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The Fallacy of Submission-Only 

 Robert Drysdale

Posted July 23, 2022

".... had that been a real fight with elbows and punches, the end result would have been a very different and bloody story."


The explosive growth of jiu-jitsu around the world fueled first by the astonishing victories of Royce Gracie in the early UFCs, given developmental structure by the IBJJF and much later given an extra injection of marketing thanks to the voice of Joe Rogan and other celebrities who fell in love with jiu-jitsu, also came with pros and cons.  

Opinions vary as to what jiu-jitsu is, what should be taught, how it should be taught, and what should be emphasized. The original Gracie Academy of Carlos and Helio, and later the Torrance Academy and its offshoots emphasize self-defense. Followers of Carlson Gracie resonate to his vale-tudo inspired views on jiu-jitsu as it was meant to be taught with a foot in that parallel universe. Barra Gracie celebrates the view of Rolls Gracie, from which the most successful jiu-jitsu team in the world could trace their lineage. And while this all seems like ancient history now, the debate as to what jiu-jitsu is or ought to be, still lingers in todayfs world and well into the jiu-jitsu competitive scene.

The spread of IBJJF and competitive jiu-jitsu around the world also had its own offshoots. Which, we could argue, were practically inevitable given the infinite ways in which jiu-jitsu can and has been practiced and defined over the course of its long life, from pre-Meiji Japan, through Kano and his judo, the Gracies in Brazil and finally California, where it would spread from there to the rest of the world in an Americanized form of sorts. Needless to say, some saw jiu-jitsu differently, some, much like others who came before them, also wanted their place in the sun. Accordingly, their views differed. And so, goes the history of jiu-jitsu.

As discussed in a previous article, IBJJF gave jiu-jitsu credibility but it also came with some of the problems in terms of complexity. As I intend to argue in this article, the sub-only movement is in many ways, a side-effect of this complexity that fed on the building resentment others had of it coupled with the Americanization of jiu-jitsu as discussed previously.

On a side note, it has always been of particular interest to me how in political terms, people seem to lean towards a binary view of everything remotely political. One must be a liberal or conservative, be pro-Gracie or anti-Gracie, with objective reading being a distant third at best or inconceivable at worst. In this narrow framework of discussion, objectivity always seems to take a backseat while making sure your favorite team takes the wheel and ewins.f

A notion I had to deal with extensively after I released my book Opening Closed Guard, where much of the criticism came from people who either hadn't read the book, or read it poorly enough to repeat back to me arguments and conclusions that were first drawn in the book itself. Which is disappointing to say the least. History is what it was, not what we want it to have been. And facts can be interpreted with objectivity and impartiality in sight. Itfs just that people donft always agree on what the most relevant facts are.  

And so, much like in politics, where one assumes that if one side is all bad, the other must automatically be the all good one, jiu-jitsu suffers from a similar way of thinking today. Namely that the IBJJF rule-set is excessively complicated and people are winning by scoring an advantage and stalling, or because the referee is Brazilian, then clearly the rule-set is flawed and its total opposite seems like an obvious improvement. Jiu-Jitsu is after all about the submission, right? Wrong.

The sub-only movement is largely a side-effect of the growth and disagreements within the jiu-jitsu leadership as to what jiu-jitsu is, as well as the contemporary privileging of entertainment over efficiency. Ifll explain.

By skipping entirely the complexity of the IBJJF system, what the sub-only movement was doing in essence was to bypass the complexity issues and sticking instead to a definition of jiu-jitsu that had been advocated by almost everyone in jiu-jitsu so far, from Helio Gracie down to today (even if Helio himself was the one who created the point system to begin with): A definition that Jiu-Jitsu is all about the submission. Which is pretty simple when you think about it. Too simple in fact.

Under this very specific and narrow view, it doesnft matter what precedes the submission, as long as someone gets at it in the end. Even if we have to place them really near one as in the case of an overtime, where the contestants can choose between starting on the back with a body-triangle, or near an armbar. In case there are no submissions, the victor is whoever escapes fastest. In case there is no overtime in the event, then a judgefs decision will do. Thatfs it, and other than biting, hitting and eye-gouging, pretty much everything else is permitted. Problem solved, and the 50 pages of IBJJF rules have been replaced by a short paragraph.

Which on the surface does seem like a viable solution, since Jiu-jitsu does aim towards the submission as its final goal and submissions are more entertaining than points and advantages. But what if entertainment becomes the ultimate objective? Nothing wrong, and to each their own. It is only that in this scenario, jiu-jitsu no longer is gthe practice of grappling as efficiently, realistically and as safely as possible with entertainment as a side-effect.h As it had been previously understood and something previous practitioners agreed to, in theory at least.

 All this may sound contradictory since jiu-jitsu being all about the submission doesnft seem to contradict the definition above. However, when we place entertainment as a high-ranking priority (assuming of course one finds this model more entertaining), above gthe practice of grappling as efficiently, realistically and as safely as possibleh we end up with a new definition of jiu-jitsu that is more or less like this: gThe entertaining practice of grappling aimed at submission as safely as possible and with efficiency and the realism of combat as a side-effects.h

Which is of course, one way of doing things. But I question the strategy of placing entertainment as a higher priority than the reality of combat. We have all seen the consequences to other traditional martial-arts in terms of their credibility, when they place some other metric (any metric) ahead of the one that the martial-art was originally intended to follow: the reality of combat.

Again, this is all a matter of direction and purpose as to what future we are trying to create here. To be fair, the ecoolnessf of moves is indeed captivating. On a personal note, I am completely fine with it, but as a side-effect of the practice itself, not its driver. The bigger issue here being that changing the guiding principle of our practice automatically changes the ways in which practitioners train and future generations of martial-artists will perceive us. And unless we are willing to be ridiculed by future generations of martial-artists, something needs to be done. For those who insist in placing entertainment over efficiency, pro-wrestling has a long history and has never lacked a fan base. I am sure it can accommodate new ones.

With the problems of entertainment having been addressed elsewhere, we now turn to the technical fallacies of the sub-only model.

By eliminating all points and everything else other than the most fundamental rules such as biting, hitting and eye-gouging, sub-only was essentially getting rid of the progression-paradigm of the Guanabara Federation founded by Helio Gracie. Which meant in practice that there was no more order or direction in the match. That the submission could and should be hunted from every angle possible. Which, to be fair, did increase the submission rate. But it eliminated all the positioning that typically precedes it in a real fight. In other words, while attempting to be true to its roots, the sub-only had, for all practical purposes, turned jiu-jitsu into a non-martial-art, or even a game, completely removed from the reality of combat that jiu-jitsu is meant to embody.

With the IBJJF progression-paradigm at least, jiu-jitsu kept a foot in reality, by placing emphasis and rewards in the fight sequences that also took place in vale-tudo: takedown followed by control and strikes; side-control followed by control and strikes; sweeps followed by control and the strikes from guard or side-control; etc.

By removing any incentive for going for a takedown, sweeps and guard-passing, as well as the incentive for defending them, for example, the sensible tactic become not to fight for these as one would in a real-fight, but rather wait for the opportune moment to place your investment in the shape of a submission attempt and not care about any positional investment your opponent may make (say, to try to pass for example). With this in mind, the sensible tactics that follow the sub-only logic are: donft go for a takedown or try to fight the takedown; donft try to pass the guard or recover your guard; donft go for mount or defend mount.

And the worst of them all: no matter what, stay flat on your back for the whole match even if your opponent is in mount or side-control, and donft try to go to your knees or stand back up (as one should in a real-fight) and risk exposing your back (which explains the very low rates of RNCfs in the sub-only rule-set in their normal time) instead, keep both your arms glued to your chest in a tight-defensive formation and hope that your opponent will move (which he might because he isnft winning, or losing, but may want to win and not draw) instead, opening up for the opportunity of going for a quick sacrifice-submission, say a heel-hook. In case you miss, start all over and repeat the strategy.

All this has the obvious advantage of safe-guarding energy, which has the added benefit of allowing the competitors to be rested by the time they reached the overtime. Under this model, there are only three things that make sense and to train in preparation for this sort of rule-set: get good at defending submission from side-control; get good at attacking quick sacrifice-submissions that are high reward (because they win you the fight) and low risk (because no one can punch you in the face in case you miss); and specialize in attacking the back or the armbar (for offense only one arm, left or right, since you can choose during overtime), but practice escaping both the back-take and armbars (both arms in this case because you canft choose).

This without ever bothering developing any elementary balance to defend a sweep or takedown. The worse part, is that from a tactical perspective, this is all perfectly sensible. Accordingly, this is exactly how sub-only adherents practice jiu-jitsu today.

I was concerned a long time back that submission-only would put jiu-jitsu at risk of  becoming a folklore based martial-art instead of the reality oriented one that set it on its path towards becoming one of the most practiced martial-arts in the world. Remember Royce in the UFC? Yeah, that is what I am referring to here.

It doesnft take much to see what the consequences are in a real-fight of not being able to fight for top position choosing instead to be taken down, have your guard passed and defending yourself by keeping your arms really tight to your chest. There is a reason why no one in MMA does any of this and there is a reason why any fight coach would frown on this sort of strategic thinking and training.

A classic example of this sort of fallacy is the now highly referenced Metamoris match between Andre Galvão and Ryron Gracie. With the former representing the point camp and the latter the sub-only one. The fight was officially a draw although, had it been a point-oriented match, Andre would have won by a landslide. Strangely, Ryron was following his grandfather Heliofs strategy of considering a draw to be on par with a win because he wasnft submitted. A reasoning that equates stalling and fighting for the draw with a victory of sorts. Hardly in accordance with  normal "practice combat as realistically as possible,h or with the notion that gjiu-jitsu is all about the submissionh either. Or ith any other notion, other than to apparently justify the lack of success in actually winning the match.

Despite being clearly dominated for the entire match, getting nowhere near a submission and only defending himself the entire time. Many fans lauded Ryronfs performance, forgetting that had that been a real fight with elbows and punches, the end result would have been a very different and bloody story.

Another valid point here, is to question whether being gall about the submissionh is congruent with self-defense. If during an attack I am instinctively compelled to attack my opponent with a sacrifice-submission (say a heel-hook or an armbar from mount), this clearly exposes me to further attacks. Keeping in mind that during an incident on the street there is absolutely no way of knowing how many people you are up against or in knowing what kind of weapons they might. You go for your armbar, guy pulls out his piece. Bang. Fight over. See what I mean?

Moving forward, ultimately, both the Guanabara rule-set and the sub-only one, failed to grasp an important aspect of human-nature in regards to incentives, efforts and rewards. Namely that these incentives, are the bricks and concrete of the building itself, that whatever the rules reward will be what the practitioners will invariably specialize in. The idealistic dream that competitors will always go for the submission no matter what, is a pipe-dream because it fails to understand the dynamic of effort, incentives and rewards.

Sub-only does not reward positions that could potentially win you a fight in case strikes were legal (mount, side-control, sweeps, etc.), instead, it rewards practices that are at complete odds with the reality of combat. Where the only victory, comes by a huge investment (going for the submission while risking being in a position that can expose you to other submissions and/or strikes in a fight), followed by the huge risk of both getting tired and exposing yourself in this process. And with no rewards in sight other than the ultimate one of getting the submission. Romantic, yes. Realistic? Not so much.

Unsurprisingly, most sub-only competitors donft risk much, preferring to invest, when the time is ripe, which is to say, during overtime. And what was meant to end the problem of stalling, only created a whole new category of stalling because, idealism notwithstanding here, it makes tactical sense to focus primarily on the overtime tie-breaker.

With these inconsistencies in mind, it would do as well to think of systems that rewarded progression proportionately to the effort and always with the two ultimate goals in mind of the gpractice of normal" combat as realistically as possibleh in the shapes of submissions and positions where the potential to do damage with strikes is real. Certainly not an easy task, but a worthy one nonetheless if it sets jiu-jitsu back on an evolutionary course towards reality over entertainment.

Unless, of course, we are to reframe our previous definitions of jiu-jitsu that ought to prepare us for the reality of combat. But in case we donft concede to entertainment and a practice of jiu-jitsu that has no concern for learning how to take someone down and hold them down and that teaches you to never go to your knees in case your guard is passed (as you should in a real-fight), then by what is a broader and more realistic definition of jiu-jitsu that ought to teach you how to fight.

It shouldn't be all about the submission. Position matters as much, if not more. Don't take my word for it, watch the UFC.It shouldn't be all about the submission. Position matters as much, if not more. Don't take my word for it, watch the UFC."

In fact, I donft know the numbers on this, but I suspect that the number of TKOfs on the ground is in fact higher than that of submissions in MMA fights. Which would confirm my views above that a combat ready definition of jiu-jitsu must also keep in mind the importance of positioning as we can easily observe by watching any high-level MMA fight. Long story short, these two approaches arenft necessarily mutually exclusive. The IBJJF foundation seems to me to be the more appropriate one in this regard, minus a few suggestions that I made in a previous article (here).

I share with the sub-only movement many of its concerns about the excessively complex IBJJF rules and situations that are, for practical purposes, just as much a drift away from the reality of combat. While the complexity might be inevitable given the sophistication of the competitors, many of the problems I have outlined elsewhere can be easily remedied (guard-pulling, excessive entanglements with the kimono, double-guard-pull, the awarding of points for positions but only advantages for submission attempts, etc.). Yet, the IBJJF system, for all its problems, still rewards the top position in hopes of encouraging practitioners to understand that top is, generally speaking, better than bottom in terms of what a real-fight looks like.

This is why the discussion regarding rule-sets is so relevant, because in reality the rule-set is what guides the technical evolution of a practice, any practice. The bigger problem here is that no matter how well intentioned, how pragmatic or how experienced and wise, no one can foresee the long-term technical developments and consequences of any rule-set. We can only make informed decisions, based on the experience of those who, preferably, have spent vast amount of times not only training and teaching but also competing, because those are the ones who know best how competitors actually think and strategize, hence, they are better at seeing ahead.

Also, with being attentive to the adaptations of competitors towards these rules; be open minded enough to listen to suggestions and criticism and have the courage and wisdom to continually change and adapt as quickly as the athletes do, taking note to neither be left behind nor lose the guiding principles that first led to our interest in Royce and his victories in the UFC.

The emphasis in both technical and tactical terms, is invariably towards what makes most sense in terms of the incentive and the following rewards. This will never change. What can change is the framework that steers its practitioners towards the reality of combat and away from the demands of the crowd for entertainment but also away from economic pressures and anything else that doesnft place realism as its guiding principle.

In other words, keeping jiu-jitsu as real as it can get and staying clear from trends and those who follow them blindly. Speaking for myself, I fell in love with jiu-jitsu because it worked, not because it was trendy and entertaining. I suspect Ifm not alone in this.  

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


 izaakmichellbjjInstagramvtB[: For those who gave up watching, this pretty much sums it up! Well done Kyle, we have officially got no time limit matches banned forevercizaakmichellbjjInstagramvtB[: For those who gave up watching, this pretty much sums it up! Well done Kyle, we have officially got no time limit matches banned foreverc

More by Robert Drysdale-


Rev. of Breathe, by Rickson Gracie

The ADCC Blind Spot

Winning at Jiu-Jitsu while Keeping it 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