applies to jiu-jitsu as well. If you can’t get caught in the fire of a bad position and escape, then you’ll burn up. Any time the match gets into a rough spot, you’ll break down and you’re going to lose. But if you’re able to escape that arm lock, or recover from side control, then you’ll not only have some kind of a mental edge over your opponent but the match is still going on, and you still have an opportunity to win.
Personally I’ve had a lot of come-from-behind victories. Maybe I started down on points, or the guy almost submitted me and I got away, and then I was able to win the match in the last minute or even in the last like 15 seconds. That’s happened a bunch of times. So doing that specific training, with an emphasis on defensive training, is very important.
Stephan: Okay, so we’ve talked a little bit about drilling and about sparring. How much drilling, sparring, and conditioning are you doing? And also what do you do for conditioning?
Brandon: I don’t know how I break it down into hours, but my philosophy is that doing additional conditioning work is very important and everybody should do it. And certainly I do it. But you should never skip a jiu-jitsu class or training session to lift weights or run. If there’s an opportunity for you to train jiu-jitsu then that should be your primary goal.
If after practice you still have time and energy, then yes, go to a gym and work out. Get onto the treadmill and run. Get on your bike and pedal yourself to death.
The best way to get into jiu-jitsu shape is to do a lot of jiu-jitsu. I’m a big believer in that; I do a lot of jiu-jitsu. I train in every single class that we have at the school here, and I’m doing additional jiu-jitsu training before class and after class, either drilling or positional training. And then I try to go to the gym a couple of times a week, ride my bike, do kettle bells, and try to run.
But I think people make a mistake when they will skip jiu-jitsu to go to the gym. You need to be working on your technique, and normally the weightlifting gym is always going to be open later than a jiu-jitsu class, so you can go to the weightlifting gym almost any time. There are 24-hour gyms, but you don’t have 24-hour jiu-jitsu…
I’m lucky that I work in a school so I can open up and invite people to train with me whenever I like. But people who don’t work in a school, or don’t have a very close relationship with their instructor, and don’t have a key to the school may have a very limited time frame in which to do jiu-jitsu. Then they can take advantage of the opportunities to do jiu-jitsu and organize their supplementary training around that jiu-jitsu schedule.
Stephan: Now, I don’t know if there’s a nice way to say it, but you’re not a big guy. In fact I’m guessing that you’re often the smallest person in a class. There are teenagers who are bigger than you.
Brandon: Teenagers, yes, and women too!
Stephan: So from a perspective of being a teacher, what’s best advice you can give to a small person who’s just starting out? Say there’s a brand new beginner, day one, and they weigh 140 pounds? What would you tell them?
Brandon: I would tell them that their time IS going to come. It may not be right now, but if they keep training hard, and they follow through with the techniques that they’re learning, then their time to win is going to come. It’s just going to take the little guy some time to build up his technique to the level where they can survive having these big guys jump all over him.
Now to get more specific, there are two more things that I would tell a smaller person…
The first thing would be learn to love the closed guard. It’s the cornerstone of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There’s a reason that it’s the first guard that everybody learns; it’s because it gives you the most control over your opponent. The closed guard is the best position that you can be in if you’re on bottom, and you need to learn to get there, to be able to survive, and work from there.
A person is least able to freak out or spaz out when he’s in your closed guard because you have some degree of control of his hips with your legs. From the closed guard it’s harder for him to stand up, and it’s much easier for you to pull him back down than if you were in the open guard situation like the spider guard, the spider guard, or any of these other open guard positions.
So learn to love and to utilize the close guard. It’s not only going to give you control but it’s going to give you time. B.J. Penn once said, “If you don’t open, your opponent can’t pass” and that’s true. If you want to hold your opponent in your closed guard for an hour you could probably do it, and I’m sure people who are competitors have had the experience where a person did just that.
Anyway it’s incredibly difficult for your opponent to open the closed guard if your only goal is to keep it closed. Normally, you pass the guard off of an attack or a transition the person is making. But if he just wants to squeeze you and hold, it’s incredibly difficult to escape. Now if the person in the closed guard is also attacking with sweeps and submissions it becomes even more difficult.
Someone who wants to pass your closed guard has to worry about their posture. They’ve got to worry about their neck and their elbows. They can’t just stand up however they want, or just put their hand between your legs and open it your guard. That’ll just lead to problems for them.
So the first thing that smaller people need to do is really develop their closed guard and learn how to be comfortable there.
The second thing I would say as far is that as a little guy you need to really work your defense. Do the defensive training we talked about earlier whether it’s starting in the submission or starting in a bad position.
When people drill, they almost always only drill offense. And even when they do positional training, they normally just drill their favorite positions, which is important because it is important to sharpen the saw. But you also need to be drilling and doing positional training for positions that you don’t like. And if you don’t like certain positions then I guarantee it’s because you’re not any good at them, so that means you need to get good in those positions.
This sort of positional training is important because it teaches you to be comfortable when somebody’s weight is on you, but it also teaches you how to kind of get into that ‘jiu-jitsu ball’ where you pull your arms in, pull your legs in, and you’re not really exposed if the guy loses balance and he falls on you. You don’t want to have your knee at an awkward angle or your hand in an awkward position, where he’s going to break your wrist or your finger. That’s a problem that people don’t really think about: it’s not just getting injured in during submissions but also getting injured simply because of the weight of the person you’re training with…
Stephan: You mean when a big guy slips and falls on you?
Brandon: Yeah. Let’s say he does a stack pass and has no regard for how big he relative to you, and now your neck gets jacked. In those situations, if you believe in your defense, then instead of trying to maintain your guard at all costs, just let the guy pass. If you’re confident that you’re going to be able to defend and recover, then your risk of injury is much less by allowing the person to do what they want to do and defend against it. Just hold the guy off, and then when he makes a mistake – and he will, because everybody makes mistakes – you’ll be able to capitalize on it.
So this comes back to not only doing submission defense, but also doing positional defense training. You need to be comfortable in bad posititions so that if the guy is trying to really twist you up in a strange position in your guard just let him pass instead. Then curl up into that ‘jiu-jitsu ball…’
Stephan: The ‘advanced fetal position…’
Brandon: Yes, the advanced fetal position. That’s a very, very useful skill in training when you go against big, crazy training partners. There are just some people who try to do flying armlocks on somebody that they’ve got 60 lbs on.
Stephan: For sure. That craziness of some big guys can be ego-driven, because for a lot of the big guys their whole identity is based around being big. They’ve spent hours in the gym, injected themselves with tons of steroids, and they’re determined not to let a small guy beat them.
Brandon: Yeah, so a lot of times they’ll do anything possible to win, including injuring you. If you have great defense, and you are able to use what you called the advanced fetal position , then you can weather the storm. A lot of those guys will get tired and also discouraged; then you’re going to be able to capitalize on their mistakes and get your game working.
People are worried about “Well, if the guy passes my guard I lose points.” The thing to keep in mind is that if you’re on your side then no points are scored. He’s got to flatten you out first, and that can be a lot harder to do than people think. If you keep the cross face off of you then it’s hard to make you flat. So a lot of times, you’ll let him pass your guard for a second and then recover into half guard, or butterfly guard, or to the closed guard.
Stephan: Well, that’s some really good advice Brandon! So then what are your favorite techniques to make a big guy tap out?
Brandon: It depends on how big he is. If it’s a really big guy, then the answer always is to get to his back. My favorite ways to do that are to do an arm drag or a collar drag if he has the gi on. When you get behind a big guy, you eliminate the bench press movement that he’s so in love with, because now he’s facing the wrong direction. Also his hips are facing the wrong direction to be very explosive . Everything is facing the wrong way for him.
Once you get behind a big guy you can attack him with chokes and even armlocks. He can’t freak out as much as much as he could if you had him in side control and mount.
So going against the big guys is a very simple equation. I always try to get to the guy’s back.
But sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes you have to use those defensive principles; you have to defend, wait, defend, wait, defend, wait, and then he gets tired, maybe he gets over-confident because you’ve been in the advanced fetal position for 15 minutes and he does something that’s not the best thing. Then bam! You’re on his back and choking him.
Stephan: What about fighting the bigger guy from the guard? If you can’t get to his back…
Brandon: As I’ve already talked about, I like the closed guard. From there you’re able to control the guy and wear him down. The closed guard gives you some control over the guy,and it takes the pressure off you to some degree…
If you get that big guy in a different guard position then you can tire out just as fast as he tires out. Let’s say that you have a really big guy in your spider guard. He’s really trying to pass, and it can be very, very tiring for you to hold him off from this position. But when you have somebody in the closed guard you don’t have to use a whole lot of energy he’s not going to submit you from there: he’s not going to do a Kimura on you, he’s not going to do an Americana on you, he’s not going to choke you…
Stephan: But the flipside is that from the closed guard you definitely can attack him with submissions…
Brandon: Yeah, definitely. As he’s freaking out and moving around, YOU’RE the one who’s attacking him with submissions, wearing him down. So I personally like to use the closed guard and also the butterfly guard too, because I can kind of get into a ball from that position as well. If I can get one or two underhooks from the butterfly guard, then I can kind of stay in that inside space.
One thing about jiu-jitsu that I don’t hear people talk about a lot is controlling the inside space, which is actually a big deal in all parts of jiu-jitsu. But in my butterfly guard and close guard games, I want to dominate that inside space so that I can be defensive but also offensive.
I have a pretty decent triangle choke so use that a lot. Chokes are good against big people because it’s hard for them to power out of them and it’s hard for them to resist. Helio Gracie said it best: “No matter how big or strong a guy is, nobody can resist the choke. They’re all going to go to sleep the same as anybody.”
Stephan: I don’t think we can say it any better than Helio so we’ll begin wrapping it up. Now, obviously you didn’t get here on your own. You had a lot of help from teachers, sponsors, and training partners. So who would you like to give a shout out to before we go?
Brandon: I like to shout out to – if I can self-promote a little bit here – my own company, which obviously sponsors me. It’s called JustGiPants.com and it’s exactly what it sounds like. We just sell gi pants. Even though it sounds a little bit ridiculous, if you’ve trained jiu-jitsu for a long time you inevitably end up in the situation where you have five gi tops but are down to one pair of gi pants.
Gi pants simply rip and wear out faster than gi tops. So I made a company that focused on just making top-notch replacement gi pants. There’s a six-month guarantee and there’s always free shipping. So if you need some new gi pants, check out justgipants.com. We have a web page and also has some commercials on YouTube.
Stephan: That’s a really cool idea, Brandon.
Brandon: Thank you. I can say a lot of people have given me strange looks when I tell them about it, but once they start training, usually a couple of days later, they rip their pants and then they say, “Man, that’s a pretty good idea.”
People who’ve helped me along the way, include all my coaches, from my very first wrestling coach, Dewey Ivey, my high school wrestling coach, Ricky Stewert, my first judo coach, Paul Thomas who also showed me a lot of jiu-jitsu.
Then of course there’s the man I’m with today, the legend Professor Vinicius Draculino who has showed me an incredible amount of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’ve had a relationship with him on the mat for about 11 years. I’m actually working in his academy and working personally with him. It’s been an awesome experience.
The whole training team is great but there’s also a specific black belt here, Pablo Silva, who is the 2010 Black Belt Light Featherweight World Champion. He’s an awesome training partner and a really great resource to have at the school. So I want to thank all of those coaches as well as everybody at Gracie Barra Texas, my team.
Then also I have some sponsors that have really helped me out. One of them is a close friend, Lance Campbell, and he runs Campbell’s Compounding Pharmacy. He makes some amazing supplements and he does hormone therapy, not for me but for his business.
I also want to thank Ouano International and John Ouano for hooking me up with a lot of really great gear. If you need a new gi, new rash guard, a new short, check out Ouano International.
Stephan: I’ve had some of their stuff. It’s really good…
Brandon: Yeah, they’ve been around for a long time and John is a black belt who’s been training for a long time. He definitely knows how make a great gi and he knows about the demands of hard training. So if you want to get some good gear, check it out.
The last sponsor I want to thank is a clothing company, House of Daggers. They always hook me up with some nice gear to style around town in.
So thanks to everybody who has helped me along the way. And thank you to you as well, Stephan, for having me on the show.
Stephan: Well, thank you for talking to us and sharing so much Brandon. I can speak for my readership and my listenership, we wish you the best! You’ve made a whole bunch of new fans, so good luck with your competitions, your career, and your path in jiu-jitsu.
Brandon: Thanks, Stephan, I really appreciate it.
I enjoyed this interview so much, and Brandon seemed like such a good communicator, that a few months after this interview we collaborated to produce the instructional set called How to Defeat the Bigger, Stronger Opponent Series 2, with Brandon Mullins.
This ended up being a super-highly reviewed resource, especially for grapplers who sometimes have to deal with being manhandled and overpowered on the mats. (But I got a LOT out of it too, even though I’m 6′ 2″ and 215 lbs).
It’s available as both as a series of apps for your phone or tablet, or as a professionally replicated 5 DVD set. If you’re looking for a place to start with Grapplearts products I couldn’t recommend anything more highly than these apps and DVDs. Please check them out.