Master Class

By now, we all know that jiu-jitsu, the arte suave, is not just a martial art— but an aesthetic art, as well. It’s an expression of creativity, personality, style and ego in a world of danger and opposition. It’s purely confrontational and at the same time uniquely collaborative. I don’t think it should even be called Brazilian jiu-jitsu anymore, as the sport has evolved with such pace, taking in so much from freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, as well as Sambo, that the Brazilian appellation is a misnomer. The nature of grappling has relentlessly expanded, sucking techniques in like a black hole.

The concept of randori was an integral part of the system Jigoro Kano, the father of modern Judo, developed as a counter to the stifling weight of tradition in his jujitsu (with the emphasis on katas). Kano was a leader—his refining the sparring techniques to allow, and to force invention through full-speed practice without serious injury (randori), was a technical innovation that set the stage for the flourishing of Judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and modern MMA. Never in history has unarmed combat been so scientifically studied, practiced and perfected as it is today, on a global scale.

Now Marcelo Garcia, one of the great modern practitioners of jiu-jitsu, is taking on another technical innovation with collaborator Josh Waitzkin. Marcelo has established himself as one of the premier grapplers on the planet, a three-time Mundials and Abu Dhabi champion — and his inventiveness is legend. Josh Waitzkin is an eight-time national chess champion, twice the Push-Hands World Champion, acclaimed author of The Art of Learning and a jiujitsu brown belt. Marcelo and Josh have long been friends, but now they are working together on a new project that they hope will change the way jiu-jitsu is studied.

Josh got the idea from his years of chess study. “In chess, the way databases are computerized now, you can easily study how 20 Grandmasters played the same position you’re in — with the push of a button.” Why not bring that kind of depth to jiu-jitsu study? Josh brings the rigor of intensive study — that chess lives and breathes — to an art that has never been studied in that way.

I remember playing a game of chess with a quiet Russian in a bar, and as he demolished me he sadly said, “Sam, if you want to play chess, you have to read books.” He meant chess books — and to play chess, you have to read books, and study it. The game has evolved in complexity since the 13th century. Any attempt at mastery requires intense study, learning openings and principles, plumbing depths that are bottomless. Why not bring the same discipline to jiu-jitsu?

While Josh and Marcelo are opening the Marcelo Garcia Jiu-Jitsu School in New York, every night there will be a film crew shooting and digitizing Marcelo as a teacher in action — so you’ll be able to watch him teach a technique, and then with a click, watch him perform that technique in a dozen different “live” situations.

“So you’ll see his process as it unfolds,” said Josh.

“As Marcelo teaches a technique — reverse armbar, or taking the back from this position, or x-guard, we’ll classify and label it. And then we’ll be applying those labels into his rolls. So if he’s rolling 25 minutes in a night, we’ll see everything and we’ll see the labels, the transitions, principles and techniques. There will be many places in the video when you watch him do a technique — and then, with a click, you’ll be able to watch him do that in competition. In many different competitions. Against many different opponents, from different angles.”

But the process will also be reversible. So as you’re watching him roll, and you see him pull off some subtle move, or big sweep, you’ll be able to hit a button and watch him teach that technique, step-by-step in the classroom. “So we’ll weave back and forth between the thing in theory and the thing in practice. The real technique, in a competition, is always different than the pure perfect technique that gets taught.” Josh’s plans are ambitious: “It will be psychological, thematic … a huge network you can use on your own. It will personalize itself to you.”

They plan to start this right away, beginning with an in-depth analysis of Marcelo’s preparations for Abu Dhabi. Nothing will be hidden — all secrets will be revealed. When I asked Marcelo about this, he laughed.

“Oh, giving away secrets, I think about this before.” Marcelo has crossed this bridge already — he’s written books of technique, and published a half-dozen instructional DVDs. “The funny thing is, it doesn’t happen that way. I just learn more about my own technique — my understanding deepens, gets better, about my own jiu-jitsu. The same with studying with Josh — he helps me learn more, study more; and I think this website will deepen my own understanding. It will just make me better.”

I was reminded of Randy Couture, talking about how much teaching wrestling had improved his own wrestling. Teaching and analysis forces clarity on everyone involved.

Both Josh and Marcelo are excited about the project. There are plans to expand the database at some point to other fighters, other masters, other body types and styles. The website,, if it lives up to its ambitions, will be an indispensable tool to the serious grappler.

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