Ryan Hall is a grappler and mixed martial artist with a record of 8-1, currently undefeated in the UFC. He was only born in ’85 and has one of the greatest grappling minds in existence today. Lex Fridman sat down with him on his podcast and asked him the following.
What is Jiujitsu and why bother learning it?
“I think JiuJitsu is a philosophy that’s expressed physically. It’s the development of the mental capacity and physical capacity working in unison, to move efficiently and almost flowingly, unresistingly in a given situation with a physically resisting opponent. Learning how to generate force on your own, learning how to steal force from the floor, how to steal force from the other person, and move in concert with it, as opposed to clash against (which if you watch two untrained people fight it’s almost entirely a clash; it’s a run away and clash, run away and clash.) If you watch JiuJitsu done well, it looks like water moving around a solid structure. And I think that is expressed physically and I think anyone that has been able to do very well in JiuJitsu has been able to exemplify that, and I think that’s true of martial arts in general. I think that a lot of the times, the clashing that we see going on and working well is just the fact that you get very physically powerful people and every now and then they’re able to get away with this. That’s fantastic and ultimately it’s a results driven thing, but I think that the essence of the martial arts is to make more out of less, and how to move with, and be yielding. Almost like real-life Aikido.
I think you flow until you are the greater force, at that moment in time you can apply, but if you look at the best wrestlers, (and when I say best, I don’t necessarily mean the most successful, although the most successful are always very, very good) throughout the course of history, in boxing, in wrestling, in judo – they’re magical. They disappear and reappear, it’s like fighting a ghost. You could look at Flloyd Mayweather, Willie Pep, or Pernell Whitaker in boxing, as brilliant examples of disappearing and reappearing. When you’re strong it’s almost like guerrilla warfare; when you’re strong, I’m nowhere to be found. When you’re weak, you can’t get rid of me, and I think that’s what we’re (grapplers) looking for.
Musashi talked a lot about that, that the only goal of combat is to win – it’s outcome driven. Versus, the flourishing, cool-looking movements. Unless that had a utilitarian purpose, what are you wasting your time with that for, both in the fight and in practice? I want to learn how the body works in concert and in congress with something else and other forces, and move appropriately.
I think that the expression of anything physical is ultimately studied as a science but expressed as an art. And I think that’s something that gets lost in JiuJitsu a lot of the time. It gets a little nerdy like, ‘Do this, hand here, hand here,’ like the more details I have, the better, when in reality, at least in my experience, that’s not how it’s done.
Learning JiuJitsu is a discovery process and no one can cheat that process. Imagine I want to start writing books in second grade. Maybe I’m staggeringly brilliant, which I can only conceptualise someone being able to do that, maybe a Mozart of the English language could. But for most of us, we don’t have enough knowledge, enough information or enough experience to be able to express ourselves, so we have to basically ‘Input-Repeat’ which is important.
It’s the process of going through that, of getting your ass kicked saying, ‘Well this didn’t work, that didn’t work, that felt right but nobody else says that, I guess I don’t believe in that!’ versus eventually going, ‘I’ll just try going my own way and see what happens, I’ll get yelled at and people won’t like me, if it works people will say I got lucky and if it doesn’t work they’ll say I was dumb.’ Going through that iterative process that allows you to eventually find your self-expression, find your voice, so that you fight the same way that you speak, the same way that your write, the same way that you think, in a way that is uniquely you, that will also ultimately allow you to understand other people being uniquely them.
Even if you can only conceptualise, and I think about this a lot for society stuff, ‘Well this is how I feel about this,’ am I objectively right? Well, I might be about a couple of things but that’s a small box that I have to be very careful about what I think is objective versus what’s not, and I have to be open to the possibility that all the things I think are objectively correct may or may not be. That should allow me to have some degree of compassion and consideration for other people, both in their martial arts journey and in their journey as people and human beings. Because I understand that we’re all on a path, it’s all an iterative process of eventual self-expression.
I think that’s one of the things that we see when we see tribalism. Racism is an expression of that, political affiliation can be an expression of that, all of these things that can go in a really uncomfortable direction. People are looking for, ‘Hey, where do I plant my feet over here? Where’s the thing that I know is right? We can all agree on the following…’
I think we see that in martial arts, ‘Well, I do this style, I do that style,’ but hey man, we’re all just pushing forward in a certain direction, and trying to do our best. I understand why you feel the way you do, I may have felt like that at one point, too, but I’m just trying to learn and understand. Versus, ‘I’ve already acquired enough knowledge, let me cross my arms and start to look who’s fuckin’ up around here.’
It’s an interesting trap that I think is a very human trap to fall into, but it definitely happens early on. It’s even now a joke in the JiuJitsu world; the blue belt who knows everything. Well initially, it’s like, ‘I know nothing!’ and then it’s, ‘Well, at least I think I know nothing.’ Then I learn a little bit and think it’s a lot bit, then the more you learn, the more you go, ‘God, I don’t even know what I’m doing!’
What are the main positions and submissions in the art of JiuJitsu?
“I would just say that you have your arms bend in various ways. You have key lock Americanas, straight arm locks, Kimura-Omaplatas, (Kimura is an Omaplata, an Omaplata is a Kimura that’s executed slightly differently.)
Let’s just say that you’re a terminator, and I couldn’t harm you with any of these things, would I still use them? And the answer is yes, because they still create leverage, they create control, they create shapes that I can affect, that can affect me, and can be affected through other forces and other objects or structures, like the ground, or the wall. (I really enjoy mixed martial arts because there’s another component other than me and you. There’s me and you, and the floor, and the wall, and that’s another player that doesn’t exist in a grappling context in a non-enclosed area of combat.)
You can strangle me without my arms being involved. You can use my shoulder to pin one side of my carotid artery off and you can enclose the other. You can turn my knee in the exact same ways that you can turn my arm. So what I would say is the more I’ve been able to understand JiuJitsu, it’s given me a look into how we learn language. Where rather than learning 5 bazillion adjectives, I say, ‘I understand what an adjective is.’
We are all read in to some degree of vocabulary. I understand what an adverb does, and I understand what an adverb is. I know what a noun is, what the component parts of a sentence are, clause, contractions etc. And it allows you to be interesting and artistic with your language to the extent that you can.
I can speak a degree of Spanish, but I’m not even slightly artistic in Spanish. I speak like a child with a head injury. Understanding the English language allows me to have an understanding of the structure of the Spanish language but I am limited in my understanding of techniques. Let’s say techniques are like vocabulary. The orientation and organisation of a language, and I’ve talked about this a great deal, the way that I perceive the world is affected deeply by the language that I have learned. I have no idea how the Chinese language is structured, but I can only imagine that it’s like a different lens. We’re all looking at the same thing but I have a different set of sunglasses on than you do.
I’ll use the Quran as an example. Apparently it’s unbelievably poetic in Arabic. It was still neat and interesting reading in English, but I’m told by people that I trust that one doesn’t bear resemblance to the other. And I think that’s a very interesting thing; that you may be able to say the same thing, but I guess in a different way, in a more artistic way, that may not translate on a one-for-one fidelity.
The more that we’re able to understand about how the body works, the more examples of the body working this way and that way, the more that I’m able to eventually become an artist. But it has to be studied as a science first, and it does start with technique collection, vocabulary collection. The same way we learn in school where you remember how to say ‘quickly’ seventeen different ways. And let’s say I speak Spanish, and I only know three ways. So you might use an adverb like ‘quickly’ in Spanish in one of the many variations that I might not understand, and I sit there like, ‘Wait, what?’ I can’t be artistic, I can’t be as organic with the language as I would like. So I believe that JiuJitsu in a lot of times starts with the acquisition of a lot of ‘Hey, do this drill, do this technique. Here’s an Americana, an Americana to Armlock, an Armlock to a Triangle.’ But the problem with that is often times we get stuck in that phase. People eventually become move collectors or sequence collectors. And I notice this when I’m trying to do DVDs, or an instructional series, or even teaching a class, I don’t believe in that form of learning anymore. Not that it’s not valuable, but I don’t understand JiuJitsu on that level anymore, so what I’m trying to do is get across the basic ideas to people and say, ‘Hey, you need to fill in the gaps around going to class all the time.’ You need to go ‘Hey, learn that technique, learn this technique,’ because otherwise I’m basically just throwing at you seventy five different words that you could use, but that hasn’t really taught you how to speak a language. Whereas, if you give me a language, with structure, you can again fill in these pieces on your own and then eventually speak organically in your form, which will ultimately be unique to you. Because otherwise you’d end up being a weird fac simile of whatever it is that I’m doing, mostly for the worst, I’d say.”