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Is Your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Ready For The Streets? 10 Ways To Make Your Sport a More Effective Self-Defense Art!

Updated: 5 days ago

bjj in a street fight
PC: Ren Lok
Black Belt Plus

I started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in 1994. Egan Inoue, the first non-Brazilian to win a BJJ world championship, awarded me a black belt in 2006. It’s been a rigorous, humbling and empowering journey. I love sport jiu-jitsu, and I train in it nearly every day.

But my original motivation to learn martial arts came when I was a shy 9-year-old walking home at dusk after baseball practice. I took a shortcut across a field when a large young man, probably in his late teens, approached. Without the confidence or training needed to say no to this intimidating figure, I followed his commands and ended up in his sordid lair. 

When he finally released me, I was forever changed, damaged mentally and spiritually. And even though that incident still runs through my mind, now I can see the silver lining: I’m absolutely dedicated to making sure nothing like that happens again to me or my loved ones. Those loved ones include every single person I have the privilege of sharing my “for the street” martial arts approach with.

My last year of high school, I finally got to train in martial arts — under the legendary Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo in kali and jeet kune do. Fifteen years later, I was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu via Rigan and John Machado, whom I had hired to do fight scenes for Kickboxer 4, a film I choreographed. I dabbled in BJJ for a year, then caught the bug.

Although I had success with kali and silat in Dog Brothers stick fighting — I’m known as “Lucky Dog” — I couldn’t make my empty-hand techniques work against Egan or his brother Enson Inoue. Because my directive was to make sure everything I trained in and taught really worked under pressure, I set those arts aside, put my head down and worked hard on MMA and BJJ.

Ten years later, I’d become proficient at MMA and earned a black  belt in BJJ. I took a breath and re-examined my life. I loved the sport training because it was honest. We sparred in every class, and no one could pretend to be invincible after getting tapped out over and over. But on reflection, I realized that my goal was not to win a medal or a belt. It was to protect myself and my loved ones from the kind of torture I had endured. It was time to return to my roots — but I decided  to view those roots from a different perspective. I now looked at everything I’d learned and done through the eyes of a fighter. 

Street Modifications

We all know that the street is different from sport, but over time, I was able to blend self-defense elements from JKD, kali, silat, krav maga and other approaches with the functional foundation provided by MMA and BJJ. Because that’s too much to compress into one article, here I will focus on BJJ for the street.

bjj in a street fight

As great as sport BJJ is, it doesn’t address many elements that are found in a savage self-defense situation that has no rules and no honor. This is about more than adding strikes and head butts. It’s about making our skill set an all-out, life-or-death tool. Just as we need to know the rules of a competition we’re entering to prepare for the event, we need to know the parameters of the street to adjust our training for the best results there.

One note: Seldom should you initiate going to the ground in a street situation. The goal is to go home safely, and the most efficient way of accomplishing that is to stay on your feet and get out of there. But as the Gracie family pointed out, real street encounters often end up on the ground, and if you find yourself there, your jiu-jitsu is going to save you if you’ve regularly trained to address the following 10 street elements. It’s not enough to merely understand these factors. You need to ingrain your responses to them by working out with a resisting partner — just like in your sport jiu-jitsu training. If you don’t consistently fine-tune these areas, you won’t be prepared for extreme self-defense.

Multiple Attackers

It’s difficult to handle more than one attacker when standing; it’s exponentially more problematic when you’re on the ground. Therefore, the threat of multiple attackers must be at the top of your mind, especially if you end up on the ground. 

bjj in a street fight

I like to place self-defense scenarios into two categories: “dangerous to grapple” and “safe to grapple.” If you’re in an environment where there’s a possibility of additional attackers, that belongs in the danger- ous-to-grapple category. Your goal is to escape as soon as possible. 

A safe-to-grapple scenario is one in which you’re in an enclosed area like your home or office and you know it’s one-on-one. Then you can apply all your street-grappling skills. 

If you wind up on the ground in a dangerous-to-grapple scenario, guess what’s going to help you escape quickly? Solid jiu-jitsu skills. But they should be street-specific skills that take into account the other elements outlined below. In all of them, the ability to stand up efficiently is essential.


If you’re on the ground in a self-defense situation, what’s the most dangerous thing your opponent can do? Strike you? Break your arm? Choke you out? No. By far, the most dangerous thing is to pull a pistol and start blasting. Since this is clearly the worst-case scenario, you have to alter your jiu-jitsu not just to respond to a pistol threat but also to anticipate it. 

bjj in a street fight

You must control the opponent’s hands and use positions that allow you to stifle any attempts to draw the gun so it never even comes into play. That’s the primary goal. 

If he manages to present the weapon, you should aim to control him and take away the gun. Just like with other techniques, you must spend time rolling to develop the timing needed to anticipate the draw and then, should that fail, to effect a technique that removes the threat from the gunman’s hand. 

The key point for functional pistol defense is that you must grip the gun with both hands in a way that enables you to control the line of fire and keep the assailant from regaining control of the weapon. Then you must apply forward pressure to achieve a leverage point that permits you to strip the pistol from his grip. 


The next most dangerous element is the knife. As much as I love sport training, the truth is that practicing only sport BJJ programs you to not expect a weapon. You do thousands of rounds and never is a weapon drawn. If you’re suddenly in a self-defense scenario, you’ll revert to your sport training. Many people, including those who’ve trained in combat sports, have been stabbed repeatedly in altercations before they were aware that a blade was in play.

If you want to automatically expect a weapon under pressure, you must incorporate a training knife into your rolling. Then you need to apply the pressure-tested, functional knife-defense techniques found in BJJ for the street. 

bjj in a street fight

The first key is to control the knife arm with both hands. The second is to remember that while positioning yourself, you should make it difficult for your opponent to switch the blade to his free hand. Directive No. 2 is the one most people miss, but you’ll find it essential as soon as you start rolling. I have plenty of real-life video evidence that proves that if you control only the opponent’s knife hand, he or she will pass the blade to the other hand and continue the rampage. 

The final step is to apply a proven knife-disarming procedure or know how to control the knife arm until you can make space and escape.


While not as bad as pistols and edged weapons, blunt-impact devices can render you unconscious in a split second, so in training, you must gain experience dealing with these often improvised weapons, as well.

bjj in a street fight

The basic concept is to enter deep and wrap up the weapon arm, rendering the bludgeon nearly useless. Then you go to work striking, applying a takedown and working for a disarm. Again, this has to be practiced with a resisting partner, both standing and on the ground, if you want to be able to respond under pressure. It’s the same training protocol you would use in sport jiu-jitsu — but under street rules. 

Eye Attacks

I often speak with people who say they could never put their thumb in the eye of another human being. This comes from having a compassionate mind, and I appreciate that. But I believe you should have more compassion for the other victims that a criminal might terrorize if you don’t take care of him now.

Imagine you have a wife and daughter, and you’re dealing with a crazed attacker who’s trying to get through you to assault them. Are you really going to limit yourself to IBJJF regulations or the Unified Rules of MMA? That would be a very bad idea, to say the least.

bjj in a street fight

As Bruce Lee said, “When you’re talking about fighting, as it is, with no rules, well then, baby, you better train every part of your body.” Eyes are vulnerable to fingers regardless of a person’s size or strength. But never assume eye attacks will be fight-enders. Use them to create opportunities to apply your jiu-jitsu skills.

Throat Attacks

The highest expression of jiu-jitsu is keeping the opponent where he is, then maneuvering yourself into a position from which you can submit him. Gripping the windpipe is an excellent way to keep a more power- ful person where he is momentarily so you can improve your position. You also can use it to distract or off-balance him to set up a reversal.

bjj in a street fight

A person with a strong base who is difficult to move can be coaxed into changing position with a well-executed throat grab. The throat is also an excellent “handle” to use if you want to get off the ground and back on your feet.

Groin Attacks

Clearly, no man wants to get hit in the groin. In an extreme self-defense situation, targeting the groin can incapacitate an attacker or at least make him change his focus while you escape. But an equally important reason to practice groin attacks is to be able to defend against them.

bjj in a street fight

The first time you got caught in a BJJ triangle, you probably had no idea what was happening. “Where did that come from?” was likely what went through your mind just before you tapped. With sufficient time on the mat, however, you learned to expect the triangle and position your- self in a way that made it difficult for your opponent to do it. You need to do the same for groin attacks. 

You don’t want to experience the “where did that come from?” moment on the street, especially if it’s because of a groin grab. There’s a famous YouTube video in which two young military men are fighting and the better grappler secures a guillotine from the guard. The one caught in the submission simply grabs the groin of the grappler, and that counters the submission and ends the fight. 

On the street, you must modify your positioning so you can protect yourself from all street tactics, including the groin grab. If you roll only with sport rules, you won’t just automatically adapt in a real fight. Your training will kick in, and the only reason you’ll change your tactics is because the assailant lands an attack — and that’s far too late to realize that you brought sport jiu-jitsu to a gun fight. 


The teeth are another element you must account for. I know of several cases in which an arresting officer got to the mount position on a suspect, only to be pulled forward and bitten on the chest. The physical damage is bad enough, but the series of antibiotic shots that the officers had to endure afterward must have been horrendous.

bjj in a street fight

The mount is great, but for the street, I emphasize the knee mount because it keeps you away from those choppers. It also allows you a better field of view so you can see whether an additional attacker is approaching. Simulating bites during rolling sessions will make you more aware of how you can use positioning or how you can push the opponent’s head away from you to keep teeth from touching flesh. 

A person determined to bite you is difficult to deal with unless you have plenty of practice doing just that. Case in point: My 10-year-old daughter loves it when we add bites to our rounds. She’s an expert at grabbing my hands and trying to bite my fingers. This tactic is one you want to have experience with long before it comes up in a fight. People will try to bite. Use positioning to keep them from doing so.  

Head Butts

You do not want to get hit in the face with a bowling ball. That’s what getting head-butted feels like. Vale tudo competitions allow the head butt, but the sport isn’t as popular as MMA, so most modern martial artists don’t practice head butts or ways to defend against them.

Before you add the head butt to your rolling, know that it’s a very dangerous weapon that can cause a severe laceration or more significant damage if a mistake is made. That’s why I always use headgear with a protective face shield. This gives me and my students the ability to safely make contact with a head butt as long as we don’t fire it full power. Headgear protects against cuts and breaks, but it only minimizes brain trauma. So you still must apply the technique gently. 

To avoid a head butt in a fight, control your partner’s head by pulling it down and, if possible, pressing your head against his. If you can’t pull it down, keep a hand on his head to stifle and there- fore minimize the power of the blow. Like other street tactics, head butts require you to change your positioning and your positional priorities. Add them to rolling to find out how, but be sure to use a helmet. 

Finger Attacks

Don’t count on finger breaks to stop a serious assault. Small-joint dislocations and breaks are bothersome and painful, but a person can keep fighting if he’s motivated. The best use for finger attacks is to break a grip and diminish a person’s ability to grab you. 

When teaching kids to grapple, I constantly have to tell them to stop grabbing the fingers. If someone has a rear body lock or front head lock on a kid, the child instinctively will grab the fingers to pry open the grip. Although it’s effective, it makes for dangerous training when children — or unpredictable adults — are involved. 

bjj in a street fight

However, if your partners have their emotions under control, you can engage in training sessions in which finger manipulation is permitted as long as you agree to stop before an injury occurs. As you develop your awareness, you’ll feel when your partner is trying to grab your fingers and you’ll be able to retract them before they are secured. 

Learn More 

Modifying sport BJJ for the street involves more elements, of course — such as the physical environment, the lack of weight classes and so on — but these 10 points are the most pertinent to your survival. If functional, pressure-tested self-defense is important to you, I suggest that you buy a copy of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the Street, my new book from Black Belt Publishing, and practice what you learn in addition to your sport BJJ.

Adapting your BJJ for street use is fun, it breaks up your regular routine, and it makes you more mobile and aware. Whether you’re training with or without a gi, when that rubber knife comes out or your fingers are grabbed in preparation for a break, you’ll instantly be motivated to move. And that will help your grappling skills progress faster than ever. 

In the end, it’s not a question of choosing sport BJJ or BJJ for the street. The best answer is to do both. 

To order Burton Richardson’s book Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the Street, go to

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