GTR Archives 2000-2022

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Jiu-Jitsu Books 

by 

Roberto Pedreira

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How to Win at Jiu-Jitsu 

while Keeping it Real

 Robert Drysdale

gWinning takes care of everything.h

--Kevin Randelman

June 9, 2022

As anyone familiar with sports well knows, once you create a rule-set, the first thing seasoned competitors will do is to figure out ways of winning by minimizing risk and effort. A reality that Brazilians happen to be particularly good at in terms of figuring out where these thin lines are, as well as treading them carefully enough.

The separation of what we now refer to as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu away from its judo matrix took place in parallel with the evolution of the rule-set that would come to define competitive jiu-jitsu today. This separation, in terms of its rules, can be summarized in three leaps away from judo: 1954, 1967 and 1994.

Up to 1967, jiu-jitsu was under one centralized leadership that more or less agreed on what they were practicing. The bigger issue here is that, with the unprecedented and even unexpected depth of the boom that Roycefs victories in the UFC led to, the definition of what jiu-jitsu is, became increasingly unclear to the new adepts. The craze of the mid 90fs and early 2000fs, for reasons to be discussed elsewhere, led to a competitive brand of jiu-jitsu and away from the more martial oriented version of judo of previous generations.

The explosion of interest in jiu-jitsu in fact, was so quick that the demand far outpaced the supply. This, coupled with a leadership that was so divided and unclear, that it eventually led to a variety of interpretations, rule-sets and ways of practicing jiu-jitsu that would invariably lead to new organizations that would in turn, further the increasingly obvious division.

Lastly, without agreeing on the premise of what jiu-jitsu actually is, all meaningful discussion regarding rule-sets is sidelined and replaced by meaningless arguing over rational debate. With this in mind, I will stick to a broad definition of jiu-jitsu here that I believe most practitioners can agree to, even if they donft uphold it in practice: gJiu-jitsu is the practice of grappling as realistically, efficiently and safely as possible, with entertainment as a side-effect.h

It is with this definition in mind that we will now take a close look at the three most popular rule-sets in the jiu-jitsu landscape today beginning with IBJJF rules. ADCC and submission-only rules will be considered in subsequent articles, forthcoming within the next couple of weeks.

Problematic IBJJF Rule-Set 

The IBJJF rule-set is to a large extent based on the 1967 Guanabara Federation one. To be completely accurate, the rule-set actually had a precursor that was as close to judo as it was to what we now call BJJ, and it was first used in an in-house tournament held by the Gracie Academy in 1954.

The first rule-set of 1954 likely to have been the product of the combined minds of Carlos and Helio Gracie themselves; while the 1967 rule-set (much closer to the contemporary IBJJF rule-set) was a product of the minds of Helio Gracie, João Alberto Barreto and Helcio Leal Binda, Carlos Alberto Barreto, Carlson Gracie and Oswaldo Fadda.

The most significant byproducts of the 1967 rule-set were:  (a) solidifying the split between jiu-jitsu and judo; (b) establishing a distinct style in terms of what a judo/jiu-jitsu competition ought to look like, and (c) the rule-set had the unintended consequence of laying down the technical foundation for what would later become known in a distant future as the official rule-set for the CBJJ/IBJJF of 1994. The organization that would in turn later set the basic logistical structure for the growth and spread of jiu-jitsu around the world. All this clearly mirroring what judo had been doing in terms of its own technical and logistical growth (federation, tournaments, belt-ranks, established hierarchy, etc.).

For the purpose of this article, we will stick to what is meant by a ga distinct style in terms of what a judo/jiu-jitsu competition ought to look like.h The 1967 rule-set, was essentially a point system, primarily emphasizing takedowns and position by rewarding them with 1 point per position acquired and held, while the submission ended the match.

The purpose was to place emphasis on the ground over standing. Whether intentional or not, this was the unavoidable consequence of not penalizing or banning guard-pulling.  In 1994, with the advent of CBJJ/IBJJF, the emphasis on the ground not only remained but, naturally and as one would expect, it grew, becoming increasingly distinct in its orientation towards the ground. This emphasis evolved into a rationale, a certain way of thinking that was likely to have been influenced by vale-tudo (now MMA) and the Gracie Academyfs focus on self-defense as the two overlapping forces underlining their practice of jiu-jitsu.

More specifically, the CBJJ/IBJJF albeit modeled after the 1967 rule-set, differed from it in that it placed a focus in the progression of the fighter as he advanced, as exemplified by the increase in number of points awarded as the competitor progressed towards the submission. This, likely to have been due to a willful attempt at simulating the same progression that would take place in case of a real-fight while still in the controlled and safe environment of a tournament format.

By progression I mean that the practitioners ought to be looking to improve on their current standing by seeking better positions for submission while being rewarded more points in this process. Seeing the mount and the back as the highest standings for a submission (at least given the technical arsenal available at the time) and potential strikes in case of a real-fight, they awarded more points to these dominant positions as they, in theory at least, were precursors to the submission that would end the match.

The idea of progression was meant not only to simulate a real-fight, but also to reward this progress accordingly. For example: 2 points for takedown; 3 points for passing; and 4 for mount or back which would be followed by the submission. A paradigm that was not only sensible but that ultimately, has worked remarkably well for CBJJ/IBJJF as it led to growth of jiu-jitsu treading slightly behind the surge of interest and demands. Not to mentions the numerous other federations and organizations that under one way or another have borrowed from this progression-paradigm. In other words, it worked, it just doesnft mean it was perfect either.

As the rule-set progressed in parallel with the increase in technical sophistication of the 90fs (due largely to Royce, the UFC and the jiu-jitsu boom that led to more competitors and better tournaments), the CBJJ/IBJJF kept its foundation intact (positioning being rewarded by points and followed by a progression that was meant to mimic the reality of combat and ascending towards a submission). A foundation that in terms of this progression-paradigm, is considerably consistent with the actual practice of vale-tudo on the ground, till this day in fact.

Typically speaking, a real-fight does follow a similar progression to that of the IBJJF rule system, namely: takedown, rewarded with 2 points and with potential strikes in vale-tudo; guard-pass, rewarded with 3 points and also with potential strikes in vale-tudo; knee-on-belly, rewarded with 2 points and (theoretically), with potential strikes in vale-tudo; mount, rewarded with 4 points and with potential strikes in vale-tudo; and finally, the back, also rewarded with 4 points by the IBJJF system while in vale-tudo it is rewarded with both the potential for strikes and the most common of all submissions, jiu-jitsufs crown jewel: the mata-leāo (which translates as glion-killerh, according to the method by which Hercules completed one of his tasks as told in the Greek myth) or simply, and as it came to be known in the English speaking world, the rear-naked-choke or simpler still, the gRNC.h  

All in all, the IBJJF point system accomplished a progression that was forward and that in many ways followed the progression of a fight. A few important caveats need to be mentioned. First, notice how the progression, to an extent, assumes a number of things that might have been true then, but that we now understand to be untrue or at least doubtful. First off, for the purposes of vale-tudo, the guard-pull factor is for the most part a non-successful strategy in a real-fight (unless the intention is to tire out a larger opponent, which could work in case you had a lot of time, which isnft the case in contemporary MMA and normally isnft the case in a street-fight either). Secondly, it assumes the opponent does not know any ground-game, hence the knee-on-belly working when strikes are permitted and turning the back when mounted.

Undoubtedly the kimono does serve a useful purpose in my view. But not universally speaking. Much of it, however interesting, is a far drift from the reality of combat. While the progression system devised by IBJJF kept the practice of jiu-jitsu with a foot in the realm of reality (because it did resemble a real-fight in that at the very least, positioning had to be controlled, not unlike in contemporary MMA) the kimono, particularly in its contemporary practice of lapel-guards and berimbolos, was the other foot outside of this reality.

Another problem the rule-set would encounter during the technical growth of jiu-jitsu, was that as it evolved as a competitive sport, not only were the technical possibilities expanded, but the tactical ones also grew exponentially and to an equivalent degree. As a result, the rule-set still deals with a variety of problems that in some ways exposed intrinsic problems underlined in their foundation and the premise to which it was held: rewarding points for the advancement of position in order to simulate a real-fight while not granting near submissions any reward (other than the advantage) along this progression. This had as a side-effect of placing position over submission in certain situations, something that flew under the radar for all this time due to the erroneous assumption that the fighter wants to win by submission every time, rather than simply win.

Which is to say, despite the avowed purpose of the fight being the submission, the reality was quite different and it was perfectly possible and, on many occasions even logical, to win by scoring points or advantages from positioning without ever having the incentive to go for a submission, as exemplified in case one was ahead in the score. Worse still, in many situations, it actually made tactical sense not to go for the submission and hold position instead.

Within the roots of this point oriented system, were seeds whose growth would have been difficult for anyone to foresee: How can the person who ends the fight in the bottom deep-half-guard win the fight because he almost swept the opponent, when in a real-fight he would have been repeatedly pounded in the face? In what way does learning and practicing incessantly techniques to win the exchange in double-guard-pulling (by winning, I am referring here to the odd notion of remaining in the bottom position while pulling your opponent on top of you) resemble the reality of combat? How can we be awarded 2 points to a knee-on-belly but only 1 advantage to a tight triangle in which the opponent barely manages to escape and almost taps? Are we forbidding submissions because they are truly dangerous or because we think they are?; How can stalling in a 50/50 with a 360 degree full circle wrap of the lapel on the opponents leg for the entire match be such an effective tool to win a world title at an art that presumes to teach one how to defend themselves in a life threatening situation?

The problems are all too familiar and arenft insignificant. Take the advantage-system for example. One can understand a need for a tie-breaker in order not to leave the fight to the subjectivity of the referee and to an extent, understand the practice of advantages as an attempt at breaking that tie. Problem is, the advantages over time, became just another metric to be pursued much like points. And much like points they had enormous potential to be used for stalling in order to win.

Worse still, at least points are grounded on the premise that they are awarded contingent on the competitorfs ability to achieve and control position for 3 seconds. A significant time of control that demonstrates onefs ability to control the position from which, in case of a real-fight, one could strike down on the opponent. While the advantage-system on the other hand, simply does not follow the same logic. Advantages are awarded contingent on almost achieving something (a point or a submission). Emphasis on galmosth because it isnft always clear to anyone what the intention of the competitor truly is (scoring the point/submission or simply the advantage?), making referees' calls prone to controversy.  

Perhaps these blind spots could be explained due to the culture in which jiu-jitsu evolved away from judo. In that its early adepts did not seek jiu-jitsu for the purpose of medals, but rather for the purpose of learning how to defend themselves and/or fight in the streets and beaches of the highly territorial and tough-guy dominated worldview of the south zone of Rio. In other words, when the rules were created, its creators did not assume that decades later, priorities would change along the world in which they lived. Never imagining that anyone would want to specialize in a style of jiu-jitsu that would never help them in a real situation. A potential overall cultural shift, in that street-fighting became less and less acceptable as jiu-jitsu evolved, was certainly not in the minds of the founders of the Guanabara Federation.

To summarize, despite the IBJJF rule-set possessing a compass of progression that has remained over the years considerably in sync in terms of how a real-fight progresses in terms of its positioning on the ground, it has nonetheless and in many ways had difficulty in keeping up with the technical evolution of jiu-jitsu and its competitors wanting simply to win, regardless of how real or not their styles and victories were turning out to be. Not to mention the increasingly obvious evolutionary departure from MMA to which the progression was originally intended to simulate.

 The issues, however, are not all structural in nature, many in my view are due to tradition and possibly the fear of the flak it would receive in case it changed that which has been part of jiu-jitsu since 1967 if not earlier. Issues that canft be addressed without upsetting the entire jiu-jitsu landscape. No easy task to repair such a structure, particularly when we consider its size and success in terms of growth and numbers.

Change is inevitable and no one, not Carlos or Helio, or Carlos Gracie Jr. himself could possibly have foreseen all the technical marvels that human ingenuity is capable of when pressed by competition coupled with its competitorsf ambition. To aimlessly and malignantly attack from a safe distance their rule-set, considering it approaches its 60th birthday (not to mention its worldwide acceptance and adherence that dwarfs other organizations), costs nothing. Conversely, to actually create a rule-set that can withstand the trials of time, particularly in a highly competitive environment where information spreads at the tap of a screen is a whole different game.

Overtime, the IBJJF system has become remarkably complex as it attempts to deal with the infinite situations possible in high-level grappling. Which isnft to say that it can be simple, because, if truth be told, I donft think it can be without creating other problems. The complexity is likely to have been a byproduct of the eternal arms-race between competitors and the IBJJF who attempts to keep the battle within the constraints set forth by their definition of competitive jiu-jitsu, even if this is no longer in sync with our previous definition of: gJiu-jitsu is the practice of grappling as realistically, efficiently and safely as possible, with entertainment as a side-effect.h

Another problem worth mentioning here, is that the founders of the 1967 rule-set with their eyes at using competition as a means to help the growth of their practice, failed to grasp a fundamental trait of human-nature: people, when possible, want to maximize results while minimizing efforts. Furthermore, winning, is winning, whether by advantage or by submission.

This little idealist miscomprehension can also be witnessed today in the contemporary practice of sub-only, where competitors always invest as little as possible to achieve the easiest route towards victory (a topic to be addressed in a future article). Tactically fighting for advantages in the IBJJF system can make sense; and tactically waiting for the overtime in the sub-only format also makes perfect sense. Unsurprisingly, those who compete in sub-only place much of their training efforts in the overtime. From a competitorfs standpoint, it all makes perfect sense.

Long story short, competition is an arms-race of not only competitor versus competitor, but also in between the organizers who are attempting to steer victories towards a more realistic or entertaining one (depending on your cup of tea), over permitting victories, that are dull or unrealistic, against the competitors who are treading the line of what is the fastest and easiest path to victory, even if this means to be dull or unrealistic. Or both. But as my late friend Kevin Randleman would always say, gwinning takes care of everything.h Most if not all competitors agree, itfs all about the win.

The arms-race takes two shapes then. On one side, the contestants and their technical canon grows exponentially as is the case with the contemporary competitive practice of BJJ and the clever tactics to win in it. While on the other side, the rules that shape this practice must also grow exponentially to keep up with the increased levels of sophistication by competitors. The inevitable result is the increased complexity of both bodies: the technical/tactical and the bureaucratic rule-set that treads slightly behind it.

Just to give you an idea of what this co-evolution looks like in practice, the Guanabara Federation rule-set consisted of just over 2,5 pages of rules. Today (2022), the IBJJF rule book consists of 50 pages. If the evolution has indeed been in parallel as I suggest, then this also gives us an idea of the increase in the technical/tactical sophistication of competitors since then.

However inevitable, it is precisely in all this complexity that the problems with the IBJJF lie. As an example of this, once, Marcus eBuchechaf Almeida (who is arguably the best jiu-jitsu practitioner of all time next to Roger Gracie and Bruno Malfacine) confided with me, that he did not fully understand the IBJJF rules himself. Their most successful competitor admits to not having a full grasp of the rules! Still, while I admittedly donft fully understand all situations either and while the problem is real, the IBJJF does offer multiple referee courses a year as well as easy to follow videos to learn from. Which, however helpful, are still a lot of work, especially considering they are regularly updated.

As discussed above, it isnft an easy problem to tackle, even for IBJJF with its extensive experience and even if possessed with all the good will in the world. Between the advantage-system; guard-pulling; and the inevitable constant reshaping of the rules that resulted from jiu-jitsufs popularity and the high-level of innovative techniques (however unrealistic, no one can deny the technical sophistication of competitive jiu-jitsu today) that sprung from all this as a result, where the seeds that led to all this complexity. Is there any other way?

Some of the criticism I make of the IBJJF rule-set are fairly simple in nature and wouldnft upset the actual structure of the building, but may upset the personal preferences of individuals that may well be in the majority. At any rate, below are some suggestions for what IBJJF could change that would only upset some practitioners, but not much else. 

Keeping it More Real

1-    Penalize guard-pulling  so that competitors are incentivized to learn how to take their opponents down. It is hardly admirable that a BJJ world-champion can be almost entirely crippled in terms of takedown ability. The criterion for this already exists in fact. When a fight hits the ground (by way of takedown or guard-pull), the top player is penalized in case he disengages, because he avoided the fight as it was taking place. The same criteria ought to be applied in case a practitioner chooses to pull-guard, because he is also disengaging and avoiding the fight as it was taking place. Another solution might be the one used by the (Chechen) Absolute Championship of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (ACBJJ), penalizing only in case the practitioner pulls-guard within the first minute of the match.  

2-    Rethink the reward system and prioritize submission over position but without ignoring the importance of the progression-paradigm. This can be done by simply using the criteria currently used to score an advantage but replacing the advantage with a point or points. This would significantly increase the incentive to attack more submissions. Another option in parallel to the one above (or not), is to remove advantages for failed attempts at acquiring position.

3-    Penalize trapping the opponentfs leg(s) with his own lapel. This family of techniques has the negative side-effect of entangling a fight in a way that is too far from the reality of combat and in general ties up the game more than it opens it.

4-    Allow all submissions in current use in the black-belt divisions, in all other ranks and divisions, from kids to adults (with and without kimono). Data are needed to confirm or disconfirm this, but I believe the vast majority of injuries do not come from submissions, but rather from transitions and takedowns. With this in mind, I donft think we should ban or deter takedowns and transitions (we are talking about combat here after all). Furthermore, I cannot think as to a good reason why a knee-bar should be illegal in the white-belt division. Another benefit of this would be that by allowing heel-hooks in the kimono, the stalling in 50/50 would end making it far for dynamic and realistic. Keeping in mind that defending a heel-hook in the kimono is far easier (because we can simply grab the sleeve and end the threat by controlling the opponentfs arm).

5-    Allow for holding inside the opponents sleeves and pants. This one would come with few or no tactical and regulatory issues. It just isnft a rule that I canft see a good justification for.  

I have other ideas regarding the IBJJF system that can be read here so I wonft repeat them. For now, it suffices to say that the IBJJF for all its structural, logistical and organizational qualities as an organization, possesses a rule-set that has allowed competitors to evolve in a direction that is too remote from the reality of combat. It has also become overly tactical and complex, to the point where some of its best competitors donft fully understand their rules.

 The excessively complexity and bureaucratic rule-set is far from perfect but has nonetheless, survived the trials of time and to a considerate extent manages to remedy the technical/tactical ingenuity of its competitors. Just not in a definitive way. Humans after all, are remarkable in their ability to craft ways around all sorts of problems. We hope and expect the IBJJF to be equally remarkable as it continuously shapes the technical growth of competitive jiu-jitsu and its practice.

Next, we will turn to one of the many offshoots from the IBJJF rule-set and competition circuit. The smaller, but highly popular ADCC. Stay tuned and consider signing up for notifications.

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More by Robert Drysdale:

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?

 

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

 

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GTR Archives 2000-2022

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