Henry Akins and Matt Thornton Part I
The primary goal of jiu-jitsu is survival. To achieve this goal, one needs to be efficient. In order to be efficient, one must have a combination of endurance, confidence, and mastery of technique. As one masters technique, they learn to become more efficient and more effective. Learning how to become more efficient or to execute technique with better efficacy are the goals of sparring and training, and one can spend a lifetime refining only the techniques they learned when they were white belts.
This has long been the message of Henry Akins, who trained under Rickson Gracie. As Henry explained to Matt Thornton on his podcast (link above), this was Rickson’s greatest contribution to jiu-jitsu. He showed that it’s possible to become one of the best fighters in the world and to consistently put black belts to shame with the most basic moves in jiu-jitsu, provided they are executed perfectly. “When you can destroy everyone with the basics, it means you don’t have to keep going and keep collecting new techniques,” he told Matt.
The Early Days
When Henry first started training with Rickson, the mindset among jiu-jitsu fighters was very different than it is today. It was during the infancy of jiu-jitsu in the US, and it was still very close to its vale tudo roots—meaning that people trained without time limits or weight classes. Moreover, there were still strikes, so controlling the distance meant the difference between staying conscious and getting knocked out.
The UFC was also in its infancy. At the time, there was no such thing as mixed martial arts. Instead, there were fighters from different disciplines of martial arts, and they were pitted against one another with no gloves, no weight divisions, and no time limits. To make things even more difficult, tournaments were not spread out, so you would have to fight three guys in a night to win. More than just winning each fight, you also had to avoid injury and reserve your energy to stay healthy enough to compete in the championship.
This need for endurance allowed jiu-jitsu to shine in the early days of the UFC. While some martial arts put more emphasis on developing strength and speed, jiu-jitsu’s focus on efficiency made it extremely effective in these kinds of tournaments. Being efficient means conserving energy and only expending it only when you need to quickly escape or launch an attack. Rather than trying to overpower your opponent, jiu-jitsu fighters in those days demonstrated a lot of self-control as they forced their opponents to constantly use up their energy. This strategy not only made their opponents more physically tired; it also made them mentally exhausted. These fighters knew that even the most experienced fighter will eventually make a mistake if you keep them on the mat long enough. If you can conserve your energy and unleash it only when that opening occurs, you will be able to survive any fight.
As Royce Gracie demonstrated in the early days of the UFC, it also allows you to win a lot of tournaments.
A Foundation of Basics
Though Henry acknowledges that what he learned in those early days was a really basic form of jiu-jitsu, it allowed him to create a solid foundation based on the fundamentals, especially when paired with the kind of endurance fighting characterized above. It also allowed him to realize that the fundamentals of jiu-jitsu are not cookie-cutter moves. Each fighter needs to learn how to modify the moves of jiu-jitsu to fit the context, Henry explained to Matt. “People are too quick to give up on the basics and look for another technique that might solve the problem instead of just making the subtle adjustments or trying to figure out, ‘what is it about the expression of my technique that is causing it not to work’?”
He goes on to explain that it should come as no surprise that the moves relatively new fighters learn as white belts are not always effective when they go up against people who are as skilled as them or perhaps even a bit more experienced. For example, a new blue belt may have difficulty successfully using a scissor sweep because another blue belt may know an effective counter. This is how martial arts are supposed to work. However, the defense doesn’t apply to every iteration of the scissor sweep-just the most basic version of it. If you focus on developing that technique and making modifications to it, you will eventually overcome the counter.
Rather than assuming that learning new moves will solve the problem, creating a solid foundation of the most basic techniques and learning how to make increasingly tiny adjustments will allow you to overcome virtually any defense. The subtler you can make those adjustments, the higher the level of execution. As Henry said, this is precisely what Rickson did, and it’s what made him one of the best fighters in the world.