No punches, knockouts or concussions – grappling is gaining ground as a “safe” martial art
Jackie Hughes was a fighter in one of the most brutal sports out there – Muay Thai.
It is a discipline that includes stand-up strikes, where punches are not only performed with fists, but also with elbows, knees and shins.
After claiming a clean win in her very first home game four years ago, the 36-year-old Adelaide lady showed all the promise of a rising talent.
However, a concussion before their fourth scheduled fight changed their path forever.
Taking hits to the head from strikes made Jackie question the risks of repeated concussion damage.
This eventually led to her quitting strike sports altogether and finding a new calling in what she describes as “safer” martial arts.
Along with husband Nick Hughes, Jackie has since put her heart and soul into what the couple calls “submission grappling” — a martial art focused on jiu-jitsu and wrestling that involves no punches, no knockouts, and no unnecessary risk of concussion damage .
The couple have since set up their own academy with the aim of teaching others that a passion for martial arts doesn’t have to come at the expense of your own safety.
The culture of silence in concussion
Jackie has come a long way when it comes to understanding martial arts and concussion injuries.
Describing the run-up to her second muay thai fight, Jackie said she “went through a couple of concussions”.
“I had a concussion two weeks after the fight and I just didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want them to pull my fight,” she said.
Silence about a concussion is common in martial arts.
Stephanie Convery, a journalist who authored a 2015 book titled After The Count about the death of Sydney boxer Davie Browne, writes that concussion statistics in martial arts are often underreported.
Concussions are sometimes kept secret by coaches because they can be perceived as weakness. In addition, the symptoms are poorly known, so they can easily go undetected.
Choosing not to talk about her concussion was something that caused Jackie to think more deeply about her relationship with strike sports and the culture of accepting head injuries.
“I got a really good look at it after my fight,” she said.
“I’m a little bit older, I’m 36 now, and you should just tell your coaches when things like this happen.”
“After that, it was pretty clear that this was dangerous behavior.
“I like to fight, don’t get me wrong, [but] If we look at long-term brain damage from concussion episodes, it’s a real thing.”
A safe environment
Meeting now-husband Nick played a role in changing Jackie’s trajectory.
Nick was a former mixed martial arts school head coach and had similar reservations as Jackie. He was concerned about continuing to train others in a sport that could endanger their safety.
By August 2021, the pair had decided to open their own academy, stepping away from strike sports entirely and focusing solely on submission grappling. The MatLab was opened in April 2022.
In recent years, Australia has seen a surge of renewed interest in submission martial arts such as jiu-jitsu.
Part of their popularity can be attributed to the fact that submission martial arts put the competitor in less immediate danger than boxing, muay thai and other mixed martial arts.
“You can’t beat them,” said Nick, The MatLab’s head coach.
“[Rather]you turn to a system of position-based grappling tactics to control and subdue your opponent.”
This is often referred to colloquially as a “pin and win” in grappling – a stark contrast to the MMA adage “ground and pound”.
As a coach, Nick bears responsibility for the safety of his students and competitors, but his coaching style encourages those he coaches to become familiar with safety concepts, rule sets, and the awareness that a submission can be won without violence.
The academy as a whole has stayed true to the couple’s original vision and concept.
“We wanted it to be a hub where people could come and learn,” Jackie said.
Johanna Aldersey, a 29-year-old woman who has been grappling for five years, said she first came to The MatLab because she was drawn to Nick’s coaching style.
Although Johanna competes regularly at the local and state level, she enjoys the community aspect of daily training.
“It [is] just like meeting up with friends every day,” said Johanna.
“There is a playful element. You are doing something that may seem aggressive [but] it’s like a play fight. You come here and fight with your friends and I really enjoy it.”
Consensual defeat is a protective measure inherent in sport
Submission grappling, as practiced by Jackie and Nick and taught at their academy, allows a losing opponent to maintain some level of control.
Grappling revolves around the idea of a “submission”, meaning that although the contestants are playing for points, if one of the contestants is unable or unwilling to continue, and can “knock” to indicate, the clear victory is awarded.
The fight ends when a competitor agrees to his own defeat.
Submission holds are based on anatomy and leverage. The armbar is a good example of this, where an opponent’s elbow joint is held in place by squeezing the arm between a competitor’s legs.
The pressure applied to the joint is sufficient to be felt and recognized by the defending competitor before a pause must be forced.
The brutality and suddenness of a knockout are thus completely avoided. Recognizing the threat of a physical fracture or the onset of a choke before it happens is key to playing the game.
“In grappling, the tap or the submission is always respected,” Nick said.
“Injuries can certainly occur as this is a full-contact competitive sport. However, if a practitioner directly chooses not to recognize an opponent’s punch, they will be disqualified from participating.”
“If a practitioner who receives the submission chooses not to tap, they are making a decision to face serious injury. I would never knowingly allow a student to choose to be injured. There would be a discussion with him if he still had that attitude.”
Because grappling favors technique over strength, women like Jackie can train with men and not necessarily feel disadvantaged.
At 5’4″ and currently competing in the under 140 pound weight class, she hopes that fact will continue to attract more women to the sport.
“I like the technical side of grappling,” Jackie said.
“I think you can beat technique [an opponent].
“As a smaller competitor, we often won’t beat the 80-90kg guys, but that doesn’t mean we can’t technically win.
“A lot of our training partners will be boys – it’s a male-dominated sport – [but] If we really look at the breakdown of grappling itself, there’s no reason we can’t submit the heavier male counterparts. And as a smaller woman, there’s nothing more satisfying.”
Both Jackie and Johanna not only survive in the world of submission grappling, they thrive in it.
A martial art that doesn’t try to test the limits of safety can ultimately give competitors – both male and female – a chance to find their place in it.
ABC Sport partners with Siren Sport to improve coverage of Australian women in sport.
Zayda Dollie is a sportswriter who believes in the power of athlete storytelling and hearing female voices. Her stories can be read on The Roar, Independent Australia and ABC Sport.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-08/grappling-safer-combat-sport-growing-more-popular/102043486 No punches, knockouts or concussions – grappling is gaining ground as a “safe” martial art