GTR Archives 2000-2022


Jiu-Jitsu Books 


Roberto Pedreira















The ADCC Blind-Spot 

and how to fix it

Robert Drysdale

June 18, 2022


"Different Rules, Different Game."


Previously, I discussed some problems with current IBJJF rules and suggested some improvements. Next, we will turn to one of the many offshoots from the IBJJF rule-set and competition circuit.  

ADCC made its debut in 1998 on the coattails of the Royce Gracie and UFC revolution of 1993 as well as the initial growth and interest in BJJ lead by Royce and that same revolution that shortly after took shape in the hands of CBJJ/IBJJF. The story of how H. H. Sheikh Tahnoon came to be introduced to BJJ is a real-life reenactment of Eddie Murphyfs gComing to America h where life did indeed seem to imitate art. A curious story to which jiu-jitsu as a whole owes much to. I know I do. This story has been told elsewhere so I wonft rehash it here.  What Sheikh Tahnoon did was essentially to give birth to one of the most prestigious and popular grappling events in the world. 

But how and why did it become so prestigious?

Several reasons. First, much like the Olympics and the Soccer World Cup it was held in intervals (unlike the Olympics and the World Cup, it is held every 2 years), which grants it the automatic status of being "boutique" and creates certain expectations within the jiu-jitsu community. An expectation that is further augmented by its few invited competitors and even fewer champions. Secondly, it was organized by royalty, hosted by royalty, in the land of royalty and gave royal treatment (and pay) at a time where the very best in jiu-jitsu were used to taking public transport to arrive at the now nostalgic Tijuca Tenis Clube, to compete in the sub par infrastructure of that arena. All for glory and love of the game (i.e., no money).

The tournament would eventually reach mythical proportions as jiu-jitsu grew and spread all across the globe. Interestingly, even when other professional events came to pay better than ADCC, its prestige didnft wane, but to the contrary, it grew. Why?

Pay and exclusivity added to the aura of fighting in front of Sheikhs and their families and friends as well as the years in between events granted ADCC a sort of automatic credibility, even an aura that inspired every generation of jiu-jitsu practitioner afterwards to dream of being an ADCC champion. A credibility that the ADCC had won from the top down, free of any structure or organic growth. Unlike the IBJJF and the UFC who had to win their credibility organically from the ground up. Which didnft matter initially as the tournaments had infinite funds and were only held every two years and with a very small and select group of competitors. Throughout all this, their credibility for a long time remained intact and the money was too good to change that.

Whatever the reasons for all this, the ADCC remains one of the most prestigious tournaments in the entire world of grappling. Originally intended to (much like the UFC had done) pitch style vs. style, the ADCC would eventually become practically an exclusivity of the jiu-jitsu world, an in-house tournament for jiu-jitsu athletes, completely or almost completely pulling its talent and champions from the competitive circuit that the IBJJF was shaping over the years.

Few fighters from other styles saw any value in the ADCC and fewer competed in it. Presumably, one would think that Olympic gold medalists in judo and wrestling would jump at the opportunity to win a cash prize, but that wasnft the case. Although initially the ADCC had received a considerable influx of practitioners from other grappling styles, over the years it became virtually restricted to the jiu-jitsu world and, accordingly, piggy-back-riding off the efforts and successes of the IBJJF mothership (as well as the Royce Gracie led revolution) that had helped give it birth.

Because if truth be told, in terms of rules, the ADCC borrows heavily from the IBJJF rule-set, (which is to say, it was following suit with the progression-paradigm created by the Guanabara Federation), as we will discuss below. Conversely, the ADCC borrows little to nothing from judo, sambo or wrestling. Furthermore, the IBJJF network sustains the ADCC with highly skilled competitors from which it draws almost its entire talent pool from, both in terms of its total number of competitors and in terms of its champions (with very few exceptions in fact as can be easily verified looking at results over the past 13 editions of the ADCC). These were competitors that were battle-hardened on the IBJJF mats as well as in other smaller organizations that followed IBJJFfs lead and rules over countless events. Yet none of this ever did anything to diminish ADCCfs aura. Still, over the years something had changed.

Recently, while in friendly conversation with ADCC champion Jean Jacques Machado, and discussing all these changes, he remarked that gthe ADCC made a mistake when they left Abu-Dhabi. it lost exactly what made it special in the days of Sheikh Tahnoon.h I remember agreeing with Machado, the most glorious days of ADCC were behind them, in the days it was still hosted by Sheikh Tahnoon, its founder and patron.

Interestingly, the increase in ticket sales in recent ADCCfs, seems to corroborate that the ADCC is actually growing in popularity. Which is true to an extent. But this isnft because of the ADCC itself, but rather due to the overall growth of jiu-jitsu worldwide in the past 24 years. The reality of this discussion, that the ADCC is bringing new eyes to the sport, as is often reported, fails entirely to see, that the geyesh are all there regardless of the ADCC existing or not. They are the students in the thousands of schools around the world and the millions of people training, not to mention the celebrities who also train jiu-jitsu and are constantly advertising its benefits. Not to mention many other tournaments such as North American Grappling Association (Naga); Jiu-Jitsu World League (JJWL); American Grappling Federation (AGF) who are all crucial aspects of this same effort in spreading jiu-jitsu and giving it credibility. And this is only in the US. The list is much larger if we include all the jiu-jitsu leagues all over the world.

It is to these schools and organizations that the gnew eyesh ought to be credited because these are, for all practical purposes, the people who are actually organizing jiu-jitsu structurally. It is to their structures and the order they grant that jiu-jitsu owes its growth. In other words, ADCC hosts too few events and only with select athletes mostly out of the IBJJF circuit to be able to claim any credit for the growth of jiu-jitsu.

But, by keeping its credibility intact, the ADCC claim for itself the notoriety that was in fact a byproduct of this growth and all the work that went behind it by various other individuals and organizations. In other words, the ADCC and its growth in popularity are in fact, symptoms of the overall growth of jiu-jitsu that are for all practical and logistical purposes, led by others. While its lingering credibility can be explained by the reasons outlined above, but also by the enormous momentum that previous generations of competitors had granted it.

But this momentum we speak of does not live in the inertia of space, it must follow the gravitational rules to which all other organizations are held to: ewhat;f a ehow;f and a ewhy;f leadership; an orderly structure (logistically and in terms of rules and refereeing) as well as a market to justify its efforts and sustain it organically. All this, typically leads to credibility. But the ADCC had that already, it just didnft have everything else that normally preceded this prestige. It had, in a sense, grown backwards and from the top down.

Perhaps the biggest issue the ADCC encounters today, is precisely due to this reversed growth. Which has the side effect of opening a much bigger can of worms than anything the IBJJF system has to deal with today. And the only reason all this hasnft been more noticeably exposed, is because the ADCC has only had 13 events in total with a very limited number of matches in them (which helps explain the credibility question above, the rarity of the matches, makes winning them especialf). Giving them virtually no time and space to have evolved more efficient criteria, better trained referees, logistical structure and evolve its rule-set in parallel to the evolution of the art as the IBJJF has done.

Considering that the ADCC has only had a total of 13 events in its 24 years of existence compared to the IBJJF who puts on 13 events in a couple of months and all around the world, the difference in terms of reach, logistical size, experience and influence cannot be underestimated, they arenft close. These assets matter, and no amount of credibility can alter the reality of this disparity in terms of structure and know-how. A building, a tall building, must be built from the ground up, not from ceilings towards the base. Add to that the rotating leadership the ADCC has suffered from in the past 24 years of its existence and we can begin to understand all its problems.

It is not the point of this article to digress further into the history and standing of the ADCC. The brief summary above suffices to give background to the issue at hand, namely the problems with their rule-set and how fundamental they are to give a foundation to something that (possibly due to the sparsity of their events) has not had the time and/or experience to develop organically.

Curiously, the same thing that made ADCC unique was also its weakness, itfs exclusivity was predicated on the fact that it was rare, but that also had the side effect of preventing them from having any practical experience or of evolving the rule-set according to the increasing sophistication of the competitors, or at least from building on the experience of other more tried organizations.

Still, considering their recent attempts at making themselves into a league that sustains itself organically and without the sponsorship of Sheikh Tahnoon, they will need to do so quickly if it intends to enter the competitive market of jiu-jitsu tournaments without losing the credibility that has been, speaking frankly, the only rope to which it holds onto. Long story short, sensible rules are fundamental for this foundation to withhold its potential growth. We can now turn to the rules and their problems.

Discussion regarding the problems with the ADCC rule-set has also been tackled elsewhere (for example here) but I will offer my own view on what the main problems are regarding the their rule-set.

Typically speaking, people prefer simple over complex for obvious reasons. The problem is that the second competitors get involved, they have proven to be ingenious in crafting intricate ways of bypassing the rules and/or manipulating them to the very limits of what they can get away with. Non-surprisingly the organization or ruling body fires back with more complex rules, which are in their turn, countered by evermore clever machinations, ad infinitum. The red-queen arms-race of sorts truly has no ending as long as it remains competitive and the ruling body remains competent in its role of adaptation. A problem the IBJJF knows all too well.

Unsurprisingly, time and observation tell the tale of this arms-race and the longer this dynamic is around, the more complex the rules tend to be, as if giving testimony to their evolutionary history. To put it in other terms, think a rookie lawyer (or better, someone with no experience at all) and have them draft a contract, any contract. Now request the same from a multi-million-dollar law-firm filled with highly trained and highly experienced professionals. At the end, compare the two contracts in terms of their density and competence. It doesnft even take much of an effort to figure out what the result would be.

Accordingly, the IBJJF has a rule manual that is 50 pages long that evolved from the 1967 Guanabara Federation manual that started out with only two and half pages of rules. The ADCC rule-set on the other hand, has a total of 5 pages. In evolutionary terms, it would be like contrasting the complexity of the human brain with that of any other animal. Which is not an attack, this is a sober analysis of the reality of this discussion, factually speaking.

Particularly when the ADCC rule-set is largely based on the IBJJF rule-set in terms of the progression-paradigm, but without the nuances of over two-decades of experience dealing with skilled competitors accustomed to the sophistication and complexity of the IBJJF rule-set. To these competitors, the ADCC rule-set has eno defenses.f

Which makes me think of how Europeans due to lack of hygiene and their close proximity to livestock would create the super germs that would decimate Native American who lacked any immunity to the complexity of that European arms-race of germs and immune-system. In this sense, the simplicity, and even naivete, of the ADCC rule-set is like a body with little to no immune-system being thrown into the fires of very competent competitors and the many situations they are all accustomed to, but that the rule-set has not been exposed to for lack of experience and essentially staying in a bubble for all these years while jiu-jitsu was evolving at a remarkably fast pace.

My point here is that complexity in any rule-set is a direct byproduct, for better or for worse, of this evolutionary dynamic of an arms-race which has the (apparently), inevitable consequence of furthering the complexity of the rule-set. If the complexity of a rule-set grants testimony to its long history in dealing with the arms-race, conversely, the ADCC rule-set does the same. Which is to say, it has little to no history dealing with the "arms-race.h

 ADCC has been allegedly hostile to constructive criticism or anything that isnft absolute acceptance of what it clearly perceives to be a flawless rule-set. Competitors and coaches alike, seem to think otherwise. You can decide for yourself (for a full description of these rule-sets see here and here).

Below, some examples of the problems in the rule-set.

Hybrid-point-system - Being a hybrid system, with the first half of the match being a sub-only system and the second half being a point based one, the ADCC rule-set seems to be a middle ground between the two by absorbing the best of both. It gseemsh because at closer inspection the hybridization only exposes the problems of the sub-only format while creating some new ones with their own point system. All while on a practical level, having solved neither.

Sub-only-half - The sub-only portion, was created with the intention of allowing submissions attempts free of any risks (by say falling back for a foot-lock without risking being swept). While in reality, as any experienced competitor would have predicted, it had the opposite reaction. Instead of going for submissions relentlessly as one would hope (an example of idealism exempt from the trials of reality and experience), athletes, knowing all too well of the physical impossibility of going full-throttle for the entire match and for multiple times in a day (a reality that most if not all promoters seem to be oblivious to), unsurprisingly, choose instead to pace themselves.

Tactically, it makes sense to wait out the clock and spend your energy in smaller and less risk prone efforts of scoring points over going for the repeated sacrifice-submissions sub-only calls for. Idealism, is great. But reality is what it is, and while we can hope and wish that this were otherwise, the reality on the ground (in all ADCC events in fact) is that the sub-only half has failed to achieve a high submission rate.

To my knowledge there are no statistics showing the submission rate during the sub-only portion of ADCC matches but it is clear from observation that it is not very high, in fact, I would be willing to bet money that it is well below the point portion of ADCC as well as the IBJJF submission average (38% for IBJJF gi Pans and Worlds (years 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 for Worlds, 2016 and 2017 for Pans and 2017 for Womenfs Pans, all black belt divisions and according to stats from ). In other words, despite its good intentions the sub-only portion of ADCC is not yielding more submissions as it intended to.

Point-system-half - What about the point half, the second half where points are made available? A fun fact that illustrates my points above, is how competitors begin to engage and immediately change pace as soon as the buzzer goes off signaling the beginning of the second portion where points are now on the table.

If we pay close attention, the ADCC rule-set copies the progression-paradigm of the IBJJF system with minor modifications, some positive, some negative. Which is to say, that ADCC essentially uses the IBJJF system and made the changes it saw fit to accommodate other styles of grappling. To be fair, not drifting too far off from the IBJJF progression-paradigm and perhaps explaining why other stylists choose not to compete in the ADCC in what they possibly perceive as nothing but another jiu-jitsu event. Hard to say but not an unreasonable possibility.

Nonetheless, the complexity of the IBJJF system is left completely out, which creates many gray areas that are basically left up to the judges to decide the merits of the situation (in the ADCC the referee has no authority and decision-making is in the hands of the judging table). Problem is, the criteria isnft always clear to competitors or coaches and the gray area situations (which led to the complexity visible in the IBJJF system in the first place) are largely inconsistent throughout the tournament, making the decision making of both competitor and coach a guessing game of how that particular judging table will be reacting to a particular technical exchange (which has the side-effect of placing extra-political power in the hands of the judging table). This was made clear for all to see in the ADCC 2019 event where even some of my novice students noticed the inconsistencies.

In order to better understand all these differences and similarities, we will take a look into what was absorbed from the IBJJF system and their positive and negative features, followed by what was not-absorbed along with both their positive and negative consequences.

The absorption of the progression-paradigm borrowed from the IBJJF still has its print in the ADCC rule-set. The advantages of having absorbed the progression paradigm were the obvious ones described in the IBJJF article, namely that the match emade sensef in that it progressed upwards and towards the goal of submission (in theory at least) and that it resembled the progression of a real-fight (in theory at least). On the other hand, not having absorbed the evolutionary experience of the IBJJF system built into its complexity, had both positive and negative consequences.

By not-absorbing other aspects of the rule-set, it also rid itself of what in my view, were other problems built into the system, such as not having any excessive kimono entanglements and penalizing guard-pulling (at least during the second-half of the fight and for the full fight in case of finals and super-fight) for example. Which we should notice in passing, donft affect the progression-paradigm and in the case of guard-pulling at least, could easily be fixed by IBJJF if they chose to have a more standing/takedown oriented rule-set.

The differences between the IBJJF rule-set and its offspring however are interesting and in fact, enlightening as to the problems the ADCC deals with today. Some of these differences are of low impact such as rewarding mount with 2 instead of 4 points or back-take with 3 instead of 4 points; or such as the case where a competitor passes from his opponentfs guard straight into mount or knee-on-belly, awarding only the 3 points for the pass (where IBJJF would award 3+4 and 3+2 respectively). Other differences are more relevant however and are discussed below.

The non-absorption of the whole of the IBJJF system with its evolutionary and intricate details to very specific situations, had mixed results. If on one hand, it managed to bypass any complexity, on the other however not absorbing it led towards subjectivity and excessive use of ereferee interpretation.f

Furthermore, it is worthwhile to question how much more the ADCC could have borrowed from the criteria developed by the IBJJF over time, considering that it did not lend the ADCC all elements of the progression-paradigm, only some. As an example, the ADCC wisely changed the number of points from takedowns and sweeps from 2 to 4, in case the initiator landed in a dominant position such as mount or side-control. Which makes sense, since they carry with them greater merit and progression than finishing a takedown or sweep in guard or half-guard do. In other words, the execution of these moves in terms of how much they accomplish, are not equal in combat utility. The IBJJF ignores this obvious fact, while ADCC acknowledges it.

Another arguably positive change is awarding points for reversals (from side-control or mount), 2 in the case of mount (because you finish the movement inside your opponentfs guard) and 4 in case of side-control (in case you finish the movement holding your opponent in side-control). Although awarding more points for this reversal while awarding only 3 for taking the back sounds problematic in terms of progression.

Moving forward, the non-absorption of advantages has in itself positive and negatives effects. Advantages have as one of its characteristics to turn the fight into a highly tactical one in which ealmostf doing something makes perfect tactical sense (idealism notwithstanding here). On the other hand, not having advantages led to overtimes as a solution to ties (to be addressed below). While the IBJJF also has a referee (or referees in case of semifinal and finals of black-belt matches), I suspect it has a smaller rate of fights that are decided by officials precisely because it has the advantage system. Although data would be needed to confirm or deny this belief.

And in case this observation of mine happens to be accurate, the higher number of "judges' decisions" places a higher burden (and political-power) on the judging table, which has the side-effect of increasing ADCCfs reputation for subjectivity and inconsistencies. The jury is out and this isnft an easy one to tackle. My personal thoughts on how to solve the issue of ties will be articulated elsewhere.

The overtime for its part, has a reputation for being slow-paced due to the exhaustion of competitors who have gone as far as grappling for a total of 40 minutes in past editions. An eternity in terms of grappling and that damages the bracket system that is meant to be somewhat balanced as competitors advance. It is hardly balanced when one competitor wins a match in 15 seconds while the other takes 40 minutes to accomplish the same result in the previous match. Keeping in mind that this is all contingent on the competitorfs placement in the bracket (done manually by ADCC officials, with the more reasonable and unbiased way to do this, would be to do it via software as the IBJJF does), and how this placement impacts their performances in terms of the skill level and style of the competitor whom he must face next. As every competitor well knows, not all brackets are created equal.

Also worthy of notice here, is that the ADCC modified a fundamental aspect of the progression-paradigm that created other problems that seem unreasonable to many (if not all) competitors and coaches: not awarding 2 points from a sweep or takedown when the sequence is completed in the turtle position (which makes scoring a sweep or takedown the equivalent of a pinf in wrestling), making scoring points for takedowns and sweeps extremely difficult. A problem that can perhaps help explain the high volume of ties and overtimes in the ADCC.

Moreover, the ADCC has a major blind-spot in its rule-set that not only conflicts with the progression-paradigm but also make little sense: Allowing points to be racked up endlessly while in the same position, as when the back is taken and the competitor keeps placing and removing his hook over and over again, building up a potential infinite amount of points, all without actually improving on the current position (the same rationale can be applied in case of the knee-on-belly position in case one manages to transition from side-to-side). While I am not particularly opposed to questioning aspects of the progression-paradigm, the changes ought to sensible and this one doesn't meet that mark.

Finally, this article would be very incomplete without addressing what is possibly the most shocking of all of ADCCfs characteristics: the unspoken rule of grappling on concrete. To regard this as an easy-fix is an understatement. Essentially every sport in the world, including sports well outside of the realm of combat (and I cannot even think of an exception to this), have physical boundaries in which the game, match or fight must take place. Except the ADCC.

 After witnessing full sequences of almost 1 minute in duration of professional athletes grappling on concrete in one of their events, I suggested to an ADCC high-ranking official that they should do something about that, thinking of both the safety of the athletes as well as ADCCfs reputation in all this. A reputation that by the way, was receiving less than kind reviews by competitors, coaches and even staff members in the backstage of the event.  To my surprise, the response was something dismissive and akin to git has always been this way.h  

Lastly, the criteria used by the IBJJF in the case of competitors going out of bounds, seem simple and reasonable to me and should have been absorbed alongside the progression-paradigm.

Despite being almost entirely based on the IBJJF system and drawing almost all of its competitors and champions from the IBJJFfs ranks, the ADCC, due to its short life of only 13 total events, lacks any real experience of jiu-jitsu and the complexities that necessarily stem from it. Both in terms of logistics and rules. As a result, the ADCC point portion did not evolve its own intricate rule-set as the IBJJF did overtime. Accordingly, it automatically deprived itself of some of the problems as well as some of advantages this complexity brought forth.

Which on the surface may seem contradictory, but only if we assume that either rule-set is ideal. In truth, none will ever be and no one said that jiu-jitsu rules could ever be easy or simple or please everyone. That is simply impossible. To be fair, the attempt at a hybridization model was made with the best of intentions and does offer considerable potential if reframed, just not under its current model where it essentially assimilates the problems of both worlds without solving either of them.

It remains a mystery whether the ADCC can quickly solve all of the issues outlined above as it intends to make its 2022 issue (they skipped 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) its biggest one yet. Something that, at least in technical terms, it has always managed to achieve since its beginnings with the first ADCC in 1998.

But credit must be given where it is due, and the increasing technical sophistication of the competitors that attend the ADCC events is to the credit of its competitors, their coaches and the high-level events that has forged almost all of them in the fires of the IBJJF competition circuit as well as the many other organizations around the world that follow its progression-paradigm. It is from these same ranks, that the ADCC promises to draw not only its talent but most, if not all its spectators in its highly anticipated 2022 edition.

It is my view that the ADCC wonft be able to solve the issues with their rules and, in case I am right, they will continue to lose credibility due to all of this. A pattern that, to be fair, initiated a long time ago where the inconsistencies in judging became increasingly obvious but that became more obvious than ever in their last 2019 edition. Due to this, I predict that the ADCC will cave into the pressure and fully implement a sub-only system instead. If not in this next 2022 edition, then in the future. It is to the problems of this rule-set that we turn to in our next article.


Note. The "Progression Paradigm" will be discussed in a forthcoming article.

(c) 2022, Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.


More by Robert Drysdale:

How to Win at Jiu-Jitsu while Keeping BJJ Real

Creonte: Loyalty versus Self-Perfection

The Rectification of BJJ's Rules: To Gi or Not to Gi

Americanization of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

BJ Penn for President

Remembering George Mehdi

Reflections on the Evolution of BJJ

Who Taught Oscar Gracie?

I was Skeptical

Selling Self-Defense

Rickson Gracie is Wrong

Rev. of book by João Alberto Barreto

Maeda Promotes Five Brazilians

Science and Sanity in BJJ

Jiu-Jitsu in Cuba

Is Oswaldo Fada Jiu-Jitsu a Non-Gracie Lineage?





GTR Archives 2000-2022