For the low-low price of $144 (plus additional belt testing fees), you can purchase a DVD set of 36 introductory BJJ lessons, practice them in your garage, film yourself repeating them, and earn yourself a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blue belt. No live sparring necessary.
Of course, I’m referring to online Gracie Combaties course offered by Gracie University. After viewing (and presumably practicing) the techniques shown in the instructional set, students are required to send a copy of a “drill video” to the Gracie University headquarters in Torrence, CA, where a certified instructor will grade the student based on their proficiency with the techniques shown in the video. The drill video is broken into 5 parts (mount, side mount, guard, standing, and “freestyle fight”).
Students are not required to wear a gi and do not need to demonstrate their ability to execute moves on a resisting opponent – even during the freestyle fight drill video, the “bad guy” (the term used by Gracie University for your drill partner) is not required to actively resist your techniques, but rather to attack you “realistically.” Of course, your partner won’t be trying to knock your head off, like an opponent would in the street. They’ll also presumably want to help you showcase your technical knowledge, and they aren’t going to stop you from pulling off your techniques. Even if they do, you can just re-tape your freestyle fight with a more accommodating partner.
Personally, I think this is an extremely bad idea. Simply being able to demonstrate techniques on a non-resisting opponent is one thing – pulling them off on a fully resisting opponent is another. This is what separates Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from most other traditional martial arts – BJJ makes extensive use of full-resistance sparring. Only through this method can a practitioner really know that his/her techniques really work.
I actually visited a “Gracie Garage” once upon a time, after I went back to my hometown for the holidays. For those who don’t know, a Gracie Garage is a dojo in which students train the techniques in the Gracie University videos in hopes of achieving their blue belt. After one such class, I asked if anyone was interested in rolling (a common term in BJJ for sparring). Nobody in the class (there were about 12 students) had even heard the term before. A few people reluctantly agreed, and after only a few minutes of rolling, it became immediately apparent to me (a white belt at the time) that these students hadn’t tested themselves against resistance. They were unable to execute the techniques they had practiced (and filmed themselves doing) on other students once resistance was applied.
There are some aspects of grappling that are not amenable to simple demonstration. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a tactile martial art, and the success you will have with many techniques depends on your pressure, your ability to react to your opponent’s movements, and your timing. These cannot be demonstrated in a static drill video. I’ve often heard that 130 lb black belts feel like they are 300 lbs when they maintain side control. This probably isn’t something you can see in a video.
To me, the online belting system that Gracie University offers embodies the martial arts “bullshit” that Penn and Teller exposed. The use of online instructional videos (as well as instructional DVDs) can certainly be a viable option for improving one’s ability. However, these training tools need to be used in conjunction with full-resistance sparring to ensure that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu doesn’t become mired in the same unrealistic idealism that many other traditional martial arts have fallen into.