Robert Drysdale: Problems With IBJJF Ruleset

Previously, in part one and two of the three part series, I approached current topics of the jiu-jitsu scene that have, to some extent, swerved the sport in a different direction from that of the IBJJF scene. Namely, the safety of leg-reaping and how it contrasts with its effectiveness. Following this, in part two, how submission-only events, in an attempt to tackle some of the existing problems with the current IBJJF based point-system currently available, are actually carrying our art further away from its fighting roots by creating an excessively unrealistic version of Jiu-Jitsu that bears little to no resemblance to a real combat situation. I would like to finish where the discussion first originated: IBJJF’s overly tactical and complicated ruleset.

In the past, I have had the opportunity to sit down with IBJJF officials and discuss possible rule changes with other team representatives. As you can imagine, these meetings don’t lack suggestions and disagreement among its participants. I am always surprised to find the IBJJF’s staff not only open to such a discussion, but eager to hear our input and suggestions. A few topics were discussed in one particular meeting: the possibility of banning all advantages from the fifty-fifty guard (later implemented), among other non-progressive and overly tactical winning strategies; double guard-pull; and, a few of my own suggestions, the banning of the suplex take-down (for safety purposes, when head and neck hit the ground first) as well as the penalizing of guard-pulling, a suggestion that was met as blasphemous by at least one meeting member.

Other than how open to criticism and to changing their format IBJJF is, what these meeting have taught me is that critique comes easy; efficient implementation of change, not so much. I was surprised when at one point, one of their head-officials pushed a pen and paper in front of me and asked me to write down my suggestions in a coherent manner that could be implemented into the rule book.

Easier said than done.

Immediately I came to the realization that the job of changing rules that have been in place for so long is not as simple as one may think. Indeed, IBJJF carries a huge task at hand.

As I mentioned in the previous article, the debate over rules is far from new. People have stylistic preferences, and with these preferences, come a natural tendency to construct their arguments for their preferred ruleset around their own individual styles. Since I have never heard anyone argue for a ruleset that opposes their own individual style, I take that this discussion bears at heart not what is best for jiu-jitsu – its efficiency and progress – but what is best for individuals, who tend to lean towards rulesets that make them more likely to be successful. Much of the debate regarding rules has this sort of mindset as a hidden-background.

Take Helio Gracie’s classic battles with the Japanese in Brazil. There was much debate surrounding these matches. Helio, who had a clear preference for a submission-only style match, refused to fight the Japanese under a point system that would clearly put him at a disadvantage. The Japanese, being superior on the stand-up aspect of the game, wanted their takedowns to be rewarded. Helio, in his turn, knowing that his closed guard was perhaps his best tool, took the opposite view.

Perhaps the best example of this are his two battles against Yassuiti Ono, a Japanese immigrant and student of a Kodokan graduate Kanemitsu Yaitibe, the man who is said to be, alongside Tsunetane Oda, behind the “sankaku-jime” or triangle-choke (Serrano, O liver proibido do Jiu-Jitsu vol.6 pag. 397). In their first encounter, Ono threw Helio a total of thirty-two times (O Imparcial, December-8th-1935). In their second encounter, he threw him twenty-seven times (Correio de S. Paulo Oct-5th-1936). These matches however, were officially ruled as draws. It is obvious why Helio preferred a no-point system against the complete Ono. He would also go on to challenge Helio for a third match, this time with a point system in place (Diario Carioca Oct-8th-1936). There are no records of him ever receiving a response.

Robert Drysdale: The Problems With “Sub-Only Tournament”

What is best for myself, or any other practitioner, may not be what is best for the future of jiu-jitsu. This should go without saying and should serve as a lighthouse throughout any discussion that attempts to define our art. Those observing the discussion should be quick to spot if splitting the sport into conflicting rulesets is indeed what is best for the community or if it is what is best for individuals and organizations who may benefit from the split.

Perhaps this is unavoidable, Brazilian jiu-jitsu itself is an offshoot from Kodokan judo’s world-expansion. To prevent any rift would require a concise consensus from most practitioners of the art. The problem might have been avoided had IBJJF made structural changes to its rules that would have avoided this problem in the first place. Conversely, there are the types that will always simply be discontent with their own results in tournaments and, regardless of any changes in their rules, would always attempt to carve out a niche where their own stylistic preferences gave them a tactical advantage. Always easier to point the finger and blame the rules than to evolve.

Regardless, of what could have been, it is of immediate importance to deal with the rift now, and, perhaps optimistically, reverse the damage already done. With this in mind, I have assembled a short list of simple changes that would dramatically change the dynamics of IBJJF events for the better.

Shorter Matches

The argument goes that longer matches allow for the more technical and less athletic individual to win. I find this argument to be lacking of any substance. It is too broad a claim to be the determining factor of such an essential aspect of the sport. People vary not only psychologically but, more importantly in this case, physiologically. I simply cannot see how the less athletic person is more fit for a longer match. In fact, I am inclined to believe it might be the other way around.

Additionally, longer matches make them more tactical and slower. Keeping in mind a competitor might have to go against up to ten opponents in the same day, if you count open-weight class, asking them to be aggressive for the whole ten minutes of every match is completely unrealistic, even for the most fit and gifted of individuals.

Shorter matches would increase the pace and make jiu-jitsu not only more realistic (shorter time would resemble more closely real situations) but more entertaining as well. The excessive tactfulness of longer bouts would be replaced with more dynamic and aggressive battles. The emirate tournament, Abu-Dhabi World Pro already follows this format by reducing the time limit from ten to six minutes. The result is not surprising: more action. Spectators will often walk away from an event with the average of what the event put forth. Having faster paced jiu-jitsu matches would go a long way making it more entertaining while keeping a foothold in the martial arts end of the spectrum

Penalize Guard Pulling

When I mentioned this in the IBJJF meeting, my suggestion was met with shock. They quickly rebutted that the guard was the essence and differential of jiu-jitsu; it was what set our art apart from other grappling arts.

I would like to emphasize here that I am not making a case against the guard or its efficiency. A downed opponent, should indeed continue to attack from his back, and this differential has certainly set jiu-jitsu apart from other forms of grappling.

My suggestion was that we applied the same criteria we already apply to an opponent who disengages from the ground fight: a penalty. The double standard as to why we don’t apply the same criteria to an opponent who disengages from the stand-up fight, by sitting to the mats, begs an explanation. The goal, would be to increase the take-down skills of practitioners that are often completely blind to this crucial aspect of grappling.

What is the usefulness of being a master at the ground art if you are unable to take your opponent down in the first place? The result would be more efficient grapplers from a combative perspective. We would also avoid the crucial and fatal mistake made by judo so many years ago by steering itself away from ground fighting and with a bias towards projections. As an art, jiu-jitsu should be constantly striving to assimilate efficient techniques to its repertoire. To pursue the opposite route is crippling.

Reward all reversals

Perhaps IBJJF’s greatest challenge today is how to cope with their rapid worldwide expansion without compromising the quality of their referees. One thing we can all agree on, is that IBJJF’s rules are excessively complex, even for experienced referees and competitors. To make matters worse, they are constantly updated. I have participated in countless referee courses, have competed and coached extensively my entire adult life, as well as refereed, and I have no issues admitting that I haven’t fully mastered the rules.

One of the most difficult situations for an exhausted and over-worked referee is remembering, during scrambles and exchanges, who initiated the sequence and, hence, is deserving of the points. My suggestion would be to count all reversals, (bottom to top) as points, much like the ADCC ruleset already does. The argument goes that a reversal, in order for it to not be strength based, must be made with the use of legs. I find this argument to be unsubstantiated and deceiving. A mount, turtle, or side control reversal all require an acute union between technique and physical ability, much like a guard player makes use of strong grips to execute an open guard sweep, for example.

This commonly held notion that technique and physical ability don’t overlap is not only fallacious, but harmful to a comprehensive ruleset. Additionally, for all practical purposes, what does it matter where the reversal came from if the end result is the same? This would dramatically simplify the referee’s task and would bring jiu-jitsu closer to its roots by rewarding the reversal from bottom to top regardless of the guard being involved.

Currently, some IBJJF competitors purposely give away mount to be on bottom where they feel more comfortable, something that would not go well in an MMA or street situation. Our goal should be to attempt to approximate jiu-jitsu to its combative roots.

Reward Submission Attempts With Points

When you really think about IBJJF’s criteria for scoring advantages from submission attempts, the criteria itself is not a bad one: the perceived danger, susceptible to referees interpretation, represented by that submission.The problem lies with the reward system accorded to these near submissions. I have often wondered at the rationale behind rewarding two points for a knee-on-belly while rewarding a tight triangle with a mere advantage. The former is a flimsy form of control with little use at the high-level (in fact, possibly the least scored of all points in competitive jiu-jitsu) in both sport jiu-jitsu and MMA. The latter is a submission with the potential to kill.

Events like NAGA have a more efficient system than IBJJF in this regard: a one point reward for a submission attempt followed by a second point in case that attack nearly ends the match. Currently, IBJJF only rewards the second scenario with one advantage. To equate a near submission with its joint-breaking capacity to establishing a knee-on-belly would be bad enough, but to reward the former less than the latter is simply backwards. My suggestion would be to reward submission over position, including established positions. Currently the opposite is practice.

Apply The Same Penalizing Standard For Top And Bottom Players 

Typically, the top player is viewed as the one avoiding combat or positional progression. It is easy to spot referees penalizing after twenty seconds of inaction by the top player. The same can’t always be said from the guard player. To be fair, there is nothing in the rule book to make this distinction. Stalling is stalling no matter where it takes place.

The problem here, lies not with the rules themselves but with the perception many referees have that the bottomed practitioner does not avoid the match by buying time. In the past, this was almost always true. However, with recent technical developments, particularly in deep-half-guard, fifty-fifty-guard, and lapel-guard, things hav changed. It is true that these positions can all be used aggressively.

My point here is not to make a case against them. Their efficiency is out of question. What I would like to see is the end of an ongoing double standard.  This is an easier problem to fix, since it doesn’t require changing the rules, only a change in the perception people have of stalling.

A More Leg Lock Friendly Ruleset

I have covered this topic in part one of these articles. I won’t repeat myself except to remind the writer of a key few points:

a) the purpose of jiu-jitsu is efficiency;

b) much of the anti-leg-lock feelings are based on pure prejudice and not on facts;

c) from my experience, and I suspect most would agree, transitions and takedowns are more harmful than leg locks. We shouldn’t get rid of takedowns, and for the same reason we shouldn’t ban reaping leg locks. What IBJJF should do is to rethink some long held (mis)conceptions regarding safety and have a discussion about allowing all leg locks, at least for the top tier of the sport.

There are some other minor changes that could be easily implemented for the better, such as: reward a body triangle from the back instead of only rewarding the two hooks; allow gripping on the inside of opponents pants; allow knee-bars, calf-slicers, bicep-slicers, and toe-holds for lower belts. These are simply some small changes that would go a long way into improving IBJJF’s current ruleset.

I would like to add that much of the criticism directed at the IBJJF is simply incoherent, and some of it borders on xenophobic. I would be willing to wager that most of these critics have never taken the time to discuss with the IBJJF, in a serious and respectful manner, some of their disagreements. Those people should keep in mind that their task is not a simple one: to find a balance between safety and efficiency within a model that encompasses all age groups, genders, and levels, as well as in a pleasing format that draws large numbers. And perhaps here lies the bottom line of why they are so hesitant to alter their format: they are doing well.

The days of how CBJJ (the Brazilian branch of IBJJF) tournaments were run in the now legendary “Tijuca Tenis Clube” in Rio de Janeiro are still fresh in my memory. From then to now, the improvements have been immense and for the betterment of the art. No one can deny that when it comes to professionalism and organization the IBJJF is a huge improvement from much of the other organizations out there, keeping in mind their events have thousands of competitors. As a competitor myself, one of my biggest peeves was not knowing when I would be stepping on the mats or to have the tournament and my division never begin on time. Today, the IBJJF has largely corrected this, as well as laid a couple stereotypes to rest.

With this degree of success comes also an apprehension about modifying a winning format with tens of thousands of competitors worldwide. To make structural changes in the rules, like the ones I describe above, could potentially upset a sector of their clientele. How big that sector would be and if this would potentially crack the sport further, is hard to say. To be clear, and make no mistake, the IBJJF and every other jiu-jitsu federation and organization out there is a business. As a business, they have their customers wants and needs at heart. The problem with this is that what is best for the art is often placed on the back burner. Furthermore, to potentially jeopardize such success is a huge risk few businesses are willing to take.

The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” strategy will continue to be in place so long as there is no pressure for significant change. And by pressure, I don’t mean angry rants on your Facebook about how the referee raised your opponent’s arm at the end of the match after it ended zero to zero. This sort of criticism doesn’t even belong in this conversation. Any serious competitor will begin by correcting his or her mistakes before blaming the referee or the rules for his or her loss. The correct, and most efficient, way of effectively changing anything is by making coherent and thoughtful points as to why jiu-jitsu would improve with these changes directly to the people responsible for shaping the rules. The position taken by team leaders and instructors in general bear significant weight in these matters.

I hope none of this sounds presumptuous. My goal was to do my part in attempting to find a reasonable solution in order to keep the art of jiu-jitsu united and to continue to grow in a desirable direction. Opinions may differ but we practitioners can all agree that at the bottom of any discussion about jiu-jitsu and its future lies a common passion we have for the art that changed our lives for the better.

As a retired competitor and fighter, I look forward to watching others live, enjoy, and appreciate the jiu-jitsu lifestyle I have dedicated myself to. To keep it an effective martial art as well as a captivating and endearing lifestyle should be the bedrock from where we continue to build.

Read Part 1 | Part 2


  1. Perhaps a switch to something resembling the catch wrestling rule set would be another good alternative to the current ibjjf and sub only rules?


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