Robert Drysdale On IBJJF, Sub-Only And The Future Of Jiu-Jitsu

There was a moment, not that long ago, where we, jiu-jitsu practitioners, seemed to agree what it was we were doing. Competitions were few and far away and your friends and family had no idea what an arm-bar could do. MMA was still “vale-tudo”, and the “gentle-art” could be defined simply as an efficient form of combat that prioritized fighting on the ground, where most fights ended up eventually. Our childhood memories confirmed this and so did Royce Gracie. It was all very simple: we wanted to learn how to fight and, above all, how to win efficiently and decisively.

This efficiency, that was clearly at odds with everything we thought we knew about combat, partially explains its rapid worldwide growth. But efficiency is not enough. I have always argued that the “self-defense” aspect of fighting was a great draw to get people started, but wasn’t enough to keep people interested. However terrified you may be of being attacked, this fear by itself is unlikely to warrant a life inside a gym. There has to be something else that keeps us going. Perhaps the social bonds these academies create and the sense of belonging we all long for. An identity that gives us meaning and a reason to overlook a life we didn’t necessarily choose.

Yet, this is not enough to explain why grappling is so captivating to so many of us. There must be something else. I believe that grappling is in our nature. From children, to primates to the most diverse cultures across the globe, the ability to physically subdue others is exhilarating as well as intellectually demanding. The result is a brief glimpse into ourselves, our fears, mettle, and willingness to overcome. Beyond the physical and the technical, jiu-jitsu is highly emotional for those who live it. And with all this wealth, comes a sense of satisfaction in being in the gym and around people who share this same passion.

Somewhere along the excitement of watching this growth take place, and your friends and family finally understanding what a submission was, the jiu-jitsu community seems to have lost its definition of what it was we were training in the first place. And this was perhaps inevitable given the rapid and unforeseen growth of the art. As people we differ in our preferences and approaches. For some, self-defense is still the end goal, while for others, MMA is as “real as it gets”. The competition scene has split as well, between gi and no-gi and point-system versus no-point-system, we have an increasingly divided community that is not lacking those who welcome this split.

Personally, I have always believed in, taught and practiced a jiu-jitsu that works in all these arenas. I call it “Functional Jiu-Jitsu”. I see no reason as to why we can’t develop a ruleset and practice an art that is applicable in all these arenas. This is not only possible but, in my view, necessary to keep jiu-jitsu unified. The damage the current rift, between these different interpretations, has caused, could be irreparable and split the community permanently, to everyone’s loss.

With all of this in mind, I wanted to share with our readers some of my opinions on the causes surrounding the problems I describe above. I have written a series divided into 3 parts. The first part I will cover, to the best of my capacity, the “knee-reap” debate. Next, the problems of tournaments with no-points, popularly known as “sub-only.” Lastly, I will share some of my long-time critiques of IBJJF and its overly complicated ruleset.

Throughout these series of articles, I would like to invite the reader to keep in mind a broad spectrum ranging on one end from “sport”, with its rules and safety concerns, and a “martial-art” with its concern for combat and efficiency. The purpose of these articles is to ask relevant questions as to the purpose and shape the community of practitioners would like to give the “gentle-art” from here onwards. And perhaps ambitiously shed some light at the current state the art finds itself in. Opinions may differ and dissent, like in any other social endeavor, should be welcomed as part of the discussion. Differences apart, perhaps we can all agree that we live in a turning moment for jiu-jitsu and its future. The failure to discuss and define what it is that we practice now, might deepen the rift between these various interpretations beyond repair. We all share this responsibility.

Part 1: Cross Roads 

In 1925 the jiu-jitsu school originally known as “Kano Jiu-Jitsu” and later rebranded “Kodokan Judo” set itself on a path that would make it the sport it is today. The rules that were established then would lead Kodokan away from other traditional combat schools (known as “ryus”) and their emphasis on the ground-game. Its founding father, Jigoro Kano, according to his biographer John Stevens, believed that “humans beings were meant to walk, not crawl”, that it was “undignified” and “the easy way out” since it took much less time to learn (Stephens, page 31). Regardless of what one thinks of Kano and his logic, his bias towards stand-up shaped judo for generations to come.

To be more accurate, the changes began much sooner. In 1899, all leg, finger, toe, and wrist-locks were prohibited. Seventeen years later, it was the turn of the infamous “ashi-garami” (“knee-reap”) to be banned. And by 1925, only chokes and elbow manipulations were left in its repertoire of submissions. Two important questions ought to be made here: 1) did the centralization of rules under one single organization make judo one of the most popular of all martial-arts; 2) by making the safety of its practitioners a primary concern, did judo set itself aside from other “ryus”? And did this concern for safety make it more appealing to the masses? Judo was to be a way of life and a sport, not a form of military combat. These questions are relevant since they directly relate to where we find ourselves today as jiu-jitsu practitioners.

Safety issues aside, it must be acknowledged that these banned techniques are efficient and that by assimilating them, the art becomes more complete and efficient. Hence, the question becomes one of where the art will stand and develop in regards to the wide spectrum that ranges from martial art (emphasis on “martial”) to sport (with it’s given ruleset). And if the decision of banning potentially dangerous submissions does the art more harm than good.

As a practitioner and teacher of the art, I often emphasize to my students that where techniques are concerned, whether they are complicated or simple, old or new, aesthetically pleasing or not, is not to the point. The only question that really matters (from a combat perspective) is: is it efficient? And if so, for the purpose of this article, how does efficiency overlap with safety (from a sport perspective). It is my personal belief that jiu-jitsu as we know it today, faces a similar moment as judo did a century ago and a serious discussion about the future of jiu-jitsu is long overdue.

What defines a sport is the set of rules in which the competition will be framed. Martial arts, are about combat, its realities and the interaction between combatants. Any serious martial art federation will take care to tread that line with care, keeping a balance between efficiency and safety. It is my view that IBJJF, considering its youth and its flaws, has done a fine job of maintaining that balance. Keeping in mind their clientele ranges from professionals to children, that balance is not an easy one to keep with something with as many variables as jiu-jitsu.

Take the prohibition of the knee-reap for example. Its efficiency is unquestionable, but is it safe? And in case it is not, should they be banned altogether? In a recent discussion with an IBJJF referee regarding this topic, he made a perfectly valid point that when these rules were created, medical technology and its ability to reattach ligaments and reconstruct knees were severely limited, at least in comparison with what is available today. Point taken. Moving forward.

The knee-reap and its accolades, the heel-hook and inverted-heel-hook, do indeed have a short lever, unlike the arm-bar or knee-bar for example, with its much longer lever that gives the attacked more than enough time to tap-out. Submissions like the ones above and wrist-locks (legal under IBJJF rules for all belts except white) are often followed with a verbal submission, but not a physical tap, due to their short lever. The short lever of an inverted-heel-hook gives the attacked close to no time to tap, and he can’t risk his opponent not feeling his tap on the leg. The result is the loud “tap!” that unlike the physical tap, is heard across the room. Which explains the perceived danger.

Any serious discussion regarding the safety (the efficiency is out of question) should be followed by conclusive evidence that the submissions in question are indeed, on average, significantly, not marginally, more dangerous than other jiu-jitsu techniques (transitions included). There is not, to my knowledge, any serious study that makes that claim. The shorter lever, however, combined with the longer recovery of a torn knee, does explain the apprehension towards this family of submissions.

These submissions, due to their shorter lever, combined with the longer recovery of a torn knee, do indeed, make them more problematic than an arm-bar for example. I say this entirely based on my personal experience on mats as a competitor, practitioner and teacher, where for the last 19 years I have applied and allowed knee-reaping in all my no-gi classes (whether they should be allowed in gi competition is an interesting topic), where the only perceived difference between the illegal leg-locks and other submissions was that, although they all occurred with an apparent equal amount of frequency, the illegal leg-locks weren’t injuring people significantly more than other submissions were (and certainly less than other transitions). They did, however, when injury did occur, require a longer recovery period than other joint-locks.

But again, my opinion and experience alone don’t mean much. What I, or anyone for that matter, thinks is dangerous or not, is irrelevant. What matters, is what the evidence says. It would be interesting to find out if other grappling federations (a Russian Sambo one for example), that allows knee-reaping, has any data comparing the risk of these submissions with other submissions – shoulder-locks for example – and finding out if the difference is significant enough to warrant its prohibition.

I would like to add that other forms of pressure on the inside and outside of the knee have always been allowed under IBJJF rules: De la Riva”and some berimbolo variations, half-guard (when the outside leg pulls our opponents leg out and applies pressure to the knee outwards) and, depending on angle, some fifty-fifty foot-locks and toe-holds. In the case of the De la Riva and the half-guard, the argument goes that although a reap, the opponent has an opening to turn away (by giving the back) and thus relieves the pressure on the knee, whereas a knee-reaping inverted heel-hook does not allow the same leeway. This is a strange argument, since the whole point of a submission is not to give your opponent any leeway in the first place.

I will add this, in my experience (and I suspect most would agree with me on this one, although statistics would still need to be presented), most injuries come from transitions, scrambles, and take-downs, not submissions. And if this is true, as I suspect it is, what follows is not that we should ban transitions and takedowns (jiu-jitsu needs more takedowns, not fewer) because they are “too dangerous,” but rethink what is indeed harmful to our health and well-being in relation to what is efficient for combat. That is to say, we need to keep jiu-jitsu a complete and effective form of combat, while still being a mass-sport.

The failure to assimilate the immense repertoire of techniques that leg-locks allow for, with a depth of knowledge and efficiency that we are only beginning to discover, will cripple future generations that might be learning a less equipped arsenal of submissions, where the lack of leg-locks are concerned. This could potentially split jiu-jitsu permanently. And while individuals and new organizations might benefit from this split, the community as a whole will lose. Another possible consequence is that in the future, IBJJF competitors might become the second echelon of submission experts, due to the more complete arsenal of submissions currently available in the sub-only competitions. This is not to say that the sub-only wave does not come with many problems and contradictions that make it a less efficient form of combat than IBJJF does (a topic I will approach in the second part of these articles).

Perhaps a reasonable solution for IBJJF in the near future is to allow all leg-locks for the higher belts in no-gi competitions (since many competitors in these divisions are either professionals or semi-professionals anyway) until we feel confident enough to allow them in other divisions as well. Keeping in mind, the overwhelming majority of competitors look at jiu-jitsu as a means to relax, exercise, learn self-defense while having a good time, and a break from the stress of real-life. These practitioners might be more concerned with the integrity of their knees than with keeping jiu-jitsu a more complete and efficient form of combat.

One could argue that by attempting to prioritize safety over efficiency, judo set itself apart from other grappling arts and made it appealing to a broader public. I think this unlikely. As I mentioned before, transitions are likely to be the prime-suspects of injuries in grappling. And I suspect the injury ratio in judo competitions is much higher than in jiu-jitsu, even when knee-reaps make themselves present. Additionally, by limiting the amount of submissions available in competition, judo distanced itself from its martial arts roots. The question we should be asking is, do we want to follow a similar path?

I will finish by reminding everyone of the importance of keeping jiu-jitsu cohesive, safe, and within reasonable rules, yet efficient and combat realistic. We must keep it one of the fastest growing martial arts in the world, and the one that helped give birth to one of the fastest growing sports in the world, and to allow it to continue to change the lives of so many people. But above all, we must remind ourselves that we didn’t begin our jiu-jitsu journey because it was safe; we always knew it wouldn’t be. Rather we began it because it was efficient and real.

Let’s keep it that way.




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