Jiu-jitsu can be defined in many different ways. It has been regarded as a sport, a form of self-defense and, of course, a martial art. However, it should also be viewed as an art of self-expression. Like fine art, your jiu-jitsu is a reflection of your mind and your body. The way you think and the way your body works is what defines the type of techniques you use and develop. Jiu-jitsu becomes unique for every individual that uses it, and this is what makes the game we play so beautiful. For upcoming jiu-jitsu phenom, Keenan Cornelius, this couldn’t be any more true.
Over the last few years, Cornelius has been showcasing his skills on the top world stages; the IBJJF grand slams, World Pro, Copa Podio and ADCC. Over these same few years, we have seen a development in his game that resulted from keen observations he’s made in the academy.
“I was training the same stuff in the academy every day for years and it just became very tedious and boring. For a long time I was just playing spider guard and de la riva guard. So I decided to branch out and experiment more with other options. I wanted to be comfortable in all of the possible positions, just like Roger Gracie. But back then for Roger, there were fewer positions and more core techniques, so perhaps it was a bit different, but the concept is the same.”
In his quest for this completeness in his jiu-jitsu, Keenan sought to focus his work on the positions he thought were weak for him, and find ways to make them work.
“I needed to innovate. I took strange positions and figured out how to use them in my favor. That’s how the pancake guard came about for me. There was a position I learned from my teammate Jimmy, and he talks about using the cross grip for it. After I saw Marcelo Garcia using a similar grip in one of his videos, I started applying that to my own game. Generally the use of that lapel grip isn’t new, Cobrinha has been using it for years, but I have my own variation.”
Adaptation is one of the key factors in jiu-jitsu for any competitor. A practitioner has to recognize that jiu-jitsu is both an art and a science. You have to take the basics, but then shape them to your own needs. For Keenan, there isn’t necessarily a specific thought process that he follows to develop the techniques that work for him - he just ‘feels it out’.
“It all sort of just happens. The leg-stepping pass that I used on Paulo Miyao, for example, I first realized that on my own, but then I practiced it a ton for it to work. I realized that I had trouble passing a certain guard so I figured that instead of trying to bang myself up against a wall and try to break it down, I would just go around it. This was the mentality I took to figure out that move. Sometimes you have to step back and look at the technique with a different perspective – be creative.”
Creativity isn’t always something that can be taught. It is innate in all of us and everyone has a different level and type of creativity to work with. However, Keenan suggests a few mentalities that someone can take in order to maximize one’s creativity in their jiu-jitsu game.
“I always quote Bruce Lee to my students; ‘Learn everything and keep what works’. Don’t be afraid to take a technique and adapt it to your needs. You can make the necessary changes that work for you. Not everyone has the same body type and every technique works differently for each different person. There is no wrong or right way to do it. If it works, then it works.”
The two best examples that Keenan considers as the most unique players of the game are Leandro Lo and Marcelo Garcia.
“You can try to pass guard like Leandro Lo, but you won’t be able to do it exactly like him. Because the way he passes the guard is his own adaptation that works for his body. The same thing goes for Marcelo Garcia. He has a unique body type, with short and thick legs. What he uses is unique to him. Jiu-jitsu is like a kind of finger print, it’s unique to each individual and can’t be replicated exactly.”
That being said, practitioners should still take the time to look at techniques used by others, especially early in their careers, so they can try new things and then adapt them.
“Later in your jiu-jitsu career, you start developing your own game, but it’s definitely important to look at others people’s techniques when developing the building blocks of your style. You just won’t always be able to perform those techniques exactly like the others do. The best jiu-jitsu guys have just three or four techniques from each position, but they do them well and they work for them because they have adopted them and then adapted them well to their body type.”
Not only do techniques have to be adapted, but even after you’ve found your own way to perform a technique, it will constantly have to be redeveloped because there are counter-techniques being constantly invented by your opponents.
“I haven’t been in jiu-jitsu long enough to know the history of the techniques. But from what I know, back in the day, half-guard used to be the thing to do. Then there was the de la riva guard. The only new technique I have witnessed in its entirety is the berimbolo. I didn’t even know about the berimbolo until the Miyao brothers started using it. I had never watched the Mendes brothers or Samuel Braga do it. There are counters you can use for the berimbolo, but your counters have to be on the same level as your opponent’s berimbolo. Some guys have such good berimbolos that you’ll have no chance.”
It’s clear that the need to create will never end in jiu-jitsu. One of the best ways to meet this need is to brainstorm with your teammates - something that Keenan does once in a while with the higher-level black belts at team Atos in San Diego.
“I don’t conduct any formal research, I just look at things myself and then I’ll sit down with Andre Galvao and JT Torres to exchange different positions and see what we can come up with. But most of the time there is no process, I just notice things in training and competition, and try to add them to my game, like most people do I suppose.”
With the amount of training that Keenan does, it’s no surprise that he’s in the process of starting his own online library of techniques - currently in beta phase - where he will be sharing his latest creations and variations.
“I don’t teach anything traditional on there yet. I want to eventually add stuff like armbar from closed guard. But in the meantime, I’m just focusing on adaptations I’ve thought of for other techniques. But I can only come up with so many new variations, so that’s when the traditional stuff will kick in. I’ve been lucky that I have been in the spotlight lately so I’m able to start something like this and use it as an alternate income stream - as we all know, there are not many in jiu-jitsu. I also like to use this site as an alternative to doing seminars because after a hard week of training, I’d rather relax and look after myself than jump on a plane, travel all weekend and risk getting sick. I’ll only fly out if it’s to somewhere really cool.”
Whether it’s in the gym or abroad, Keenan is always trying to further dissect his own game in an effort to continually improve and push the boundaries of today’s jiu-jitsu.