The Conundrum Of Sport Grappling

Fans of submission grappling often debate the rules of different competitions. We all want to see the best of the best in exciting, submission-oriented matches. It is true that competitors will devise strategies to exploit the rule set of any competition to find the most efficient road to gold atop the podium.

Unfortunately, this can lead to numbingly boring matches that cause the blood sugar levels of even the most ardent BJJ fan to drop to sub-catatonic levels. I’ve watched World Championships matches where superbly conditioned elite athletes fail to even attempt a single submission in the entire 10-minute match!

Then there’s the guy who stalls the majority of the match only to score a late advantage from a near sweep or “almost” guard pass and then runs around the mat, arms raised in triumph. This is a jiu-jitsu champion?!? Is this the jiu-jitsu that made you fall in love with BJJ?

It is difficult to criticize athletes trying to win a World title under the rules of a given event. If what they are doing is legal within the rules, and the stakes are high, the bargain of victory between gold and silver can be very narrow.

That leaves us with two problems:

1) The truth is that many matches in sport grappling can be boring as hell. Competitors don’t want to risk creating an opening and end up losing the coveted gold medal as a consequence, so they play it safe.

As BJJ addicts, we want to grow the art and sport and share it with the rest of the world. But truthfully, could you show one of these stalling snoozefests to your friends and tell them, “This is the most interesting martial art in the world”? They’d look at you like you had been choked out too many times.

2) The original spirit of jiu-jitsu was a smaller, weaker person defending against and ultimately submitting a larger, stronger opponent. Royce Gracie in the early UFC events came in and rewrote the book on winning fights. The martial arts world was revolutionized.

Since that seminal event, sports jiu-jitsu has greatly evolved along with the popularity of BJJ throughout the world.

Yet along with that evolution is a departure from the original combat roots of jiu-jitsu. An example would be double guard pulls and ground positions that score sweep points but leave one completely vulnerable to strikes. In the same way that traditional martial arts like judo and taekwondo became overly sports oriented and lost touch with their fighting origins, many feel that BJJ could go down the same, wrong path.

The conflict lies in that sports competition is possibly the most positive force in driving the growth and evolution of BJJ, yet competitors “gaming” the rules deteriorates the original combat roots of BJJ.

A perfect rule set continues to elude the sport. Even the ostensibly perfect submission-only format has its flaws with a near total absence of takedowns and emphasis on positions that would have gotten Royce pummeled in those early UFC events?

How does the BJJ world look to solve this conundrum?


  1. This is one of those situations where I think it’s hard to find the what works for everyone. When there are rules in place, people use the rules to their advantage whenever they can. Happens in every sport. In the absence of rules, people will take any and every advantage they can. When it comes to fighting, every advantage counts toward victory. Change the rules and watch the strategies change too. Points and submission only both have their strengths and weaknesses.

    I think what is important to also think about is what is being taught and with what mentality. A lot of classes are geared toward sport Jiu Jitsu, but should emphasize sport vs street in various scenarios. For instance while teaching a rear naked choke, demonstrate how to protect your eyes if you were using your art in real life.

    Chris Haueter says it best, “Practice Art. Train sport. Think street.”

    • K.C

      Totally agree. There are many benefits to sport JiuJitsu but it is ultimately up to the instructors to teach the street applicable techniques and mindset IMO.


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