Wrestling

Wrestling: Gene LeBell and Bart Vale on the Ancestor of Jiu-jitsu, Sambo and Judo

Everyone, it seems, wants to know about it these days — as if it were some new concept generated by martial arts geniuses a few years ago. Whether we call it judo, jiu-jitsu, sambo, Greco-Roman, freestyle or submission, we’re talking about the same thing: wrestling.

Wrestling is the core of these varied styles, along with many others. And it’s been around for thousands of years, even before the days when two fellows named Odysseus and Achilles were engaging in two out of three falls (the latter, it should be noted, having a severe aversion to foot locks that wrapped around his heel).

The Source

“Jiu-jitsu comes from wrestling. So does judo. They’re really all the same thing.”

While that statement may drive some traditional martial artists up the wall, consider the source: “Judo” Gene LeBell. A two-time AAU judo champion, Gene LeBell is regarded as the authority on grappling. But even when you have a background that includes championship titles in professional wrestling and a lifetime of research into unarmed combat, the contours of history can remain sketchy.

“Someone once showed me a book called Egyptian Walls, and it had pictures of those ancient Egyptian paintings,” Gene LeBell said. “In it was a picture of a guy doing a wrestling-[style] body slam. Another one showed him doing a karate-style kick, and still another had him in one of those old-fashioned boxing stances. I don’t know, but there seems to be a lot of similarity between techniques done in the East and West.”

Like his hieroglyphic friend, Gene LeBell takes a multifaceted approach to combat. In his private dojo, a home for “sadomasochists and other people who aren’t too tightly wrapped,” he teaches his own brand of practical self-defense. If anything, Gene LeBell said, his style is closest to the Japanese sport of shootfighting, which he calls the best self-defense method ever devised. With fighters versed in kickboxing and wrestling, and rules that favor a mixture of both, the sport makes for one of the more well-rounded and realistic martial arts going.

“A lot of guys who are world-class in one art like kickboxing or wrestling come to Japan and lose real quick because they’re not versatile enough,” said Bart Vale, a shootfighting instructor based in Miami.

According to Bart Vale, who has competed — and won — extensively in Japan, the Japanese who started the sport combined their own martial arts expertise with amateur and professional wrestling techniques learned from Western champions, primarily Karl Gotch. Karl Gotch was a shooter (as many real wrestlers prefer to be known) of such ferocity that he often refused to engage in staged matches and was avoided by most American pro wrestlers. Traveling the world, he ended up in Japan in the early 1960s, where he nearly rose to the status of a deity within the local wrestling community. Among his students were the legendary Antonio Inoki, who once fought a memorable, if boring, draw with Muhammad Ali; and Yoshiaki Fujiwara, regarded by many as the finest submission wrestler competing today.

“Karl Gotch is the best wrestler that ever lived as far as I’m concerned,” Gene LeBell said. “He traveled all over the world — India, China, everywhere — to learn techniques.”

Among Karl Gotch’s ports of call was a gym in England that taught the Lancashire style of wrestling, from which he got many of the unique submission holds used today by grapplers.

“That was a place where the first time you came to work out, they’d lock the door and beat the hell out of you,” Gene LeBell said. “Then if you came back the next day, they’d teach you something.”

Modern Times

Today’s methods of grappling instruction are somewhat more civilized, although still quite painful.

Grappling involves a different kind of pain than most martial artists trained in the kicking and punching styles are used to. While a strike may stun a fighter, knock him down or even break bones, it’s different from enduring the searing pain that comes from having a joint twisted past the straining point or the constant grinding of an elbow into the neck.

“When people come to train in shootfighting, the karateka and kickboxers seem to have the most trouble adjusting,” Bart Vale said. “People with an amateur-wrestling background often do better at first because they can take the pain and exhaustion that comes with the sport.”


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Besides conditioning, physical toughness and the aforementioned sadomasochistic streak, wrestling primarily requires technique. The key lies in concentrating all your bodyweight against a single point on your opponent’s body. A good example of this is found in the…

Learn 3 Grappling Techniques From UFC Star Chael Sonnen

Chael Sonnen isn’t your typical politician. For one, he actually answered our questions. But more important, the All-American wrestler from Oregon taught us some of the best tricks from his playbook.

Despite his reputation as one of the UFC’s loudest stars, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about any martial art or training. We hope you’ll enjoy his interview with Lito Angeles, a Southern California-based police officer, mixed martial artist and author of Fight Night: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts.

—Jon Sattler

Lito Angeles: I read that you started wrestling at a very young age.

Chael Sonnen: I come from a family of wrestlers—my father, my uncles, my cousins were all very good. I begged my dad to get me into wrestling, but he wanted me to do karate or boxing. Finally, he let me wrestle when I was 9.

Angeles: Did you wind up doing any karate or boxing?

Sonnen: I got into boxing later, but not then.

Angeles: And you stayed with wrestling all the way to the collegiate level, right?

Sonnen: Yes. I wrestled through high school and got a scholarship to the University of Oregon. In 2001 I graduated from college and was working out at a gym in the back of a car lot. There was one mat and nothing else, but Randy Couture and Dan Henderson worked out there every day. It was an hour and a half from where I was living, and I made the drive every single day to wrestle with them. We were all trying to make the Olympic team. They let me in, and it was the three of us. After college, I went back to training with them, and they were wearing MMA gloves. I just put on a pair of gloves and continued practicing.

Angeles: Does that mean you recommend wrestling as the best foundation for MMA?

Sonnen: Well, it has to be some kind of grappling. There’s a statistic: 100 percent of fights start standing up, and 80 percent of them end up on the ground. Jiu-jitsu and wrestling have done really well in MMA, but I don’t know that any form of grappling has been proven to be better.

[ti_billboard name=”Chael Sonnen 1″]

The grass always seems greener—I wish I knew more of other disciplines than wrestling, while other fighters probably wish they knew more wrestling. I wish more judo practitioners participated in MMA.

Angeles: Why?

Sonnen: Jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling are well-represented. All three styles of wrestling, from collegiate to Greco-Roman to freestyle, are, too. I know judo is a good, competitive sport. I wish there was more judo in MMA so I could see how it stacks up.

Angeles: After a student develops a grappling base, do you recommend muay Thai or boxing—or something else?

Sonnen: I’d say boxing. Muay Thai is good, bit it’s very hard to practice. There aren’t a lot of muay Thai guys around—it’s not in high schools or colleges or the Olympics—so it’s hard to find guys to practice with. Elbows are effective, but you can’t do them in practice without hurting someone. Same with knees. With boxing, however, you can put on the gear and find a partner, and it seems to do well in MMA.

Angeles: But then you give up kicks. …

Sonnen: Kicks aren’t as effective in fighting. If you land one, great. You can do good things with it. But kickboxing had to put in a rule that you had to kick a guy three times per round or you’d lose a point. The reason was, guys quit kicking. They just boxed because boxing is more effective. With that said, I spend the majority of my time doing kickboxing and muay Thai. But if I was mentoring a young fighter, I’d tell him to spend more time on boxing. That doesn’t mean I would ignore kickboxing—you still need to learn the defenses—but in stand-up, it’s hard to beat good, solid boxing.

Angeles: How is muay Thai boxing different from Western boxing?

Sonnen: The big difference is head movement. In muay Thai, there’s not a ton of head movement. You use your foot to get the guy off-line, then you step out and sweep his leg to off-balance him. In boxing, you just shift out of the way and use that momentum to come right in and attack. Head movement is so important, especially when you’ve got those little 4-ounce gloves on. If you just land one shot, you can break the guy’s nose, open a cut or knock him out.

Angeles: Does knowing wrestling and boxing cover all the bases with respect to technique, or should a person add other arts like karate or sambo?

Sonnen: I would never close the door. …

Reverse the Flow of Any BJJ Match With Jean Jacques Machado’s Defensive Tactics

Jean Jacques Machado has won every major Brazilian jiu-jitsu title in Brazil. Renowned for his grappling skills, the world-champion BJJ instructor shares his winning strategies with you in his new book, The Grappler’s Handbook Vol. 2: Tactics for Defense, available today!

The Grappler’s Handbook Vol. 2 teaches you how to defend against the most dangerous submission tactics and strengthen your attack strategy. Learn how to execute defensive strategies and BJJ techniques to ensure escape with color photo  sequences and detailed instructions.

“Jean Jacques goes over a variety of different options on how to properly defend yourself from submissions, back control, the guard, amongst other common positions you may find yourself when getting dominated by your opponent.”

—Monta Wiley, USCombatSports.com

The Grappler’s Handbook Vol. 2: Tactics for Defense includes subsections for easier referencing and sidebars illustrating proper and improper postures on the mat while performing these techniques.

“In this book, you won’t find any tricky or advanced ways to protecting yourself. However, you will be enlightened on some basic fundamental techniques that will help you easily learn, retain and apply the moves highlighted in this book in your training.”

—Monta Wiley, USCombatSports.com

Learn how to tune in and anticipate your opponent’s next moves and defend yourself against them before he even has the chance to try.

With Machado by your side, you’ll have the confidence to escape any BJJ position or submission!

About the Authors:

Born in Rio de Janiero, Jean Jacques Machado captured every major Brazilian jiu-jitsu title in his home country before moving to the United States. Upon arriving, Machado dominated the local and international tournament circuit, eventually winning the prestigious Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship. Today, Machado is one of the most admired and respected grappling instructors in the world.

Co-author Jay Zeballos is a Pan Jiu-Jitsu Championship 2009 gold-medalist black belt under Machado. He has been training with him for more than a decade.…

Knockout and Concussion Statistics for Violent Encounters

Editor’s Note: Because it’s impossible to defend yourself when you’re unconscious, knockouts play a critical role in any fight, whether it takes place in the ring or on the street. In our September issue, we explored the physiological effects of a knockout and why head trauma is such a controversial topic in combat sports. Now it’s time to look at the concussion statistics for violent encounters so you can avoid getting knocked out.

Analyst James LaFond studied 1,675 acts of violence that took place between June 1996 and May 2000. At the request of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, he then analyzed the incidents in his study that led to a knockout. To make his discoveries easier to digest, we’re presenting his findings in a Q-and-A format.

—Jon Sattler

How often was someone knocked out by an open-hand martial arts blow?

Twice. A palm heel to the chin and a double palm to the chest. One other such blow was attempted (a knifehand to the throat), but it failed. Although 30 percent of KO situations involved a trained fighter (law-enforcement officer, boxer, wrestler, martial artist, kickboxer), the attempted use of open-hand blows was statistically insignificant.

What are the most effective one-strike-knockout methods?

  • 100-percent success with a sucker punch by a competition-level boxer, delivered to the jaw of an individual male who is usually taller and talking.
  • 98-percent success with a surprise come-from-behind strike executed with a heavy blunt weapon to the head of an intoxicated male.
  • 95-percent success with a poor-leverage throw effected by a larger male against a smaller member of an aggressive group or against an individual participant in a match fight.
  • 90-percent success with a punch thrown by an average-size athletic man against an unprepared member of a poorly organized aggressive group.
  • 90-percent success with a kick thrown by a competition-level kickboxer against an unprepared person.
  • 80-percent success with an elbow strike to the head or face executed by a male wrestler, boxer or kickboxer.
  • 75-percent success with an attack effected with a moving vehicle on a pedestrian.
  • Note that 73 percent is the typical rate of success for aggressors, with the vast majority of the incapacitations stemming from multiple strikes.

    What’s the most common method of avoiding a knockout?

    This study defines violence from the point at which it’s physically initiated by the deployment of a weapon, by the closing of the distance by an aggressor, or by a violent or controlling touch. From this perspective, a defender has little opportunity for avoidance (because that time has typically passed), and flight is a viable option in less than half of violent situations.

    In situations in which violence of an incapacitating nature is imminent (when facing a group, an extremely powerful man or an armed person), KOs are avoided by the following methods listed in order of increasing effectiveness:

  • minimal aggression (pushing, slapping, holding)
  • defensive techniques (blocking, ducking, etc.)
  • escape and flight
  • verbal dissuasion
  • serious grappling (throwing, wall slamming, floor fighting)
  • brandishing a weapon
  • toughness and poise (the ability to take it)
  • power striking
  • How do specific fighting arts rate?

  • 19 percent of karate stylists who hadn’t kickboxed knocked out their opponents in violent situations. This is identical to the worldwide kickboxing KO rate of 19 percent.
  • 20 percent of boxers knocked out their antagonists, compared to the 34-percent worldwide boxing KO rate. These fights were often urban street encounters that featured groups, weapons and indecisive resolutions.
  • 90 percent of boxers involved in drunken brawls knocked out their opponents, with 10 percent sustaining hand injuries. Not one of those boxers jabbed.
  • 36 percent of martial artists who had kickboxed knocked out their antagonists. These encounters reflect a wide variety of circumstances and correspond to the worldwide boxing KO rate. The side kick was the dominant KO strike.
  • 47 percent of identified noncombat athletes scored KOs in brawls and self-defense situations. They were primarily large throwers (football players) and small punchers (rugby, softball and soccer players) taking the fight to low-cohesion groups of smaller males.
  • How did the various weapons perform with respect to knockouts?

    The incapacitation rates were as follows:

  • Folding knife: 19%
  • Fixed-blade knife: 38%
  • Pencil: 13%
  • Pointed tool: 44%
  • Prison-made shank: 64%
  • Razor: 5%
  • Sword: 33%
  • Stick/baton: 37% (for law-enforcement officers), 20% (for escrimadors), 28% (for untrained persons), 27% (for groups)
  • Bat: 58%
  • Board/club: 70%
  • Pipe/bar: 36%
  • Sap/blackjack: 47%
  • Stone/brick/trophy: 56%
  • Blunt tool: 42%
  • Machinery/furniture: 42%
  • Everyday item (bottle, etc.): 20% (used by the defender), 7% (used by the aggressor)
  • Jim Arvanitis Resurrects Pankration: The First Mixed Martial Art

    There’s no denying that Jim Arvanitis is a skilled martial artist. He moves like a 30-year-old both on his feet and on the ground, where he flows from technique to technique with an ease you seldom see outside a high-end grappling school. And there’s no denying that he’s a martial arts historian par excellence. One look at his most recent book, The First Mixed Martial Art: Pankration From Myths to Modern Times, reveals that he’s intimately familiar not only with pankration, the fighting system of his Greek ancestors, but also with the rise of the martial arts in the West.

    But neither of those is the reason I admire him. What struck me the first time we met was his honesty. It’s starkly illustrated in the following passage, which was lifted from a yet-to-be-published article he wrote: “In 393, pankration, along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, were abolished by an edict from the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. In terms of an Olympic sport, pankration had been practiced for some 1,000 years. While there’s proof that wrestling persisted in Hellenic society after the conclusion of the Olympic Games, little evidence supports that either boxing or pankration continued. It’s safe to assume that pankration vanished for the next two millennia.”

    Nick Hines, Jim Arvanitis’ senior student, penned a paragraph that continued the story—and reflected his teacher’s truthful approach to the history of his art: “Although it’s been claimed that various clans in Greece attempted to assemble what remained into a martial art, not until the 20th century was it regenerated into a tangible form and introduced to the martial arts world. Jim Arvanitis … spent years researching the history, modifying the training methodology and codifying pankration into a contemporary form of hybrid fighting.”

    Such honesty is rare. In most parts of the world where martial arts developed, you can find masters who claim to teach ancient fighting arts that exhibit techniques that are identical to those of other arts, yet they deny there was any cross-pollination. And here we have Jim Arvanitis, openly admitting that many of the specifics about pankration’s techniques were lost in time and that he had to patch those holes.

    “With my continuing research, I noticed ‘voids,’ or areas that necessitated modification,” Jim Arvanitis said. “That’s where the inclusion of modern resources came in. I never intended my revival effort and personal interpretation of the ancient form to be an exact replication. Having been defunct for some 2,000 years, how could it be? Why should it be?”

    Which sources did he rely on to fill those voids? Boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling, as well as muay Thai and judo, especially its ne waza (grappling techniques), he says. “I also studied tactical knife fighting with some skillful Greeks and Massad Ayoob for the battlefield component, and Massad Ayoob and I have worked extensively on handgun disarms since 1974.”

    Such is the martial art that Jim Arvanitis teaches—through classes and seminars, as well as via video and the printed word. Throughout the years, his message has been essentially the same: The ancient Greeks had their own style of combat, and if you try it, you’ll find that it’s every bit as comprehensive and effective as anything in Asia. He says his goal is to bring credit to his ancestors for their contributions to the martial arts, and he’s doing a fine job of it.

    The staff of Black Belt is pleased to induct him into its Hall of Fame as 2009 Instructor of the Year.…

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