I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s already nothing “pure” about whatever flavor of BJJ you’re training. All any of these bodies of techniques, systems, philosophies etc. are: hybrids, bastardized arts, constantly evolving. They all also assuredly have several points of dubious “authenticity” in their mythic lineages, just as often containing several crucial moments of cross-pollination with other surrounding (or even competing) arts.
So you’re a mutt. Whether you like it or not. And being a mutt is great! Even from a genetic standpoint, if we use animal husbandry as a (terrible) analogy: cross-breeding tends to breed resiliency, whereas focused breeding “programs” usually produce exaggerated features at the expense of all kinds of other deficiencies and disadvantages. Just look at a pug and tell me otherwise; it is designed for maximum ugly-cute effect, not much else.
Back to the direct topic at hand (cross-training), you should 100% do it. If you have a professor or sensei that says you shouldn’t — if you’re an adult — you should probably ignore them. Yes, I said that.
I see the argument of keeping a streamlined and focused set of priorities; learning a defined set of related “fundamentals” before going crazy learning fringe techniques. Valuable, crucial, and understood. I have to tell several white belts a year to try to resist the urge to spend all their time learning rubber guard instead of non-10th Planet fundamentals.
However, at a certain point in your development: please indeed ignore that advice not to cross-train. If you train at a BJJ school, and you have access to practitioners of other arts (wrestling, judo, sambo, sumo, akido, catch, and so on) you should definitely pick their brains. Sometimes the fundamental goals and suppositions of these arts do not match up 100%, but there is almost always a common core of cross-applicable function. And that place of overlap, from different angles, is an extremely fertile space… once you have enough context to know when and how to deviate from your own given set of BJJ fundamentals.
Some of you might be clutching your pearls and holding your breath at this advice. That’s because there is a widespread issue of cult-thinking and related issues in a lot of BJJ gyms in America, probably elsewhere. And in this environment, experienced (but dogmatic) teachers exert an incredible influence, while warning against cross-training. But the history of BJJ itself makes it abundantly clear that the entire art is nothing other than the output of innovative cross-training and bastardization.
Let me start with the obvious: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu already began its life by deviating specifically from its inherited Japanese Jiu-Jitsu (and Judo) assumptions. It took an established system, honed in on it, focused on the ne waza (ground) aspect and self-defense aspect. It then pressure-tested these innovations (and bastardizations), in the milieu of an honor culture where everyone literally fought each other to prove their legitimacy — and whatever else they were trying to prove.
This part usually shocks people: there are times in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s history where playing the closed guard wasn’t much of a thing. At best, it was not a priority, and a bit earlier than that, may have even been scorned. Hard to imagine now, but it’s true; the closed guard was a specialization that eventually came to define the sport, whereas before it’s rise to prevalence, it was considered a hazardous and disadvantageous position; like you were already losing a match if you found yourself there.
Nowadays, its about as difficult to imagine BJJ without a guard (if not specifically a “closed” guard) as it would be difficult to imagine the absence of single-leg takedowns and double-leg takedowns… which, incidentally: BJJ also did not always teach.
Schools generally do include these crucial takedowns as a fundamental now, even though we’ve now seen a plunge into butt-scooting (and schools that seem not to start matches standing, at all). BJJ has a gravity in which its priorities tend to fall closer and closer to the ground, and what happens on that ground. So this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, however regrettable. It’s why the closed guard got its innovation-moment in the first place.
In Japan, parallel to this evolution, a brand of “Kosen Judo” players found many of these same insights, very much counter to the orthodoxy all the way at the top of their already distinctly “new” and “modern” mashup art of Judo. They focused on mat work (ne waza) including guard submissions, and are actually credited as the creators of triangle chokes (sankaku jime) as well knee bars (hiza juji gatame), among other moves we now take for granted as BJJ contributions.
Judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano, certainly included ground techniques in the Kodokan Judo curriculum. Go look through the textbook if you haven’t already; you’ll get a humbling lesson on exactly how much has been borrowed from Judo. However, he found extended ne waza “undignified” and mostly rejected the value of focusing on these ground-innovations, even as the Kosen Judo players absolutely swept tournaments against non-Kosen Judoka. He only reluctantly relented, but certainly never shifted the focus of Judo as a whole to reflect this change of heart.
It bears reminding that this was also the period of time where high-level Judoka were being absolutely dominated by more than one catch-wrestler challenges without the gi, whose groundwork (among other aspects) was superior. Kano borrowed many of the standing techniques, less (but not zero) of the ground techniques, just because Kano was far more interested in the battle on the feet. He never seemed to completely abandon this bias either, despite its evident efficacy.
The other grappling students and athletes seeing these innovations, in very different parts of the world (and at the roughly equivalent times) had a choice: would they stick with their old set of fundamentals, or would they borrow and adapt effective techniques from elsewhere? Would they move in the direction of adopting innovations more widely? Many made the choice to stick to their defined art’s focus, if not all. Even as Kano selectively incorporated (and re-contextualized) many other “ethnic” styles’ techniques into the Judo cannon, many others under his influence showed less willingness to do the same spirit of adaptation, in favor of obeying Kano’s particular adaptions. But not all judoka or jiu-jitsukas followed suit.
These adapters became practitioners of “bastard” arts at that time, which at least opened the doors to more hybridization with other arts. Mitsuyo Maeda, dubiously credited as one of BJJ’s root-lineage founders — was definitely one of these hybrid-fighters. And he was certainly not the only one. Sambo’s creation by Russian judoka — fusing ethnic Eastern European wrestling styles with Kodokan Judo — is only one of the most prominent examples.
Less well-known catch-wrestlers and judoka were certainly influencing one another, trading techniques, at several points in history. There have been several other less-immediately recognized hybrids, and at least one or two other recognizable strains that persist to this day, and their blend of catch-wrestling and Judo was usually a common theme. There is a rich written historical record making this very clear, in addition to the living practitioners sharing their oral histories to support this narrative.
Gene LeBelle’s grappling lineage is certainly an example of one of these parallel cross-fertilizations; typically lost on most, because of his overshadowing involvement in professional wrestling. As a champion judoka, he also cross-trained with the (arguably last) authentic generation of catch-as-catch-can wrestlers in the US; his books are filled with material gleaned from this process, and is very obviously rooted in both traditions.
The entirety of the Lancashire Catch Wrestling tradition in England, as just one example, is very obviously a product of this cross-fertilization process, without ever having been the beneficiary of the same creative branding and marketing as BJJ. One or two of The Snakepit’s Billy Robinson’s peers (one of whom began as a competitive judoka) are still teaching young students today. The other primary icons further back in Catch-Wrestling’s history, in their text materials, constantly address the inclusion (or adaptation, or counters against) specifically Japanese techniques; from Farmer Burns, Earle Liederman, and others.
This happened in already-hybrid, already-bastard-art world of BJJ as well; deviations from the norm proved effective here and there, even if the majority of practitioners didn’t always adopt each innovation.
Oswaldo Fadda and his BJJ school included many leglock submissions found in earlier Ryu of pre-Judo Jiu-Jitsu lineages, and also (assuredly) borrowed more besides from nearby Lute Livre (Brazilian Catch-Wrestling, essentially) athletes. They even demonstrated their dominance with these leglocks in a school vs. school challenge tournament against the Gracie Academy, though leglocks did not (despite their effectiveness) become more widely adopted following this event. They remained shrouded in disdain by many lineages, just as in the case of Kodokan Judo forbidding them — despite many of their highest-profile Judoka, like Mifune, both using them in randori and including instructions for leglocks in his textbook.
Toward the middle of the 20th century, Rolls Gracie started cross-training with wrestlers, including Bob Ray, for whom the “Americana” submission nickname was named. His takedown repetoire was suddenly a quite innovative blend of judo takedowns and wrestling takedowns, and his grappling style grew more generally to include the benefits of of this hybridized style. Until his early death in an ultralight accident, he was considered the “best of all time” before Rickson Gracie (or more recently: Roger Gracie) earned that designation. And speaking of Rickson, he (as well as a few other prominent Gracies) certainly also entered wrestling and sambo matches, which implies at least a degree of specifically adapted training even if they were to remain within the BJJ lexicon.
The current explosion in leglocks shows a defacto return to this cross-pollination phenomenon, as the BJJ repetoire for leglocks was certainly not a self-contained, self-sufficient set of techniques (let alone: systems to tie them together) on its own. Catch wrestling, sambo, and other related arts have been using these leglocks for years while most BJJ schools handled them like contaminated materials. Now John Danaher and his athletes stand on the shoulders of these giants, binding together the vocabulary they’ve established into a new kind of grammar, and instantly dominate their chosen arenas of competition (ADCC, EBI, etc).
In the modern era of MMA, we see so clearly that cross-training in that sport is not only advantageous, but is necessary these days to do well. And yet, for some reason, we in the BJJ world are so much more reluctant to accept as a fact that cross-training becomes a crucial step in a grappler’s development. At the time of this article’s writing, Kabib Nurmagomedov — a Sambo fighter, who clearly benefited from a great deal of cross-training — is typically being mentioned as the new greatest-of-all-time fighter. Not a BJJ fighter; not a stylist from the art for which the UFC began as a marketing gimmick. And Kabib is just one in another very long line of fighters with a specific stylistic focus whose cross-training is nonetheless a bullet-proof, self-evident aspect of their dominance.
Hybridization works. So make it work for you.
You should mostly listen to your professor / sensei when they tell you to focus on the fundamentals for a while. But be prepared to disobey them, and sooner than you’d think. By the time you’re a white belt with 2-4 stripes (blue belt at the latest) you should definitely seek out a parallel path of development. By this time, you have almost certainly gotten a broad enough exposure to the fundamentals, if not mastery of all of them. You’ve almost certainly had the principles drilled into your head long enough by now that you should be able to more judiciously know when to experiment with deviating from those fundamentals.
One of the cheekiest examples I like to mention is choking people out from inside their guard. When you’re first beginning your BJJ journey: don’t do it! You’ll get arm-barred, triangled, oma-platad, and everything else… more often than not, that is; when you try that on suficiently experienced grapplers.
And yet: when people try to tell my old judoka black belt friends that they “shouldn’t” do this: they just smile, nod, and damn near choke their partner unconscious; they’ve developed enough sensitivity to know how and when to take that risk. From a pure BJJ perspective, this breaks a lot of “good funamentals” rules, and yet, I personally do it all the time; certainly because I’ve cross-trained with those old judokas who taught me the trick to do it well without getting caught in a submission.
There are so many more examples of the benefits of cross-training, but I really like that one explicitly because it “breaks a rule”. Another less “rule-breaking” (but delightful) example includes cross-training in Akido for wristlocks; when you adapt them with some BJJ-pinning and leverage principles, they suddenly become less a set of fantasy dance-moves and more a set of sneaky (and brutal) solutions to all kinds of problems.
The benefits of training Judo and Wrestling for takedowns should be self-evident, but what may be less obvious is the alternative takes on pinning they both offer.
BJJ likes to drill all their students, near-absolutely, for a preference to take the back while attacking turtle and so on. However, I know many athletes for whom back-taking is just not their best option, whether for physiological body-type reasons or others. Wrestling turns, tilts, rides, and other transitions being excellent options for these athletes, because the BJJ players they use them against lack responses most of the time.
Pinning an athlete against their back is still an absolutely excellent way to win fights, grappling matches, and more. Wrestling’s single-minded insistence on getting that pin is its own very rewarding cross-training adventure to engage; its benefits for MMA should be quite obvious by now, but they also translate to pure grappling in my opinion. The explosiveness of wrestling transitions, all on its own, is a great alternative option to have to the slowy-and-flowy BJJ pace; depending on your opponent, you suddenly have a choice who gets to push the pace.
And while we’re on the subject of pinning, have you ever been pinned on your back by an experienced judoka who was trained to keep you there for twenty or so seconds? It should have felt very different than a lot of BJJ top positions where people are often relaxing while blocking out your transitions, and waiting for submission opportunities. My old Judo sensei’s kesa gatame (scarf-hold; or a wrestling head-and-arm pin) felt absolutely death-inducing. He could very reliably finish experienced BJJ guys once he got past their guards into that spot.
There is absolutely a distinct difference in the advantages of these different takes on pining, and yet I’m not prepared to call one better than the other. I prefer to have the choice of which pinning philosophy to use, depending on who’s across from me on the mat. I might need to grind the fight and breath out of a stronger opponent with a judo pin, while I might need to have craftier (and more relaxed, responsive) pins for more tactical opponents. It varies by the individual.
If we’re going to mention Sambo, which we should: let’s just say that they are already such a beautifully balanced product of cross-training priorities. That’s why their athletes are able to transition so smoothly to different rulesets and formats. That’s why (among other reasons) Kabib ended on top as a G.O.A.T..
Another example which should be self-evident by now, but isn’t: BJJ guys who never train takedowns and fall to their butts every single time in a match… it’s as incomplete a solution as it looks. Don’t do that in any real life situation, ever. Don’t do it in MMA either, for your sake. I don’t want to read a viral story about your beat-down, or watch it on YouTube.
Think of all this like a college plan, if that helps; you’ve picked your major, now pick a minor (or two) to support it. No system in and of itself is both perfectly complete and perfectly adaptable. If you’ve chosen BJJ as your framework, and given yourself enough time to absorb that framework intuitively, pick your left-hand option to make it that much more versatile. Be subtle if you have to, if cross-training annoys your teacher (and you deem such a school worth sticking around), but do get the cross-training in progress, and feed it little detours from time to time.