BJJ and Street Fighting

There is no questioning the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in combat.  For decades the Gracie family competed in no rules Vale Tudo matches around Brazil, facing off against many different styles of martial arts.The Gracie family built a name for itself and their revolutionary new fighting style.

With the debut of the UFC in 1993 the fight game was changed forever, and even the casual fight fan knows that some fundamental knowledge of jiu jitsu is essential to keep you from getting choked inside the octagon.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has grown in leaps and bounds since it hit the stage in the 90’s, and will likely continue to evolve in coming years. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has grown into an international sport, with both gi and no-gi competitions around the world at the elite level.

Inside the ring or octagon Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has shown itself to be absolutely essential, but what about in a street fight?


The average person is unaccustomed to physical confrontation. If you train in jiu jitsu and have ever rolled with someone who strictly does striking arts, or doesn’t train at all, you know the relative ease in which you can get to dominant positions or submissions.

The typical , non-predatory types of street fights usually come about from a blend of Pride, Fear, and Anger; maybe with some booze mixed in.   One advantage of practicing BJJ is that sparring or rolling is required, so initial confrontation will not likely send you into a panic.

Even at the white belt level, with six months of solid experience, trained BJJ practitioners are often able to dominate larger opponents that have no training, the internet will attest to this.

If anyone has ever see the Gracie fight videos, compiled from the Vale Tudo fights and dojo challenges of the early days of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you can get a pretty good idea of what BJJ looks like against someone who is unaware of the techniques.  The fundamentals that you learn in your early classes are usually what you see used in street-fights: the kimura, the rear-naked choke, the triangle , and the classic arm-bar.

Of course, collar chokes are always an option, especially in jacket weather.  Sleeve control and spider guard can usually nullify an attacking opponent if you are on the bottom, but keep in mind that your opponent isn’t trying to pass your guard, he is trying to bust you up.

The knowledge of timing and leverage gained from consistent Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practice, coupled with the muscle memory and drilled responses,  are what can allow a smaller person defeat a larger opponent.

Submissions aside, I think the grappling advantage will allow a BJJ practitioner to advance to a better position to do damage. My first BJJ professor used to always call out “position before submission” during our rolling.

Jiu Jitsu also gives you options in a confrontation, and can allow you to control the escalation of the fight depending on if you are facing a street mugger, or just a drunk uncle on the holidays.

The average person who does not wrestle at all, even though they may be in shape, will be exhausted after a minute or so of wrestling.

If you are simply trying to subdue an aggressive person, you can just smother their energy and ride out the storm in full mount.

It is much harder to de-escalate a situation once punches and kicks have been exchanged, and if there is no one to break the fight up, it will continue until someone gives up, gets knocked out, or the police arrive.

So the BJJ player certainly has some advantages, but there are quite a few variables in a street fight…


Some Pitfalls of the BJJ Player in the Street

Along with the evolution of BJJ into a competitive sport, many rule sets have developed, and many habits have formed to run parallel to these rules. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a very individualized sport, which is what makes it so interesting.

Each practitioner can develop a  widely unique style that focuses on different positions, submissions, and levels of physicality that play out in a strategic fashion.

The patience and strategy that go into an effective BJJ match are sometimes irrelevant when someone is trying to punch your face off.

Out in the world there are elements of your environment that you must consider: fighting on concrete, gravel, in a hallway, in a pile of broken glass, in a pile of ants, and so on. There are also many situational elements to be aware of, and there is no referee or timer.

In an actual street fight, you don’t want to play guard, that should be a last resort.  One of the fundamentals of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is controlling distance; always keep your opponent too close or too far away to strike you. Depending on the situation, you may not even want the fight to go to the ground.


If there are onlookers, or your opponent has friends around, what’s to stop them from soccer kicking you while you lock up that triangle? Does your opponent have a knife in their pocket that they can dig for while you work for the choke?

Many BJJ schools that focus on self defense advocate getting the knee on belly position, which allows you to tax your opponent’s endurance and willpower, as well as do damage with strikes if necessary. Knee on belly also allows you to keep an eye on your surroundings, and assess the situation; if the situation is bad, you can turn and sprint in the other direction.

A major pitfall is to try to slip into training mode when presented with a real threat on the streets.  For those unaccustomed to fighting outside the dojo there may be a surprise seeing the difference between someone aggressively trying to pass your guard, and the primal, animalistic violence of an actual attacker.

You should avoid fighting in the street at all costs, but if you have no choice, you must end the fight quickly and decisively.

If you are fighting for survival anything goes: full force joint locks and breaks, small joint manipulation, eye gouges, knee reaps, etc.

Obviously, if you are engaged in a “sanctioned” streetfight where you both agree that you want to fight, causing permanent damage by breaking a joint could be both morally and legally reprehensible.  You also don’t want to take things too lightly and get damaged yourself.  There’s a balance to be had somewhere in there, I think.

Training for the Street

I’m not suggesting that everyone abandon their Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sport training and prepare for life or death struggles in concrete jungles, but if self defense is a real concern then maybe you can add some spice to your current BJJ training.

Perhaps too often people become accustomed to starting off on the knees in randori training, and maybe forget how to get the fight to the ground in the first place.

The wrestling fundamentals: sprawls, single-leg and double leg takedowns, along with the throws and takedowns from BJJ have to be refreshed from time to time.

The Lower Back Clinch to body fold takedown is a good one for self defense that can land you in mount or side control.

Drills can probably help the most.  Having someone try to punch from inside your guard while you try to sweep or submit is a good exercise.

Our school does a drill where one person puts their hands and feet on the floor, and then spins themselves three times to get dizzy. Their partner stands waiting with boxing gloves on, and attacks their dizzy party until they can secure a takedown.

The fundamentals of defensive movement and blocking are important as well. Drills where you are forced to move in and out of striking range, and defend against strikes until shooting for a takedown or standing submission are also pretty reliable.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to practice a little striking to add to your grappling. In the Gracie in Action tapes, you can see that they used short strikes or slaps to soften up or distract their opponent , allowing them to advance position or go for the submission.

Even simply being aware during randori, taking note of when you could strike and when you are vulnerable to being hit will help to build you self defense capabilities.

Inverted guard works in tournaments, but you may want another tactic when your opponent can stomp your groin or whatnot.

Of course, a little MMA cross training is a good antidote for any worries about self defense. Most Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gyms have some sort of Mixed Martial Arts program these days, in some form or another.

There is no need to abandon the art of Jiu Jitsu to become an MMA fighter, but a little cross training to let you know your areas of vulnerability can only help.

These days a surprising number of people train martial arts, and even the average UFC fan could probably stumble their way out of an armbar.

If you train in any discipline, you know that not everyone at your school looks like a trained fighter, so be careful who you tangle with.  You might not realize you’re outmatched until it’s too late.