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On Owning Jiu-Jitsu
By Jay Ferrari
I love jiu-jitsu. Its advantages, the obvious mental and physical as well as the subtle spiritual and social, have brought me immeasurable benefit. For twenty-plus years, jiu-jitsu has also been a source of critical consistency in what was often a tumultuous life — a refuge as much as a proving ground.
During those two decades, jiu-jitsu has evolved in many ways, but for me, it has not changed. Techniques certainly trend. Ideological approaches ebb and flow. Training emphasis varies school to school and lineage to lineage. But above all of that jiu jitsu’s effectiveness as a competitive, protective, and combative art remain unquestionable.
The only thing I don’t like about jiu-jitsu, which has nothing to do with the art itself, is the distracting haze of partisanship that hangs in the air around it. I’m not talking about external perception or cultural acceptance. I imagine I speak for most practitioners when I suggest we really don’t care whether or not our interest could ever be considered mainstream.
What we instead appear to be collectively obsessing about are internal skirmishes and differences of opinion about what strain or sect of jiu-jitsu should be considered real. The debate, exaggerated by social media and online chest-thumping, has become incessant, and I have written, deleted and re-written and re-deleted dozens of comments on as many threads before realizing that trying to participate in the conversation is really just contributing to the cacophony.
Within almost any pursuit — academic, artistic, religious — there is a spectrum of adherents. On one extreme are those who will ceaselessly seek innovation, on the other are those who lay claim to the banner of truth and authenticity.
That range does not describe jiu-jitsu. That range is jiu-jitsu.
I used to think I had to proclaim allegiance. I had to declare whether I thought gi or no-gi was better. I had to select either self-defense or competition as the exclusive motivator for anyone’s training. I had to, in short, take this ancient discipline, which has cut the most pragmatic course through the history of martial arts, and put boundaries around it.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t confine my definition of an art because art, by definition, is ultimately indefinable. Yes, we can pause and study a phase, an episode, a trend, but those are always moving along a greater progressive continuum. Every great artist is pointing behind themselves at the artists who informed and inspired them. Hendrix is pointing back to Robert Johson, who is pointing back to Charlie Christian. And while they point behind them they are looking forward, Jimi to Stevie Ray to John Frusciante and take it from there.
In jiu-jitsu, we can look back to Brazil, to Japan, to India, to Greece, maybe? Four thousand years of human history doesn’t suddenly stop with me. I have to let this art continue to become whatever it wants to become while (and this is important) working to preserve what it has always been. That duality is manifested in each of us as players. Individually, what we’ve learned best and what we like most is what creates our game and shapes our style. It’s why jiu-jitsu is as much about personality as it is about physicality. Is another player not doing real jiu-jitsu if their preferred takedowns, sweeps or submissions differ from mine? Of course not. Is someone wearing a blue or black gi less traditionally minded than someone in a white gi? Perhaps that could be argued but to what end? Why divert energy best suited to training into no-stakes hairsplitting? None of that matters when we start to roll.
My jiu-jitsu goals have always been modest: I train to stay healthy, learn how to handle myself if things go sideways, and have fun rolling. It’s the sublime synthesis of exercise, therapy and meditation; perfect medicine for a mad world. Students, peers, coaches, pros, legends — I owe hundreds of people in each of these categories my heartfelt thanks, and I try to be gracious and grateful every day for their generosity in giving me this incredible gift.
I’m absolutely indebted to jiu-jitsu. It has brought me everything from a profession to peace of mind to a peerless life partner. In its service, I’ve carved out a couple thousand square feet of mat space in a nondescript corner of a typical city where I get to teach and train almost daily among a couple hundred people who blur the line between community and family. I don’t have the audacity or arrogance to set limits on something that’s been so significant, even sacred, in my life.
Jiu jitsu is, in short, something I could never own, only owe.
If you liked Jay’s article, you might want to check out this article from his wife, Jen Z, from a few months back. Today seems like a great day to celebrate some of my favorite people, writers, and grapplers.
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