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Lower Belts

Roger Gracie is a member of the IBJJF Hall of Fame and was arguably one of the best jiu-jitsu fighters active in the 2000s. While it’s not that unusual for a member of the Gracie family to become such a formidable fighter and win so many championships, what may come as a surprise is that Roger has been based in the United Kingdom since moving to London at the age of 20.

Jiu-jitsu had become established in Southern California and in select cities on the East Coast, but it was still just starting in the UK and the number of black belts based there numbered in the single digits. According to Roger, when he opened the London school there was only one other black belt with whom he could train. However, this other black belt lived several hours away, so they only trained together maybe once or twice a week and only leading up to major competitions. His regular training partners, however, all held lower ranks.

How did he become a world champion?

Is Competing Necessary?

Training with Lower Belts

As Roger told Lex Fridman during an interview on the Lex Fridman Podcast, there were several things that he did in preparation that should be familiar to anyone who is seriously training jiu-jitsu. Rather obviously, he spent a lot of time conditioning to build up his stamina and endurance. Secondly, there was an established judo school in London at the time and he went there to improve his standup game. Finally, he learned how to train with lower belts.

Refine Your Fundamentals

There is an attitude that training with lower belts isn’t worthwhile because there isn’t much that they can show you. If you’re a black belt and your opponent is a blue or purple belt, you should be able to mop the floor with them because you have more experience than them.

What Roger learned is that, true, your opponent cannot challenge you with their skillset. However, if you limit the number of moves that you allow yourself to use to the building blocks of jiu-jitsu, you will make the fight less uneven and sharpen your fundamentals.

Learn From Their Defense

Another thing that Roger realized while training with lower belts is that they tend to be better at defense than black belts. Though this may sound counterintuitive, Roger found that black belts are very good at attacking. They are used to being the dominant person in a fight, so they are typically the ones in control from start to finish. Because they are typically controlling the fight dynamics, it is rare for them to be on the defensive. “You’re not going to practice your weakness,” Roger explains.

Consequently, a lot of black belts don’t practice defense and escapes as much as lower belts who frequently have to go up against more experienced fighters. Lower belts are still constantly practicing their defense. On the one hand, this can make them very difficult to submit. On the other hand, they may have some creative ways of escaping that they can teach you.

Let the Fight Progress

Another way to work with lower belts is to create scenarios that can simulate more realistic fighting. One way to do this is to allow your opponent to advance deeper into an attack than you would normally allow. It is still difficult to escape from a purple belt who has established side control, so you probably won’t need to give them much of an advantage. If you’re rolling with a blue belt or even a white belt, you may need to allow them to get within a step or two of actually submitting you before you start fighting in earnest.

There’s a good rationale for this. In a real fight scenario or a tournament, you may have a virtually impassable guard. In fact, it’s so good that you rarely bother practicing escapes. After all, no one is going to pass your guard. However, what happens in the unlikely event that another black belt passes your guard? You will now be in unfamiliar territory with a black belt. This is a recipe for disaster.

By allowing lower belts to pass your guard and put you on the defensive, you will keep your defense and ability to escape sharp. You’ll also never feel out of your element, meaning you’ll be less likely to make a mistake, panic, or waste energy.

Roger is not alone in advocating for this kind of training. A similar methodology was used by Rickson Gracie who stressed perhaps more than anyone since Hélio Gracie that success in jiu-jitsu is about survival and efficiency. What all three fighters realized is that if you can preserve your energy by being efficient and survive your opponent’s attacks, you cannot lose.



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