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Picture: Flavio Scorsato

"Whether the primary focus of your BJJ is fighting or sport, you are still preparing to use techniques and implement strategies vs a resisting opponent"

About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.

Old school vs New school has become a very  common theme in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world over the past few years. When the new generation of BJJers labels an idea or practice as “old school”, it generally indicates that it is now looked down upon and archaic. I believe that this over-simplification is essentially throwing the baby out with the bath-water in many cases and a more productive practice would be to take some of the Old school ideas that are some of the foundations of the sport we all love and look at them using new-school sensibilities.  To that end, let’s take a look at some ideas through some modern-day lenses!

Teams & Loyalty:

Much like the world around it, the sport has evolved and changed.  What used to be a concentrated base of real expertise (in Brazil) is now dispersed across the world. This growth has been one of the many factors leading to the natural formation of new teams and independent gyms. There are now legitimate BJJ black belts and world-class athletes in many countries and, as BJJ is a part of life and not visa-versa, these leaders have been impacted by the cultures they live in.  That has led to new ideas and diversity in terms of hierarchy and leadership styles at these gyms and on these teams.

Think about the fact that teams like Atos, Checkmat, Zenith and Brasa all essentially sprang from Alliance.  All these teams have been major contributors to BJJ in recent years yet, while they have the same “parent”, have their distinct personalities and styles both on and off the mat. One of the incredible things about BJJ is that all these teams are impacting thousands of lives by sharing the BJJ lifestyle.

Twenty years ago, the term “creonte” (essentially meaning traitor) would have been thrown around and relationships between all these teams would be strained.  Today, most recognise that sometimes growth requires change and good relationships can be maintained. Case in point, Leo Vieira, co-leader of Checkmat, was recently honoured to have his old coach and head of Alliance, Jacare, award him a degree on his black belt at a major tournament this past year. Both men are well-known for their “team pride” but this cross-team interaction showed that you do not have to think everyone else is the enemy in order to love your team… a new school application of an old-school value.

Even though BJJ is an individual sport, teams have always played a huge role in its history. From the new student proudly wearing their gym’s shirt to the world champion parading the team patch after victory, practitioners and athletes strongly identify with the concepts of belonging to and representing their team and of their BJJ lineage. Traditionally, that has been a one-way relationship with coaching, knowledge and direction flowing down from the instructors and “loyalty” being given in return.  

New school practitioners are challenging that paradigm. Students are evaluating what they are "getting in return" in light of the fact that more BJJ is available and accessible than ever before for most of the world via other academies and technology (online).  I think this is healthy for the students, coaches and the sport… it challenges all involved to be better. I also believe that it inspires leadership that serves and supports in a way that will only help BJJ’s future growth. And, I believe it is NOT exclusively a New school idea as demonstrated by my earlier example of Jacare’s beautiful gesture to his old student. If anything, the new school is simply reminding us all that real leadership seeks what is best for those being led and true loyalty has always gone both directions!

Self-defence vs Sport BJJ

When I started training in the late 1990s, one of the popular things to do when someone asked about the sport was to point them towards the Gracie In Action videos and early UFCs (Ultimate Fighting Championships) which showed BJJers fighting bare-knuckle vs Karate, Wrestling, Boxing, Hapkido and other martial arts. It was fairly common for people to come into Jiu-Jitsu academies for challenge matches and many schools had representatives from blue belt up fighting in local MMA (then called no-holds barred) shows. Fighting was much more a part of the Jiu-Jitsu culture than it is today. Part of the reason was that BJJ was “proving” its worth as a martial art… early Mixed-Martial Arts shows were even advertised as “style vs style”.  Now, everyone who competes in MMA studies Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as part of his or her preparation… BJJ made its point via guys like Royce Gracie in the UFC and successes in No-Holds Barred.

Sport BJJ, as it stands today, is relatively young and is the main focus of  New-school practitioners who compete. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, the only IBJJF (the largest BJJ organisation in the world) tournament in America was the IBJJF Pan American tournament.  Now, there are two to three IBJJF opens a month plus the Pan, the World Championships and Masters Worlds are all in America. That growth has been mirrored in other parts of the world and has had tremendous impact on the sport as those tournaments provide many more opportunities for athletes to compete locally and internationally.   This has helped sport BJJ explode in America and around the world.

As sport BJJ has flourished, academies and athletes have developed techniques and strategies specific to it and not as applicable for self-defence and fighting.  That subject has been tackled from both sides and, most of the time, the focus is on which aspect is better:  self-defence or sport.  Where there is common ground is that both styles of BJJ are rooted in doing what works for a positive result in competitive environments. Whether the primary focus of your BJJ is fighting or sport, you are still preparing to use techniques and implement strategies vs a resisting opponent. 

BJJ for self-defence and BJJ for sport are different in many ways.  But, when we step back and look at how they both use BJJ to solve problems in physical confrontations using technique, leverage and strategy, we see there is a tremendous amount of overlap.  New-school athletes like Leandro Lo, the Miyao brothers and Cobrinha embody the same “fighting spirit” as Old-school BJJ fighters like Royce Gracie and other BJJ pioneers. At their cores, Old and New school BJJ are both combat sports!

Position vs Leg Attacks:

Leg Attacks have gained lots of notoriety recently in our sport and often are a source of conflict between Old and New school BJJers.  In the 1990s, when athletes went for them, they would get whistled and booed.  The predominant view was that they were “lazy” and “cheap” and people only used them as a short-cut because they could not pass the guard. While that slowly started to change and leg attacks became more accepted (the best example being Rodrigo Comprido Medeiros winning the 1999 IBJJF Absolute title and the team title for Alliance with a toe-hold on Gracie Barra’s Roleta), most Old-school practitioners still viewed them as more of an after-thought than something to spend a lot of time on.

New school practitioners, on the other-hand, have embraced leg attacks.  No one represents the rise of leg attacks more than Gordon Ryan (ADCC champion, No-gi World champion, EBI champion) from the Danaher Death Squad/Renzo Gracie.   Not only is he ruthlessly effective with his leg-attacks but his style effectively combines them with the “positional domination” that is typically associated with the Old school.  This is not surprising when you take the time to listen to his coach, John Danaher. It is impossible not to be impressed by Danaher’s commitment and attention to detail in regards to dominating position in order to decimate a limb/joint. Gordon Ryan is just one example… athletes like Saulo and Xande Ribeiro are “Old school” athletes who successfully have competed with modern BJJ athletes showing how complete and effective their style can be. When looked at in this light, the New school is less in conflict with the Old school and more a natural evolution in applying Old school principles more widely!


In today’s world, it is easy to look at things in terms of “us vs them”.  Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is often an escape from that mindset as we come together on the mat from all different backgrounds, ideologies and walks of life. Taking that same approach to the Old school vs New school discussions, as in the examples above, not only applies what so many of us love about BJJ and how it brings us together, it is also a more productive way to move forward.  It takes the best from both sides and applies the lessons in effective ways…which is classic BJJ methodology. See you on the mat!

May 07, 2019 — Jiu Jitsu Style