How To Combat A BJJ Expert In MMA

In 1993, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) was thrown into the public consciousness. The image of a young Royce Gracie at UFC 1 dominating bigger and stronger men was an unprecedented sight for many fight fans.

Although the inaugural UFC card was received as something of a novelty packaged as the way to determine the “ultimate fighting” style in the world, the outcome of that night in November ’93 was serious. Gracie was the ambassador of his family’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu style of fighting and was clearly the right man for the job.

By the next day, BJJ class members noticed a significant number of new faces. Finally, a martial art which was designed for the smaller man had arrived. While the Gracie’s sold this concept en masse, it wasn’t entirely true. BJJ was an effective tool for all, regardless of size. Royce was simply chosen due to his smaller stature and less-menacing look in comparison to his brothers.

Nevertheless, BJJ was cited as an unbeatable craft. Over the years, it became an integral part of MMA and one which gave practitioners a heavy advantage over their opponents. Today, it is still a fundamental part of the sport, but as we have seen time and time again, being a multi-degree BJJ black belt does not guarantee ultimate success inside the cage.


Crossing Over from BJJ to MMA

The widely accepted belief in MMA is that the better mixed martial artist will generally win. This is almost always the case. There is no singular style which can trump any other inside the cage. This applies to BJJ, too, so understanding this is the first step towards preparing yourself for battle against a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert.

For many who make the transition from BJJ to MMA, there can be some teething problems at very least. As BJJ is a sport which does not contain any element of striking, a practitioner looking to cross over will generally do so without a notable stand-up game. Striking is integral to mixing it up inside the cage, so this puts those who have done well in BJJ at a major advantage when it comes to battling a more well-rounded opponent.

Wrestlers, on the other hand, seem to do a lot better when crossing over. Fighters such as Tyron Woodley, Demetrious Johnson, Stipe Miocic, and Cody Garbrandt all demonstrate how fighters with a solid collegiate wrestling background can go far in MMA. That is not to say that fighters with a notable BJJ background can’t fight at the upper levels, but it is a trend worth noting when matching up BJJ experts against wrestlers.


The Best of BJJ in MMA

Arguably the most talented exponent of high-level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in MMA, Demian Maia is one of the greatest grapplers in the history of the sport. With a series of accolades to his name, Maia joined the UFC’s middleweight division all the way back in 2007.

The first five fights of the Brazilian’s career under the UFC banner saw him win every single one by submission. Nate Marquardt, however, wasn’t feeling the same vibe and knocked Maia out with a punch in just 21-seconds. Although he would go on to lose a few more fights to notable names such as Anderson Silva, Jake Shields, and Rory MacDonald, he would never lose another fight by KO again.

Following his loss to MacDonald, Maia went on a seven-fight win streak which earned him a shot at Tyron Woodley’s UFC welterweight championship. He lost. Then he lost the next fight and the one after that. It seemed that Maia’s BJJ expertise had suddenly eluded him.

Or had it?


The Blueprint for Beating a BJJ Master

Woodley’s victory was initially panned as “boring” given the lack of excitement throughout the fight (there were only 68 strikes landed throughout the bout). Those with an interest in the clash of styles – especially those with a vested interest – could not disagree more, however.

Woodley showed the MMA community how to beat a fighter with an incredible BJJ game, creating the blueprint for Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman to use later on. While his performance may have been lambasted at the time, in hindsight, it was incredibly cerebral.

Maia had attempted to take Woodley down an outrageous 24 times in the bout, without success. This was because the 170-pound champ refused to be taken to the ground. A lot of fighters have underestimated Maia’s skills and paid the price for it. In the case of Jorge Masvidal – who is the last man to be beaten by Maia – he made some crucial mistakes which you never should against a BJJ guy with skills the Brazilian has to his game.

Woodley gave Maia’s next opponents the blueprint.


Beating a BJJ Expert in MMA

Once a BJJ expert gets his hands on you, you are in extreme trouble. We have used the example of Maia as he is the perfect example of what can happen when you fall into this trap.

Work on Your Takedown Defense – Captain Obvious here again to save the day. It is a no-brainer, but you need to be working extra hard to prepare for a BJJ guy.

Keep the Fight on the Feet – When facing a fighter like Maia, you want to keep the fight on the feet. Under no circumstances will you allow the alligator to drag you into the waters. This is his domain and unless you have comparable skills on the ground, you will drown.

You need to find angles and use more jabs than kicks. If you rely too much on leg kicks, you will not be able to move as well. When it comes to landing shots, make sure you capitalize when the BJJ guy begins to retreat to catch his breath. Pounce in with heavy shots when your feet are planted. Slam some leg kicks his way. Leg kicks will further tire this style of opponent, but don’t rely on them too much. Mix it up but above all, be smart.

Don’t be a Stationary Target – Keep moving. Circle and move from side to side so you don’t give the opponent a stationary target to work with. You will need to keep the BJJ guy guessing and trying to work his way into a position to shoot. This is much harder to do when you are simply relying on kicks and they take longer to land and keep you in the same position longer than punches.

Using leg-kicks to create angles gives the BJJ fighter a better chance of taking you down.

Control the Range – If you allow a fighter like Maia to work past your defense on the feet, there is a chance that they will secure positions such as back mount. The importance of how a BJJ fighter can sap the energy from an opponent should not be underestimated. By controlling the range and being cerebral in what shots you throw and when, and employing good movement and pillaging the lead leg, you can have some control over the range.

This is what you should be working on against a BJJ guy like Maia.

Be Efficient with Your Energy – Woodley showed that you need good conditioning against a BJJ guy, especially one that concentrates all of his efforts at taking you down. Shots, shots, and more shots drain energy. As the fight goes on, the BJJ fighter will tire – physically and mentally – if you can avoid the takedowns, keep them guessing, and feed them with a consistent jab.

Don’t expend energy where it not necessary, as you’re going to need it to keep them off.

Timing His Setup – Most BJJ fighters have limited striking skills, but will generally rely on either a simple jab or cross to work themselves into the space to shoot for a takedown. They will generally only mix this up with feints, which will be used to try and get you to raise your guard or back you into the fence.

A fighter like Maia is incredibly disciplined but sometimes robotic in his go-to moves of the three-piece single leg, half guard sweep, and underhook. Stopping it is the problem. If you notice a pattern throughout the fight, such as a feint jab to a single-leg takedown attempt, you time his shot with a knee to the head. Just be very careful that it’s not a trap.

Don’t Pressure Too Hard – If you allow a fighter with an incredible grasp of BJJ too much space, you’re asking for trouble. The mistake which Masvidal made consistently was pressuring too hard against his opponent. This also the downside of tiring him out and allowing Maia – who was also tired – to have the opportunity to take him down and work him on the ground.

Keeping the fight on the feet, being efficient with your energy, and having the nous to control the range against a top-level BJJ guy is everything. Above all, do not let this fight go to the floor


More in MMA

Targeting The Body In MMA

Targeting The Body In MMA

Long a point of derision for MMA coaches and analysts out there, mixed martial artists just do not pay enough attention to bodywork. In an age where the spectacular is sought after by headhunters and…
Is Wrestling Dominating MMA?

Is Wrestling Dominating MMA?

To many observers, a strong wrestling game is the most important aspect of succeeding in mixed martial arts (MMA). In the modern age of the sport, there seems to be a growing level of evidence…
5 Tips To Counter A Takedown In MMA

5 Tips To Counter A Takedown In MMA

You can have the hands of Muhammad Ali and the low kicks of Ernesto Hoost. Throw in the roundhouse technique of Yodsanklai Fairtex and the flashy brilliance of Samart Payakaroon to boot. To make things…

Also On Evolve