New School vs Old School: An Objective Analysis

by John Lawrence
Hurricane Jiu Jitsu, Cleveland OH - BJJ classes for adults and kids


About once a week, I get an email from a potential student asking something along the lines of "do you teach sport jiu jitsu, or do you emphasize a style based on self defense?" Before answering that question for the readers of this blog, I would like to admit that I'm pretty bummed out that this question needs to exist in the first place. For those who are new to the sport, you should know that over the past decade, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has been divided into two ideological camps: New School (NS), and Old School (OS). The dichotomy that has been created challenges the way that we label BJJ. Is it a martial art? Is it a sport? Can it be both? Before getting into deeper discussion, let's do a better job of defining these two ideologies:

WHAT IS OLD SCHOOL?
  • a style that puts heavy emphasis on striking awareness & self defense
  • a style that requires only a moderate amount of athleticism and flexibility to perform
  • a style that is centered around a small, core group of fundamental movements

When BJJ was in its early stages of development on the streets of Brazil, there were no tournaments. The Gracie family would publish ads in the local paper challenging any and all comers to walk into their academy and, for lack of a better description, have a street fight in the gym. If you'd like a sample, check out this video narrated by Rorion Gracie and his absolutely fantastic mustache: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8jvy8XBsQk. This era is highly romanticized (and rightfully so --- sounds pretty badass!) by the now-ageing generations of BJJ black belts.

WHAT IS NEW SCHOOL?
  • a style that conforms to the ruleset of the IBJJF
  • a style that emphasizes highly technical open guard positions and transitions
  • a style that requires a higher degree of flexibility and athleticism to perform

Enter the modern era. The International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) holds tournaments every single weekend all across the world. Every relevant mixed martial artist holds at least a brown belt in BJJ. YouTube is rich to the point of pollution with BJJ content. The popularity of the sport drastically increases competitiveness. Iron sharpens iron. The level of pure Brazilian jiu jitsu has never been higher.

Problems With Old School

I would like to start my criticism of the old school ideology with a disclaimer. I hold self defense and striking awareness in very high esteem. I believe this technical knowledge to be incredibly important at all levels of BJJ. While I hold these values in high regard, I see the following issues sometimes attaching themselves to the old school (OS) camp:

1. Old school practitioners are often dismissive of new school practitioners. I have been on the mats to witness high level NS athletes get the better of their OS counterparts. I have also been unfortunate enough to witness the OS guys take a very 'sour grapes' position on the aptitude of their NS training partner. "Yeah he's good on the mats, but he probably doesn't know how to block punches from the closed guard" or "he couldn't teach you the first thing about headlock defense" and sometimes "he's doing great now, but he can't maintain that athletic style forever."

Do me a favor. Go put Joao Miyao in a headlock and let me know how it goes.

Diminishing the effectiveness of NS BJJ in lieu of celebrating its technical beauty and mat effectiveness is silly. Framing a humbling round of sparring in this manner is a self-defeating copout, and is never how any setback should be handled. The OS guy in the paragraph above actually makes some valid points, but they are wrapped in a blanket of envy.

2. The old school style has grandfathered in some relatively inefficient techniques. The OS camp has an understandable love of BJJ history and tradition. Having tradition is roughly defined as 'doing something because those who came before you did as well.' In many ways, tradition has a way of maintaining fundamentals and keeping people grounded. it is also the antithesis of innovation. 

Let's take for example, the ippon seoi throw, a staple of almost every fundamentals curriculum I've ever seen. Let's go ahead and state what everyone is thinking, but nobody is saying. This throw works really well...if you've done 100,000 repetitions, have a natural aptitude for the throw, and you are under 6' tall. Otherwise, I don't understand what business this throw has in any fundamentals curriculum. It is incredibly technical and takes razor sharp timing to hit, in addition to the prerequisites already stated above. By definition, it is an inefficient technique.

Before you scorch this blog post, answer the following question: I give you a brand new student. They have a street fight/MMA fight/BJJ tournament in one hour. They have the choice to practice either the double leg takedown, or the ippon seoi during that time. As that person's coach, which one do you teach them? What is the more effective choice?


Problems With New School

You're pretty deep into my post at this point. Are you already convinced that I'm a New School BJJ coach? Not so. Read on! Because new school BJJ places heavy emphasis on pure grappling (no strikes), the practitioner is free to explore new and wondrous positions. Inversions, berimbolos, 50/50, and the like. This is changing what the tournament and classroom landscapes look like when it comes to sparring. New School BJJ is starting to branch off of the 'martial art tree' into a pure sport style:

1. Because new school heavily emphasizes guard play, takedowns are falling by the wayside. I love takedowns. There's no more exciting or effective way to begin a match. Or a fight. Remember fighting? This is why many of us started practicing BJJ. We were MMA fans, or were looking to become more prepared in terms of street defense. Many modern BJJ matches resemble some strange ground dancing rather than a fight, and I have a real problem with that. People simultaneously sit and leg-wrestle rather than vying for effective position through a takedown. This is damaging to BJJ athletes looking to transition into mixed martial arts, and also detrimental to those who are looking to become effective in the street. THIS (click it!) is not an effective strategy.

2. Getting used to new school techniques presents dangers for street and self defense. Let's assume that the NS practitioner gets into a self defense altercation, and is able to effectively guard-pull their way to the ground. What kind of half guard does he begin to work? That depends. What kind of half guard does he practice every day? A good fundamental half guard with their head protected, a deep underhook and a game plan to take their attackers back? Or does their body go where it is conditioned to go...deep half guard? In the street, this guard has a different name. It is called 'hammerfist my face into pulp' guard. Let's assume that the NS practitioner instead drops into reverse DLR guard, better known on the street as 'I don't understand distance management, please break my jaw' guard. You always play how you practice. In this instance, you'll fight how you train.

3. New School is not a style that can be practiced into old(er) age. I'm 32 now, and BJJ has turned me into a guy who thinks several moves ahead. So I'm already thinking about BJJ at 42, 52, 62, and so on. Developing an OS game that is centered around simple, core fundamental movements will serve me well as I age. Is it possible for a NS practitioner to make this transition as they age? Of course it is. But they will need to re-engineer their game, and shore up their foundation. Teaching an old dog new tricks. Or a new dog old tricks. You get the idea.

RESOLVING OLD SCHOOL vs NEW SCHOOL: People love dichotomies. They love to pick a team and push all of their chips onto one side. How does a good BJJ coach decide which style to teach? Despite the old saying, you really can have it all! Simple, core techniques and self defense are essential to my fundamentals curriculum at Hurricane Jiu Jitsu. At regular and advanced BJJ classes, I teach sport BJJ and points, while highlighting what each position means in a street situation. Every couple of months, an entire week is dedicated to fundamentals and self defense. Next week (8/3/15) is dedicated entirely to dealing with the addition of strikes.

If you'd like to try a class at Hurricane Jiu Jitsu, email me at john@hurricanejj.com, or visit www.hurricanejj.com for more info. See you on the mats!