By Scott Davidson
For many practitioners, it is difficult to narrow jiu jitsu down to one definitive characteristic. When asked “Why do you do it?” many would be hard pressed to give a single answer. While the Art Suave helps to develop a very discernible set of physical skills, it also works on a number of internal aspects, such as creative expression, mental toughness and a sense of personal improvement, which are much harder to nail down.
Few other sports or pursuits develop these skills in the same way. However, skateboarding may be one of the few activities that does. Jiu jitsu’s connections to skateboarding’s older brother, surfing, are much more established. From the beaches of Rio to the coastline of southern California, jiu jiteros have been riding waves between training sessions for ages. It was surfers who wanted to take their sport on land that gave rise to skateboarding and created an entirely new sport that much like jiu jitsu, is defined by not only physical and mental dimensions, but ultimately, the pursuit of self-improvement as well.
Tom Knox isn’t the only skater who’s added jiu jitsu to his life. Skateboarding legend Bob Burnquist has also been spotted on the mats recently.
While skateboarding’s connections to jiu jitsu are less well-known than jiu jitsu’s love affair with surfing, a number of high level athletes from both skating and grappling have been crossing over and combining their passions for years. Kron Gracie is perhaps the most famous skater in the jiu jitsu world, but there are many others.
“I’ve met quite a few people on the mat who also skate. I’ve skated with Jeff Glover and Magid Hage in Guatemala while we were touring around before a competition there,” said Jonathan Satava, the New York-based competitor and Marcelo Garcia black belt. “I’ve also skated with Marcelo Garcia and I’ve seen videos of Lucas Lepri hitting a kickflip. Even though we might not always get acknowledged, we are out there.”
Satava, who recently took double gold at the IBJJF No Gi Pan Ams and added a silver at No Gi Worlds, is another example of a high level competitor who got his start in skateboarding. Long before he was winning IBJJF titles, Satava spent his youth learning kickflips and sliding rails on a skateboard.
“I had a friend in school that was really into skating – like one of those kids that just couldn’t seem to get enough. He would bring those Tech Deck finger skateboards to science class and we’d flip them around the entire time,” he said. “I kind of knew what all the tricks were because of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video games, but I was just fascinated by it all and eventually, I found time to pick up a board myself. It was around the time the other kids in my neighborhood got into skating, so it was good timing and it introduced me to a whole new culture.”
Satava started skating when he was twelve years old and still skates to this day. He says that although he had some martial arts experience as a kid, he didn’t find jiu jitsu until he was eighteen when he joined a club while he was in college, and was instantly hooked. “I still skate occasionally, but it’s not what it used to be because jiu jitsu is my priority now. It’s funny, I see stairs that I used to ollie as kid and I wonder if I could still do it, but with jiu jitsu as my career, I can’t risk getting hurt. I like to tell myself I could still do it though,” he said with a laugh. Satava added that he still enjoys skating and learning new tricks, but that it’s mostly about spending time with friends and enjoying their shared passion for the board.
Tom Knox got his first taste of grappling through judo. As a child, Knox and his brother travelled across the United States competing in numerous national-level tournaments. However, in 1983, a young Knox found an old skateboard in his garage and discovered a new love. Knox continued competing in judo for another four years while simultaneously developing his skills on the board. At age 16, he reached a crossroads and was forced to pick between judo and skating. He chose skateboarding and in 1989, turned pro with the infamous Santa Cruz Skateboards team.
Knox was immediately successful as a professional skateboarder, winning contests with legends of the sport like Mike Vallely in the field and filming video parts with some of the biggest companies out there. It was not until 1997 when Knox went back to school at Fresno State in California that he got back into judo through the school’s club. There, he met a group of jiu jiteros who sparked his interest in the sport. In 1999, Knox started training with Mauricio “Tinguinha” Mariano. Over the next few years, Knox bounced between gyms in southern California before settling at Cleber Luciano’s gym in Huntington Beach, where he would go on to receive his purple, brown and black belts. In 2008, Knox opened his own gym, Elite Team Jiu Jitsu.
Though Knox now competes in jiu jitsu, recently taking a silver medal in the Masters’ 4 black belt division at the IBJJF European Championships, he has not hung up his board. Before the Europeans, Knox posted a video from a skate park in Portugal, which he called his “warm up” for the tournament. “I can go pretty much anywhere in the world now and put out an Instagram post and say ‘who wants to skate?’ and guys literally just show up to the hotel and start taking me around,” Knox said. “I did that in Lisbon recently and they took me to some parks and to the beach. It’s really cool to have that access.”
Knox isn’t the only skater who’s added jiu jitsu to his life. Skateboarding legend Bob Burnquist has also been spotted on the mats recently. Knox said that other notable skateboarders such as Chet Thomas and Brian Sumner have also started training in jiu jitsu. Joel Tudor, who holds a black belt from Rodrigo Medeiros and is an ADCC veteran and IBJJF Pan Am champion, was a professional skater and surfer before turning to jiu jitsu full time.
Balancing skateboarding and jiu jitsu is sometimes difficult, according to Knox. He recently filmed a video part with Transworld Skateboarding, one of the longest running skateboarding magazines and who filming with is considered a major accomplishment amongst skaters. At the same time however, Knox still finds time to grow his own gym and train himself. “When I’m skating, I think ‘don’t get hurt so you can’t train,’ and when I’m training I think ‘don’t get hurt so you can’t skate,” said Knox.
Developing a physical edge
While jiu jitsu is known as “the gentle art,” most people who practise it will tell you that it can be anything but that sometimes. Despite the nickname, jiu jitsu practitioners, and especially competitors, develop a physical toughness that is unmatched, aside from other combat sport athletes and maybe skateboarders.
“In skating, you fall a lot to get it right,” Satava said. But what makes skaters so tough? Jiu jiteros hone their art on padded mats, but skaters practise on concrete, a surface that is significantly less forgiving. Just like in jiu jitsu, twisted limbs, bruises and broken bones aren’t all that uncommon in skateboarding and simply come with the territory. Knox echoed Satava’s thoughts on the topic, but also spoke of how skateboarding helps to develop skills such as balance and physical strength, which translate well to jiu jitsu.
“They’re sports that go hand and hand and I think they both benefit each other. If we’re talking about sports, the core strength and balance you develop in both is important,” said Knox. “And the toughness, like c’mon, us skaters take a beating. The balance you develop in skating carries directly over and makes you hard to sweep and take down.”
Watch skateboarders and it’s easy to see what Knox is talking about. The sense of balance one develops learning to stand on a skateboard, let alone sliding down a handrail or jumping down a set of stairs on one, is inherently similar to jiu jitsu and gives one an edge in grappling. Additionally, skaters develop a certain body awareness and physical dexterity, especially with their feet, that carries over to jiu jitsu. Both open guard play in jiu jitsu and flipping a skateboard take a high degree of dexterity with one’s feet and legs. There are very few activities that develop this skill, but skateboarding and jiu jitsu are again similar in this respect.
The Learning Curve
Another thing jiu jitsu practitioners will tell the untrained is that it’s hard to compare how the art is learned with anything else. Anyone who has made it past white belt knows that jiu jitsu has one of the steepest learning curves of any pursuit out there, and that learning it isn’t simply a matter of studying or reading a book. In jiu jitsu, there’s no substitute for mat time and the blood, sweat and tears that come with it.
Skateboarding is much the same. Just as it can take weeks or even months to learn fundamental jiu jitsu skills, getting a handle on even the most basic skateboarding tricks can take just as long. For some, even standing on the board can prove to be difficult.
Ultimately, it comes down to the individual in either sport. It takes not only a great deal of willpower, but also an unwavering desire to learn through failure. “They’re both individual sports. You obviously need a partner to train jiu jitsu, but when you’re out there competing, it’s you versus them,” Knox said. “It’s similar when you’re out skating and trying to land a trick on a rail or something.”
Both skateboarding and jiu jitsu require a great amount of attention to detail. Both jiu jitsu techniques and skateboard tricks require continual refinement and adjustment. The smallest mistakes can be the difference between success and failure. “You have to keep drilling things. You have to keep doing armbars and stuff before you get it down. It’s the same in skating; you can’t just do a trick once and think you have it wired. You have to keep doing it or you’ll lose it,” said Knox.
Satava noted how skateboarding and jiu jitsu require the same degree of attention to technicality and patience for refinement. “The learning process is similar in both. There’s a technical analysis of what you’re trying to do,” Satava said. “In skating, you keep adjusting it until you nail the trick. Once you get it, you keep raising the level. Can you do it again? Can you do it over or off something? Can you chain it together with other tricks you’ve already mastered? If you think about jiu jitsu, it’s the same: can you do an armbar? Can you hit it on a blue belt or a brown belt? On a big guy? On a fast guy? Can you connect it to a sweep attempt or guard pass?”
In Pursuit of Self
Jiu jitsu practitioners and skateboarders share one fundamental, defining characteristic; their independent nature. Undoubtedly, the two sports have a team and social aspect, but both are inherently individual sports. As Knox said, jiu jitsu competition is very much “you versus them.” Skateboarders fight similar battles, but against obstacles such as rails, ramps or gaps. “Jiu jitsu and skateboarding are similar communities. At their core, both sports are independent,” Satava said. “You always have a team or crew, but when it comes down to performance, it’s mostly on you.”
What draws people to these pursuits? While team sports attract one type of individual, individual sports such as jiu jitsu and skateboarding attract another type entirely. These types of people thrive on being the lone wolf, but more importantly, on another deeper trait; individual expression. Simply put, jiu jitsu and skateboarding provide athletes with an avenue to express themselves creatively.
Take any two jiu jitsu competitors and you’ll find unique twists on techniques, each suited to the practitioner’s physical attributes and personality. Take another two and you’ll see drastic variations in style. Just like jiu jitsu practitioners, no two skateboarders are exactly the same. With thousands of tricks and things to skate and an even greater number of skaters out there, the possibilities are similarly endless. Everyone does tricks a little differently or views the things they skate in a new way.
“You look at skateboarding and everyone has their own style. In jiu jitsu too, you’ve got guard players; there’s open guard, spider guard, half guard and you have top players, leg draggers and so on. The two sports are so similar once you start breaking it down,” said Knox.
One and the Same
Jiu jitsu and skateboarding exist in the same world and in similar spaces. Both sports were born out of outlaw roots, with jiu jitsu coming from no-holds-barred combat sports and skateboarding coming from the punk rock scene. Balance, strength and toughness are requisites in the two sports as well (luckily for athletes, both sports do an outstanding job of developing these traits). Learning to skateboard or to do jiu jitsu is similar in that it requires a great deal of attention to detail, a mind for technical adjustments and most importantly, an unshakable drive to improve. Finally, jiu jiteros and skaters flourish due to the independent nature of their chosen sports and because of the freedom of expression they are providing by pursuing them.
With so many parallels, clearly skaters can learn from jiu jitsu and jiu jitsu practitioners can learn from skateboarding. “The two are so similar that skating has helped me view jiu jitsu through a different lens and vice versa,” Satava said.
Don’t forget to check out Gracie’s new online instructional website, Roger Gracie TV