May 23, 2024

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 with a limp, after injuring his left knee while sparring with an instructor, and a distaste for one of the fastest-growing martial arts for self-defense and competition.

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

The sport’s popularity has surged in recent years, spurred by its effectiveness in professional mixed martial arts and frequent promotion by the likes of Joe Rogan, the podcaster and Ultimate Fighting Championship analyst. Mark Zuckerberg, the Meta chief executive, started Brazilian jujitsu as a hobby during the coronavirus pandemic and recently competed in his first tournament. (He has also jawed back and forth with Elon Musk about a “cage match” that appears to be more bluster than reality.)

Brazilian jujitsu is often billed by those who practice it as accessible, effective for self-defense, technically challenging, physically rewarding and relatively safe compared with other combat sports. Some say it is closer to playing chess than to fighting.

But that marketing often does not match the realities on the mats. Trust in Brazilian jujitsu is everything because mere ounces of extra pressure applied during a submission can lead to a torn tendon or a broken bone. Yet student safety is left to the discretion of instructors and training partners. That has prompted debate throughout the sport about oversight and whether some dojos and gyms are hurting the reputation of the martial art.

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

Milosevich said he heard his knee pop when the instructor applied the heel hook and immediately felt “stabbing pain.” He spent the next three months limping and unable to run while working as a community relations officer with the police department in Santa Monica, Calif., though he did not go to a doctor to be evaluated. It was another three months before the knee fully healed, he said.

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

He believes the danger comes from some gyms encouraging a culture where new students are seen as “fresh meat” during intense training sessions. “You go in there and you’re going to get tested and they’re going to hurt you,” Milosevich said.

His complaints echo those of others who have been part of the sport, from students and from gym owners. Some of the debate has played out within popular online forums for Brazilian jujitsu. And some injuries have led to lawsuits.

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

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

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

Greener cataloged his harrowing recovery, which included a series of strokes, emergency surgery and an arduous rehabilitation process, in a blog. He has since regained his ability to walk, going so far as to summit Mount Whitney. “By every medical account, I should not exist, let alone be breathing or walking,” he wrote.

Lawsuits like Greener’s appear to be rare in U.S. courts. Far more common, however, are the injuries sustained to joints and other extremities, like what happened with Milosevich.

“There’s this belief that jujitsu is the safer of the combat sports and that you can go all out with relatively little risk of injury,” said Alex Channon, a principal 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 the popularity of Brazilian jujitsu rises.

“Never, in American history, have we seen such a fanatical on-boarding of participants in a martial art as we are now seeing with Brazilian jujitsu,” said Rener Gracie, a member of the Gracie family of martial artists largely credited with developing and popularizing Brazilian jujitsu in the United States. His uncle Royce Gracie was the surprise star of the first U.F.C. event in 1993, where he swiftly won three bouts on the same night using Brazilian jujitsu techniques.

Rener Gracie owns Gracie University, a 2,000-student gym located in Torrance, Calif., and provided expert testimony on behalf of Greener in Greener’s case. Gracie was paid over $100,000 for his testimony, he said in a social media post, a sum that led to pushback within the sport, which prompted him to pledge a $100,000 donation to a nonprofit supporting people hurt by spinal cord injuries.

Gracie said in an interview that the proliferation of Brazilian jujitsu schools in recent years has caused a substantial variation in the way the martial art is taught and how safety is practiced. Many newcomers, who may have heard about the benefits of the martial art from a podcast or from watching U.F.C. bouts, don’t understand that some gyms operate under much harsher training conditions than others, he said.

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

Beginner 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 test into more advanced classes and spar. When asked about the need for safety standards in Brazilian jujitsu, Gracie replied: “My response is look at my organization. I’ve taken great steps to create a standard.”

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

“Martial arts is the sport that’s really slipped through the net,” said Ali Bayley, the owner of Gracie Barra Hastings, a 300-student Brazilian jujitsu gym in the United Kingdom (Gracie Barra Hastings is separate from and unrelated to Rener Gracie’s gym).

Bayley said she has implemented numerous safeguarding practices learned from a career spent in secondary education. She said her coaches go through background checks and training for safety and first aid, while beginners are not taught submissions and are limited to ground work for sparring, so they don’t get hurt from trips or throws.

One martial art with comparatively strong governance is judo, which focuses more on throws and takedowns but like Brazilian jujitsu traces its lineage back to Japanese forms of jujitsu. Judo is an Olympic sport, and thus has national and international standards, including safety protocols issued in the United States by U.S.A. Judo. The sport does have its own safety issues, however: a 2009 study documented 118 deaths of children participating in school-affiliated judo clubs in Japan since 1983. The study and inquiries by the Japanese Olympic Committee and education ministry led to some reforms for judo in the country.

Many in the Brazilian jujitsu community have rebuffed suggestions that the martial art become an Olympic sport precisely because of a resistance to more regulation. And parts of the sport would rather focus on building it up the way promotional companies like the U.F.C. have for elite-level mixed martial arts.

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

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

DeBlass, who runs Ocean County Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Forked River, N.J., said he believes standards will continue to be set by gyms and coaches themselves, which leaves it up to students like Milosevich to ultimately decide which gyms stay in business.

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

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

“There is definitely a way to limit the possibilities and the high risk that you’re going to get injured when you’re brand new and guys are just literally trying to smash you and use you as practice,” Milosevich said. “There could definitely be a higher standard.”

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