Equipment Review – Gi Drawstring/Gi Cord (Z-Strings)

Short Review: If you’ve had problems with the traditional flat drawstring, then the Z-String may be a welcome step-up in quality and practicality. Speaking personally, I have never had any issues with the flat drawstring, but I know there are those who find that it bunches, particularly when wet. You may also simply enjoy customising your gi, in which case the range of four colours available from Z-Strings may appeal to you. Finally, it obviously works as a replacement string if the one on your trousers has broken. Available from the Z-Strings site for a slghtly expensive $10 each, here.

Full Review: In the years I’ve been running this website, I’ve both read and written plenty of gi reviews. Invariably, reviewers will have a preference for either the classic flat drawstring or the more recent round bungee cord. Generally speaking I’ve tended towards the traditional drawstring, but I don’t have a strong opinion either way. An increasing number of the gis I own have a cord, which has worked just as well. The only irritation I’ve had so far is that sometimes the cord is far too long, meaning that it dangles down to my knees before I tie it up. Due to that length it’s vulnerable to getting yanked and therefore becoming undone.

Actually selling the gi trouser cord separately, with a range of different colours, is an interesting concept. It reflects the increasing fashion element present in BJJ gis, which has accelerated over the last few years. This is despite the IBJJF attempts to clamp down on any divergence from the standard gi, with increasingly draconian and sometimes haphazardly applied rules at their competitions. The ridiculous scenario of forcing somebody to buy a new belt because it is the ‘wrong shade’ stands out.

As merely one tournament provider among many, the IBJJF fortunately does not have any executive power outside of its competitions, although its influence is difficult to completely ignore given that a medal from the IBJJF Mundials remains the most prestigious for a gi competitor. I’m not aware of any rules dictating gi cord choice, but it would not surprise me if the IBJJF imposed restrictions, should variety become more common. Either way, the Z-String is supposed to be an improvement on the classic flat drawstring, designed to avoid bunching, stay tied throughout a training session and provide customisation options to those who are so inclined.

The Z-String was created by David Zwanetz, a lawyer who trains at Crazy 88 in Maryland, a team previously associated with Lloyd Irvin. Zwanetz has assured me that the Team Lloyd Irvin affiliation no longer exists and that Z-Strings has no business connection to them or indeed anybody else. Nevertheless, he does continue to train and teach at Crazy 88, with a team logo on the Z-Strings website. If you’re unaware of why it is important to ask that question, read this factual summary of the deeply unpleasant revelations that have come out about Team Lloyd Irvin over the last few months.

Up until I received these gi drawstrings, I had no idea how to re-string a pair of trousers. The process is described fully in the video at the bottom of this review, embedded from the Z-Strings site, but for those of you concerned about bandwidth, I’ve put up some pictures. Taking it step by step:

1. Get a wire coathanger. Pull it straight, then create a loop at both ends by squashing the hook. Tape up any bits that stick out and could potentially snag on cloth.

2. Remove your current drawstring from a pair of gi trousers by pulling until you are able to pop the end out of the opposite side of the trousers, both on the front and back. If there is a thick knot, it will take a bit more force.

3. Put the coathanger through the front of the now-stringless trousers, so there is a loop sticking out of each end.

4. Wrap some of the new string through one of the loops.

5. Pull the coathanger out the other side of your trousers, until the end is fully fed through.

6. Put the coathanger through the back of the trousers, again with loops visible.

7. Insert one of the ends of the threaded string into the nearest loop.

8. Pull the coathanger out of the other end of the trousers.

9. For a final time, insert your coathanger through the back of the trousers. Make sure the loop is visible on the non-threaded side.

10. Put the final non-threaded end of the string in the loop, then pull it out the other side.

You now have a beautiful newly strung pair of gi trousers. Pink floral bedcovers are optional. 🙂

The colour range is red, navy blue, white or ‘neutral’, which is basically beige. In the pictures on the website there appeared to be a black version too, but either that’s me being colour blind or it was discontinued. For the rope tip Z-Strings has a broader choice of colours: red, black, blue, purple, yellow, brown, orange, green, white and pink. That tip is no wider than the rest of the cord, so you’ll need to be careful it does not slide straight back through the trousers. This is in contrast to all other gi bungee cords I’m familiar with, which have a thick knot at each end to prevent that from happening.

The sizing is not as diverse as I might have liked, given that they are grouped into kids, A0-A2, A3-A4 and A5-A6. I dislike a long rope, but therefore had to go with the A0-A2. A true A1 would have fit much better than something designed to also fit somebody larger than me. I would guess that is a demand issue: perhaps more sizes will be added in future, if and when the market for Z-Strings expands.

Zwanetz claims in his video that the rough texture of the string will stop it coming untied during class. Up until now, it has lived up to that claim, unlike some other bungee cords which I’ve found regularly come loose. I would therefore have to concede that the extra length does not seem to have made it equally vulnerable to coming undone, at least in the few weeks I’ve been testing them up until now.

At $10 (£6.50 at the current exchange rate) the Z-String is perhaps a little overpriced for a length of cord, considering you can get a good quality pair of gi trousers for $25, but not excessive. If you have a flat drawstring you want to replace and enjoy customising your gi, this may be a good option. Available from the Z-Strings site, here.

Book Review – Zen Jiu Jitsu (‘Oliver Staark’)

Short Review: Oliver Staark (a pseudonym) put together a thirty day system back when he was a purple belt last year, alleging it will greatly improve your jiu jitsu. The advice is mostly sensible, but nothing out of the ordinary: you could probably glean similar tips from searching around various BJJ blogs and websites. Nevertheless, if you want to have a program to follow, then this short guide may be of use to you. Available to buy here in the UK for £3.90, or here in the US for around $6 on your Kindle. There is a hard copy version too, but it’s rather more expensive.

Full Review: The ability to self-publish through Kindle has considerably opened up the market. It’s a straightforward process, which provides the author with either 35% or 70% royalties (depending on how much you decide to charge), the rest going to Amazon. On the one hand that means that you don’t have to conform to the commercially driven expectations of a publisher, but on the other it means that there is absolutely no quality control. There are also options for self-publishing in print, such as CreateSpace.

In the case of self-published Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructionals, there are other sources of credibility. The most obvious is having a black belt: that automatically gains a certain level of respect from prospective readers. As I’ve discussed in previous reviews, if the person behind the instructional does not have a black belt, then they are automatically going to have to work much harder to convince the reader their material is worth a look.

When it comes to instructional books, there is a precedent for non-black belts producing quality work. Ed Beneville’s excellent series on the guard was initially written while he was a purple belt. Much more recently, I was impressed by Mark Johnson’s Jiu Jitsu on the Brain (a self-published Kindle release), which remains the only book I would be happy to recommend to an absolute beginner in BJJ. Though he is now a Pedro Sauer black belt, he wore a brown belt at the time.

Oliver Staark has since also become a brown belt, but wrote Zen Jiu Jitsu (as far as I’m aware, this has no connection to Enrico Cocco’s Zen Jiu Jitsu club) while a purple. It is purporting to offer guidance to blue belts looking for motivation. Now, technically you could argue that as the rank above, a purple belt has the relevant knowledge to do that, but the tagline of the book – “The 30 Day Program To Improve Your Game 1000%” – is a much bigger claim. If a black belt coach with a long history of producing top students made a similar boast, it would be one thing, but when it is a purple belt who can only put themselves forward as proof, that’s quite different.

It is also problematic that Staark – as he admits in the text – is using a pseudonym. Anonymity is detrimental when you’re trying to establish your credentials to instruct others. “It worked for me, so it can work for you” is not a bad starting point, but I would feel a lot more confident if I was reading a manual by somebody who can demonstrate that not only did it work for them, but it worked for numerous students too. When Staark insists that his method has been effective for his students, it may well be true, but the reader has no way of confirming that success or indeed his own assertion that he improved as a result (except, of course, by trying the program themselves).

In total Zen Jiu Jitsu contains slightly over 30,000 words. It is almost all text, except for a photo of a grappling dummy, a training log and the Batman slapping Robin meme. Due to the non-narrative nature of the book and its concern with theory, that can sometimes make it a slog to read, but in fairness theory is difficult to effectively illustrate (except perhaps with pie charts and graphs, but that isn’t too exciting for the average reader). There are a few typos, like ‘here’ instead of ‘hear’, but as with Johnson’s work, that isn’t uncommon in self-published books. Also, Staark told me this review copy was older, meaning the newer version may have corrected those errors.

The claim Zen Jiu Jitsu makes is that if you can follow the program Staark sets out for thirty days, your jiu jitsu will be enhanced exponentially. At another point in the book, he exclaims that you could be ‘world-class’ in ‘only 4.5 years!’ You might ask why the rush, as jiu jitsu is something that you can spend a lifetime enjoying. Then again, there nothing wrong with trying to use your time efficiently, particularly if it is limited.

Staark’s central advice is to be focused in your training, which while nothing revolutionary makes perfect sense. He views himself as a ‘jiu jitsu scholar’, attempting to systematise his progress. To give you a sample of Staark’s writing style:

I used to hate side control top. For some reason I could not get good control or an acceptable submission. My game changed to this: use my killer A-Sweep to get them on their back, instead of going for the back or the mount, I would pull back and fall into side control. This forced me to work on a new orientation filter I was drilling. At first it was frustrating as my mount submissions blew everyone away, I got a real handle on the Roger Gracie cross collar choke from the mount, but I didn’t go safe, I pushed into territory that exhausted me and made me feel lame.

The idea he is putting forward here is not a bad one: practice weaker positions, don’t just rely on areas where you are already competent. However, I found the phrasing a bit off-putting, and even arrogant in places (e.g., “my mount submissions blew everyone away” as opposed to “I felt I had a good understanding of attacking from the mount”).

There is a similar example when he is talking about getting a training dummy for drilling purposes at home. Again, it is a perfectly reasonable idea, but he feels he has to include this sentence: “The dummy still paid off though as I started to make ground on guys who I was always level with or slightly worse than. Those guys I blow through now like they aren’t even there.”

However, this comes down to personal taste: humility is important to me, but fortunately we’re all different. Others could see Staark’s description of overcoming his training partners as appealingly aspirational, rather than big-headed. Presumably the intention is to encourage readers to emulate his success, rather than crow about how he smashes everyone in training.

Strangely the section on the training dummy has a sales pitch from a particular brand in the middle of it. Staark says he has no connection to the company and that he doesn’t get any commission, but whether or not that is true, it seems odd to copy and paste a large chunk of marketing directly from the company website FAQ. Half the points are debatable at best, in which the owner also takes the opportunity to launch an attack on rival companies.

That’s immediately followed in the next section by a sales pitch for another company selling logbooks. It is entirely possible that Staark simply feels very strongly about the products that have helped him, but the repeated pushing of products feels a little inappropriate (Update May 2013: I should note here that the owner of that company contacted me and confirmed that he has no business relationship with the author). Not to mention that as somebody who has logged obsessively since the beginning, I’m not convinced you actually need a specialised product for logging: a notepad works fine, as does a dictaphone and/or a laptop.

I also strongly disagree with his proposed format for note-taking, if the example he gives is meant to be a template:

In sparring I took the back on both occasions. Got a nice two collar choke on Big Dave and a RNC on Little Charlie. Big Win. Felt confident.

To simply congratulate yourself on submitting people is not likely to result in improvement: in fact, it may do the opposite, particularly if you have a ‘win/lose’ attitude to sparring in class. There is nothing in the above commenting on how he went about getting those collar chokes, in regards to grips, set-up and the like, reactions of his training partner or the defences he could need to overcome next time. All of which would be far more useful information. Once again, however, this could be a matter of personal preference. The intention here might be to boost confidence, which may well be of some importance when preparing for competition.

At several points he urges you to ask your instructor, which should always be kept in mind when using supplemental material. Staark also highlights video analysis, both of yourself and well-known competitors, which is undoubtedly beneficial if you have the resources. Another good idea is to warn about injury, although it is risky to give out specific suggestions without a medical background (maybe the author does in fact have one, but it isn’t mentioned anywhere). One problem is that he dubiously states you should “at all costs avoid surgery.” While it is obviously not something anybody wants to go through, if surgery is required then it would be extremely ill-advised to ignore your doctor.

On a more positive note, Staark suggests asking your partner if they are injured before you roll and if there is anything they are working on. Fostering communication of that sort with your training partners is a plausible route to improvement. I also approved of his recommendation to train at other academies, which is something I regularly do myself, though it would be difficult to follow Staark’s minimum of once a month without aggravating the relationship with your instructor. Most gyms don’t mind if you train elsewhere while travelling, but to manage once a month or more, you would either have to have a lot of free time or start dropping in to other local clubs.

Zen Jiu Jitsu does not present anything ground-breaking, but it does collate various pieces of mostly sensible advice, though perhaps this doesn’t require an entire book. In short, stay focused, train consistently and have a clear goal. However, if you need direction, then you could certainly do worse than this program, as it at least gives you an outline to follow. Available to buy here in the UK, or here in the US.

Book Review – When The Fight Goes To The Ground (Lori O’Connell)

Short Review: In her second book, Japanese jiu jitsu stylist Lori O’Connell has attempted to write a basic primer for self defence on the ground. She sensibly includes suggestions on where to find legal advice and notes that technique is just one part of a self defence encounter. Nevertheless, there is an explanation of common attacks and defences on the ground, though without the level of detail you would find in a comparable BJJ instructional. O’Connell’s background is mainly in Can-ryu, which unlike BJJ does not emphasise sparring and competition. Available to buy here (and in the UK, here)

Full Review: Last year, I was contacted by Lori O’Connell, who asked if I would be willing to review her new book. I first encountered her writing several years ago, over on her Jiu Jitsu Sensei blog (which has since moved to her club website). It isn’t a site I regularly follow, given that I do not have a great deal of interest in semi-contact styles of jiu jitsu, but as far as I’m aware it is a popular blog. Unlike other instructional books I generally review, When The Fight Goes To The Ground is aimed entirely at the self defence audience, from a Japanese jiu jitsu perspective.

If I was looking to recommend a book for someone to read who wanted to learn about self defence, particularly if they are already involved in martial arts, then Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence would probably be where I’d tell them to start. Although I’m not entirely convinced by the content, such as the section where he tries to justify the use of kata as a training methodology, it is still the most mature book on self defence I’ve read up until now.

This is partly because Miller does not try and teach you techniques, which he feels are not the key factor in self defence. Rather than techniques, Miller talks about elements like environment, the differences in types of violence (e.g., predatory violence compared to the ‘Monkey Dance’ of status posturing) and dealing with chemical affects.

For example, he has a pithy summary on martial arts techniques in self defence: “Of everything in this book, skill at fighting is the least likely to affect your survival in a sudden assault. It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die.” The pre-eminence of other factors beyond combative techniques is something O’Connell also acknowledges. As she puts it in her introduction:

The ground defense system in this book is NOT a complete system of self-protection. It covers only one aspect to be partnered with other strategies and defensive techniques, including soft skills like personal awareness, conflict avoidance, and de-escalation tactics, as well as hard/physical skills, such as stand-up striking, throws and takedowns, etc. Nevertheless, ground defense is an important skill to learn if one’s goal is to have a well-rounded system of self-protection.

Of course, learning techniques for self defence is not pointless, as long as it not all you are doing. As ‘M. Guthrie’ puts it in his praise for Miller’s book, “technique is important, no doubt, but any defense scenario is much more than a series of techniques thrown in a vacuum. This book will fill in those gaps – all the other stuff that goes along with it. And that is truly where the art of self-defense lies, outside of technique.”

O’Connell’s book is seeking to help teach you a series of techniques for a specific situation: as the title says, that situation is when the fight hits the ground. Generally speaking, when looking for a quality instructional on that topic, most people would go to Brazilian jiu jitsu. That is not to say that there are no other styles which can teach you equally good grappling: there are plenty of judoka with excellent newaza, or practitioners of SAMBO who are as adept as any BJJ black belt.

Miller makes another related point which I’ll repeat here. “Most martial arts are just a piece of the puzzle. Technically, some practice striking, some throwing, some practice both. Some add grappling and others specialize there. A truly complete martial art would cover everything from talking to shooting, and more besides.” The arts I just mentioned specialise in grappling and throwing. BJJ lacks striking and certainly doesn’t cover shooting, not to mention those various ‘soft skills’ O’Connell mentions. It is far from the full picture when it comes to self defence.

However, BJJ is very good at its specific piece of the puzzle: grappling. This is largely because of something judo, SAMBO and BJJ have in common, which is the training methodology of full resistance. Full contact sparring and competition are integral parts of all three. O’Connell trains in a martial art called ‘Can-ryu jiu jitsu’, one of the many styles under the umbrella term ‘Japanese jiu jitsu’. JJJ variants are often entirely different from Brazilian jiu jitsu (I talk about that more here), most notably in that they frequently lack that emphasis on full contact sparring and competition. At the same time, ‘Japanese jiu jitsu’ is a very broad term, so it also includes schools that do plenty of full-contact sparring. As a result, these schools may produce students just as capable as those from the average BJJ, judo or SAMBO school.

O’Connell’s knowledge of full-contact grappling styles, like BJJ, SAMBO, judo, wrestling and the like, is relatively limited. She began her cross-training with BJJ lessons twice a week for around six months, then due to her teaching schedule switched to privates once a week for a further four months. O’Connell then returned to BJJ classes once a week while also training in MMA two to three times a week for six months. She then dropped BJJ to focus on MMA for two and a half years, though still alongside her Can-ryu. This was with a view to competing, but unfortunately her manager was unable to secure a fight.

She provides some further details on her blog. This post from 2009 discussed her training with BJJ brown belt Jennifer Weintz, who also wrote a foreword for O’Connell’s book (this boils down to “keep an open mind”). O’Connell has also been to a few Eddie Bravo seminars: whatever else you can say about 10th Planet, it certainly doesn’t train compliantly (although citing Ari Bolden, as she does here, probably isn’t going to win her many fans in the BJJ community, given his reputation). To her credit, O’Connell has also competed in a submission grappling tournament back in 2007.

In his foreword, the head of Can-ryu remembers how he asked O’Connell to “review our curriculum’s existing ground defense techniques and see where improvements could be made.” That could mean that O’Connell has a firm grasp of grappling and was therefore able to improve an already well-constructed syllabus. Alternatively, it might indicate that Can-ryu’s curriculum was so limited in grappling that even somebody with little experience on the ground knew more than her peers. In terms of BJJ rank, she is currently a four stripe white belt.

It is therefore worth spending a bit of time on Can-ryu, as O’Connell’s much more extensive training in that style is the central basis for her credibility as the author of an instructional grappling manual with a self defence focus. She is a 5th dan with well over a decade of experience in Japanese jiu jitsu. According to this site, Can-Ryu claims to descend from ‘Kosen Judo’, a common claim outside of BJJ. However, Kosen Judo is not a style, it is a rule-set practiced by several educational institutions in Japan: as far as I’m aware, you cannot learn ‘Kosen Judo’, in the same way you can’t learn K-1 or UFC. A more reasonable source for Can-ryu is Mikonosuke Kawaishii, who is referenced in that article as somebody who taught judo in France from 1935 onwards. By 1957, he had moved away from judo, calling what he taught ‘Kawaishii Jiu Jitsu’ instead.

Kawaishii Jiu Jitsu was apparently also available in the Netherlands, where Henk Jenssen learned the style. By 1958, Jenssen was teaching this form of jiu jitsu in Toronto at Frank Hatashita’s club. One of Hatashita’s judo students, Ronald Forrester, joined Jenssen’s class and eventually became the head instructor in 1962. The article credits him with introducing striking and free sparring into the curriculum (if there was no free sparring until that time, then Kawaishii Jiu Jitsu must have diverged significantly from judo over the years), which ended up becoming known as the ‘Canadian Jiu Jitsu System’.

It is here that Can-Ryu emerges, thanks to one of Forrester’s students, Georges Sylvain. He opened his Sylvain Jiu Jitsu school in 1963, eventually coming up with the name ‘Can-ryu Jiu Jitsu’. He was fond of pressure-points, generally seen as a very dubious area of martial arts, thanks to the exploits of figures like George Dillman. This site offers a longer biography of Sylvain. At the time it was written, Sylvain apparently had 15 years experience in the police force, as well as a background in full contact karate during the late ’60s (very different from the average karate of today, which has been diluted largely due to commercial reasons). He also trained the well-known kickboxer Jean-Yves Theriault.

Can-ryu receives mixed reports on the internet. This Bullshido thread indicates that Can-ryu is entirely compliant, which would therefore cast serious doubt over its usefulness to anyone looking to improve their grappling. However, that is just one school of Can-ryu: since Sylvain’s day, the organisation has spread throughout Canada and split several times. O’Connell also told me that some Can-ryu schools do incorporate more competitive sparring into their training, though it is not full-contact in the sense of the typical BJJ, MMA or judo academy.

This all may go some way towards explaining why rather than the grappling techniques you might expect, O’Connell’s new book frequently includes strikes to what she calls ‘vital targets’: eye gouging, biting, ‘finger whipping’ the groin, pinching and even squeezing ‘love handles’. As Gerard Gordeau demonstrated in his MMA fights with Royce Gracie and then Yuki Nakai, eye gouging and biting are not fight enders. He lost on both occasions despite blinding Nakai in one eye and leaving teeth marks on Gracie’s ear.

O’Connell does not tell you to rely on such tactics, instead urging the reader to “keep in mind that attacks to vital targets that only cause pain […] may not be enough against a pain-resistant attacker (i.e., somone who is drunk, high, enraged, etc).” She also recommends using the training methodologies of BJJ and other full contact grappling styles to improve your abilities on the ground, as well as the option of using ‘weapons of opportunity’ to try and even the odds.

Another significant drawback to eye gouges, groin strikes and the like is that due to the potential injury, they cannot be effectively practiced against resistance (unless you have training partners who, like Nakai, can handle being blinded). This means that it essentially becomes a matter of live action role play. Hence why O’Connell has to tell the reader to “be sure to play fair and respond appropriately to strikes that would have been effectively applied had your partner used full power.”

This relates to a quote from Matt Thornton, who has written extensively and eloquently on the topic of ‘street’ versus ‘sport’ for many years. For example, in this series of articles from the SBGi website:

The street vs sport, BJJ has rules, grappling should include biting, hair pulling, etc, is a straw man. It’s a tired and meaningless debate. It’s also the excuse that every master of DEAD martial arts from the traditional schools uses to explain his arts non effectiveness in a full contact environment. So anyone seeking to use this argument should be wary.

Let me be as clear as possible. I will borrow some of Dan Inosanto’s terminology here, and yes Mr Inosanto is a black belt with the Machados, whom I consider some of the best GRAPPLING coaches in the world. (Try biting Rigan sometime, I worked it with him once and it sucks!).

You need to make a distinction between a “delivery system” and a sporting application of an art. As an example we will use a man I admire very much, Renzo Gracie. Renzo could see a bite, a foul tactic, a version of an armlock, from Silat, or White Crane, or Yellow Monkey Fever, etc etc, and probably be able to INTEGRATE and apply that move very quickly. Why? Because he already has such a strong base on the ground. He understands the positions, and he has a great delivery system. Compare that with say an Aikido stylist. He may see the same application for a bite, or a choke, etc, but never be able to effectively use it. Especially against a wrestler or another groundfighter. Why? Because he doesn’t have that delivery system.

Given her background in a non-competitive style like Can-ryu, it is unsurprising that O’Connell goes on to make that distinction between ‘sport’ and ‘self defence’. O’Connell uses this argument to distinguish her training and her book from BJJ, a style she feels is designed for competition. That is an understandable assumption to make, as competition is very popular in BJJ. It also is not strictly true, as O’Connell acknowledges by mentioning BJJ’s origins in the 1920s. Like most martial arts, BJJ was initially designed for self defence, following the same stiff, compliant drills as aikido and innumerable ‘traditional’ jiu jitsu styles. Competition against full resistance, pioneered by the vale tudo matches of the Gracie family, is what advanced BJJ beyond those dead patterns and made it effective in environments like the early Gracie Challenge matches, vale tudo and more recently mixed martial arts.

Self defence has continued to be a major aspect of BJJ in the present day, though not at every school. In keeping with O’Connell’s argument, there are those within BJJ who feel that the style of BJJ used in competition has become too far removed from reality. They are therefore seeking to turn the art back to its original purpose (notably, they are almost all heavily focused on techniques, rather than the other, arguably more essential factors of self defence discussed by Miller). ‘Self defence’ is the founding principle of the Gracie Combatives program. It is a matter of pride for Relson Gracie and his black belts. Royce and Rickson Gracie both insist that black belts have a firm grasp of their self defence syllabus. It is also a central part of the curriculum at the largest organisation in BJJ, Gracie Barra.

Given everything I’ve said above, I had my reservations about a book on grappling by somebody who does not appear to have done a great deal of it herself. That said, O’Connell does have a number of positive aspects to her book. She attempts to provide some statistical background to grappling from a law enforcement perspective, listing her sources. She also discusses the legal ramifications, wisely avoiding giving legal advice herself and instead directs the reader towards relevant legislation, split by country.

Something else in favour of When The Fight Goes To The Ground is that there is an accompanying DVD, though this is definitely a proper book rather than the mooks (a cross between a magazine and a book especially popular in Japan, sometimes packaged with a DVD) I’ve reviewed in the past. The book itself is smaller by comparison to the typical BJJ instructional book, but has the same glossy paper with full colour photographs. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish legs, as both O’Connell and her training partner wear black trousers.

O’Connell’s opening introduction on the DVD cuts to clips rather than staying entirely focused on a talking head, which I liked. However, that talking head returned to introduce every technique, which wasn’t necessary. I think it would have been more effective for her to make the same speech as a voiceover (which she does on occasion with other segments, but rarely), especially given that in most of the techniques there was no accompanying instructional audio anyway. The clips are all short, presumably because the DVD is intended as a visual aid for the book rather than a stand-alone instructional.

The technical content of the book starts with a discussion of what O’Connell calls ‘body shifting’, by which she means motions like shrimping and bridging, as well as keeping your legs in front of your attacker. There is a brief note at the end on adapting the techniques for law enforcement, which makes sense given the focus of the book. The chapter also includes a discussion of control on top, covering the major positions.

At this point, she gives the unusual advice to keep your hips higher than your chest when holding side control. In my experience, that actually makes it easier to escape the position due to the reduction in pressure. I always try to keep my hips as low as possible in side control to maximise my weight, though you could argue that in a self defence encounter the attacker probably isn’t going to be trying to recover guard.

I’d also disagree with O’Connell that having both legs out means you can’t control the hips. Sprawling back with both legs again helps to sink your hips and increase the pressure, which is why a number of BJJ instructors prefer it. To block their hips when using that side control variation, you would either use a hand by the near hip, or drop your own hip into theirs.

After the aforementioned discussion on strikes to ‘vital targets’, O’Connell progresses to breakfalls. As she notes, this is a paramount skill for general safety whether or not you train martial arts, as knowing how to fall can save you injury in numerous situations. I was surprised that O’Connell did not discuss what is called the ‘technical stand-up’ in BJJ, though it is used in the course of the DVD (but not described).

Strikes from the ground are examined in the next chapter, which has some similarities with the Gracie Barra Fundamentals curriculum, particularly kicking their leg while you are still on the ground. In the BJJ classes I’ve been to, that kick is used to create distance, after which you get to your feet using the technical stand-up. O’Connell (using a voiceover on the DVD), does this with a thai pad, but doesn’t then move on to standing back up. Perhaps that is implicit, as she talks earlier about creating distance and returning to an upright position.

To defend from the ground O’Connell shows a technique which looks a bit like the basic double ankle grab sweep. O’Connell suggests either kicking into their groin and continuing to push to knock them over, or using your knee if you have longer legs. She also has some ideas on how you might try to block a kick to your head with your arms, then grab their leg and knock them over. It is very common for O’Connell to follow up with a strike, usually an elbow into the leg.

O’Connell’s seventh chapter covers mount defence. She mainly uses the trap and roll, but on the DVD does not highlight the need to secure their wrist. Instead, she controls their elbow with both arms, which has the disadvantage of the attacker potentially being able to base out with their hand. She is perhaps aiming to do something similar to Roy Dean on Blue Belt Requirements, but it’s an atypical grip.

Having said that, she does grip the wrist during her video demonstration of defending against a ‘ground and pound’, but this appears to be incidental as she again does not mention controlling the wrist in her written description. Instead, she advises that you control one of their arms at the elbow, “hugging it strongly to your hip”. It is also difficult to see whether she traps the leg in the DVD, as it is only covered from a front angle. However, that detail is mentioned in the book. There is also some brief description of what looks like the elbow escape, but O’Connell’s version relies more on strikes to try and make space rather than leverage.

Defending from the guard involves a lot of biting and growling (O’Connell feels that has psychological advantages). There is also a moment that reminded me of the punch block series from Gracie Combatives, but only stage three, rather than the set-up and details on keeping the opponent tight when in guard to prevent punches. The scissor sweep O’Connell uses here is a little difficult to see, because both she and her partner are wearing black trousers. That’s a recurring problem throughout the book and especially the DVD: in instructional material, it is important that one person wears something light and the other something dark to make it easy to distinguish between them.

O’Connell also has techniques for escaping the back, which again features biting the wrist and growling, along with elbows to the groin. This also combines with some defences against headlocks, which would normally be grouped under side control: O’Connell shows how that might be applied from a face down position. Interestingly, she includes an unorthodox scenario where you’re belly down and they are kneeling behind you.

Side control escapes have long been a favourite of mine, so I was intrigued how O’Connell would deal with that area of grappling. She starts off with scarf hold, then moves on to standard side control. Like O’Connell’s elbow escape, she relies on strikes to open up space rather than leverage, in this case a shot to the groin. The attacker has one knee in and their hips high, which provides the opportunity to do so: as mentioned earlier, side control is more effective when the hips are low. O’Connell then immediately tries to kick her attacker away.

If both knees are in, O’Connell again tries to strike to make space. She then goes for an escape that is comparable to Roy Dean’s spin out, which would be difficult to achieve without creating quite a lot of room first. Instead of spinning, she just reaches underneath to grab their far side and bridges, aiming to slip out that way. I would have expected the more typical bridging, framing and shrimping escapes, which tend to be the first options taught to beginner students.

There is then a section on how to defend against somebody controlling you from the guard, which is not something most people would expect in a self defence encounter. This doesn’t involve a lot of finesse: to escape a closed guard if you have your head free, O’Connell recommends elbowing them then getting up. If they have pulled you down, she attacks the eyes and then does the same escape.

Against a skilled grappler, this is unlikely to succeed (as demonstrated in those early UFCs, where Royce Gracie was able to easily control his opponents off his back and avoid strikes). I’m also not sure if anybody other than an experienced grappler would try and use closed guard: O’Connell argues that the increasingly mainstream nature of the UFC might tempt even untrained attackers to give it a try.

The next few chapters cover submissions and their defences, divided into ‘neck restraints’ and ‘joint locks’. First up is the triangle from guard (combining it with an armbar), then a triangle from mount, rolling back into a triangle from guard. She also covers the guillotine and finally a rear naked choke. In regards to joint locks, O’Connell chooses the armbar, kimura and americana, followed by some lower body attacks (sensibly warning about the dangers involved when training heel hooks). It’s interesting that she uses BJJ terminology: nobody outside of BJJ or MMA would use ‘kimura’ or ‘americana’ to describe keylocks.

Two of the other variables that can be an element of self defence are weapons and multiple attackers. This is where some martial artists leap off into potentially dangerous realms of fantasy, including BJJ practitioners. In Royce Gracie’s book on self defence, he demonstrated both gun and knife disarms. I generally take any weapons disarms with a huge pinch of salt: I strongly doubt that I can react faster than a bullet or a knife if somebody has a weapon pressed against my ribs, particularly as the initiative is with the attacker. If I was going to train in weapons, I would look to something like the Dog Brothers. They try to apply the same training methodology of aliveness to weapons, in massive contrast to pretty much everybody else.

O’Connell does include some sections on defending against weapons on the ground, as well as multiple attackers, but she makes the key point that even if you become highly proficient at unarmed weapons defence, it is still something you should avoid relying upon. Here’s what Matt Thornton has to say about weapons:

I do not dismiss the danger of blades. In fact I know just how dangerous they can be, and so does every other SBG Instructor. They are part of the curriculum, and they are addressed. But, I am very wary of people who talk about cutting arteries, and stabbing people in the guard, etc. Many times (not always) these people tend to be the kids that got picked on in school, lack a certain sense of self esteem, etc. I believe that people like this can be greatly helped through SPORTS. Whether it’s boxing, wrestling, BJJ, Judo, NHB, etc. This type of athletic event can help someone like this gain real self esteem. But too often, instead of going down that route they I see them being drawn into the “streetfighting/ tactical” stuff. And I think this usually just increases their paranoia and fear, and eventually leads to anger.

This is why I think the sports paradigm is much healthier. The weaker members of our society are the ones that can use sports to improve their life the most. True self defense skills like awareness, maturity, lack of substance abuse, firearms, pepper spray, etc, can always be added. And should always be added. But the scared kids that get picked on are best helped through sports, and they are the ones I enjoy teaching the most because I have seen such a productive and great change that sports can bring to them

The last part of the book is on multiple attackers. Like weapons, it is incredibly difficult to muster any kind of adequate preparation for this scenario. O’Connell acknowledges this difficulty, describing the likely affects, such as tunnel vision and adrenaline. She closes off her book and DVD with a quick drill you could try, where two people hold pads to simulate multiple attackers (but again, as O’Connell states, it is really, really hard to come up with anything realistic).

O’Connell writes that in terms of her audience, she has three groups in mind: BJJ students interested in self defence, ‘traditional’ martial artists (which tends to refer to training methodology rather than age, given that wrestling and muay thai are millenia and centuries old respectively but not normally included in that group) intrigued by grappling and police officers. The first group is probably not going to be all that tempted by When The Fight Goes To The Ground, both because of O’Connell’s lack of credentials in full-contact grappling and due to the market position of Gracie Combatives, which has been heavily publicised in the BJJ community since its release in 2009.

TMA students are a more likely target, although personally I would suggest that the best material for a student of something like aikido, JJJ or karate who wants to cross-train in something like BJJ is by Roy Dean, a judo, aikido, JJJ and BJJ black belt (specifically, his DVDs Art of the Wristlock and The White Belt Bible). Police officers would probably turn to Gracie Combatives as well, though the Gracie Academy has developed programs specifically for law enforcement (though I’m not sure if that is available on DVD).

When The Fight Goes To The Ground does have the advantage of being cheaper, at $12 rather than the $45 you would pay for Roy Dean’s DVDs or the $119 it costs for Gracie Combatives (though both of those options are significantly longer than O’Connell’s alternative). It might also appeal to those who prefer the quick reference of a book rather than having to load up a DVD. It would also of course be a useful supplement for any Can-ryu student looking to brush up on the groundfighting portion of their curriculum. Available to buy here (and in the UK, here)

Book Review – Borrowing the Master’s Bicycle (Mark Johnson)

Short Review: Johnson’s follow-up to Jiu Jitsu on the Brain is less focused on immediate applicability to training, but is nevertheless an interesting and entertaining read. The central theme is one which Johnson has been developing on his blog for a good while now: understanding life through jiu jitsu. In the 1970s, Robert Pirsig famously used motorcycle maintenance to explore broader concepts, such as the nature of society’s relationship with technology. Johnson does something comparable, but through jiu jitsu, trying to develop what he calls ‘Jiu-Zen’. Available to buy for your Kindle here for $5.17 (or in the UK, here, for £3.20).

Full Review: This is the second book from Mark Johnson, following Jiu Jitsu on the Brain (which I reviewed earlier this year). Since then, Johnson has received his black belt from Pedro Sauer, which automatically means this book should garner more attention. Fellow black belt author Kid Peligro has written a foreword, which again lends considerable credibility, given Peligro is easily the most prolific author of respected BJJ books (such as The Gracie Way and BJJ: Theory & Technique). Peligro doesn’t say anything especially noteworthy in his foreword, but then forewords are often just there to lend legitimacy rather than deep insight. Peligro’s book The Gracie Way does the same thing, where the foreword is written by Royce Gracie.

As with Jiu Jitsu on the Brain, this new release is not a typical instructional volume. Instead, it is a collection of Johnson’s thoughts on BJJ. In Jiu Jitsu on the Brain, there was a cohesive structure that meant it can function as an instructional of sorts, geared towards beginners or people still just thinking about starting BJJ. Hence why I would be happy to recommend that first book as the only BJJ instructional volume currently available which is completely ‘safe’ for beginners (as there is no danger of them being overwhelmed with technique).

Borrowing the Master’s Bicycle is different, though there are still useful bits of advice (e.g., set yourself small goals, learn to breathe properly, cultivate an attitude of constant learning, etc). With each chapter, Johnson takes the opportunity to muse about potential broader meanings in jiu jitsu, generally unconnected to the previous chapters. Still, there is an overarching theme, which Johnson has mentioned numerous times on his blog: jiu jitsu as a vehicle for understanding the universe. Indeed, the pdf version he sent me for review was entitled Jiu Jitsu and the Universe.

Like Jiu Jitsu on the Brain, there are a few slips which can probably be blamed on the spellchecker, like ‘affective’ instead of ‘effective’ or ‘preformed’ instead of ‘performed’, among others. A few full-stops have also gone astray, then there are occasional things like ‘to’ instead of ‘too’ (though I am sure the spellchecker is also to blame in that instance rather than Johnson’s grammar, given that he is a high school English teacher). That’s to be expected with a self-published book and the mistakes are quite minor.

If Jiu Jitsu on the Brain was a Hagakure for BJJ, the comparison that springs to mind for Borrowing the Master’s Bicycle is, appropriately, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Johnson’s book doesn’t have the narrative flow of Pirsig’s work, but there is some of that same sense of reaching an understanding of universal principles through a focus on the specific. For Pirsig, it was getting his hands dirty working on his motorcycle on a long journey across the US. For Johnson, it is perfecting his jiu jitsu over the course of a lifetime.

Like Pirsig, Johnson peppers the text with anecdotes, intended to elucidate a philosophical point. For example, in one chapter Johnson discusses how BJJ has helped him become calm, to the extent that he now barely even argues. To do so, Johnson draws a contrast between two evocatively described episodes from his past: his aggressive response to a theft back in his college football days, compared to his polite withdrawal from a potentially volatile situation after he had begun training in jitsu.

The only other book I’ve read in BJJ that is in at all the same field, aside from Johnson’s own previous work, is Carlos Machado’s Putting the Pieces Together, which I recently reviewed for Jiu Jitsu Style Magazine. Machado’s volume would fall firmly into the self-help category, consisting of a series of inspirational quotes. Though I wouldn’t put Johnson’s book in that same category, there is an element of this in Borrowing the Master’s Bicycle, although Johnson accomplishes his philosophical aims through more considered and expansive parables.

It is difficult to discuss spiritual concepts without coming across as pompous, especially in the blogosphere from which Johnson’s book grew. Even the word ‘spiritual’ has developed connotations of hokey New Age posturing. However, Borrowing the Master’s Bicycle does a decent job of avoiding that tone. Johnson’s fondness for throwing in references to pop culture is another reason he doesn’t float off into clouds of incense. Darth Vader, Yoda and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin all make appearances. Then there is his language, which remains colloquial: the book has liberal helpings of “cool”, “dude” and the odd “shit”.

I was particularly intrigued by the idea Johnson shares in his last section, where he started to analyse the eighty-eight techniques required to gain a blue belt from Pedro Sauer (the question of whether or not formal testing is a good thing is a different topic, about which I have strong views, but it isn’t directly relevant here). I would be very interested in reading an entire book along those lines, if that’s a project Johnson ever decides to expand upon in a future release. Borrowing the Master’s Bicycle is available to buy for your Kindle here in the US for $5.17 (or in the UK, here, for £3.20).

Equipment Review: Zebra Home Training Mat (Roll-Out)

Short Review: The Zebra Home Training mat (5 x 10 feet and 3.5cm thick) is light and easy to transport, with enough padding to safely practice BJJ, though I’m not sure I’d recommend using it for heavy takedowns. The mat is quick to set up, as it rolls out for immediate use. Storage in the attic would work (if you are sure the 45cm circumference roll will fit through your hatch), but otherwise you would need a space at least five feet high to store them regularly. To spar on these comfortably you would want at least two, but for drilling and light sparring, one is good enough. There is no fastening system: to secure two or more together you have to use tape.

In the UK, the Zebra Home Training Mat is currently available from just one place, Fight N Fit MMA here in Bristol. You can either head over to their shop on 317 Two Mile Hill Road in Kingswood, or order online from the website. It’s a fairly hefty £219 delivered, or (at time of writing) £199.99 from the shop, though that includes the no doubt equally hefty customs fees. In the US, Budovideos sells it for $249 here. They come in either black or blue.

Full Review: BJJ outside of Brazil arguably began in a Los Angeles two-car garage, where Rorion threw down some mats in order to start teaching a small group of students. Several decades down the line, training at home is a luxury for some, who want to supplement what they’ve been taught at their local school. For others, it is a necessity, getting together a group of like-minded individuals because there is no other option for hundreds or even thousands of miles (though the latter situation is becoming increasingly rare).

Back in Rorion’s garage academy days, the surface would presumably have been judo tatami or perhaps wrestling mats, individual squares of padded material. Anyone who has been training in martial arts a while, unless you’ve never done any grappling at all, will probably be familiar with dragging mats across the floor before class starts, then stacking them all back up in a cupboard. These squares are not portable, they slide around and you invariably catch toes and fingers in the gaps, at best tripping and at worst injuring yourself.

They can also develop creases and cracks, which leads to multiple problems. It makes them more awkward to clean, as well as less safe for training. Just as gaps can snag digits, crease and cracks can do the same. Jigsaw mats are a slight improvement, as those gaps are less common, though the mats themselves tend to be quite thin. Having said that, jigsaw mats do have the considerable plus of a solid connection. The main downside is that it can be somewhat time consuming to combine all the mats, especially if you are trying to cover a large area.

The market of people training in their garages, basements and living rooms has grown sufficiently large that there are now a number of different suppliers of portable, compact home training mats. Among the most important innovations in that regard is the arrival of mats that can be rolled up, rather than having to stack them up in a pile. Being able to simply spread the roll onto the floor is much quicker than the laborious chore of laying out squares of mats. It is also a significant step up in convenience for transportation and storage.

As far as I can tell, the roll out mat was invented by Gary Heartsfield in 2001, or at least the particular method most commonly used today (as per the patent). The abstract included with the patent listing describes it as follows:

A floor mat with a seamless top surface and a segmented cushion layer. The seamless top surface eliminates gaps, crevices, and seams that may adversely affect performance or durability of the sports mat. The segmented cushion layer provides an essentially continuous cushioned mat when the mat is in an unrolled configuration and reduces the likelihood of damage to the sports mat due to an exposed top surface or compressed cushion layer. The floor mat may be rolled up into a storage and transportation configuration without turning the mat over. The floor mat is also configured to permit one person to roll and unroll it.

In the United States, the best known company is probably Dollamur (particularly after they bought their competitor, Swain, in 2008), for whom Heartsfield was working when he came up with the new process. Dollamur is mainly associated with wrestling, but it has also expanded to pretty much any sport that could require a matted surface at home (e.g., gymnastics, various striking styles and of course jiu jitsu). Rorion’s Gracie Academy also has their own brand of mats, for the ‘Gracie Garages’ that pay homage to that original training set up, resurrected for Gracie Combatives. Jeff Rockwell’s school uses yet another supplier, EZ Flex Mats who used to be part of Dollamur.

The other major player is Zebra. In the United States, Zebra is one of several companies providing a roll-out mat. Here in the UK, they are your only choice. Until Fight N Fit brought in a supply of Zebra roll out mats this month, there was no choice at all. That scarcity goes a long way towards explaining the relatively high price. In the US, you could get roll out mats cheaper, but that doesn’t take into account shipping, tax and customs to the UK, which for something that large and bulky is considerable.

According to this interesting thread from a Canadian Zebra Mat employee, the standard Zebra mats are made in Germany, a fact of which that particular employee is very proud. However, the Zebra Home Training roll out mat is made in China. There is a commercial roll out mat (i.e., for use by wrestling teams, jiu jitsu schools, MMA clubs etc) made in the US, but that is not available online.

When I trained at Rockwell’s school in November 2012, I had my first experience of training on roll-out mats. Rockwell’s location (he has two: the other is at the University of Texas) is an aerobics room in a fitness gym. It was impressive how that could go from a bunch of exercise bikes on a hardwood floor into a fully-matted jiu jitsu academy in a matter of minutes. The mats were stored elsewhere in three big rolls, which had been cut to fit the available area exactly. These mats also had one major advantage over the Zebra version: a velcro strip along the edges. There is a corresponding strip to go on top, meaning the mats lock together quickly and securely. This is something Dollamur does as well, dubbing it ‘Flexi-Connect’.

The Zebra roll out mat does not have any kind of attachment system. If you have more than one, you would therefore need to connect them with tape. According to some reviews, this can potentially became a tripping hazard, depending on how thick the tape is and whether or not the edges stay in place. Hopefully in future, Zebra will add some variant of the velcro innovation, as that is a far more reliable and convenient way of keeping the mats together. Naturally it isn’t a concern if you only have one, but to do any serious sparring, you would need at least two mats. Still, tape can be a long term solution if you aren’t planning to keep moving the mats into a storage cupboard or elsewhere after training. For example, the mats at Revolution Dojo were held together with tape, which is true of numerous other gyms I’ve visited.

A few of those same reviews I’ve read have mentioned that without locking down the roll out mat in some way (such as nailing a wooden border around the edge), it will slide around every bit as much as traditional mats. I did not notice an issue with the mat I tested, but then that was in my lounge, so there wasn’t much opportunity for it to move. This was also on carpet, which provides further friction: on a smoother surface, like a gym, school or community hall, it may not be as stable.

The 5 x 10 foot size is also larger than I realised. I had expected I could just move a few chairs out of the way, but it actually involved pretty much clearing the room of furniture. Of course, I live in a Victorian terrace, which is not very large, especially by American standards. The Zebra Home Training Mat is therefore more than enough for your drilling needs. I could happily scissor sweep my girlfriend in either direction (though lengthways is of course preferable, as that is 10 feet rather than 5), along with a few cross arm and belt sweeps followed by mount escapes.

If you stay relatively controlled, then you can spar on the Zebra mat too. My girlfriend doesn’t train, so to test this I just told her to try and push me off the mat, whereas my goal was to stay put. We both remained on the mat, even when she forcefully kicked into my chest with both feet and threw me backwards. However, if you brought standing guard passes, scrambles and more explosive sweeps into the mix, there would not be space. I also wouldn’t recommend full-power takedowns, though you could drill them lightly (e.g., a throw where you support them on the way down).

The surface is very comfortable to roll on, every bit as good as the typical mats I’ve experienced at various clubs in the UK and USA. My girlfriend commented how she could imagine putting five or six people to sleep on them (though she meant that in the sense of people staying over after a party, rather than a boast of her awesome choking prowess ;D). When you roll it back up, you can keep it in place using a strap with a buckle, provided by Zebra when you buy the mats. The circumference when rolled is roughly 45cm. This is very important to note if you’re intending to store your mat in the attic: I only just had enough clearance for mine.

I carried it by hand from Gracie Barra Bristol to my house, which is a fairly short walk. That demonstrates that this mat is not especially heavy, because I’m small and weedy: if I can easily carry it that far, so can anyone. Given that this is a mat intended for training at home, you would most likely only be carrying it as far as your attic, storage cupboard or garage, or simple across the room. For transport further afield, a reasonably sized car should be sufficient, but you would of course want to check the dimensions first.

The foam on the bottom is not especially tough, so it will get scratched if you aren’t careful. There was a large chunk bitten out of mine, which may have happened when I was carrying it back, or perhaps in transit to the academy. It also got some nicks on its way into the attic, due to the tight squeeze. Either way, you need to take care when moving your mat around if you want to keep it in good condition.

The edge of the mat may rise up slightly after being repeatedly rolled up for transportation: it certainly did with the sample from the shop, which has been to lots of trade shows. As that’s right at the end, if it did happen, I do not think it would impinge on training in a typical home setting. The main time where I could see it being a problem is if you had several mats and you wanted more than 10 feet, so laid them end to end. That rising edge would then have to be taped down, as it would otherwise (I assume, as I haven’t been able to test this) be a tripping hazard.

You have the choice of either black or blue for the home training mat, which Zebra does not recommend for commercial purposes (I assume the commercial mats are generally much longer than 10 feet and fitted to the relevant space, to avoid that rising edge problem). If you’re actually running a class, then I can imagine this would work fine. However, Zebra does provide other options for that market, which includes custom designs for the top of the mat (i.e., your school logo and the like). I would assume that is quite a bit more expensive, but perhaps there is some kind of wholesale option.

In the UK, the Zebra roll out mat is currently available from only one place, Fight N Fit MMA here in Bristol. You can either head over to the shop on 317 Two Mile Hill Road in Kingswood, or order online from the website. It’s quite expensive at £219 delivered, or (at time of writing) £199.99 from the shop, but then it would be a lot more if you had to get it shipped across the sea. If you live in the US, there is much more competition and they do not have to ship so far, meaning a lower price. Budovideos sells Zebra Home Training Mats for $249 here, for the 5 x 10 foot version.

Gi Review – Datsusara Hemp Gi (HCG-03)

Short Review: Datsusara’s follow up to the HCG-02 has a new cut, much better fitting than the old judo-style baggy jacket. As before, the 100% hemp material feels soft and comfortable, while also staying cool due to its porous nature. The stitching issues have also been resolved, aside from one small defect on the belt loop which is probably specific to the particular gi I received. The main drawback is that the HCG-03 has increased in price, meaning that cost is becoming an even more significant obstacle. Available to buy here for $199.95, in either unbleached ‘natural’ white or midnight blue.

Full Review: When I reviewed the HCG-02 for Meerkatsu last year, there were two major flaws that needed to be resolved with the next edition: poor stitching and an overly baggy cut. I was therefore keeping a close eye on those two potential problems after receiving the HCG-03 while I was in Texas. Georgette kindly let me have the gi sent to her home, in addition to all her awesome hospitality while I was there in November. Incidentally, she also has an HCG-03 to review: I’ll update this with a link when it’s up.

The new Datsusara hemp gi comes in either white or midnight blue (no black in this batch). As before, the ‘white’ gi isn’t truly white, but unbleached, resulting in a beige hue. The price has increased by $60: hopefully it won’t rise any higher, but then Odell did say previously that the price was already being kept artificially low while they ironed out any errors. That cost barrier could cause problems, as with the even more unique (and even more expensive) Gimono.

Chris Odell’s explanation is reasonable, but most people will still baulk at the price. If the claim that hemp is so much stronger and more durable than cotton is true, then as with the Gimono, the expense can be justified to an extent:

On the pricing once again guys hemp is so much better than cotton, but you kind of have to use it to really understand. All I can tell you for sure is we pay 4X what other guys pay for just about any gi on the market so as you can see our markup is actually very low considering.

There have been multiple improvements to this updated edition since the HCG-02, while retaining the previous benefits. As I discussed at length in the HCG-02 review, there are many claims regarding hemp. The relevant advantages touted for a hemp gi are:

– Four times stronger than cotton
– Anti-microbial, so allegedly bacteria, mold and fungi can’t live in the gi
– Green: readily renewable and the cultivation process uses limited water
– Porous: breathes well and dries faster
– Wears in rather than wears out

I can’t vouch for it being anti-microbial without access to a laboratory and a science degree, but the HCG-03 still has the wonderful softness of the HCG-02 (and thanks to Georgette’s washing protocol smells fantastic, but that only applies if you’ve washed your clothes in Georgette’s house ;D). It also dries relatively fast, taking about a day, though that is still much longer than either my Gimono or my Gorilla ripstop, both of which dry in a few hours.

Importantly, the HCG-02 issues with stitching have been addressed in the HCG-03. I only noticed a couple of slightly loose threads around the sleeve cuffs, but that was trivial, especially compared to the large gaps on the HCG-02. Having said that, I was surprised that one of the belt loops broke after the second wash. I would guess that is simply a defect in the particular trousers I had, rather than something endemic across all the HCG-03 gis. It isn’t hard to fix, but annoying nonetheless.

An issue that has carried over from the HCG-02 is the amount of lint. I had a pair of black trousers in the same bag as my Datsusara hemp gi, as the temperature in Houston tends to bounce from hot to cold. When I took the black trousers out, they looked like they had been rolled in flour due to all the shedding from my HCG-03. Similarly, in the shower after training it felt like I was using one of those exfoliating shower gels due to all the lint from inside the gi. The HCG-02 stopped shedding after a few washes, so I would assume the same is true with the HCG-03 (other reviews I’ve read mentioned it stopped after four or five washes).

The jacket is 580gsm, while the trousers are 370gsm: that hasn’t changed since the HCG-02, which itself was only slightly lighter than the 600gsm CG-01 hemp/cotton blend. I am used to much thinner jackets, especially as I was testing my Gimono alongside the Datsusara in Texas, but the breathability of the hemp means that it doesn’t feel as heavy as the gsm might indicate. The weave isn’t typical either, as it is a ‘basket weave’ rather than the more common pearl, single and double weaves. It will get creased, unlike the Gimono, but not to the extent of something like the Gorilla. That’s a very minor point though, which I only noticed because the Gimono has such a ridiculously crease-proof drape.

Behind your neck, the inner label of the HCG-03 has increased considerably in size and was slightly itchy at first, though it seems to have lessened with repeated washes. Unlike the HCG-02, the trousers do not come with the option of both a rope and drawstring (or at least mine didn’t). You’re stuck with the flat drawstring, which is fine with me as that’s what I prefer anyway, but I’m aware that many BJJers favour a rope. The thread in the gi is made of nylon, as Odell stated here.

I loved the plain styling of the HCG-02, which has been kept for the HCG-03. The embroidery of the hemp seed ‘mon’ logo has been exchanged for appliqué. This looks much sharper than the old embroidery, with a white border trim. If you want a completely plain gi, I would expect appliqué to be harder to remove than a patch (unlike patches and embroidery, I haven’t tried removing appliqué), but then there are only two of them.

On the back, the Datusara logo has been moved up higher, between the shoulder blades. That shows Datsusara once again listening to criticism, as a number of people disliked the way the HCG-02 back design was in the same spot where you would normally put a team patch. As with the sleeve, this is also appliqué rather than the old embroidery, meaning there isn’t that weird effect from the HCG-02 of a ghostly white version on the inside of the gi. Then again, it would be covered up by the larger inner label anyway with the new HCG-03 design.

A more significant change is the cut. The HCG-02 felt baggy, like a judogi. The HCG-03 is tapered to the body for a far slimmer fit than the old version, in my case further helped by the fact I went with an A1 this time rather than an A2 (though it is still baggy compared to my best-fitting gis, which are probably the Black Eagle Predator and Basico). That improvement in terms of fit is due to the help from Scotty Nelson at OnTheMat, who was a groundbreaking figure in both US BJJ and US-based gi design (he mentions his involvement with Datsusara briefly during his Open Mat Radio interview from a few months ago). The cut of the HCG-03 was taken directly from the OTM 420, though Odell noted in his email to me that the HCG-04 would be changing its cut slightly. Nelson also helped in locating a different manufacturer for the HCG-03. I can’t think of any other pair of gi companies who have been willing to work that closely, so its another refreshing development from Datsusara (and indeed OnTheMat).

There was a great deal of shrinkage with Datsuara’s previous hemp gi, though as Seymour washed the HCG-02 before I got to it, I didn’t see the process. However, he did let me know the stats, which meant that effectively the A2 shrunk down almost to an A1. This time, I got an A1 in the HCG-03 and shrinkage has been far less. I did two washes at Georgette’s house at 25 degrees celsius then hung it up on a door, followed by a third wash at 30 degrees celsius in Bristol. The cuff-to-cuff wingspan started at 159cm, dropping to 155cm, then stabilising at 154cm. Shoulder to hem was originally 80cm, then shrunk to 77cm, where it stayed. Finally, the trousers began at 96.7cm, then steadily shrunk by increments for the first two washes: after the first wash it was 95.5cm, then 94cm. It remained at 94cm with the third wash.

The reinforcements look sufficiently beefy, also made of hemp. There is a large pearl-shaped section on the armpit and a square on the side vent (rather than the triangle used by some other gi companies). The trousers have a long section of additional fabric starting above the knee and stretching all the way to the bottom of the trouser cuff. That prevents the problem of the reinforced section being too low or too high when you kneel on the mat.

The Datsusara HCG-03 is apparently IBJJF legal, as people have mentioned they have won IBJJF competitions while wearing a Datsusara HCG-03. According to the Datsusara website, that is true for both the unbleached white and the midnight blue. Like last time, Odell has been engaging with his customers on various forums, perhaps most notably Sherdog, which is among the largest. For example, he immediately resolved customer complaints regarding defects on this thread, which as a result turned into positive feedback.

The development of new materials and weaves for use in gi construction has notably increased over the last couple of years. Datsusara was and still is a pioneer in the use of hemp: other companies have started to pick up on that, but as yet Datsusara remains the only one to successfully produce a 100% hemp gi. With bamboo, ripstop, hemp blends and unusual combinations like Gimono’s ‘Fortitude’ fabric, I hope that innovation will continue in the gi world, rather than just different colour and patch combinations.

The Datsusara HCG-03 is available to buy here for $199.95, in either unbleached ‘natural’ white or midnight blue, although many sizes are now sold out. It is worth noting that Odell told me yet another version of the Datsusara hemp gi is due for release, with the HCG-04 expected to land around March 2013. I’ll be interested to see if there are many further changes for the HCG-04. It would appear that most of the criticisms of the HCG-02 have been addressed in the HCG-03 without creating new problems, so aside from the lint shedding there is less obvious room for improvement (unless Odell can somehow reduce the cost, but I imagine that would be difficult without compromising on quality).

Update Dec 2012: Shortly after I posted up this review, Odell suggested that machine washing and drying at least once should prevent the shedding issue (I always hang dry). So, give that a try if you’re having problems on that front.

As per usual, Datsusara owner Chris Odell has done a video describing the gi (interestingly, he says the shedding problem has been fixed: perhaps that’s true for the midnight blue gi, but it is demonstrably still an issue with the gi I have). As I now know he is a dedicated nogi guy, it makes sense that the belt he is wearing is still white several years since I first saw him wear a gi. 😉

Gi Review – Gimono BJJ Gi

Short Review: I think I can safely say this gi is unique in that it is made of a 36% merino wool and 64% polyester blend, a fabric the creators have dubbed ‘Fortitude’. The merino wool is on the inside, making it comfortable to wear. It’s also nearly completely plain, probably due to Gimono’s history with judo, which greatly appeals to me. Having worn it around Texas, I can confirm it’s a perfect travel gi: super-light, wraps up tightly and dries in a few hours.

There are only two real problems. Firstly, the collar is easy to grab due to how pliable it is, meaning stripping grips becomes difficult. Secondly, the Gimono gi is currently expensive, with possible hefty customs charges. Available to buy here for NZ$295, which currently works out at £153 ($243) before tax and customs. A blue version is about to be released as well.

Full Review: About a year ago, Aesopian told me about an unusual new gi company called Gimono, who were using wool. I was intrigued, so I’m very pleased to get the opportunity to review one of their gis. The wool is not just any wool, but merino, famous for its high quality: according to Cedric Larson, “the best type of fleece is produced from the Merino, and all other wools are ranked by their relation to it.”

When I visited New Zealand eight years ago, the souvenir shops were stuffed with merino, in keeping with its marketing as an exclusive fabric for connoisseurs. Back in 1995, Merino New Zealand was established, breaking away from the International Wool Secretariat which had marketed merino up until then. As the Financial Times explained in April 1997:

When they pulled out of the IWS, the New Zealand producers were frustrated that their wool was being blended with what they regarded as lower quality fibres from higher volume producers in other countries to improve the average.

As New Zealand wool was swamped by the output of other producers, the prices farmers received were volatile. Furthermore, because New Zealand merino wool had been blended, there was little to differentiate the product in buyers’ minds.

According to Mr Andrew Caughey, MNZ’s European marketing manager, “merinos are the aristocrats of the sheep world”. More than that, he argues that New Zealand merinos grow the finest wool of all.

New Zealand produces around 8,000 tonnes of merino wool a year, only about 8% of the country’s total wool production by volume and a tiny proportion of the world’s merino output. That scarcity has been turned into a marketing point by stressing the fibre’s “exclusivity”.

Mr Kym McConnell, MNZ’s brand manager, says New Zealand merinos, which mainly live in the high country of South Island, enjoy a cleaner environment and better pasture than others.

New Zealand merino fibres are stronger, making them ideal for suiting material, which requires a combination of strength and softness. The lack of pollution means the fleeces are whiter than others even after they have been washed.

Mr McConnell contends that New Zealand merino compares with cashmere in terms of the fineness of the fibre, measured in microns, and its “handle” – and it is in similarly scarce supply.

Not only does New Zealand merino apparently have considerable cachet for its quality, it also has numerous alleged benefits of a more tangible nature (just like the hemp gi I’ve reviewed in the past: I’ll be putting up a review of yet another hemp gi soon). On the Gimono site, you can find several articles that discuss them at length. For example, here, where it states:

Merino fibers can be bent up to 30,000 times without breaking – so its core structure produces the most amazing blend of properties: exceptional softness and resilience. […]

It’s hydroscopic – which means it is capable of absorbing moisture vapor and repelling liquid at the same time. This explains why when you wear merino next-to-skin, you can sweat a lot but not feel damp and clammy. The merino, which is capable of storing around a third of its own dry weight in water vapor, draws sweat away from your skin (a process known as wicking), absorbs and desorbs the vapors, speeding up the body’s own cooling system while remaining dry to touch. […]

Moreover, with its unique physical and chemical structure, merino is naturally odor and soiling resistant, and anti-bacterial to boot.

Australians managed to nab the domain, meaning they can claim that their merino is in fact the best, listing the following further benefits to merino:

– natural breathability
– keeps you warm in winter, yet cool in summer
– drapes beautifully and resists creasing
– shrugs off stains and keeps its colour when washed
– benefits from natural anti-static and anti-odour properties. goes into greater detail over in the ‘unique properties‘ section of the website, where each of the benefits gets its own icon. The list is longer, including soft, elastic, breathable, static resistant, easy to care for, odour resistant, stain resistant, machine washable, anti-wrinkle, natural barrier to UV, biodegradable and (somewhat bizarrely) fire resistant.

Merino is often used in base layers, so you’ll see it advertised for hikers, mountain climbers and the like. That gives the media yet another chance to extol the virtues of merino, such as this piece by Wendy Warburton:

Merino wool undies also let your sweat evaporate, although not as quickly. But unlike poly, wool keeps you warm even when it does get damp and it doesn’t smell. It’s great for less-experienced winter athletes, outdoor skaters and alpine skiers. It’s also natural and renewable since it comes from merino sheep, a breed of sheep that lives in the high alpine.

It should be kept in mind that all of those benefits, whether or not they’re being overblown, are related to merino specifically as opposed to Fortitude, a polyester/merino blend. However, there is plenty of cross-over. In a factsheet I was sent by Gimono about Fortitude, it has a comparable summary of benefits:

• Superior next-to-skin physiological comfort: A fine layer of merino worn next to skin provides natural odour resistance. An anti-microbial treatment helps prevent attacks by microorganisms such as bacteria.
• High burst strength: Engineered to last, Fortitude™ offers an astounding strength-to-weight ratio without compromising comfort or aesthetics.
• Excellent breathability: Originally designed for the world’s toughest contact sports, Fortitude™ offers high levels of breathability and moisture management.
• Good dimensional stability: Fortitude™ combines the softness and drape of a knit with the stability and strength of a woven fabric – making it extremely versatile.
• Attractive surface texture
• Lively drape
• Superb handle
• Easy care: Fortitude™ is machine washable and shrink resistant. Ideal for domestic,
commercial and industrial applications.

The genesis of the Fortitude material came in 2005, when Gimono co-founder Grant Scott was training judo in Tokyo. He was frustrated that at the end of his training, he was left with a “smelly, blood-stained gi.” He teamed up with experienced businesswoman Lavinia Calvert, who among her packed CV has fifteen years with Reuters. Given that high-performance materials had been developed for use in many other sports, the pair sought to do the same for martial arts.

The majority of gis are still made of cotton, although there have been some innovations, such as ripstop, hemp and bamboo. These have now been joined by Fortitude. A piece in the Otago Daily Times from July 2010 describes the process Calvert and Scott went through to develop their material:

They started looking at existing textiles, but nothing met their list of needs of being comfortable, strong, able to stretch and recover from being gripped, pulled and tugged during bouts, did not shrink, can be washed and retain its colour.

Wool was widely used in the active outdoor market, because it had similar qualities required by martial arts, but it stretched, so Ms Calvert asked AgResearch Textile for help.

In 2007, they had their first sample fabric, a wool-polyester blend, which has since been refined to a final product that is a third the weight of cotton Gis and met their list of requirements. The wool layer is next to the skin.

A patent is pending on the fabric, with Gis selling for between $300 and $400, similar to a top-priced cotton garment. […]

Ms Calvert said they made jackets, shorts and pants, with the fabric made in Auckland and garments in Christchurch.

Fortitude looks beyond the world of martial arts too, with applications in equestrian sports and the catwalks of fashion. I will obviously be focusing on how Fortitude functions on the jiu jitsu mat. Getting into the technical details, the material is 330gsm, which while technically a little heavier than my lightest gi (the Gorilla ripstop, which is 250gsm), it does not feel any bulkier. It also is not a typical jiu jitsu gi weave, so looks quite different as well as feeling unlike any other gi you’ve ever worn.

That is due to the wool/polyester mix. Calvert sent me a helpful email when I asked about the specific choice of blend, stating that:

You’ll see that the merino/polyester composition is 36%/64%. When we were developing the fabric we tried different compositions, including a higher percentage of merino, but to achieve the desired performance attributes (strength, stretch, weight, breathability, thickness etc) the optimal blend turned out to be 36%/64%.

I also asked her if the gi was legal for IBJJF competition. The answer is no, which does not surprise me as the IBJJF isn’t exactly renowned for being an organisation open to change from the mainstream. A completely atypical weave and material like Fortitude (see the close-up above) is therefore going to be a tough sell. Still, there is always a chance that may change, though personally I would recommend this gi for travel rather than competing. Nevertheless, the Gimono position is that the company is attempting to meet every other requirement outside of material and weave:

Regarding competition rules, the short answer is ‘no’ – simply because Fortitude isn’t cotton or cotton-like, and it’s not a woven fabric. However, as far as uniform measurements go, we have worked hard to ensure that our gi’s meet the standard requirements (lapel width, sleeve opening at full extension, jacket length, sleeve length etc). […]

Because we know our product is pushing some pretty entrenched traditional boundaries, we haven’t yet approached the IBJJF (or the IJF for that matter) about getting acceptance for what we’ve developed. […] While we fully appreciate why such rules exist, we believe it will take considerable time, money and influence to bring about change at the administration levels of the sport. That’s not to say it can’t or won’t happen eventually … just that we don’t think the time is quite right for us to take that issue on!

In time, yes – we’d welcome the opportunity to have the conversation – but in reality I think we have a little way to go before a top-down approach would work in our favor! We’d rather see how the market responds, get the concept understood and accepted by practitioners themselves and then address the issue of competition compliance. Granted, there will be a segment of the market that won’t be prepared to try an alternative like Gimono because it doesn’t fully comply with the rules, but we’re okay with that. We’re in this for the long haul and we don’t see any reason why this type of innovation won’t eventually be more broadly accepted in the sport … it’s just going to take time and patience, that’s all.

I’m no stranger to gis made of unusual materials, although I was a little concerned about the wool. I never wear wool. The few times my parents tried to put me in a wool jumper back when I was even smaller than I am now, I found it unbearably itchy. Fortunately, merino is different. According to Deb Acord, it has “longer fibers that make it virtually itch-free.” That proved true for the Gimono, which had none of wool’s dreaded abrasion.

I got a size 3, which is roughly equivalent to an A1: they use judo sizing, probably because one of the co-founders is a judoka. The fit was superlative, with a slightly longer skirt than average for BJJ gis (personally I like that, as I’m fond of using the gi skirt for chokes), but still relatively tight to the body rather than a baggy judo-style. The reinforcements are entirely distinct from what you would normally see (except on the jacket vents, which have the usual additional material at the top), due to the material being equally distinct from any other gi. Instead of those triangular patches inside the armpit, the Gimono has lots of seams running along the length of the sleeves and down the trouser legs.

I have not noticed much shrinkage at all after three washes. The pre-wash measurements were close to my Gorilla ripstop: from cuff to cuff the Gimono started at 150cm, the trousers at 92cm and from shoulder to hem it was 80cm (slightly longer than the Gorilla, which is 76cm). I then did two washes in Georgette’s machine on cold (which she said was about 25 degrees celsius), followed by 30 minutes at 30 degrees celsius back home in Bristol. Both the trousers and shoulder to hem length stayed the same after two washes. The cuff to cuff length shrunk by about 1cm or so. After the third wash in Bristol, there was still no notable shrinkage, as the measurements had not changed.

The Gimono has much more elasticity than I’m used to, but not so much that it affects training. It does make the measurements slightly harder to confirm, as you have to try and stretch it the same amount each time: my marker was the point at which I felt tension. It is almost as light as the Gorilla, at a mere 1.2kg, and just as thin. The Gimono is therefore brilliant for travel, particularly as this is either as fast-drying as the Gorilla or maybe faster.

In Texas, the Gimono took less than three hours to go from straight out of the washing machine to completely bone dry. It isn’t especially wet when you first take it out of the machine, which was enough to convince me the Gimono is indeed hydroscopic. Judging by that, you could wear your Gimono to class in the morning, wash it, then wear it again for the evening class. Georgette’s house is clearly much warmer than mine, as in the UK it took more like six hours to dry, but then that’s without the heating on and a temperature of around 5 degrees celsius outside.

As the co-founder of Gimono warned me, this gi is completely different from anything you will have worn before in BJJ, so it will take a bit of getting used to. It feels like a quality pair of pyjamas, or as several people in Texas described it, a polyester suit from the ’70s. It is also shiny white, which I like, but may put off those who prefer a darker colour (though I imagine Gimono will eventually have models in blue and perhaps other shades as well).

Of the handful of reviews I’ve seen so far (mainly going off the Gimono Facebook page), the main complaint was directed at the collar: several people mentioned that the thin Gimono collar cut into their neck. Those reviews were from a year ago, so it’s Gimono might have made some modification since then. When I tested the Gimono BJJ gi, I found that although the collar was extremely easy to grab, it did not cut into my neck. Calvert is aware of the issues with the collar and it is something she is looking to address:

The one area where we have further improvements to make and that we are still working on getting right (but that isn’t a rule-breaker per se), is the thickness and construction of the lapel itself. While we have made significant improvements in our second generation design (an example of which you have), we are aware of the need to stiffen up the lapel, make it a little thicker still, and to possibly change the way we’ve constructed it so as to prevent burning. The current issues with it are partly due to our fabric being so much lighter-weight and softer – which is good for some things, but not so good for others – so as with all these things it’s about finding the right balance.

I should emphasise that I did not experience that burning, just the difficulty of removing grips. The soft nature of the material has some advantages too. Though there are seams on the back, which is becoming rare in BJJ gis, I did not find they dug into my back. The seams aren’t the typical huge joins you would see on a cotton gi (e.g., as on the Padilla & Sons single weave), but thin strips. Interestingly, after I rolled with Jeff Rockwell, he mentioned that it was hard for him to get a grip on my hips, which potentially goes some way to counteracting the ease of grip on the collar.

The design appeals to me, as somebody who appreciates a clean look. There are almost no patches at all on the outside of the gi. The only externally visible patches are on the back of the lower trouser leg and at the end of the lapel. Inside, there are some washing instructions backing the lapel patch, while the joining seam along the middle has ‘Fight For You Rights!’ written across it (in case you’re wondering, those rights relate to comfort, not anything political ;D). Again, that seam does not result in any abrasion or discomfort while rolling.

I found that the drawstrings were a good length, perhaps because they are the flat type instead of a bungee cord (the cord in my experience has a tendency to be overly long and dangle, such as with the otherwise excellent Tatami Nova). Personally, I prefer the flat type, though there has been a growing trend to use rope instead. There are also typically multiple belt loops on BJJ gi trousers: the Gimono only has one. That’s not unusual for judo gi trousers, but I can’t remember seeing that arrangement in a BJJ gi. I didn’t mind the solo loop, but your mileage may vary.

In regards to some of the alleged benefits claimed for Fortitude, I can agree with comfort and easy care: the drying time is what impressed me most. There is a specific claim in the Fortitude factsheet that proudly announces “Merino wool can absorb up to 35% of its dry weight in moisture before it becomes wet. This keeps the wearer drier and less clammy from perspiration.” I wasn’t completely convinced of that, as I felt clammy during one of my training sessions in Texas (to be fair, this is Texas, so it was still relatively hot in November by UK standards). The only way to test that properly would be to do the same set of exercise that results in sweat wearing both a Gimono and some other gi. So that’s what I did, although back in the UK.

I worked up a slight sweat by doing a load of press-ups and sit-ups followed by running up and down the stairs for four minutes. The lightweight cotton gi I used for comparison stayed fairly dry, but I could feel some minor moisture in the ripstop trousers. I decided that was enough to test the Gimono. As soon as I put it on, I noticed another benefit: it’s cold in the UK, but the Gimono immediately warmed me up. That’s probably unsurprising, given merino’s common use as a base layer for hiking and the like. During and after the exercise, the Gimono seemed to regulate the temperature and moisture more effectively. It was only slight, but there was a noticeable difference. I’d need to do hard rolling in both to really test it, but unfortunately my leg isn’t up to that.

The Gimono arrives in its own branded bag, consisting of a large main pocket plus a zip slot on the front, along with a detachable shoulder strap. It looks similar to a laptop bag, except the dimensions are not the same: one previous reviewer described it as a ‘shoe box’. It demonstrates how compact the Gimono can be: the Gimono has none of the bulk of a typical gi, much like my Gorilla ripstop. This is definitely going into my travel gi rotation.

The glaring issue for potential customers is that a Gimono is currently quite expensive, and you need to consider customs and tax if you’re outside New Zealand. I ended up being charged £90.92 in fees (which I should note Calvert kindly reimbursed: it was a pleasure dealing with her throughout), so if you’re paying full price, that would mean you’re laying out £240 for the gi. Gimono may come up with a solution to reduce that cost for those of us based outside of Australasia, but I’m sure it’s not an easy thing to arrange.

There is the argument that if Fortitude can live up to its claims of durability and last significantly longer than a standard cotton counterpart, a high price could be justified to a degree (the same is true of hemp and bamboo gis, which are also both currently expensive). That remains to be seen and will be a major test for all non-standard gi materials. Available to buy here.


‘Terms of the Men’s Apparel Industry’, Cedric Larson, American Speech, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec., 1952)

‘NZ Puts Upmarket Spin on Merino Wool’, Financial Times, 16th April 1997

‘In From The Cold’, Wendy Warburton, Calgary Herald, 29th November 2007

‘Sock Market Boom’, Deb Acord, The Gazette, 15th August 2002

‘New fabric has more than fighting chance’, Carolyn Enting, Dominion Post, 25th August 2010

‘Merino finds a new niche in martial arts’, Neal Wallace, Otago Daily Times, 10th July 2010

‘Fortitude Fact Sheet’, Fortitude Textiles Ltd, Lavinia Calvert email