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The Evolution of a Game

Desmond Stockard BJJ Brown Belt

Desmond Stockard is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt out of Kaijin MMA in Santa Cruz, CA.  I was introduced to mixed martial arts about 5 years ago through a blog called Five Ounces of Pain, which was written by Tim Burke, who currently writes for Bloody Elbow, and Desmond.  Their enthusiasm for the sport was contagious and following their writings helped me to become a well-informed MMA fan.  Their writings also led to my first steps into the world of BJJ.

Today I am pleased to introduce you to Desmond and talk a little about how a jiu jitsu practitioner’s “game” evolves over the course of his or her training.  I’ve included video links for each concept that may not be familiar to everyone.

Sally:  Thank you so much for joining me today, Desmond.  As I’ve said, I first read your articles five years ago on Five Ounces of Pain; how long have you been training BJJ? How did you get started?
Desmond:  I have been training jiu-jitsu for about 7.5 years, including injury time. I wanted to walk onto the track team when I came to UCSC and get back into high jump and triple jump, but when I showed up I realized UCSC didn’t have a 400M track or pits. I didn’t want to have to do it at the local high school so I was over it. One day, a guy named Garth Taylor handed me a flyer and asked if I wanted to come try the jiu-jitsu class. I knew a little bit about it because I had watched some MMA at the time, but not much. I showed up the next Tuesday and trained with the class. I knew immediately I wanted to do it so I went to my dorm room, jammed a pair of scissors into my earrings, and broke them trying to open and remove them; I was sold after one class.
Currently, I train at Kaijin MMA in Santa Cruz.  I started with Garth Taylor and Paul Schreiner.  Since then, Paul has taken a position teaching at Marcelo (Garcia)’s school in NY.  Garth got second place at the Mundials in 2001 at Black, and medaled at every belt.  Clement Shields (brother of Jake, UFC), teaches there and murders me at the gym every day. 
Sally: I can totally relate to what you said about being sold after one class; that’s how I felt after my first BJJ class at Titans, my current club.  I knew immediately that I was going to switch from the club where I had previously been training.  You know when you’re home.
No one really knows what they’re doing when they’re a white belt; at least not for the first year or so.   The guys I train with are so much better than I am that I’m still mostly in defence mode even though I’ve been training for 4 years; was it the same for you or were you able to progress more quickly?
Desmond:  I don’t think I knew what I was doing until my second year at blue belt, to be honest.  I did well in white belt tournaments because I had a good closed guard / cross choke / triangle game and I was much taller than the people in my weight division.  But I don’t think I knew much of anything at all; I just happened to be a reasonably athletic guy with a couple of good options.  I think I progressed fairly quickly because I had a lot of good people to train with in my first year that murdered me every single day and great instructors (Garth Taylor and Paul Schreiner).  When I started there were only one or two other white belts.  The class was small, but the other people were really good blue and purple belts who were winning mid to high level tournaments.  To this day, I think my defense is good because of those first two years getting crushed with great instruction and a dedication to the basics.
  Sally: Looking back to your time as a white belt, is there anything you would have done differently?  How often were you training at that point?
Desmond:  I would have written down what I had learned every single class in a notebook of some kind.  The hardest part about being new is remembering everything that you learn in a week.  If you write it down and go back and read what you wrote down, it will help tremendously with what you remember and then apply in the next classes.
I was only training three days a week for my first year, which at the time felt like a lot.  I was sore often and not doing any weightlifting of any kind, but I was training on campus and I didn’t have a car.  I would have trained as often as possible as well.  Being able to train five or six days a week would have been fantastic for my learning curve.
I would have competed sooner and as often as possible.  Learning to be comfortable in a tournament is different for everybody, but it took me almost three years.  That’s way too long so you want to get comfortable as soon as possible.  And the only way to do that is to compete more often.  This is very important because the higher belt you are the harder it is to find tournaments unless you have the kind of job and money to fly anywhere, which I certainly don’t. So get those tournaments in early.
Sally:  I never remember anything I see in class;  I have to watch videos over and over again for anything to sink in. I think if I could go back in time I’d watch more instructionals by people like Emily KwokRyan Hall or Marcelo Garcia and I’d develop a preliminary game plan.  Jason Scully developed a spreadsheet for his white belts to write out their top 4-5 submissions from each position.  I remember so many times FINALLY getting mount and just sitting there because I couldn’t think of what to do next.  I think knowing your plan in advance could help to prevent brain farts like that. What is your game like now?  Is it still primarily a guard game?
Desmond:  It’s a very different game now for a couple of reasons, but the biggest reason is I tore my ACL in my right knee two weeks after getting my purple belt and my triangle game was pretty much gone completely.  The second is that in a lot of ways it’s easy to stall inside of a closed guard if you are on the same level as your opponent.  And generally you compete with people with or around your ability.  A closed guard game does not lend itself well to the black belt division because everyone is so good in a position like that.
I play an open guard game with straight arm bars, but mostly it’s a sweep and pass game.  I play a version of the snake / x-guarddeep half guard, and some stuff that’s kind of my own due to my skill set.  I didn’t invent anything, but I’m unusually strong in a couple of positions with my legs so I go with my strengths and lift people and get underneath them pretty well.  I’m been playing with Berimboloreverse De la Riva, and 50/50 because you have to be prepared for everything, but it’s not my “bread and butter” or anything.
I play a heavy passing game, which forces me to half guard often and so I pass from there frequently.  Generally I finish with a straight arm bar (right now) from the top position as well.  That and a guillotine are my best finishes at the moment from the top.  I also finish with a cross choke from mount and from the back.  I’m not a great finisher like some people are, but I’m consistent and I can finish decently from my positions.
Sally:  What is your competition history?

Desmond:  I’d like to compete more, but I would have to travel to do it and it’s expensive.  I probably do just well enough to get a gi or some entries reimbursed, but I’m lazy and haven’t asked.  I compete 4 or 5 times a year, but in a perfect world, I would compete 8 or 10 times a year.

I do really well in the mid sized tournaments and do okay in the big tournaments, but I haven’t placed in them.  Recently I came in second in the American Cup at Brown Heavy (Brown Open 2011 – 2nd, Purple – 2nd Light heavy, 2nd Middle).  I had a very close fight with the guy that came in third in the Pan Ams.  I usually medal every year at US Open which is our big local tournament (White – 2nd Light, Blue – 1st Light, 3rd Open, Purple – 2nd Light Heavy, 3rd Middle).  And then in the smaller tournaments I almost always won those.

I could probably do better in tournaments, but I work full time so I can’t train as much as I would like.  I’m good enough to have a competitive fight with anyone in my weight division, but I’m still working on bringing my cardio up to speed from the weight class jumps.  My plan is to train twice a day starting in late August and we’ll see how the next year goes.
Sally:  You also supplement your jiujitsu training with Olympic lifting.  As you know I recently interviewed Jahed Momand and that was our topic of discussion.  You’re quite serious about Olympic lifting and have competed in it also; which did you start first and if it was BJJ, did you notice a difference in your performance after you began lifting?
Desmond:  I started BJJ in October of ’04.  I started CrossFit in ’08 and switched to only Weightlifting in ’10.  I don’t know that I was ever very serious about Weightlifting, but I was over CrossFit and I wanted to get better at Weightlifting and to get better at anything it helps to focus on it.
I was certainly a lot stronger from concentrating on Weightlifting as I was squatting everyday heavy.  Every day was heavy day so I was significantly stronger, but I’m not sure it mattered that much for my jiu-jitsu on a day-to-day basis.  What helped me the most was snatching because my hips were kind of tight.  Sitting in the bottom of a snatch helped my hips tremendously and allows me to pass heavier because my hips are much more open.  If I do nothing else and stopped lifting tomorrow, it would be worth it for that reason.  If you look at someone like BJ Penn, one of the reasons he is such a great passer is because his hips are so low and they feel so heavy. The more open your hips are, the more weight you can make your opponent carry.  It’s a very good attribute to have.
Sally:  I find it so hard to maintain top position and because of that I have very little experience with submissions from side control, mount, etc.  What do you mean when you say you have heavy hips?  Are there other strategies you use to make your opponents uncomfortable and unable to sweep from the bottom?

Desmond:  You probably want to create a game that goes to the back because if you are significantly smaller than people it’s going to be hard to stay in top control when they can just bench press you off of them.

By heavy hips, I mean the ability to make the person carry your “weight” while you are passing or are in a dominant position.  The more weight that person carries the harder they have to work while they are underneath you.  If you think about heavy, stifling passers, you think of people like Roger or Jacare.

There are numerous strategies I use to make it difficult for my opponent, but in a general sense all great passers do a couple of things right (note: I’m not a great passer, I’m an okay one).  The first thing they do is win the grip game and have better grips than their opponent.  If you can’t dominate your opponents grips, you will not pass.  After that, great passers pass up the opponents body piece by piece at joints — ankle, knees, hips, passed.  There are many great ways to pass, but keeping the hip isolated on a side to limit your opponents guard options is usually necessary as well (Ex: Mendes – leg drag passes to the back side, Marcelo – half guard passes, hip isolated flat, arm outstretched, cuts through, Roger – Crushing weight, no mistakes, meticulous, both directions, and ALWAYS passes).
There’s no perfect one way to pass and you play with your body’s natural attributes, but like anything, practice and find out what works for you.  If you’re a smaller person, you might want to create passes that go to the back because being in side mount might not be the best place for you.
Sally:  I watch a lot of the Marcelo Garcia instructionals because I think his game is a good one to aspire to for smaller people.  I still have a hard time staying on the back because my legs are so short, though.  I’m also working on developing submission sequences from different positions and transitional “attacks” since I get thrown off so easily.  I still haven’t really learned to use the gi to my advantage when it comes to grip battles.
Even though I’ve been training for 4 years, I still feel like a beginner and I would consider my game to be sloppy.  I try to move too fast, too.  When you talk about passing one body part at a time are you saying it’s better to move more slowly?  Do you feel the passing game you’re playing now is one you’ll stay with and refine as you go to black belt or do you find yourself evolving into a different player?
Desmond:  Marcelo’s pretty short and I haven’t seen him have any trouble staying on someone’s back because his legs are short.  I’ve seen him stay on the back of 300 lb guys without any problem.  It probably has more to do with how much time you spend staying on someone’s back and getting practice time in the position.
It doesn’t have to be fast or slow, but you can only pass as fast as you are capable of.  What you can’t do against people that are on your level is skip steps.  For example, I cannot just jump past someone’s guard that is as good, or better, than I am.  I’m going to have to pass piece by piece. As far as speed goes, I only go as fast as I can do something technically correct.  If you’re making mistakes due to speed, you need to slow down.  We tell new people to slow down all the time in the gym.
My passing will probably be mostly the same until I stop training.  I need to pass to the right side better, I need to be better with my grip game, I need to be more relentless, I need to have better base.  There are tons of things I need to be better at doing, but that goes for everyone who trains.  Everyone can get better.  But the principles of my passing game will be mostly the same.
Sally:  The good thing about BJJ is that there’s always something new to learn; it’s a never-ending puzzle.  I definitely learned a lot from you today, Desmond, and some of the video links I’ve added, like the Berimbolo, were ones I hadn’t seen before.  I can see that you take BJJ very seriously and I wish you continued success in your training and in tournaments.  Thank you again for taking the time to answer all of my questions and help me with my game!  It was fun!
If you’re smart you’ll follow Desmond on Twitter!  @thatdes



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