Never Assume On The Mat.

Photo by: parttimegrappler/ Liam Wandi

I will roll with just about anyone. The reality is that, when I compete, I can get a bewildering variety of possible “looks,” styles, experience levels, and intensity levels.  One extremely valuable lesson I’ve learned is to never, ever assume anything about my training partner or opponent.

This means many different things.

I never assume that someone’s belt is indicative of their skill set (or lack thereof), their abilities, or the safety that I can enjoy when rolling with them.  I’ve seen extremely spazzy brown and black belts who habitually release late on the tap and crank submissions; and I’ve seen gigantic, ridiculously strong, day 1 white belts who understand how little they understand and know not to spazz.

Especially when training with someone for the first time, I always treat the scenario as a potential self-defense situation.  What if the other guy freaks out and starts punching me?  I roll much more conservatively at least for the first few seconds of a roll with a new person in the gym.  At competition, I let their stance, the grips they choose to take, and their “energy” as indicators of what I can expect throughout the match.

There are rules of etiquette in jiu-jitsu and grappling, and not everyone understands those rules.  Not everyone knows that those rules exist.  Some people inherently get it.  Others don’t.  I do my best to approach this dispassionately.  When drilling submissions with a brand new white belt, I do my best to be clear when I’m tapping.  I will tell them to slow down on the submission if I’m concerned they may hurt me.  Some people choose to not have this conversation, and I’ve seen accidental injuries happen as a result.

I never assume that a white belt with whom I’ve not rolled before is inexperienced.  I let their abilities show me what they are and are not aware and capable of doing.  When I was nearing the end of my time at white belt, if I was successful when rolling against someone of higher rank than me, they would sometimes get upset and call me a sand bagger, accuse me of rolling too hard, or using too much strength.  They saw the color of my belt and assumed that meant I wasn’t capable of doing much. Then, when that assumption was debunked, instead of accepting that their initial assumption was incorrect, they attached their own prejudices to the experience they just had rolling with me.

I also never assume that just because someone is smaller than me that they are weaker, or that just because they are bigger than me they are stronger.  Some of the most physically powerful grapplers I’ve encountered were more than 20 pounds lighter than me.  Sometimes that unassuming kid is a murderous freak.

Never assume.

Assumptions are what allow lower belts to prevail over higher belts in competition when ambitious lower belts enter higher divisions.  Very often when I see divisions comprised of a mixture of ranks, the lower-ranked practitioners prevail.  Assuming anything about an unfamiliar opponent or training partner can at best be an unpleasant surprise waiting to happen and at worst an injury waiting to happen.  For a long time I assumed that practitioners ranked purple and higher would be smooth and gentle, that they wouldn’t crank on submissions.  I found out that assumption isn’t always founded, and that sometimes higher ranked practitioners are so desperate to “win” in the training room that they are actually more dangerous than their lower-ranked counterparts.

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Emil Fischer is an active black belt competitor under Pablo Angel Castro III training at Strong Style Mixed Martial Arts and Training Center near Cleveland Ohio ( and teaching at Ararat Martial Arts and FItness Center. For more information, other articles, and competition videos check out his athlete pages at and Emil is sponsored by Meerkatsu (, discount code EmilKatsu), Eddy's On Coventry, North Coast Cryo ( NottaRookie, YM ( discount code COOKIES), Defense Soap ( discount code COOKIES) Impact Mouthguards ( discount code EMILIMPACT), and North South Jiu Jitsu Underwear



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