Wappingers Fall MMA Guest Blog
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt Jamey Bazes who will be doing a guest blog for us today.
The Great Gracie Debate: Online Training vs. Live Training
By Jamey Bazes
While supplementing one’s Gracie Jiu-Jitsu training with online videos and DVDs (or even VHS tapes for those “old schoolers amongst us) is anything but a new concept, recently the idea of largely replacing live training with internet media has been introduced. In 2008, Rorion Gracie’s eldest sons Ryron and Rener launched “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu University”, a program designed to lead those without access to live Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training through the ranks up from white to black belt. Six years later, this program now has over 90,000 students in over 196 countries around the world. However, the program has recently met with quite a bit of controversy, and not from outside the Gracie family either. Probably the most well known Gracie family member, Royce Gracie, winner of Ultimate Fighting Championships 1, 2 and 4, has taken exception with what his nephews are doing stating “Rener and Ryron are misrepresenting Jiu-Jitsu”. This comment created one of the greatest controversies within the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community within the past 20 years, and has both those inside and outside the Gracie family asking the important question: “what are the boundaries of online learning when it comes to the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?”
When Rener and Ryron first created Gracie University Online in 2008 there were immediate misconceptions about what they were doing, both from inside and outside the Gracie family. Many incorrectly assumed that the brothers were simply mailing out belts to anyone who paid for access to their online video-curriculum. For example, many thought that a student could pay for online videos of all the techniques from white through Purple belt, and that Rener and Ryron would simply take it on faith that the student had mastered the techniques and award them an official Purple belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Of course, this belief turned out to be false. So what were Rorion’s sons proposing? How exactly did their online training program work? As it turns out, the original plan behind Gracie Jiu-Jitsu University did allow for online testing for individual stripes, as well as blue belt. In order to prove that he or she deserves a blue belt, the student would have to master the Gracie Combatives Program, which Rener Gracie describes as “71 variations of 36 core techniques” which have proven value in street self-defense and which were originally developed specifically for use by the U.S. Army Rangers. These are the same techniques required of all potential blue belts in certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu training centers around the world. However, what met with a great deal of controversy was the fact that Rener and Ryron allowed blue belt candidates to test online, by simply mailing in videos of themselves executing the techniques or having the brothers watch them through an online camera or Skype. No hands-on training with the Gracies or any personal training at a Jiu-Jitsu school was required in order to obtain the blue belt. Beyond this, the 4 stripes for blue belt could also be tested for online, and unless this author is incorrect in his research, it was also possible to obtain the 4 stripes for purple and brown belt via online criticism from the Gracies. To actually obtain a Purple, Brown or Black Belt would on the other hand, require meeting with Rener and Ryron and having a formal test. It is the awarding of the blue belt, and any subsequent stripes, without personal instruction from a black belt and training at a Gracie certified school, which brought criticisms from within the Gracie family and from other esteemed black belts who had put in years of hard mat time to achieve their ranks. The idea that any belt, even a rank as low as blue, or any of the 4 stripes which serve as ladder rungs between the belts, could be obtained without having to roll with a black belt or prove that their techniques could be effective in person, was thought to be unacceptable. BJ Penn.com quotes Royce Gracie as saying the following about his nephews’ program: “With all due respect, our nephew’s curriculums and online programs are not a true representation of the teaching method, belt grading, and philosophy that we learned from our father, Grandmaster Helio Gracie. They have the right to modify our battle-tested jiu-jitsu system as they see fit, but we feel that it is our duty to ensure that our father’s name is not misrepresented. While videos, books and online resources may serve as supplements to Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, provenly, they can never, by any means, substitute live lessons in a qualified academy.”
Rener and Ryron were quick to respond to this criticism in their online video commentary which they put up on various sites for the public. Both the brothers insisted that their program was never meant as a substitute or alternative for live training and that ultimately it was inferior to personal training in a Gracie academy. Rather, they stressed that its best usage would be for those living in remote areas or without the financial or locational means for training at a qualified school or otherwise as a tool to aid students who were already training with high-level instructors. Indeed, it could be said that any training is better than no training at all, and the brothers could not be blamed for wanting to spread their art by any means possible. Still, it appears that Royce and some other Gracie black belts like Rilion took issue more with the fact that some ranks could be obtained exclusively through video analysis rather than Rener and Ryron’s attempts to spread the art to those who could not find access to quality Jiu-Jitsu schools. In an attempt to give validity to their program, the brothers tried to extol the virtues of their online program rather than to downplay the important of live training. One of the main points they used was that the majority of those who learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in live classes do not learn from an authentic Gracie instructor and therefore do not learn the techniques in the order in which they are meant to be learned according to the Gracie family. More so than some other Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools, the Gracies tend to believe that there is a very specific order in which techniques should be learned, that there are those which should be learned at one-stripe blue belt which differ from those at two-stripe blue belt, and four-stripe purple belt, and so on. The argument made by Rener and Ryron is that a large percentage of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools (obviously those which are not run by Gracie family members or those certified by them), teach their students moves in an inappropriate sequence, so that it takes longer for the student to progress and reach black belt. For example, at a particular class a white belt might learn a choke that should really be taught to a two-stripe blue belt, a guard pass they should learn as a purple belt, and one sweep that is appropriate for their level. The assertion was that this round-about way of learning was less effective, and that by having access to online instruction from the Gracies the students could be sure they were learning the proper sequence of moves to ascend the ranks appropriately. I must admit, as a Brown belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu with a lineage dating back to Helio through Precision MMA Black Belt Brian McLaughlin, I myself would like to see some of the Gracie University videos to sharpen certain details of moves I may not have practiced recently and because I am curious to see how closely my past learning process was to the sequence outlined by Rener and Ryron. On a slightly different note, I personally would think that there is certainly room for differences of opinion, even amongst black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, over what order moves should be learned in, but at any rate, there does seem to be agreement in the immediate Gracie family over what this sequence is. Certainly, most grappling experts across the board would agree that there are certain fundamental techniques which are better learned before more advanced moves which will confuse less experienced students and be misunderstood without the proper context. Because I was not able to find other comments online by Royce or other family members opposed to the Gracie University curriculum, I can only assume from Royce’s earlier quote that the sequence of techniques taught in these videos is not what he is in disagreement with. Nor would he probably be opposed to the brother’s methods of breaking down their system into the seven key areas of: 1) guard 2) half guard 3) mount 4) back mount 5) standing techniques 6) sidemount and 7) leg locks. Once again, the issue comes back to how the belts are awarded since the aforementioned quote mainly focuses on Royce’s issues with their “belt grading” and “teaching method” (the latter most likely being online teaching versus teaching in person). Certainly, from looking around the internet and seeing comments made by other high level practitioners who agree with Royce’s criticisms, the major issue most have with the program is the lack of hands on training experience and mat time which are invaluable for producing a high level grappler. However, Rener and Ryron claim that their program is always meant to include sparring, and that it is a requirement of all Gracie University students to find training partners on their own who are willing to help them practice the moves from the online videos. Rener and Ryron, in addition to many Gracie University students, have made the argument that learning from their videos actually requires more hard work and commitment than those who regularly train under a legitimate black belt because of the very fact that they do not have access to a real teacher and must therefore be more motivated to learn to be successful. The truth of this statement is probably up to personal opinion, but according to Rener and Ryron the conclusion remains the same which is that whether taking a belt test online or in person they themselves have the ability to discern which online students are deserving of promotion and those which are not. It would appear that Royce Gracie in particular feels otherwise, and believes that no belt should be awarded without the instructor himself being able to train one-on-one with the student in order to not only see but feel the technique of the Jiu-Jitsu student first hand. This distinction is important because Jiu-Jitsu is above all else a kinesthetic art. It is very much about body awareness; weight distribution, conservation of energy and many intricate details may not be observable, even by black belts, from visual footage alone. One of Rener and Ryron’s main selling points is that their grandfather the great Grandmaster Helio Gracie spent the first few years of his training observing his brother Carlos without ever setting foot on the mat himself because at that point he was too weak due to illness to perform the moves himself. While this is true, it remains that eventually Helio did practice his techniques live, both in formal classes and in no holds barred fights, and was awarded belts based on what he did in actual hands-on training with others and not simply by being visually observed by a black belt. Master Helio is not alive today to comment on whether or not he agrees with his grandson’s methods of awarding belts online, but his son Royce seems to think that this would not have been acceptable to Helio.
Yet another reason it appears that Royce Gracie is opposed to Rener and Ryron’s methods of awarding belts online, and something which they have addressed recently in one of their online video statements, is that there is the concern amongst the Gracie family that if a student gets his belts online through Gracie University he may never attempt to locate an actual certified academy to train in. According to the brothers, this is a concern which is unfounded as they claim that of the hundreds of online students they have assessed approximately 90% of them have eventually found a legitimate Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school to train at and only the remaining 10% have continued exclusively with online training. While these numbers would seem hard to verify, the brothers claim that it has always been their intention to foster enough interest in their online students to encourage them to eventually seek out live training at a legitimate academy. They have stated that they themselves would be very unhappy with their product if they felt it would not lead any of their students to seek out formal instruction and that, once again, their curriculum is intended not as a substitute for live training, but only to give students access to their families’ art, or an introduction to it, that they would not have otherwise had.
Very recently, Rener and Ryron made a public statement confirming that they have taken their uncle’s words to heart and will no longer be awarding any belts or stripes through online video footage of students. Instead, if a student sends them a video where he performs the techniques for a certain belt and the brothers verify that he has done them properly they will be awarded a “technical belt” online. What this means is that they believe the student has shown through visual evidence that he can properly execute the techniques required for a particular belt but that in order to obtain a true belt he must be tested in person by a certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt. In order to do this he must either meet with Rener or Ryron personally and demonstrate the techniques in their presence or at the very least find a Gracie certified school with a black belt who can test them. While Royce has not yet commented on whether or not he agrees with their new system, I would assume that he would be more satisfied with this than their past method of awarding belts through online footage alone, and as a Brown Belt who has personally been awarded his belts from black belts with direct lineage back to Helio Gracie, I also agree that this a better approach. There are certain subtleties to the techniques of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu that cannot always be observed visually and which must be felt first hand. For example, a student may do all the techniques required for a blue belt perfectly in terms of how they appear on a computer screen, but he may be using too much strength in their application and this might not be easily observable, even by black belts. However, if the black belt himself trains with the student, the extra tension in the students’ movements can be felt by the instructor and this could lead to the difference between making the move work or having it fail when under pressure in a live setting.
Even beyond training with the student himself however, I personally tend to wonder how much live sparring with opponents of different levels and body types Rener and Ryron require in their formal belt assessments of their online students. I would think that it would be hard for them to put Gracie University students through as much rigorous sparring as they do their live students and if so then this could be a problem. As someone who has been given belts and stripes by Royce Gracie, Rob Kahn (Royce’s first Black Belt), Caique (a Rickson Gracie black belt), Phil Migliarese (a Relson Gracie Black Belt) and my current instructor Brian McLaughlin (a Rob Kahn black belt), I was observed in sparring sessions with a number of different partners of different sizes and levels in every case where I was awarded a belt or stripe. Even if a student knows all the techniques required for his next belt, if he can not actually prove that he can use them in live rolling against different types of opponents then I personally do not believe he should be awarded his next belt, and I think its likely that the Gracies and black belts with Gracie lineage would probably agree with me. This does not mean that the student must be able to dominate all his sparring partners. What it does mean is that he must be able to think under pressure and adapt his techniques to different situations. And aside from hands-on training with a black belt himself, this is in my opinion the final test of whether or not a student truly knows the Jiu-Jitsu necessary for his next belt. If I could take a guess I think it is quite likely that this is also one of the reasons why Royce is opposed to giving out belts online, because even if an online Jiu-Jitsu student is able to find a group of buddies to train his techniques with, he most likely will not be able to find students of differing levels, especially those much better than himself, to grapple with on a regular basis, and this is important in the development of a good jiu-jitsu student. After all, if a white belt is trying to prove that he deserves his blue belt, but he has no one who is blue belt level or above to train with, then how can he truly assess his technical ability? He can prove to an observing black belt, perhaps even via the internet or a video himself, that he has perfected the blue belt techniques against an unresisting opponent, but that is only part of what makes one deserving of a belt. If the student has no ability to at least make for a competitive live sparring session with any student of the belt level he desires to obtain then most likely he is not deserving. Of course, physical attributes must be taken into account. For example, if a 50 year old one hundred and forty pound prospective blue belt cannot make for a competitive rolling session with a 20 year old, 250lbs blue belt but has the required techniques down perfectly, it does not mean he should never be given his blue belt. While Jiu-Jitsu can certainly help a person to overcome many physical advantages his opponent may have over him, it does not mean that these shouldn’t be taken into account. But this is why a multitude of different sparring partners of different physical attributes and skill levels is essential for truly progressing in BJJ, and this is most likely something that a person studying from Gracie University alone does not have access to, or else he would not be depending on it in order to achieve a belt. Technical proficiency in all of the movements required for the next belt or stripe, hands on training with a certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt and a wide variety of training partners, especially some of whom are more advanced, are all important criteria for anyone who aspires to achieve his next promotion. My guess is that it is probably a lack of the latter two which Royce is most opposed to, and which have led to Rener and Ryron’s decision to replace certified belts with technical belts in their system.
In summation, it is understandable that Royce and the other Gracies who have spent so many years trying to maintain the purity of their father’s art would not want to see belts being casually awarded to online students who may not have truly paid their dues on that mat. To award belts to students who have never demonstrated their moves on a black belt instructor, in his immediate presence, or on resisting opponents of different skill levels, sizes and physical attributes, is most likely a way to insure that there will be more Jiu-Jitsu students walking around with a false sense of security about their own abilities. One might ask oneself what the true worth of a belt is if true mastery of the required techniques has not been adequately demonstrated. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu has always claimed, above all else, to be a practical system. Hopefully the replacement of online belts with technical belts which can only be verified through live training will make Gracie Jiu-Jitsu University a more authentic program. If it leads to more students training at legitimate Gracie academies then it can only be a good thing. Hopefully this compromise will satisfy opposing sides of the Gracie family and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu University will prove to further spread this time honored martial art to a new generation of grapplers.
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Jamey Bazes is a Wappingers Fall MMA practitioner holding a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt with over 15 years of competition experience earning over 100 tournament victories. He also holds a Masters of Arts Degree in English from SUNY New Paltz with a focus on the English Romantic poets.