A Blackbelt’s Private Lesson With a Jiu-jitsu Master, by Mark Mullen

BJJ private lesson with Gordo

This is a very interesting field report by my first BJJ training partner (and now BJJ black belt) Mark Mullen, who just came back from a trip to Brazil – Stephan Kesting.

I recently spent 2 months in Rio de Janeiro, shortly after graduating to black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In addition to enjoying the beaches, acai and famous sights of Rio I was looking to get on the mat and learn some jiu-jitsu to bring back to the students in my home academy in Canada.

Through a training partner I was introduced to Roberto “Gordo” Correia who owns the famous Gordo Jiu-jitsu Academy in the Barra da Tijuca area of Rio de Janeiro. I was deeply impressed at the level of technical knowledge that Gordo demonstrated in his session with my training partner and could not miss the opportunity to experience some private lessons with a man who I could see was a jiu-jitsu master.

To confess, I had never actually had a private lesson in BJJ before. My training partner was a firm believer in how a private lesson could add to one’s game. The 1st question that popped into my mind was “What should the private be about?

Should I have a roll and then ask him what holes I had? Focus on the weak points in my game? Ask to see the newest, secret evolutionary techniques from the jiu-jitsu laboratories of deepest, darkest Brazil? Was it finally my turn to be inducted to the hidden society of blackbelts with arcane fist bumps and secret techniques?

At this stage of experience in my jiu-jitsu career, I have a fairly solid idea of what my game is and which positions that I consider my bread and butter.

I have little interest in the newest sweep that is all the rage at the Pan Ams nor am I much interested in acrobatic guards that are best left to those with superior flexibility and 20 year old spines. My game is centered around basics – closed guard, knee on belly and attacking the opponent’s back. Gordo is widely credited as being the inventor of the modern half guard position and it made sense to start there.

After the private, some of the blue belts and purple belts were curious what a blackbelt would ask in a private lesson? Their assumption was that I would be looking for advanced setups and complex combinations, complicated sweeps and submissions.

They had a puzzled look on their faces when I answered that I asked to learn about the most basic techniques – recovering closed guard, how to break the opponent’s posture, the basic cross collar choke and if we had time, the basic straight arm lock from the guard. Things that I am already proficient with and wished to take them up to a true blackbelt level.

ALL techniques that a complete noob might learn on their very first bjj intro class! These are the basic techniques are too often discarded as being outdated or being too easy to counter, and replaced by the flashy BJJ 2.0.

I had an epiphany at a seminar several years ago with a multiple time world champion. He was demonstrating the scissors sweep – which I had dismissed as being only effective against beginners. I expressed my view to him and after watching me execute my scissors sweep he said that while I had the mechanics correct that I misunderstood WHEN to use the technique. He got down on the mat and demonstrated how to hold the knee shield guard to hold my opponent at safe distance until the right time to switch to the leg position and execute the sweep.

Well, that additional bit of information brought the unappreciated sweep back into my arsenal where it remains today. A light bulb went on for me: I asked “What other basic techniques have I relegated to archives that really do work, I just lacked the black belt level of knowledge to actually employ them?

From that moment on, I took a fresh look at the basics – those fundamental techniques that work for all ages, body sizes and shapes.

I had previously read online comments from blackbelts who had attended rare seminars with Rickson Gracie and had emerged humbled at their knowledge of the basics. So perhaps it is not too surprising that I wanted to spend my time on the basics.

Several highly successful BJJ competitors have excelled at the highest levels of the sport (ex. Roger Gracie, Kron Gracie) exhibiting basic but highly effective games. When 1 high level blackbelt submits another, it is most likely with a “basic” submission like straight armlock or kimura. The question becomes, how are they executing these “basic” techniques against opponents who have been defending these same techniques since they were whitebelts?

The effectiveness of the basic techniques suggested a deeper knowledge of these basics. The fine points and details that make a technique truly a blackbelt level.

In retrospect, I am glad that I had permission from Gordo to film my lesson, as I quickly became overwhelmed with information.  I did my best to assimilate the new information and hoped to retain all of those ‘light bulb’ moments.

Apart from the specific techniques (which Gordo was generous enough with his time to film several techniques for Grapplearts) the game changers for me were principles. While I learned new details for the mechanics of the techniques, I became more aware of things like timing, the correct situation to use a position.

Here are 3 principles that I noticed as a recurring theme in Gordo’s:

1) Action Reaction – Every technique would be preceded by a movement in the opposite direction of my true intention.

This fake took advantage of the human instinct and I could trick the opponent into placing his weight and balance in exactly the right direction that I needed to execute my original tactic. In addition, the opponent’s defence would be diverted in the wrong direction, and by the time they realized that they had taken the bait, I had that critical 1 step ahead in the fight.

2) Blocking the Retreat – Many of the techniques would trick the opponent into creating an opening of space or giving up a limb. You then take a grip, or block the retreat with your hand or knee. When the opponent recognized their lose of position they would desperately attempt to return to a safe position or posture…only to find that I had blocked their retreat.

To illustrate this let’s look at the armbar from the guard: a strong sleeve grip could momentarily separate the elbow from its stronger, defensive position near the torso. When I place my foot in the hip, my knee blocks the arm from being pulled back to safety and the opponent’s limb is now in danger.

3) Setting up the technique by breaking the posture/ unbalancing the opponent. Trying to attack a submission from the guard on an opponent who has a solid, upright posture is the reason for many failed submission attempts.

When setting up a choke from bottom for example, a quick bump would force the opponent to post a hand on the mat to save his balance. With the posture broken, my collar grip was adjusted too deep for the opponent to defend effectively and the same basic choke was amplified in effectiveness.

For me, the best use of my private lessons was to refine the positions that I already felt solid with and bring them up to a true black belt level of precision and execution.


Mark Mullen is a BJJ black belt and frequent contributor to Grapplearts.com.  Follow him on Twitter @MarkMullenBJJ

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