They’re All About Duty

Note: This is a guest post I did for JiuJiteira, a new online community intended to promote events that feature female JiuJiteiras and encourage both men and women training together.

Jiujitsu has much in common with musical theater, specifically Gilbert & Sullivan.

No, really. Besides being subcultures that inspire completists to obsession, the themes in both essentially run parallel to each other.

If you want pop culture confirmation, consider this clip from the West Wing, where Ainsley Hayes corrects Lionel Tribbey on whether the song “He Is An Englishman” comes from “HMS Pinafore,” which it does. Tribbey insists that it is from Penzance, or Iolanthe, or “one of  the ones about duty.”

Ainsley responds, correctly: they’re all about duty.

If you’ve seen any Gilbert & Sullivan — and really, who hasn’t? — you can testify that this is accurate. In song and story, the Englishmen sailing the ocean blue struggle with what’s right to do. Michael Bisping might represent all that’s bad about the English aesthetic, but “Pinafore” represents all that’s good about it.

We hear a lot about duty in the martial arts. Qualities like loyalty and courage in the face of adversity are embedded in the Bushido code and what traditionalists refer to as jiujitsu philosophy.

But what’s duty? What do we owe other  people? The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was perhaps more concerned with moral duty than anyone else, and he came up what called the Categorical Imperative — a single rule more important than any other.

What is this rule, and what does this have to do with how we train? We’ll get to that in a second. If you don’t care about the echoes of German philosophy in martial arts, you might be interested in Sideshow Bob singing the score of Pinafore before trying, fruitlessly once again, to murder Bart Simpson:

The rule Kant came up with — that most important of imperatives — is: “Act only on those maxims (or rules of action) that you could at the same time will to be a universal law.” Or, put more simply, only do things that you’d be comfortable with anyone else doing, at any place and time.

That might sound familiar, like it’s a more detailed version of a rule common throughout the world’s religions and cultures. It also might sound like a good idea, and it is. The trouble isn’t the rule, the trouble is that people aren’t always attentive to it, or don’t apply it to their specific life circumstances.

Let’s apply it to our specific life circumstances. What do we owe to our training partners? What is our duty to them? I came up with three principles.

  1. The most important person in the room is your training partner.
    Your training partner – even if they’re the newest white belt – is doing you a favor. They’re putting their body on the line and using precious minutes of their finite life to help you get better at something you love.

    Let’s say we look at every training situation, in jiujitsu and out, this way: a mutual exchange where we’re investing time in helping each other. If you’re looking  at making universal rules for how people in that situation should treat each other, you’d probably say they should treat each other like gold. This is particularly true in something like jiujitsu, a niche activity where mistakes can have physical consequences.

    Sometimes I hear people complain about training with white belts. I love training with white belts, because making sure white belts have good experiences is the best way to grow jiujitsu. And I learn things every time: new people often react differently than experienced people, which improves my ability to respond in those situations. Even when there is a skill gap between training partners, we can still learn from each other.

    The person you’re drilling with and sparring with is the most important person in the room at that moment. Your responsibility – your duty – is to make sure they have a good experience and get something out of it.

  2. Everybody has a first day. It’s your job to make sure they have a second day, too.
    Duty means that we should always make choices that could be universalized – that is, we would be comfortable with everyone making the same choices we made.

    Imagine a new person comes in that rubs you the wrong way for whatever reason. Let’s say you act like a dismissive jerk: maybe you ignore them when it’s time to pair up and drill. Or worse, let’s say you encourage them to spar with you, and you smash their face for five minutes.

    If that choice is universalized – if everyone makes that choice – jiujitsu dies. Period.

    Jiujitsu is hard, and we shouldn’t shy away from making that clear. When I talk to the toughest of the toughest, oldest of old school folks, though, there’s a common undercurrent in what they tell me: training has to be fun sometimes, too. To help jiujitsu grow and survive, let’s not show new people the first part without the second.

  3. The  more vulnerable someone is, the more attentive you should be to your own actions around them. 
    Fundamentally, I believe in personal responsibility. We are a product of the choices we make.

    We often hear that jiujitsu is for smaller, weaker people. Helio Gracie said that larger, strong people already have nature’s jiujitsu. We all know people who have tremendous jiujitsu skills that would have developed those skills no matter what gym they ended up at — people who are naturally tough and physically adept.

    I am not one of these people.

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    I lucked out by walking into a gym that is very thoughtful about how to build people up. If that hadn’t happened, I might not have the chance to even do jiujitsu, let alone have it as a central, rewarding part of my life.

    Since I am, by any reasonable metric, a very lucky person, I think a lot about what I owe. What I owe people, what I owe the world.  Since there were people that kept me coming back, I want to be one of those people for somebody else.

    When people come into the gym that might not feel welcome for any reason – maybe they aren’t natural athletes, maybe they’re women who are worried about training with men, or maybe they struggle with claustrophobia, or are physically disabled in some way — I feel like it’s incumbent on me to make sure they see the possibilities that jiujitsu can represent for them.

Some things are universal. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect. We all want to train in place with people who are true and attentive. We are, all of us who train, a part of the same story.

So, yes, this is something that jiujitsu and philosophy and musical theater share in common.

They’re all about duty. And if we’re decent, so are we.

Introducing Dirty White Belt Radio

More a little more than a year, I’ve been doing a podcast. We’ve made 58 shows. Learned a lot. Made more than 60 videos about technique, nutrition, live event coverage and funny things. Plus, the occasional webcomic.

It’s been an amazing year. Now it’s time to take it to the next level — which means a couple of big changes.

First, the name of the show is changing. The show was called the Cageside ConcussionCast, but we wanted a name that’s going to reflect our focus on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and more broadly the healthy lifestyle associated with jiu-jitsu. The new name of the show will be Dirty White Belt Radio — after this blog. dwbrtempfbcover

(You can also call us “The Artist Formerly Known as The Cageside ConcussionCast” if you want.)

Regular readers might know that the idea behind the “Dirty White Belt” name is this: as my belt gets darker, I always want to retain the white belt attitude of consistently learning. I want to learn forever, and this project is a way to stay on that journey with my fellow travelers.

But that’s not the only big change.

We’re creating a new website which will launch at DirtyWhiteBelt.com that will house ALL the content we produce — podcasts, blog posts, video instructionals about jiu-jitsu, food and nutrition, webcomics, and a unified events calendar for seminars, tournaments, superfight events and MMA fights throughout the Southeast. We’ll also have ways you can support the charities we back, as well as ways to support other local North Carolina brands. Right now, that URL just points at this blog, but that’s going to change soon.

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We want you to expect more from us. We’re still going to have the content you’ve come to expect — just more of it and a better version. We’ll always focus locally on jiujitsu and other fighting arts in the Carolinas and beyond, but now we’re going to be bringing in more big, national guests, especially guests with historical significance. (We already have some interviews recorded that I can’t wait to share with you). We’re also going to produce more regular bonus content to go along with the podcast — things like videos and comics.

All of this will be housed at the (currently under construction) dirtywhitebelt.com. We hope to launch the website on Jan. 1, to start next year. And we had so much fun at the ConcussionCast Carnival last year, we hope to do another live event in 2017!

In the meantime, we’re going to slowly transition everything under the Dirty White Belt label. We’re also going to be able to sell advertising, so … if you’re a jiujitsu brand that wants to reach a passionate, smart and good-looking audience, boy do we have that. (Thumbs up, cheap pop).

What does this mean for you, the listener and supporter? Not much, I don’t think. Now begins the process of transitioning to the new name on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, and our various social media channels. If you already subscribe to us in one or more of those places, you shouldn’t need to do anything else — and if you don’t subscribe already, please do. And be aware that when you see something from “Dirty White Belt,” that’s us.

Our goals remain the same: to shine a light on all the fantastic things happening in our local scene, and to talk to the great people making them happen; to bring you the best possible interviews with both local folks and legends of the fighting arts; and to spread the word about jiujitsu to everyone who needs to hear it. And everyone needs to hear it.

Thanks for listening, and for hanging with us through this exciting transition!

15 Quotes From Moby Dick That Are Actually About Jiujitsu

I first read Moby Dick at a young age, too many years ago to admit. I first realized that the book is actually about jiu-jitsu just this week.

Herman Melville’s opus chronicles a titanic struggle between an otherworldly whale and his human arch-nemesis. Although ultimately the whale teaches Ahab to laugh and love again through the healing power of sea chanties — sorry for the spoilers — the novel is really about obsession.

The most powerful passages from what is, to me, the most American of novels, hit on these themes: there is power in passion and commitment, but also danger; the beautiful corners of life can also be terrible, and that terror has substantial interplay with the beauty; and finally, we’re drawn as human beings to perilous pursuits, but there is peril in ignorance and comfort as well.

Moby Dick is about a subculture of diverse, intrepid people who share an extreme life experience that only a small fraction of human beings ever will. Their journeys take them spectacular places, far out of each individual’s comfort zone, and are marked by the knowledge that nothing really serves as a substitute. Like I said: it’s about jiu-jitsu.

If this makes sense to you, you’re probably a nerd. If this really makes sense to you, you’re a nerd who trains. Either way, you’re in the right place.

I could’ve easily picked the top 100 passages from Moby Dick that speak to the jiujitsu lifestyle. Upon the advice of my attorney and life coach (a 10-year-old hound dog named Penny), I’ve whittled it down to 15. Here goes:

 

1. “…the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open…”

The narrator of Moby Dick, who goes by the name Ishmael, speaks with awe and wonder of being at sea, using this phrase to describe his perception.

Remember the first time you hit a move cleanly on someone who was trying with all their might to stop you? Or: remember the moment when you first chained two or three moves together? For me, executing my first scissor sweep was like watching an angel came down from heaven and play the entirety of Led Zeppelin IV.

When you’re in the flow, the whole glorious world of possibility opens. This is what it’s like when Ishmael goes to sea, or when many of us hit the mats. We open the great floodgates of the wonder-world.

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Learning shin on shin guard from Michelle Nicolini opens a lot of doors.

 

2. “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

The most rhetorically powerful speech of the book is also its most direct reference to grappling. These climactic epithets Ahab shrieks at Moby Dick always fire me up — and make me think of those gnarly death rolls in the final round of a tournament.

Ahab could really cut a promo, even on a marine mammal. I think more people would love Moby Dick if they produced a version that included just his venomous speeches. I mean, just read that passage again: it’s as if the Spartans at Thermopylae had a speechwriter that wrote for an academic version of Ric Flair. If they boiled down Moby Dick to these speeches, it’d be like Thomas Jefferson’s version of the Bible: lean and mean.

 

3. “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

The cannibal moral center of the novel, Queequeg, is a native of Rokovoko, “an island far away to the West and South.” But you can’t find it. Because it’s not on the map.

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Speaking of jiujitsu is a journey is common — because it is. Your instructor might show you a move, or teach you a concept. It’s up to you to perfect that move for you, or internalize that concept. That takes time, and effort, and commitment.

It also takes faith. If your instructor could tell you “do these three things, and you’ll be an expert at guard passing,” it would make life a lot simpler. But no honest instructor would do that. You’ve got to pursue that yourself, trusting that walking the path the right way will ultimately lead you to the destination.

Jiujitsu is the truth. That’s why there’s no roadmap.

 

4. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

This is Ishmael describing in vivid detail how turbulent his life would get between trips to sea. In the book, the sea provided a release valve for all that pent-up aggression.

One of my friends used to get into a lot of street fights. He’s trained in several martial arts, fought, competed, and generally run the gamut of training options. Once he told me that jiujitsu in the gi is the only art that ever made him a better person.

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Don’t walk around knocking hats off of people, or beloved mascots: train.

We all know people who can only simmer down their blood by training. If you’re reading this, you can probably name a dozen people who are sanest and calmest immediately after class.

Maybe you’re one of those people. I am.

 

5. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

Sometimes in class, you’re a step late to every move. Sometimes the people you usually submit get away, the people you usually dominate positionally give you hell, and the people who usually whoop up on you lay the smack down even worse than normal.

Sometimes a meme of you getting choked ends up everywhere on the Internet. Life is funny!

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6. “I try all things, I achieve what I can.”

One of many “words to live by” lines in the book comes from the maybe-unreliable narrator, Ishmael. When he tries to describe the whale, he confesses it’s not his area of expertise, but he’ll give it a shot.

You have to do this in jiujitsu: you might know you can’t pass your instructor’s guard, but try. Fail. Fail again. Fail better. Try everything. Achieve what you can.

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Sometimes, you can win the worlds. But on your way to achieving one thing, don’t forget to keep trying all things.

 

7. “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

Ishmael says this after he’s been staring into a fire, reaching a near hypnotic state.

The reality is this: sometimes, you should feel bad. Ego isn’t always the enemy, and disappointment is a natural fact of jiujitsu life. There is always someone better than you, and sometimes you have a tough day of competition or a night where everything you try gets shut down.

I’m not going to tell you not to feel bad when this happens. Disappointment is the source of strong motivation. There is wisdom in the woe that comes from a bad result.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael acknowledges that people with strong will — those with souls “in the mountains” — can profit from woe and gloom. This is the way we transcend the ordinary. Don’t let it drive you crazy, though, lest you end up on a boat with some nutjob, or in an emo band.

 

8. “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.

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Azure = killer blue belts.

 

Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.”

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When you walk into a jiu-jitsu gym, you might think you know who the baddest people are just by looking at them. You’re often wrong.

Like the sea under the surface, jiu-jitsu is subtle, and the deadly creatures come in all shapes, sizes, genders and ages. Like the sharks in Moby Dick, the mat animals are treacherously hidden until it’s too late to avoid them.


9. “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

This is how Ishmael feels about bigotry: that lack of exposure to cultures like Queequegs leads people to make unfounded assumptions, resulting in anxiety — which perpetuates the lack of awareness that leads to fear in the first place.

This is how I feel about leglocks.

 

10. “Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me, and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.

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Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally, as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

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Who doesn’t love a good head squeeze? We squeeze each other’s heads with our arms, we squeeze each other’s necks with our legs. Then, like the sailors on the Pequod, we squeeze hands afterward in a gesture of friendship and comity.

… and in that passage, Ishmael is talking about whalers breaking up the lumpy spermaceti that is found in the whale’s head and sold. What did you think he was talking about?

11. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

Life is a struggle between hardness and softness. You don’t want to be completely hard, because it stops you from enjoying existence. You don’t want to be completely soft, because you’re unprepared for what life throws at you.

Jiujitsu is fun. Jiujitsu is hard. Hard training necessitates discomfort, which prepares you for other forms of discomfort.

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You’ll never stop being uncomfortable. You will learn to embrace the discomfort.

 

12. “For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught.”

The week Grandmaster Helio Gracie died, he was working on a new choke. Think about that. He’d constructed this art over his whole long life — and was still working on innovations at the end of it.

You’re never done doing jiujitsu. Ever. The power of the art is that you’ll never finish. There is — like the open sea — always more to explore.

This is the source of the blog’s name, too: training jiujitsu means you never stop learning.

 

13. “I am past scorching; not easily can’st thou scorch a scar.”

Stuff like this happens to you in jiujitsu. Are you really going to be scared of a conversation with your boss after this?

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14. “All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.”

Ahab’s admission of his own lunacy rings true for me. I think meticulously and constantly about the best practices for improving at jiujitsu. I review scientific research about nutrition, body and brain health, and the process by which we learn complex tasks.

I do this so I can take part in things that strike the people who don’t train as, well, nuts.

Once, during a hard session preparing for a friend’s fight, we had five upper belts and one white belt taking part. It was summer in North Carolina and the temperature had cracked 100 degrees with the type of humidity associated with a steam room. The sweat was flowing like water and the action was non-stop. The wet air made it tough to breathe.

The white belt was young and in good shape: at least as good as any of us, and maybe better. But he was struggling, and after each drill or sparring round he’d look around at each of us in disbelief. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for — I was using all my mental resources to follow instructions and not fall apart, in that order — until about 20 minutes into the training.

He walked to the door, and opened it, letting in a fresh burst of air. Then he walked outside and shouted back at us:

“You guys are crazy!” It was clear he was leaving.

Without looking up, all five of us instinctually replied: “See ya.”

We kept training. He shook his head in disbelief and I don’t think I’ve seen him since.

If you want to improve, these are the things you do. It’s the correct means to a mad end. Here’s the thing: no one who doesn’t train has to understand.

15. “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”

This one is better left out of context. It’s just a good rule to live your life by.

We have no idea what our futures include. If they include jiujitsu and laughter, I think we’ll all be all right.

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Basics of Grip Fighting on the Ground

You’d think grip fighting would rank at the top of the “grappling fundamentals” list. When you grapple with someone, you have to grab them, and if they’re wearing clothes, those clothes are an ideal target for said grabbing.

Yet when I started jiu-jitsu, I remember my knowledge of grips lagging behind. I don’t want this to happen to you, and so although I’m hardly an expert on grip fighting, I’m going to list some of the principles I wish I’d known all along.

Because grip-fighting is its own universe, we have to narrow it down: this post will focus on grip strategy for when you’re on your back in guard, although a lot of the principles apply everywhere else in a fight or grappling match. Let’s talk about two crucial overarching principles first.

Control Inside Space: We’re more powerful when our arms are pulled in close to our bodies. This makes it easier to push and pull an opponent, harder for them to push and pull us, and creates a barrier to them striking us. This is why pummeling is so important in nogi situations and MMA — and the principle holds true when wearing the gi as well.

For a simple example, from your closed guard, try grabbing the outside of your opponent’s sleeves. Not only would your opponent be able to punch you pretty easily, you’re less able to control their arm movements. Now, pummel inside and put your hands on their biceps. The situation changes. I’m not suggesting the hand-on-bicep play as a preferred position: just trying to illustrate that if your opponent’s grip-fighting has allowed them to successfully control inside space, you need to address that.

Deny Their Grips First: An ounce of prevention is worth a 16 ounce can of whoop ass. I think Confucius said that, or Stone Cold Steve Austin. Whichever. If your opponent can’t effectively grab you, they can’t effectively grapple you.

Judo players are some of the best at this. I’ve watched Olympian and world champion Jimmy Pedro’s Grip Like a World Champion DVD several times, and I still feel like an high school student auditing a Ph.D class when I do. Pedro illustrates both of these principles in this short spot:

This second principle might seem self-explanatory, but its importance can’t be overstated. If they don’t get the grips they want, their game never gets going. As Jimmy Pedro says in the video, the more skilled person is always going to win given equal mastery of grips. But if you get into a situation where your grip is much more advantageous, you can win exchanges with opponents who are more skilled than you are. That’s powerful.

If we initiate our ideal grips, we can do double-duty: if I control the sleeve well, getting a deep grip and putting my knuckles on the back of my partner’s wrist, I can both get good control and prevent my partner from re-gripping.

Now let’s get into what grips you want. The attacks you prefer inform the grips you want, and vice versa. Let’s talk first about what we can do with grips when we’re in the guard.

Note: there are endless possibilities (and you’re welcome to share your favorites in the comments), but these are some solid fundamental grip options to begin playing with.

When We’re In Closed Guard, or They Pass From the Knees

Collar and sleeve: We reach for the cross-collar grip (deeper the better) with one hand. For example, my right hand would reach deep in my opponent’s right-side lapel. Then, my free (left) hand grips my partner’s same/mirror side, in this case his right hand.

This allows us some control of our opponent’s posture, since we can use the collar grip to prevent them from posturing up, and accesses powerful fundamental attacks like the cross-collar choke and the scissor sweep. Because we have control of one sleeve, our opponent can’t post that way, and so if we off-balance them in that direction, they risk losing top position.

Cross-grip on the sleeve: This powerful grip is the counter-point to the mirror grip. If I can grab my opponent’s right sleeve with my right hand, for example, I can turn that opponent’s body at angle that allows me to expose their back. If we get a good grip here, we can put constant pressure of a back attack on our opponent — which also sets up fundamental sweep options like the pendulum sweep, taking us to mount instead of the back.

I will often set up the cross-grip off of a grip break. Check out the Vicente Junior video  below for good grip break tips.

When They Stand To Pass Our Open Guard

If they’ve opened our guard and stood up, they have more mobility — but they also have a less stable base.

The answer to problems in jiujitsu is usually “move your hips,” so don’t think getting grips alone is going to save you here: you’ve got to engage your legs and hips and move. But a couple of basic grip configurations will help you get started.

Personally, I don’t do a lot of grabbing the collar when my opponent stands. Lots of people who are better than me do this, though, so don’t think it’s wrong if you wind up liking it! I just find that the collar grip is easier to break when people are standing, so since I have weak grips, I am more likely to grab a grip that’s tougher to break — like the belt. We’re not going to talk about belt grips here, but I use that as an example.

Two options that are good to start with, and also serve as jumping-off points for the more advanced open guards:

Sleeve and the heel/cuff of one pant leg: If I get a sleeve — mirror side or cross-side — this sets up fundamental attacks like my favorite sweep, the tripod sweep. I like to grab the heel of one leg, because it diminishes their mobility, and also because it allows me to play De La Riva guard. Even if you don’t do De La Riva guard, though, controlling their leg and stepping on their hip diminishes their mobility and allows you some control/attack options.

Double sleeve grips: Michael Langhi is magic with these. I like controlling sleeves because when we control sleeves, we control posts — where our partner can place their hands. If they can’t post a hand, there’s a good chance we can roll them over that direction and get on top.

Just like sleeve/heel grips are good entry points to De La Riva guard, the double sleeve grips are solid entries to the world of spider guard. When we have the sleeves, it’s a short jump to step on biceps.

Troubleshooting

But what if they get their grips before we get the chance to get ours? If they do get the grips they want, you can break their grips, of course. The great Vicente Junior, along with his black belt Lance Trippett, show some good drills for doing that:

Another option can be to re-grip, which Jason Scully shows from the top guard position here:

The more I learn about grips, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Grip fighting is a vast thing, and you won’t ever learn all you need to understand.

This post is intended to provide a framework for you to explore and to go down whatever rabbit hole of grip resources you choose — like any of the videos linked here. Check out this Reddit thread for more tips.