Neutral Ground Training Event: Judo For Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competition

by Ryan Atkins

January 2013

The morning had gone well. I had just finished up a group class where we used the Bear Complex as the basis for the workout. My Saturday class is a combination class, which, unlike classes held earlier in the week, has people who are still relatively new to our program working alongside my veteran clients. The Bear Complex ended up being a good choice for a Saturday workout. I pulled the newer people aside while the veterans were still warming up and ran them through the deadlift set-up and execution and then progressed them to the power clean, the first movement of the Bear Complex. This served as a good review for some of the basic movements we covered in the past two weeks of class. I was able to get them through two cycles of the Bear with training bars before the rest of the class was done with their warm-up movements. Using empty bars and, in some cases, training bars we had everyone in the class do a complete cycle (7 times through) of the power clean, front squat, push-press, back squat and push-press movements involved in the complex. This helped to reinforce the mechanics in the newer participants and worked to help all the participants memorize the sequence for the workout to come. Another five minutes later, after building up to their working load for their first cycle, they were off and running. After the workout was done we addressed some potential movement issues that had popped up during the workout, covering some mobility options for thoracic spine, wrists and forearms. Once class ended, I talked with one of my clients briefly about performance issues (which I suspect are a result of her over training, a topic I’ll cover in a future article), I was out the door and looking forward to attending a workshop that my friend, colleague and coach, Perry Wirth of the Grafton Neutral Ground had invited me to.

 The next part of my day did NOT go so well. It was largely a result of me NOT following some of the main tenets of Judo practice, which I will get into in a moment. I had arrived in Grafton with 15 minutes to spare and, since I assumed I was more than on time, proceeded to stop at Alterra and get something in my stomach before the start of the event as I hadn’t eaten yet. Between trying to juggle my phone (using navigation to find the gym), trying to pay attention to the street numbers and taking bites of my Chorizo burrito, I managed to get first chorizo and then, seconds later, egg on my jacket. In the midst of this I had manage to pass the destination, so I was required to circle around and parked around the corner from where I’m pretty estimated where I was supposed to be. I finished off my burrito, pocketed my cell phone and wallet, and yanked my backpack from the front seat, pulling along with it one of my empty coffee mugs, which landed on the street and rolled part way under the car. Despite these difficulties I arrived at the gym just when to the event was about to kick off. I excitedly headed around the corner and found the door to the gym.

 It was deserted. I hadn’t paid enough attention to the Facebook invite Perry had sent to me and failed to notice that the event was taking place at the Milwaukee Neutral Ground location, not the Grafton one. Perry, upon finding out, had sent me a text and told me to show up anyway. I made my way to downtown Milwaukee and found a parking spot close to the gym (and managed to run up over the curb in the process of parking). I arrived in the gym to find the group working on how to properly land after being hip tossed. Later in the workshop, the instructor Grgg Roloff would emphasize three aspects when working to establish grip in contests – recognition, position and posture. The thought occurred to me that, had I applied these same concepts in my personal life between the time my class ended and this workshop began, things might have gone more smoothly and I would have at least appeared to have my shit together.

 Perry had told me about this workshop a couple of weeks beforehand. Judo has a lot to offer Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and mixed martial artists (MMA) practitioners. And Gregg knows Judo. He’s been studying the art since eleven years of age, has almost 40 years of instructing experience and currently holds a 6th degree black belt. He was the head of the Grafton Judo Club before combining efforts with the Neutral Ground gym. Because Judo spends a lot of time emphasizing grip and the stand-up position, anyone spending some dedicated time studying it will have a huge advantage and, unless the opponent you’re facing has a similar background, there’s a certain intimidation factor involved too.

 “Judo isn’t for the timid,” Gregg explains. “Getting thrown to the mat, especially during competition, can hurt!”

When MMA first started coming out, Judo was quick to leave a impression. A couple of examples of how Judo players fair well in the ring immediately jump to my mind. Now maybe you don’t count Remco Pardoel’s quick take down and control of position over Orlando Wiet as impressive. For me though, his use of that position to deliver some extremely powerful elbow strikes that bounced Orlando’s head back and forth between the mat and back up to Remco’s elbow definitely left an impression, both in my memory and potentially in Orlando’s skull. I still distinctly remember the sound. A series of six or seven powerful strikes were thrown, if I recollect, and Orlando was knocked out by elbow number two. The MMA coach who first encouraged me to enter the ring has a fairly impressive win-loss record in MMA and some great boxing, submission and wrestling skills, yet there are two predominately Judo-trained individuals (Karo Parisyan, Adrian Serano) who are responsible for some of the few losses he suffered. Since I haven’t exactly been an avid follower MMA action as of late, it was up to Gregg and Perry to clue me in on the achievements of Rhonda Rossi, a Judo silver medalist in the 2008 Olympics. Since entering the MMA world, Rhonda has won most of her fights within the first minute and, as of this writing, is the only female to have a contract signed with the UFC.

Needless to say, all of the above examples had spent years developing their Judo skills. For many attending this workshop, it was their first exposure to the Judo art. And, for me, I’m not versed in Judo either so I’m going to make the disclaimer here that any misrepresentations or errors in this article are the fault of the author’s potential misinterpretation of things and not that of the coach’s instruction.

Like any good coach, Gregg places a strong emphasis on fundamentals. While I was wandering around the Milwaukee area trying to find the right location, the group had already warmed-up and worked on some falling drills. In Judo, and other grappling sports, learning how to fall is a key element. Practitioners have to learn how to disperse the energy of the fall or throw over as much of the surface area of the body as possible. Anyone who has slipped on ice and had the full force of the fall absorbed on their wrist, knee or elbow will be able to tell you the painful consequences that can otherwise occur! Once some basic drills reinforced these principles, people were hip tossed onto a six inch crash pad to give them a controlled environment to practice the skills they had hopefully picked up.


Footwork drills came next. Students were reminded of the importance of balance and of keeping your own center of gravity over your base of support, keeping in mind that your goal would eventually be to disruption of the same 5qualities in your opponent with the eventual throw being the hopeful goal. Things were simple at first consisting of moving forward and backward in a linear fashion, while maintaining a balanced stance. In short order, the drills shifted to lateral motion and then to patterns (i.e. three shuffles back, three shuffles left, three shuffles right and three more shuffles back). Similar to boxing, Judo players maintain their balance by keeping a slight bend in their knees and hips, which keeps them ready to shift position at a moment’s notice. Most, at least from what I saw, keep one foot slightly in front of the other (although Perry would later inform me that this isn’t always the case). Also, the feet are kept low to the ground during the movement and one works at minimizing giant steps and up and down head movements. By avoiding these movement errors, a person minimizes both not only the physical cues given to your opponent of when and where you’re movement will occur, but also helps to quickly adjust and shift weight in reaction to any movements the opponent makes in attempting to disrupt your own balance.

Outside of footwork, and probably one of the biggest takeaways (at least for a guy with no Judo experience, and 12mostly no-gi* BJJ training time) from the event was a pretty detailed examination of some of the basic grips involved in Judo. Before setting up a partner footwork drill, Gregg coached participants on the set up of one of the basic Judo grips which involved one hand controlling the opponents sleeve and the other firmly entrenched in the lapel of the opponent’s opposite side. By firmly taking up the slack in the sleeve and by circling outside of the opponent’s forearm and pulling downward you make it more difficult for the opponent to reestablish control. This pulling action, combined with a pushing action against the opponent’s lapel area with the other hand goes a good way towards disrupting their balance and towards maintaining your own center of gravity. The combined action of the arms, not to mention good hip positioning reminded me of one of the basic sword strikes in my limited Kendo/Iai-do expereince where a long handle is used to leverage force during a 45 degree downward cut, the left hand pulls while the right hand pushes as the wielder draws the handle of the sword back towards his hip.

Gregg doesn’t look horribly surprised when I ask him about the similarities. He admits to not having experience with any form of Japanese swordsmanship, but is quick to point out that, “Powerful human movement patterns are universal.”

Once he’s satisfied people are comfortable with this grip, he instructs people to partner up for one last movement drill, where both people establish a grip and work on shuffling laterally down the mat. Once they reach half way, they are instructed to pivot 180 degrees while moving in the same direction. This way, each person gets a chance to be in control of the movement (the person with the lapel grip opposite the direction of movement is in control – he uses it to drive the opponent towards the arm that is holding the sleeve.).

Ok, we’ve learned how to fall, how to move and the type of grip we want to get on our opponent. Time for the big throws that Judo is known for, right? Well, just hold your horses. Gregg spent a good deal of time on two techniques that are used to establish the aforementioned grip in the first place. He pauses, for a moment, looks over at Perry and asks him what the three most important aspects of establishing a good grip are. Perry retorts, “Recognition, position and posture!”

In listening to Gregg during the presentation it became clear to me that these concepts are central to not only succeeding with the gripping game in Judo, but everything else as well. For the first trait – recognition, he starts off describing the obvious – is your opponent left or right handed (you want to keep their power hand off of you, if possible)? Are they faster than you are with the hands? But later in the workshop, Gregg alludes to other aspects of recognition that shows just how alert one can be. At competitions, he starts sizing opponents up as soon as he sees them. How are they carrying themselves? Is their uniform clean or dirty and wrinkled? Is their belt tied properly? Any obscure clue can be used to gain insight into the mindset of the opponent.

During the seminar, Gregg divided positioning up into distances and zones. Distances related to the proximity between opponents – your zone of control, no man’s land and your opponent’s zone of control. You might remember how the standard grip described above involved pulling the opponent’s arm outside his zone of control into yours, a contributing factor in the process of disrupting his balance while maintaining your own. In addition to distance, lateral position in relation to your opponent is a huge factor – the use of left, right and central zones are going to determine which attacks a person has at his disposal and which ones he may be vulnerable to.

A lot of the workshop revolved around establishing with and playing with grip. Gregg emphasizes that if you have set 7a good grip you’re attacking, if you haven’t then you’re working on getting the grip. Two basic ways of starting down this road were introduced to the participants – “Kill the sleeve” and “climb the rope.” “Kill the sleeve” involves using one of your hands to effectively slap the opponent’s arm into your other hand, which immediately transitions into a tight grip around the sleeve and then circles the opponent’s arm down towards your hip, his hand to the outside of your own wrist to deter a counter. “Climb the rope involves establishing a grip around the opponent’s lapel, usually around the center of the body and then sliding it up the lapel so the hand is closer to the opponent’s chest, where it can be better used as a power hand to disrupt balance and control the opponent. Other techniques for establishing an advantage in grip were covered during the workshop (over the back, cross over to side) and Gregg advised participants that, with training time, they will eventually find out what techniques work for them/suit their style.

Luke Summerfield, owner of the Grafton Neutral Ground location, built off of Gregg’s explanations and showed how the same principles in the standing position applied to areas where BJJ practitioners were generally more familiar with – 11kneeling and on the ground. Judoka don’t spend too much time there though. They have a 20 second time limit once on the ground. If a submission isn’t achieved, the opponents are set back to the standing position. On the surface, this sounds pretty limiting, especially through the lenses of a MMA fighter. But it’s precisely that specialization that can make smart judoka feared in the MMA world. For many fighters, they will have a very frustrating time off balancing an opponent with a judo background.

Towards the end of the workshop, some basic throws and a leg sweep were introduced. What almost stood out in my mind almost more than the techniques being shown though was Gregg’s discussion of the required mental state for successful competition. He says that the entire match begins with attitude, emphasizing the importance of appearing rock solid to your opponents, even if you’re nervous on the inside. Now he doesn’t advocate going out of your way to intimidate people, but doesn’t want his opponents to catch a hint of hesitation or doubt coming from him either.

If you’re in a tournament, you’re there to WIN! The moment you step on the mat you’re giving a hundred percent. You have to have the mindset of ‘win, lose or draw, I’m taking a piece of you with me!’ I think it’s important for you to greet the opponent with a firm handshake, maybe even pulling him into your zone of control a little bit. Unwavering eye contact is also important. I don’t even really like to bow in the beginning of the match. I don’t want to give my opponent ANYTHING. Now after the match, it’s a different story, regardless of who won or lost.”

It’s this attitude that’s he’s hoping his students will bring to the mat the third week of February of 2013 when they head down to Miami for the USA Judo Scholastic tournament. He’s bringing down quite the troop too. His niece, nephew and two or three other students are all going. His son is competing as well and, if he does well, has a shot at the junior national team. It’s one of the reasons this workshop was being held – to help raise funds to make the trip. Gregg says the Judo club does OK financially, but that a trip of this nature is outside the scope of their normal budget. Those interested in donating to the cause are encouraged to contact Neutral Ground to do so.

*Gi – the Japanese term for the pajama like outfit worn in most traditional martial arts. “No-gi” refers to events where shorts and (possibly) a shirt are worn in lieu of this outfit. Perhaps a more appropriate term would be “Gi ga arimasen” but that’s more than two syllables AND completely in a foreign language. Either factor alone usually exceeds the patience of most Americans….


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