Injuries in Brazilian jiu-jitsu raise concerns about the martial art’s growth without supervision

Injuries in Brazilian jiu-jitsu raise concerns about the martial art’s growth without supervision

New York Times – When Eric Milošević went to his first home Jiu Jitsu Brazilian, he hoped the practice would spark interest in sharing it with his teenage daughter. Instead, he left the gym with an injured left knee from a trainer fight and with a genuine aversion to one of the fastest growing martial arts for self-defense and competition.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu offers an attractive proposition: that a smaller, weaker person can defeat a larger, stronger opponent. Jiu-Jitsu is called the “gentle art,” from a loose translation of the Japanese expression, and exchanges punches and kicks for pinning techniques, such as choking and joint manipulation, to help fighters subdue and subdue opponents.

The sport has increased in popularity in recent years, driven by its effectiveness in professional mixed martial arts and frequent promotion by people like Joe Rogan, a podcaster and commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a hobby during the coronavirus pandemic and recently competed in his first tournament. (He’s also clashed with Elon Musk over a duel that seems more ostentatious than reality.)

Eric Milosevic only took one Jiu-Jitsu class as a test and was injured while fighting with one of the instructors filming: Laura Thompson/The New York Times

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is often considered accessible, effective for self-defense, technically challenging, physically rewarding, and relatively safe by those who practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu compared to other combat sports. Some say it’s closer to playing chess than fighting.

But this marketing often does not correspond to the reality on the mats. Confidence is everything in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, because just grams of extra pressure applied during a submission can cause tendons to tear or bones to break. However, the safety of students is left to the discretion of teachers and fellow trainees. This has sparked debate about censorship of the sport and whether some dojos and gyms are damaging the reputation of martial arts.

Milosevic, a retired police officer who once trained his colleagues in defensive tactics, said that when he was training in class, the instructor put him in a heel lock, a technique in which the foot is locked and the knee is bent. Many schools teach the movement only to advanced students and it is prohibited at many levels of competition due to the risk of injury. If applied with force, heel hooks can tear most of the major ligaments in the knee.

Milosevic said he heard his knee pop as the trainer applied the heel hook and immediately felt a “sharp pain.” He spent the next three months limping and unable to run while working as a community relations officer for the Santa Monica, California, Police Department, although he did not go to the doctor to be evaluated. He said it was another three months before the knee was completely better. “It definitely hindered my mobility.”

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The danger is thought to come from some gyms encouraging a culture where new members are viewed as “fresh meat” during intense training sessions. “You go there to get tested and they want to hurt you,” Milosevic said. Their complaints mirror those of other people who play the sport, students and gym owners. There have been some discussions in popular online forums about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Some injuries have led to lawsuits.

In May 2023, a San Diego jury awarded Jack Griner nearly $46.5 million in damages for a catastrophic neck injury he suffered at a jiu-jitsu gym in 2018, a case that became a flashpoint for followers of the martial arts.

According to court documents, Greiner became a quadriplegic after breaking his neck while sparring with his coach, Francisco Iturralde, at a Del Mar jiu-jitsu club. A video of the incident posted on social media shows Iturralde attempting a modified version of an advanced technique known as the “Leo Vieira Back Shot,” in which the fighter rolls his opponent forward and assumes a rear-naked choke position. The jury said Iturralde “unjustifiably” increased the risks inherent in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The defense appealed the ruling.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class at Gracie University filming: Gracie University via The New York Times

Lawyers representing the dojo and its owner, Michael Phelps (no relation to the Olympic swimmer), declined to comment. Iturralde also declined to comment, saying the lawsuit is still ongoing. Greiner’s attorneys did not respond to attempts to contact him.

Greiner blogged about his harrowing recovery, which included a series of strokes, emergency surgeries and an arduous rehabilitation process. He has since regained his ability to walk and has reached the summit of Mount Whitney. “According to all the doctors, I should not be alive, let alone breathing or walking,” he wrote.

Lawsuits like Greiner’s appear to be rare in American courts. However, what is more common are injuries to other joints and extremities, such as the one that happened to Milošević. Alex Channon, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton who studies martial arts, said: “There is a belief that jiu-jitsu is the safest combat sport, that you can do anything with relatively little risk of injury.”

Greener’s case has led some practitioners of the sport to question how to implement stricter sponsorship standards as Brazilian jiu-jitsu grows in popularity. “Never in American history have we seen such a fanatical influx of participants in martial arts as we are seeing now with Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” said Reiner Gracie, a member of the Gracie family, who is credited with developing and popularizing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. in the United States. His uncle, Royce Gracie, was the surprise star of his first UFC championship in 1993, when he quickly won three fights in the same night using Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques.

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Renner Gracie owns Gracie University, a 2,000-student academy located in Torrance, California, and provided expert testimony on behalf of Greiner in the case. Gracie said in a social media post that he was paid more than $100,000 for his testimony, an amount that generated resistance within the sport, leading him to pledge to donate $100,000 to a non-profit organization that supports people with spinal cord injuries.

The proliferation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools in recent years has caused a significant difference in the way martial arts are taught and how safety measures are put in place, Gracie said in an interview. He said many newcomers, who may have heard about the benefits of martial arts via podcasts or watching UFC fights, don’t understand that some gyms operate under much harsher training conditions than others.

This has created a situation where members are effectively playing “Russian roulette” when they enter the gym, Gracie said. Gracie’s junior students are required to take 23 group classes, where they learn a variety of basic techniques, Gracie said. Only after that can they attend more advanced classes and train with an opponent. When asked about the need for safety standards in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Gracie responded: “My answer: Look at the state of my organization. I have taken great steps to create a standard.”

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class at Gracie University filming: Gracie University via The New York Times

Unlike soccer, swimming, and other sports, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not subject to the strict standards often used by federations that have international competitions and categories that feed the elite levels in each sport. “Martial arts is the sport that has really seeped through the net,” said Ali Bailey, owner of Gracie Barra Hastings, a 300-student jiu-jitsu gym in the UK (Gracie Barra Hastings is independent and has no connection to the gym). By Renner Gracie).

Bailey said she implemented many of the protective practices she learned in her career in secondary education. She said her coaches undergo background checks and safety and first aid training, while beginners don’t learn submissions and are limited to ground work so they don’t get hurt by trips or throws.

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One martial art with relatively strong management is Judo, which focuses more on throws and takedowns, but like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, has its roots in a lineage of Japanese forms of Jiu-Jitsu. Judo is an Olympic sport and therefore has national and international standards, including safety protocols issued in the United States by USA Judo. However, the sport has safety issues: a 2009 study documented the deaths of 118 children who participated in school judo clubs in Japan since 1983. The study and investigations by the Japanese Olympic Committee and the Ministry of Education led to some reforms in the country’s judo system. Judo.

Many in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community have rejected suggestions that the martial arts become an Olympic sport specifically due to resistance to further regulation. Sports sectors prefer to focus on their development in the same way that promotional companies such as the UFC used to do with mixed martial arts.

The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation, one of the main competitive bodies for the sport, sets regulations for competitions, but not procedures and training standards for gyms. Some of the sport’s practitioners say the federation’s rules, which allow the use of some risky maneuvers in major competitions, affect the way students are taught at lower levels.

Tom De Blas, a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion who has also competed in the UFC and Bellator, said he doesn’t think a uniform standard is viable given the way gyms operate now. “A lot of people don’t like people telling them what they can and can’t do,” he said.

DeBlass, who runs Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Ocean County in Forked River, New Jersey, said he believes the gyms and coaches themselves will continue to set the standards, so it will be up to students like Milosevic to decide which gyms will stay in business. “When a 45-year-old comes in, does that person feel comfortable? Do you feel safe?” DeBlass said, adding, “If the answer is no, you’re doing it wrong.”

Milosevic is aware of the dangers inherent in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other martial arts. But he believes that the risks and the spread of injuries are evidence that the sport needs to take safety standards seriously. “There’s definitely a way to limit the odds and the high risk of getting injured when you’re a rookie and players are literally trying to crush you and use you as training,” Milosevic said. “There needs to be a more stringent standard.” / Translated by Renato Prilorenzo

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