The Game of Small Man Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

By on September 12, 2012

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In the past 2 weeks I’ve had about as much correspondence as I could ever ask for when it comes to WHY the Lightweight BJJ game is different. Many of my readers and customers from around the world are in their 40′s and have to deal with much larger / more athletic training partners, and I have many other readers who are smaller and weaker themselves, and are looking build a strategy and a game around the assets they have (which is NOT in being a meat-head).

Recently I had the good fortune of interviewing Joe Capizzi, one of the original little guys on the Jiu Jitsu circuit under Renzo Gracie. We caught up about the early days of grappling competitions (when 160 pounds was the lowest weight class, haha!), and the “lawless” kind of brutality that once was allowed on the mats in those days.

The major topic of conversation, however, was the unique dynamics of the “little guy BJJ” game. For guys like Joe and myself who graduated high school at 115lbs (I was 111lbs, I think), the game is significantly different than it is for people who walked around at 160. The trends in positions, techniques, and movement are – in fact – so different that it deserves some explaining (which I can luckily do even better thanks to insights from Joe himself)!

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What is the “Small Man BJJ” Dynamic?

The trends and tendencies that separate high-level, small-man BJJ from the middle or heavy weights are the following:

• Sweeps are much more likely than passes (in one of my statistical analyses, 8 times as likely)

• When passes do occur, they are more likely to be to top turtle or the back mount

• Side control, mount, and even knee-on-belly are relatively rare occurrences, and occur much less often than in heavier weight classes

• The closed guard and back mount are the only “consolidated” positions, where movement generally becomes more limited

There are other differences, but most of them likely stem from the dynamics listed above. The question begging to be asked is “Why?.. ” Today – like never before – I’m going to go into detail as to why the lightweight game MUST play out differently, and in the process hopefully explain not only the “why,” but look at the insights that all grapplers can learn from this difference in dynamics.

The Clash of Technical Strengths

Little guys might get the short end of the stick (no pun intended) when it comes to injuries and getting beat up by bigger guys, but on the other hand, this reality distinctly impacts their games and develops subsequent strengths from it.

Almost every high-level smaller grappler has an excellent guard as a stand-out part of their game. Why? Because they’ve been shoved to bottom positions constantly, and forced to pull guard on larger opponents the majority of the time. They get bumped off of mount, thrown off of side mount, and tossed off of knee-on-belly (especially during their earlier years in BJJ). Hence, little guys need to develop an excellent guard early. This could mean closed guard, it could mean butterfly guard, it could mean half guard – but no matter what they are literally forced to develop some kind of strong bottom game because they end up there so often.

Dan Faggella training with Marcelo!

Dan Faggella training with Marcelo!

Also, most expert small-guy grapplers also develop excellent escapes from inferior positions (particularly side control and mount) because they end up there so often. The get their legs squashed and guards passed, and they are forced to spend a lot of their time in these positions – and so they get very good at escaping them.

The last general trend that I’ll touch on is the little man’s propensity towards the back mount. Why? Well, when they can’t hold opponents flat in side control and other dominant positions, it often opens up opportunities for back takes. Not to mention, holding back mount doesn’t require as much weight or strength as side control and other positions. It also requires much less strength to finish a rear naked choke or gi choke – generally – than a kimura or keylock – especially on someone much larger.

So what does this add up to? It builds little guys to naturally excel in guard, be great at escapes, and have killer back attacks (generally). Also, most little guys don’t get to spent a ton of time in top side control or mount (at least not against very skilled opponents and training partners), and so those often don’t become their best positions. Most bigger guys in a BJJ academy (lets say 185lbs) spend less time on their backs, generally, and more time in top side control and mount – and so their skill development gets molded by the situations they are in most often, too.

When two high level little guys roll, this contributes to the dynamic you see. A lot of guard pulling (or double guard pulling, which is cool to watch), a lot of sweeping, and closed guard / back mount usually being the only place when action slows down and anything close to a “consolidated position” comes into the picture. Joe calls these matches “insect wars,” because they look like two bugs flailing their limbs and tumbling about.

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As you can see from this video, I myself like to pull guard quite often.

The Reality of Physical Strength

Here’s the cut-and-dry truth: smaller people are generally pound-for-pound stronger than larger people. Its not an anomaly, its the way things generally are all the time. Don’t believe me? Lets get right back into the research:

In the Olympic lift known as the “snatch,” athletes of all sizes aim to lift a bar off the ground and overhead, dropping into an overhead squat and coming up to a standing position before dropping the weight. Lets look at how much weight people of different weight classes can lift (this data pulled from www.wikipedia.com, in their article on Olympic lifting world records):

  • Athlete: 120lbs, Lift: 300lbs (Ratio: 2.5 times body weight)
  • Athlete: 140lbs, Lift: 340lbs (Ratio: 2.43 times body weight)
  • Athlete: 150lbs, Lift: 360lbs (Ratio: 2.4 times body weight)
  • Athlete: 170lbs, Lift: 380lbs (Ratio: 2.24 times body weight)
  • Athlete: 190lbs, Lift: 410lbs (Ratio: 2.16 times body weight)
  • Athlete: 210lbs, Lift: 410lbs (Ratio: 1.95 times body weight)
  • Athlete: 230lbs, Lift: 440lbs (Ratio: 1.91 times body weight)

Anybody notice a trend? As the athlete weights go higher, the pound-for-pound amount that they can snatch goes… down. Some people might argue that the snatch is suited for smaller guys because it involves speed – and maybe this provides an unfair advantage. Lets instead look at a pure power lift… something simple and one-dimensional, the squat (statistics taken from www.powerliftingwatch.com/records/raw/world):

  • Athlete: 123lbs, Lift: 639lbs (Ratio: 5.20 times body weight)
  • (Need I mention all the middle categories? The tend is identical with the snatch)
  • Athlete: 308lbs, Lift: 992lbs (Ratio: 3.22 times body weight)

Okay, okay, what about the bench press, surely the big guys have to do just as well in that

  • Athlete: 123lbs, Lift: 392lbs (Ratio: 3.18 times body weight)
  • (Same trend…)
  • Athlete: 308lbs, Lift: 701lbs (Ratio: 2.28 times body weight)

So now we see the trend, but what does this mean when it is “translated” to the world of grappling? Well, first of all it makes settling into dominant top positions (like side mount, mount, and knee-on-belly) that much harder, because the little-guy grappler on bottom can create greater pound-for-pound force to create space from the guy on top – both by pushing himself away and pushing the opponent. This greater generation of force in a smaller area makes it exceptionally tough to get the chest-on-chest snugness that might be more common at other weights.

Small Man BJJ Physics

As you can probably imagine, these 2 dogs are probably much different as far as agility and/or power goes.

Joe Capizzi brought up one of the most amazing points I’ve ever heard when it comes to small-man Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When Joe decided to get into BJJ full time, he began learning about nutrition, fitness, and… physics! He explained to me that physics plays out differently in the “small” world than in a “big” one. A fly, for example, can zip around in all directions and travel quickly through the air. If you were to take that same fly and make him 100 times larger (a frightening thought indeed), he would – unfortunately – not be able to move even remotely the same way as he did when he was smaller. In fact, he might not be able to fly at all.

Check out this research from www.physicsbuzz.com, based on research at Cornell University on the flight of insects:

“Birds and airplanes use lift – the pressure difference between the top and bottom of a wing – to   fly through the air. Most animals going through water, though, use the force of drag to propel themselves along: they reach out and push the water behind them. To small animals, like tiny flying insects, the air that makes up Earth’s atmosphere can feel thick    and heavy like water feels to humans. They need more of a push than lift alone to move through the thick atmosphere.”

And the examples go on and on. Think about an eye dropper (you know, those little glass pipettes with the squeezy end on one side to let out individual water droplets). If you took an eye dropper and made it 100 times larger, do you think you could have it release individual water droplets 100 times the size of “regular” water droplets? Of course not, the behavior of water molecules and the laws of physics (in this case, “surface tension”) dictate that droplets can only be so large. A gigantic eye dropper wouldn’t hold water at all – as soon as it was pointed downward all of the water would simply dump out (unlike with a small eye dropper where the water wouldn’t lever the small glass chamber).

Okay, okay we’re getting a little big nerdy here – I’ll bring us back down to earth. The essential point that I’m aiming to drive home is that physics is different at a smaller or larger scale. A rooster weight grappler might not be 100 times smaller than a heavyweight, but he may be half the size of the heavyweight, making his world of movement potential significantly different (a fly and eye dropper would also have noticeable differences if they were enlarged by only two times).

Conclusion and Take-Home Points

 In conclusion, the dynamics of lightweight grappling will never be the same as the dynamics of heavyweight grappling. Because of the factors listed above (and the empirical evidence from real grappling matches), it would be illogical for a 130-pound competitor to decide upon playing Roger Gracie’s game. It doesn’t “click” with the smaller reality. Failing to recognize this is turning your back to a ton of facts (and great statistical / empirical evidence) of their being a “smaller man game” (implying a different pace, different frequencies of specific positions and techniques, etc…).

I write a ton about this topic on my main blogs (ScienceofSkill.com and MicroBJJ.com), but a lot of the core ideas were laid out here – with help of the insight of Mr. Capizzi.

Of course its not like Jiu Jitsu is a different sport for the smaller guys, but the game is certainly played differently – especially at the high level – and its important to know if you’re trying to improve and do what’s going to work!

-Daniel Faggella

PS: If you haven’t checked out the Free “Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall” Course, it’s essentially a collaboration of the best technical and strategic advice that I’ve ever gotten from BJJ world champions, in addition to my favorite techniques for sweeping, submitting, and passing, and escaping bigger opponents. Check it out here: www.MicroBJJ.com/David

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About Daniel Faggella

I'm 130 pounds, absolute medalist, Brown Belt No Gi Pan Am champion, and total fanatic about lightweight BJJ technique and strategy. I've written for Jiu Jitsu Magazine, Jiu Jitsu Style, MMA Sports Mag, and others.
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