Jiu-Jitsu: The Dirty Art of Disengagement

Almost all tournaments have a rule set in place to address disengagement. Specifically, competitors can be penalized or even DQ’d for disengaging. A friend and fellow Brasa teammate of mine, Larry, had a situation come up that I think is worth exploring.

Larry is blind. When you roll with Larry, the right thing to do is to make initial contact, and then start rolling. Larry also competes actively and does quite well.  Larry’s account of the situation that came up was that he competed at a tournament and had an opponent disengage and then use the fact that Larry couldn’t track his movements as a major tactical advantage. The guy scored two points and then basically stalled the rest of the match. I posit that whether or not Larry’s account is accurate the situation and potential situations surrounding it are problematic on many levels.

For starters, disengagement is against the rules, and to disengage for tactical reasons against a blind opponent is simply wrong. There are in fact no rules on the IBJJF rule book to address this, so Larry’s opponent strictly speaking was working within the rules. There are however no rules against licking an opponent either, but that would be wrong as well. There are plenty of unsportsmanlike behaviors that are not explicitly forbidden.

So what is the right thing to do when facing an opponent that is disabled? Should you try to win at any cost? Or should you engage them on their terms thus giving up an inherent advantage?

The correct and honorable way to roll/compete against a blind opponent is to make a first contact, and to not disengage for the purpose of sneak attacking them. There are however no rules in place to force this so people will do what they want in this regard.

Another issue in this matter is the reffing. If a referee knows that a competitor is blind they should use their discretion and judgment and force the opponent to engage in some way. Simple as that. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a grappling art, force the competitors to grapple, and if one refuses to do so, penalize him or her.

Larry is an inspiration to many. He trains hard, rolls hard and competes well. His opponent used a void in the rule book to beat him. The referee of their match didn’t do his or her due diligence in that match because they allowed one competitor to disengage from the action.

I guess another crucial question is: is disengagement between sighted competitors acceptable if it’s done for tactical reasons? As in: someone is playing open guard, the other person disengages, times the guardeiro’s movements and then steps around their legs, is that disengagement acceptable?

I think that in Larry’s case, engagement is a basic piece of etiquette. When you grapple with Larry you make a neutral first contact before action begins. Should that be made into a rule for opponents of blind competitors at all competitions? I think so.

*Disclaimer: Larry didn’t ask me to write this.  I read about his situation and felt that it merited a bit of focus from the larger Jiu Jitsu community


  1. Hmm this is a tough one and I’m not sure how o feel about it. But i do have some thoughts. Maybe that is part of the opponents game. Disengaging finding a weak spot and going for it. Like your open gaurd example. Should the opponent be penalised for this? I’m not sure. If this was at his club and not a competition I would expect anyone to not disengage. But if the opponent loses because he couldn’t let go of Larry is that fair to the opponent? Like I said I don’t know how I feel about this really. But some thoughts on it.

  2. This isn’t a tough one at all. There should be no etiquette when rolling with a visually impaired competitor, but established protocol when a visually impaired competitor is competing against his or her sighted peers. Wrestling has adopted protocol from the youth level to collegiate level, employing a constant contact rule. If you’re unfamiliar with this technique here’s a brief synopsis. Both competitors start in the neutral position (standing) hand in hand, palm up and palm down oppositely, giving no one an advantage. If contact is broken, the referee stops the match, the clocks stops, restores contact and both the match and clock resume. In reality, this promotes a constant grapple or action between competitors, which at many matches to many guys waste too much time dancing around than actively competing exhibiting confidence in their skill set. To me it’s a good thing, unless you’re a Floyd Mayweather type of “fighter”. In reality, I don’t understand why a good part of the BJJ community still struggles with this concept, and its merit and/or the merit of a visually impaired competitor. It’s been a long road, obviously with many miles still to go for visually impaired competitors, especially being that they are few and far between. Nonetheless, opportunity doesn’t come knocking for many with a disability, you normally find yourself knocking on the door of opportunity, and sometimes even kicking that door in like a swat team serving a warrant.

  3. I don’t think there needs to be an established rule for a couple of reasons, first and foremost, BJJ is supposed to teach HONOR and trying to use someone’s disability against them is pathetic and honor-less. However, the constant contact rule as explained by Michael Iacovino that is used in wrestling would be a great ruleset to employ that wouldn’t really affect the outcome of a BJJ tournament.

    The main reason I don’t think it’s needed is because a competent ref should be able to negate any advantage when trying to use this as an advantage. The guy disengaged from Larry in order to score a takedown, the ref should have gave a warning immediately regarding that disengagement. Then the second that he began to stall, penalized him points. This would have forced the competitor to work and do something because now his precious advantage is all but gone. Especially if he decides to try to stall again which would negate the takedown and give Larry the advantage on penalties.

    A competent ref is the best way to overcome this issue, not additional rulesets for people to learn. But I wouldn’t complain if the rules were put in place; I just think it’s a sad reflection on the community that these rules are required because there are enough competitors out there lacking the honor to just do the right thing and give initial contact.

  4. I am a disabled athlete who has competed in BJJ and Judo tournaments for the past 18 years. I have even competed against the best in the world in BJJ. I agree that respect, courtesy, and warrior spirit are very important parts of both arts. Unless the tournament is specifically for people with disabilities (e.g., Grapplers Heart), however, I don’t believe you can, or should have to, make rule changes for EVERY disability. Therefore I think the best course of action is to make rule changes for NONE of them. You can’t acknowledge one disability while neglecting countless others. A non-disabled opponent can be asked to make accommodations, but he or she should not be mandated to do so, particularly in a high level and prestigious tournament.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here