The Many-Faceted Fighter

Characteristics of Fighting Success

Do You Have What it Takes to Succeed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Submission Grappling?

For Students New to The Sport

If you are asking yourself: “Do I have what it takes to train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Submission Grappling?” you are not alone. It’s a daunting sport to enter. Watching your first class from the sidelines will give you a mixture of excitement and dread. You will be questioning every aspect of yourself as you make a decision. In short, you will discover that for every aspect of skill required in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, there are people who persevere in the sport due to strengths in a variety of areas. Be prepared for something completely different, but understand that despite your best efforts, it may not work out. Here are some characteristics to consider:

  1. Fitness and Weight
  2. Strength
  3. Size
  4. Aggression
  5. Technical Skill
  6. Fearlessness
  7. Flexibility
  8. Agility
  9. Competitiveness
  10. Physical Intelligence
  11. Physical Creativity
  12. Knowledge of your Opponent
  13. Knowledge of Yourself
  14. Showmanship

Characteristics that Define the Fighter

Many of these characteristics can be improved upon with work, such as strength, fitness level, and technical skill. Others can be changed slightly with substantial work, such as competitiveness. Others are difficult to change or control, such as aggression, agility, and physical creativity. I just scratch the surface of each of these characteristics. One could dedicate chapters and books on these subjects.

Fitness Level and Weight*

It almost always starts here. People who are “out of shape” often think they need to get into shape before joining. I suggest that you really are never going to be in shape enough to start grappling unless you are already grappling. Paradoxical, but it’s the same in every sport. Until you use the muscles and move in the way the sport demands, you won’t discover them though some other cross-training regimen. Get on the mats and get in shape there. Regarding weight control, I’ve seen more pounds shed on these mats than I can count. It’s hard work, but it can be done. And why not learn how to fight while you go through the hard labor of weight loss?

On our mats, the overweight train side by side with the super-fit. We’re all in it together. Fitness as a way of life, practiced through the sport of submission grappling. In the professional fighting context, mixed martial artists are well regarded as some of the most well rounded athletes out there. It is rare to find a successful fighter who doesn’t have an incredible fitness level.

As great as fighters Ken Shamrock and BJ Penn are, they have both lost fights because their opponent was better conditioned, not more technical. Ortiz did it to Shamrock and Matt Hughes did it to Penn.


The amount strength matters depends on the situation. If two opponents of similar skill faced off, strength would matter and would absolutely define the victor. Since it is rarely the case that two people are that closely matched in a fight, especially an unplanned street altercation, strength really doesn’t have the lion’s share of consideration. In training for competition, anything an athlete can do to legally improve their ability to win should be focused on. There is no doubt that strength training improves the overall athlete. If you are not naturally strong, you should weight train, use kettle bells, etc. If you are naturally strong, you can put it off, but eventually, you should consider resistance training to improve your game.


As I’ve said in other articles, size matters. While many proponents of this sport will point to great champions who overcame larger opponents, they neglect to say that those larger opponents had less skill, agility, or stamina than the smaller opponent. Taking a single factor into play against a like opponent in all other aspects, size matters. Like strength, the happy news is that most large guys out there don’t know a lot about fighting. Paradoxically, larger (or stronger) guys tent to learn the finer points of ground fighting slower than smaller guys since they can rely on their other assets. Technique comes later, and only when their size (or strength) is neutralized by an opponent of greater skill.

While nobody denies that MFS fighter Tim Sylvia is great, his size has clearly contributed to his success. Holland’s Semmy Schilt has experienced almost as much fame as Sylvia (from my biased North American perspective), with less talent and much more height. Bob Sapp is perhaps the most hyperbolically huge person with surprisingly little technical skill, stamina, fearlessness, or agility on the K-1 scene. His sheer size draws crowds as if to a freak show and help him smash unwitting opponents to pieces.


Aggression is an interesting quality, and one that surprisingly doesn’t help a refined fighter much. Aggression, simply stated, is the ease with which a fighter is willing to be violent or harmful. It is completely different from the desire to win, or more accurately, the complete distain for defeat. This attribute is the competitiveness, or the Desire to Win. Don’t confuse the two. An aggressive man may lose all desire to win at the slightest sign of pain, loss of position, or exhaustion.

You don’t need to be a naturally aggressive person to love the challenge of competition. I’m a very passive individual. I would never fight unless cornered or defending a loved one. Yet I love the combination of competition and challenge that comes when grappling on the mats. I don’t mean to overstate my case, but there may actually be a negative correlation. Overly aggressive guys generally clumsily hurt people. When this happens, they get ostracized (other guys don’t want to train with them) or even physically beaten by the senior students repeatedly to scare them off. It is rare that someone with the singular skill of aggression distinguishes themselves in the sport. On the other hand, a nice dose of controlled aggression combined with several other factors can make for a great fighter.

Technical Skill

Technical skill is the accumulated knowledge of a student and their ability to draw upon it when needed, with appropriate speed, strength, distancing, and precision. The sports of submission grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu celebrate technical skill like most martial arts and sports. Those with the most technical skill tend to be those who have accumulated the most realistic mat time against strong opponents and have been lucky enough to have solid coaching. Clearly being able to demonstrate technical skill requires significant agility, technical intelligence, and usually requires flexibility.

Technical skill is by far the most important of the characteristics that make a fighter great. When Randy Couture wore out Gonzaga against the fence in UFC 74, it was his technical skill that kept Gonzaga at bay. Sure, other aspects of the fighter helped (strength, fitness, fearlessness, desire to win), but it was Couture’s skill that allowed his much heralded body lock to disable Gonzaga. By far the most spectacularly technical fighters out there is Marcelo Garcia. Garcia has won the pinnacle competition, the ADCC, in his 66-76 kg weight division three times in a row. He has only lost against much larger opponents in the absolute division, generally in the finals. How Garcia wins is important: he almost always wins by submission rather than points, this is a key indicator of technical advantage over his opponents.


It takes a bit of bravery to face off with an opponent on the mats. It takes even more bravery to come back to class after getting your butt whooped a few times. I recall my early days as a white belt. I’d miss a couple of classes and think how easy it would be to never go back. I knew if I went back in, I’d get obliterated by the more advanced students. I think the pure excitement of learning such an effective fighting system kept me coming back. It overcame the fear. You don’t have to be fearless to be great. In fact, there is a fine line between bravado and stupidity. Knowing when to tap and when to back down in an unwinnable match will keep the injuries at bay.

Technically skilled students may become more fearless, simply because fear is all about the unknown. An advanced student knows what every submission feels like and knows their limits. An advanced student has a greater chance of winning a fight. Both of these greatly diminish fear.

Fearlessness is closely related to Desire to Win.


Flexibility is completely independent of all the other factors. I’ve seen overweight, physically unfit people with incredible flexibility. Conversely, I’ve seen some amazing fighters with significant limits to their range of motion in various limbs. Some people are naturally inflexible in certain parts. No amount of stretching, yoga, or conditioning will improve this more than a few percentage points. More flexible people can get out of tighter jams and can stay calm in very nasty physical situations. But I’ve got some very good fighters who are very tight. It matters, but won’t make or break your game on the mats.

Eddie Bravo’s flexibility has helped him redefine the sport of submission grappling. I also credit Eddie’s physical creativity in creating scores of new moves. Not everyone can succeed with the rubber guard. More flexible fighters have more options to put their body into shapes that help them succeed.

Agility and Balance

Agility is by far the most important characteristic of this sport. Agility, in context with this sport, is defined as the ability to move your body smoothly and precisely on command, from a multitude of angles, both with or without the full weight and strength of your opponent borne upon you. That’s a tall order for many students. Prospective students who ask me if they have what it takes to succeed on the mats are often times answered with this question: “Can you dance?” This is a good indication of agility, balance, physical creativity, and physical intelligence. After training over a hundred students at Austin Jiu-Jitsu, it is quite clear that the most agile students bubble quickly to the top of the stack of the group. Agile students fly past awkward ones. In the end, gyms that train in fighting sports have a pecking order. The most agile are often on top. It is rare that someone without agility will dominate.

Diego Sanchez’ balance and agility have helped him become one of the most successful fighters in his weight class. He outclassed Karo Parisyan, one of the most dangerous fighters in the world, in UFC Fight Night 6.

Desire to Win

(i.e. Will, Competitiveness, Confidence, Mental Strength, Mind Game)

Be very afraid of an opponent with copious amounts of competitiveness. An overly competitive personality in a poorly skilled opponent is dangerous to himself. These are they guys who never know when to tap and end up getting hurt and emotional when they lose an unwinnable fight. Conversely, a competitive personality in a highly skilled opponent is a treacherous opponent indeed. A desire to win is an outstanding quality that absolutely makes the difference between chumps and world champions.

An important part of the desire to win is the mental strength that allows a fighter to stare into the eyes of another. While some may call it an act, this display of confidence tests the will of the opponent. It’s not just a show when Vanderlei Silva stares down his opponent before a fight. It is Silva beginning to impose his will on the opponent.

Physical Intelligence

The Right-Brained Fighter has Muscle Memory

Physical intelligence is defined by a rapid ability to recall physical motion. Some people learn physical motion with fewer repetitions than others. I’ve seen this as completely independent of other forms intelligence. “Book smart” intelligent people don’t learn physical motion any faster and certainly can’t tap into that muscle memory any faster. The difference is how quickly muscle memory latches on and if it can be tapped when needed. If it’s not there when you need it, in an instant, you don’t have it.

People with greater muscle memory certainly learn faster in physical sports like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. If you don’t remember techniques well, you’ll need to “rep” techniques more. In the end, you’ll learn it if you commit the time to practice.

Physical Creativity

Left Brained Fighters define their own moves

Physical creativity is the ability to work out new situations with the movement of your body. For example, a physically creative person can discover new submissions or escapes quickly by untangling the numerous positional relationships between the fighter and the opponent. These are the guys who advance the sport and define the fighting system in terms of their own body, rather than simply mimicking the movements of others independent of consideration of the physical aspects of the differences of others.

The left brained fighter isn’t necessarily artistic off the mats, but on the mats they take the often times clumsy movements of fighting into something graceful and beautiful. Generally, a physically creative person is highly agile, but an agile person may not be physically creative.

An interesting question to ask is why advanced fighters so often end up making up their own moves? Is it primarily because advanced fighters have so much mat time to have successfully, through trial and error, created new moves? Or is it because only physically creative people make it to the advanced levels of this sport? It is very unusual to see a brown or black belt in the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu who hasn’t defined their own special sub-species of the sport.

Knowledge of the Opponent

Sun Tzu summed it up best “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Beyond simple knowledge, you need to know how to adapt your fight. You may know someone has great take-downs, but if you don’t work the sprawl, you’ll still end up on your back.

When Randy Couture beat Tim Silvia in UFC 68, he won the fight by knowing how to avoid the punching power of Sylvia. A new Randy Couture emerged at this fight: someone who bobbed and weaved like an experienced boxer.

Knowledge of your Own Limits

Don’t get pulled into a fight you can’t possibly win. Fighting an opponent out of your league isn’t smart. Of course, the prerequisite to this decision is knowing your opponent. Unless this is a friendly sparring match, if you can compare your skills and you can’t win, don’t fight. Unfortunately, cornered on the street, you have no choice. No matter what the odds, fight to survive, even if outgunned.

When Royce Gracie bravely stepped on the mats against Matt Hughes in UFC 60, he dramatically underestimated Hughes, but more significantly, overestimated himself. Royce shouldn’t have taken that fight. I’d guess it was about the money.


It may seem surprising to hear that showmanship in any way applies to the ability to fight, but showmanship is a mental game designed to get the crowd on your side and to get inside the head of your opponent. Nick Diaz is great at at goading his opponents. He’s so good at it, he even confused referee Steve Mazzaggati into mistakenly declaring that Diaz was somehow breaking the rules in the UFC. Nick knows how to piss people off. A pissed off opponent isn’t necessarily more dangerous, just distracted. Kazushi Sakuraba’s showmanship gets the crowd behind him almost every time. When he spanked Ryan Gracie in Pride, it created such a buzz, the media attention alone elevated Sakuraba’s stature as a “Gracie Killer.”

During matches, a fighter’s ability to conceal pain, pretend they are less challenged than they really are, and generally show no concern, is generally a successful approach. This poker face tactic prevents the easy “read.” If you know your opponent is in pain, tired, or afraid, you will pick up the attack.