In the early 90s, Royce Gracie shocked the fighting world as he utilized the art his family pioneered, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, to leave fighters twice his size gasping for breath or writhing in pain with their joints at breaking point.
On the other side of the Pacific, Royce’s older brother, and the legend among the legendary family, Rickson Gracie, also showcased the efficacy of the family art in Vale Tudo Japan tournament and the inaugural PRIDE event.
Royce and Rickson Gracie sent a shockwave throughout the world, and the martial artists across the globe took notice. They jumped at the first opportunity to study the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to demystify the Gracies’ formula for victory. The memorable feat of the Gracies also marked the dawn of submission specialists.
Since then, Jiu Jitsu has been an integral part of the training regimen of MMA fighters. Learning the craft of grappling to earn victories via submission, or at the very least to defend against submission attempts and secure advantageous positions on the ground, has become de riguer for every MMA fighter.
Over the course of a decade and half since Royce Gracie sent a shockwave throughout the fight world, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the umbrella discipline of submission grappling have evolved in tandem with MMA.
A cadre of submission specialists has tailored jiu jitsu and other grappling art to the ever evolving sport of MMA. Likewise, fighters who stylistically lean toward striking and wrestling have internalized defensive grappling into their arsenals.
The evolution of MMA has rendered obsolete one-dimensional fighters and ushered in an era of fighters who are technically sound in all aspects of the MMA game.
As typified by top talents such as Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, and BJ Penn, those who spearhead the current phase of the sport’s evolution are truly well-rounded fighters with high fight IQ. Not only are they well-versed in the different realms of MMA fighting but also capable of harnessing their skills to execute well-crafted strategies to defeat their opponents.
Amidst this current evolutionary phase of MMA, the notion of “submission specialists” is in a state of flux.
The heightened grappling prowess of an average fighter has raised the difficulty of achieving victories via submission, especially at an elite level. While a submission victory remains a staple of MMA, it is becoming noticeably less frequent, particularly in UFC, as evidenced by the number of fights that unfold as kickboxing matches or ground-and-pound clinic.
While fighters with decent to above average grappling skills abound, those truly deserving of the billing, “submission specialist” – fighters with exquisite grappling prowess who are capable of submitting their opponents on a regular basis – have become few and far between.
Enter Demian Maia.
Demian Maia, a world class BJJ practitioner who has captured innumerable prestigious grappling titles, has earned five submission victories over the likes of Jason McDonald, Ed Herman, and Chael Sonnen since signing with UFC.
Maia’s technical precision and success inside the Octagon have prompted some to hype him as the second coming of Royce Gracie.
The awe Maia elicits from the audience understandably conjures the exclamation points that Royce Gracie had imprinted on the world. Yet, make no mistake – the two jiu jitsu masters epitomize the different phases of the evolution of MMA.
While Royce Gracie’s technical sleight of hand was a key to his victories in the early UFC events, Gracie undoubtedly benefited from his opponents’ lack of familiarity – and therefore a lack of defense against – jiu jitsu.
Maia, along with Shinya Aoki, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, and other submission wizards of MMA, stands at the vanguard of an evolution in MMA grappling.
In today’s competitive field, a key to victory encompasses more than honing ones skills in the different aspects of the game. Fight IQ, or the ability to formulate and implement a sound strategy against ones opponents is equally vital.
In besting ones competition, a “submission specialist” like Maia copes with the challenge of imposing his world class jiu jitsu skill against his opponents. For every successful submission specialist, numerous world class grapplers have been left in the dust in the MMA world. The failure stems from their failure to adapt – the inability to utilize their skills in a new arena.
In addressing the requisite evolution of jiu jitsu in MMA, Shooto legend, Yuki Nakai has stated in a recent interview with Japanese combat sport magazine, Kakutougi Tsushin, “I stopped referring to jiu jitsu as the art of ground fighting.”
He proceeded to elaborate that, while jiu jitsu certainly prepares its practitioners well for ground fighting, it is far from complete without an arsenal of throws, takedowns, and ground control. Nakai’s statement underscores the reality of MMA to which jiu jitsu practitioners must adapt.
Ever since wrestlers and strikers have started learning to fend off submission attempts, the challenge has existed for submission grapplers to neutralize their opponents’ defensive grappling. Given the heightened level of skills an average fighter possesses in every aspect of the game today, this challenge has never been greater.
The new generation of “submission specialists” not only possesses exceptional capacity in their craft: Add incisive strategist and versatile adaptationist to his job description.
Through training in striking and wrestling that come with the territory in MMA, they have successfully molded their MMA game around their submission prowess. Though fighters like Maia, Jacare, and Aoki are far cry from well-rounded MMA fighters a la Georges St. Pierre, they have demonstrated the knack for letting their submission savvy shine against opponents who present them a variety of stylistic matchups.
Honing other weapons besides grappling in their MMA arsenal will certainly make them more versatile threats – in fact, in order to succeed in MMA today, it is a surefire necessity. However, they do not need to strive to stage kickboxing matches or ground-and-pound clinics: The most efficient path to victory lies in their versatility with their most potent weapon.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, for example, augments his world class jiu jitsu pedigree with physical strength, exquisite takedowns, and guard-pulling to successfully impose his will on his opponents.
Shinya Aoki has become well-known for his flexibility, fluid guardwork, and the ability to seemingly execute submissions from any position. Though he is a one-dimensional fighter and his opponents are well-aware of his strength, he has managed to earn submission victories over a wide spectrum of opponents: Grapplers (Caol Uno), well-rounded strikers (Eddie Alvarez, Gesias Cavalcante), and wrestlers (Clay French, Katsuhiko Nagata).
Last month, in the main event of Strikeforce: Lawler vs. Shields, a renowned submission fighter, Jake Shields tapped out Robbie Lawler, two minutes into the first round. Witnessing Shields’ victory against a larger, stronger foe, one of the commentators gushed that “Gracie Jiu Jitsu is alive.”
A lot has changed since the early days of UFC and MMA is in an entirely new era. However, the fact that one can evoke Royce Gracie’s feat in the advanced evolutionary phase of MMA – there is no larger proof that a new generation of submission specialists thrive in the increasingly competitive landscape and continue to advance jiu jitsu and submission grappling to a new height.
Tags: Demian Maia, Jake Shields, Ronaldo Souza, Royce Gracie, Shinya Aoki, UFC, Vitor Ribeiro