Injuries in Brazilian jujitsu prompt introspection in the growing martial art | ET REALITY


When Erik Milosevich attended his first Brazilian jujitsu class, he hoped it would spark a mutual interest to share with his teenage daughter. Instead, he left the gym limping, after injuring his left knee while training with an instructor, and with a distaste for one of the fastest-growing martial arts for self-defense and competition.

Brazilian jujitsu offers a tantalizing proposition: that a smaller, weaker person can defeat a larger, stronger opponent in a fight. Jujitsu is known as the “gentle art,” based on a loose translation of the Japanese phrase, and swaps the punches and kicks of striking sports for grappling techniques, including chokes and joint manipulation, to help wrestlers to submit and subdue their opponents.

The sport’s popularity has increased in recent years, fueled by its effectiveness in professional mixed martial arts and frequent promotion by people like Joe Rogan, the podcaster and Ultimate Fighting Championship analyst. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, took up Brazilian jujitsu as a hobby during the coronavirus pandemic and recently competed in its first tournament. (He has also spoken to Elon Musk about a “cage match” that appears to be more boast than reality.)

Brazilian Jujitsu is often considered by its practitioners to be accessible, effective for self-defense, technically challenging, physically rewarding, and relatively safe compared to other combat sports. Some say it is closer to playing chess than fighting.

But that marketing often doesn’t match the reality on the mat. Confidence in Brazilian jujitsu is everything, because just a few grams of additional pressure applied during a submission can lead to a tendon tear or bone fracture. However, student safety is at the discretion of instructors and fellow trainees. That has sparked debate across the sport about oversight and whether some dojos and gyms are damaging the reputation of the martial art.

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

Milosevich said he heard his knee click when the instructor applied the hook to his heel and immediately felt a “shooting pain.” He spent the next three months limping and unable to run while working as a community relations officer at the Santa Monica, California, police department, although he did not go to a doctor to be evaluated. It was another three months before his knee completely healed, he said.

“It definitely hindered my mobility,” he said of the injury.

He believes the danger comes from some gyms fostering a culture in which new students are seen as “fresh meat” during intense training sessions. “You go in there, they will test you and they will hurt you,” Milosevich said.

Their complaints echo those of others who have been part of the sport, students and gym owners. Some of the debate has raged on popular online forums about Brazilian jujitsu. And some injuries have led to lawsuits.

In May 2023, a San Diego jury awarded Jack Greener nearly $46.5 million in damages for a catastrophic neck injury he suffered at a Brazilian jujitsu gym in 2018, a case that became a flashpoint. inflammation for followers of the martial art.

According to court documents, Greener suffered quadriplegia when he broke his neck during a sparring session with his instructor, Francisco Iturralde, at the Del Mar Jiu-Jitsu Club. Video of the incident posted on social media shows Iturralde attempted a modified version of an advanced technique known as the Leo Vieira back take, in which a wrestler rolls the opponent forward and ends up in position for a rear-naked choke. The jury said Iturralde had “unreasonably” increased the risks inherent in sparring in Brazilian jujitsu. The defense has since appealed the sentence.

Lawyers representing the dojo and its owner, Michael Phelps (not related to the highly decorated Olympic swimmer), declined to comment. Iturralde also declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. Greener’s attorneys did not respond to attempts to comment.

Greener cataloged his harrowing recovery, which included a series of strokes, emergency surgery and an arduous rehabilitation process, on a blog. Since then he regained the ability to walk, even reaching the top of Mount Whitney. “According to all medical reports, I should not exist, much less breathe or walk,” he wrote.

Lawsuits like Greener’s appear to be rare in American courts. However, injuries to the joints and other extremities, as happened to Milosevich, are much more common.

“There is a belief that jujitsu is the safest combat sport and that you can do as much as you can with a relatively small risk of injury,” said Alex Channon, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton who studies martial arts.

And the Greener case has led some in the sport to question how to implement higher standards of care as Brazilian jujitsu grows in popularity.

“Never in the history of the United States have we seen such a fanatical incorporation of participants in a martial art as we are seeing now with Brazilian jujitsu,” said Rener Gracie, a member of the Gracie family of martial artists who are He largely credits the development and popularization of Brazilian jujitsu in the United States. His uncle Royce Gracie was the surprise star of the first UFC event in 1993where he quickly won three bouts in the same night using Brazilian jujitsu techniques.

Rener Gracie owns Gracie University, a 2,000-student gymnasium located in Torrance, California, and provided expert testimony on behalf of Greener in the Greener case. Gracie received more than $100,000 for his testimony, he said in a social media post.a sum that sparked pushback within the sport, leading him to pledge a $100,000 donation to a non-profit organization that supports people injured by spinal cord injuries.

Gracie said in an interview that the proliferation of Brazilian jujitsu schools in recent years has led to substantial variation in the way the martial art is taught and in the way it is practiced safely. Many newcomers, who may have heard about the benefits of the martial art through a podcast or watching UFC fights, don’t understand that some gyms operate under much harsher training conditions than others, she said.

That has created a situation where students are effectively playing “Russian roulette” when they enter a gym, Gracie said.

Beginning students attending Gracie University are required to attend 23 group classes, where they learn a variety of fundamental techniques, Gracie said. Only after that can they try more advanced classes and train. When asked about the need for safety standards in Brazilian jujitsu, Gracie responded: “My answer is to look at my organization. “I have made great strides to create a standard.”

Unlike soccer, swimming and other sports, Brazilian jujitsu is not subject to rigorous standards typically used by federations that have international competitions and expanding channels that feed the elite levels of each sport.

“Martial arts is the sport that has really slipped through the net,” said Ali Bayley, owner of Gracie Barra Hastings, a 300-student Brazilian jujitsu gym in the United Kingdom (Gracie Barra Hastings is independent and has no relationship with Rener Gracie’s gym). .

Bayley said she has implemented numerous safeguarding practices learned during a career in secondary education. She said her trainers go through background checks and safety and first aid training, while beginners are not taught submission and are limited to field work for training, so they don’t get hurt by trips or falls. releases.

A martial art with comparatively strong governance is judo, which focuses more on throws and throws, but, like Brazilian jujitsu, its lineage can be traced back to Japanese forms of jujitsu. 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 its own safety problems: A 2009 study documented 118 deaths of children participating in school-affiliated judo clubs in Japan since 1983. The study and investigations by the Japanese Olympic Committee and the Ministry of Education led to some reforms for judo in the country.

Many in the Brazilian jujitsu community have rejected suggestions that the martial art become an Olympic sport precisely because of resistance to greater regulation. And some parts of the sport would prefer to focus on developing it like promotion companies like the UFC have done for elite mixed martial arts.

The Brazilian International Jiu-Jitsu Federation, one of the sport’s main competitive bodies, sets regulations for competition, but does not establish training procedures or standards for gyms to use during training. Some in the sport said the federation’s rules, which allow the use of some risky maneuvers in major competitions, influence how students at lower levels are taught.

Tom DeBlass, a former Brazilian jujitsu champion who also competed in the UFC and Bellator, said he doesn’t think a unified standard is feasible given the way gyms operate now. “A lot of people won’t like not being their own boss,” he said.

DeBlass, who runs Ocean County Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Forked River, New Jersey, said he believes gyms and the trainers themselves will continue to set the standards, leaving it up to students like Milosevich to ultimately decide which gyms they remain in operation.

“When your 45-year-old doctor walks through the door, does he feel comfortable? Do they feel safe? DeBlass said, adding, “If they don’t, you’re doing it wrong.”

For his part, Milosevich recognizes the dangers inherent in participating in Brazilian jujitsu and other martial arts. However, he sees the risks and prevalence of injuries as evidence that the sport needs to take safety standards more seriously.

“There’s definitely a way to limit the chances and the high risk of you getting injured when you’re new and guys are literally trying to crush you and use you for practice,” Milosevich said. “There could definitely be a higher standard.”

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