Some initial (and rather obvious) thoughts about different martial arts.

by Ryan Gregory, April 24th, 2013

It’s been very interesting to experience different martial arts this week, and I thought I would share some initial observations in this regard. Admittedly, these are just some thoughts I’ve had after only one class each of Judo and BJJ, and I freely concede that they are not particularly deep or original.

As I suspected, it is apparent that Karate, Judo, and Jiu-Jitsu exist along a continuum in a variety of ways. First, and perhaps most obviously, in terms of fighting tactics and applications.

Karate is a predominantly stand-up art where we fight at long to medium distances. Goju-ryu is known as a “close” fighting style as far as karate styles go, but we’re still talking about striking distance. Karate does have take-downs and throws, but these are a minor part of the training.

Judo is predominantly a stand-up art but it is a much closer-range system than karate and it focuses on throws rather than strikes. For some of the techniques I’ve already experienced, you literally want zero space in between you and your opponent. When sparring in my first Judo class (“randori”), everyone began standing up, got a grip on each other, and tried to execute a throw. Judo also has a significant ground work component, of course, but my sense is that where possible a judoka would prefer to throw an opponent rather than grapple with him on the ground.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is almost entirely focused on ground work. This means either starting on the ground or getting the fight there as quickly as possible with a take-down. Indeed, when sparring with a partner (“rolling”) in my first BJJ class, everyone just began on the ground. It is extremely close fighting, with limbs tangled up and body weight pressed onto the opponent. It’s also much more about subtle feel and strategy, taking one’s time and looking for an opportunity to execute a submission or choke. It has been described as “like chess”, and I would already agree with that characterization.

Which is best? That question does not make sense without further context. It’s like asking, which is the best tool: a hammer, a screwdriver, or a pair of pliers? It depends very much on what you’re trying to do.

Now, BJJ certainly did dominate the early UFC competitions, largely because strikers greatly underestimated the effectiveness of submission grappling and were unable to defend against it. However, look at what modern MMA has become: it’s probably half striking (or more, including on the ground) and half grappling for submissions or chokes. No MMA competitor would get very far if they could only strike or only grapple at this point.

All of the above has been said before, of course. But there is another interesting continuum that I have noticed, relating to formality and structure. This varies a lot from dojo to dojo, but I sense that it still applies in a broad sense across the different arts. Traditional Okinawan karate is very formal. We bow to each other all the time. We work on perfecting every little detail of kata. We work on very specific stances, strikes, blocks, and even breathing. We use pre-arranged sparring drills (ippon and nihon kumite, renzoku kumite, kakomi kumite). Japanese terms are used for everything (including phrases like “Please help me” and “Thank you”).

Judo, in my extremely limited experience, seems to be similar to karate in this respect, with a formal bow-in, Japanese terminology, and working on the details of specific throws. However, it has kata performed with a partner rather than solo kata in which, say, the position of one’s fist is corrected if it’s off by even an inch. There are drills, but these not as structured as, say, walking basics in karate. There is also a greater emphasis on free sparring and tournament competition (it’s an Olympic sport, after all — we’ll see if Karate goes this way as well in time).

BJJ is the least formal of all. In fact, I was told a few times that “we’re less formal here” (as compared to the Judo classes, and certainly as compared to karate classes where we bow before and after every drill with a partner). As far as I know, BJJ does not have formal gradings, but rather promotions are based on having acquired and demonstrated a sufficient level of skill. Sparring in BJJ involves a lot of individual experimentation to try different moves and develop more of a personal style based on one’s strengths. Individual techniques are shown and then drilled, but again this is not as formal as basics in karate. There are no kata and no bowing to a shrine. Rather than bow to each other, it’s a handshake and a fist bump.

As with the variety in approaches to fighting, I actually quite enjoy experiencing this continuum of formality. I like the traditional nature of karate and Judo, and I also like the “chummy” feel of BJJ. What matters, I think, is having fellow students who work hard at improving their own skills and are happy to help others learn. Thus far, I have seen this very much in evidence in Karate, Judo, and BJJ. In this, I think the similarities far outweigh the differences between them.

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