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

IBJJF, Sub-Only and the future of Jiu-Jitsu part 2

I began part one of these three articles making a case for an open discussion about all leg-attacks, their safety and how this safety overlaps with the concern we should all have to continue to evolve Jiu-Jitsu into a more effective form of combat. I also suggested that IBJJF should, perhaps, allow all leg-attacks for higher belts, since these competitors consist largely of professionals and semi-professionals and that there has not been, to my knowledge, any comprehensive study comparing the injury ratio of other joint-manipulations to those of leg-locks. Additionally, I mentioned that it was my personal belief, based solely on my experience on the mats, that transitions and “scrambles” were the main cause of injuries in sport Jiu-Jitsu, not joint-locks. The intention was to remind the grappling community not to lose track of our roots. That in a sport format, safety is paramount, but that effectiveness is the essence of our art.

Few people dispute that a point system, normally based around IBJJF standards and criteria, come with problems. In IBJJFs defense, finding a balance between the martial-art and the sport, is not a simple task, keeping in mind the enormous spectrum that lays in between these two desired ends. The problems aren’t few and are easy to spot: overly complicated ruleset; overly tactical matches; rules that change too often in an attempt to keep up with the technical evolution of practitioners; and, in my view, the worst of them all, a ruleset that make it possible for competitors to go from white to black-belt winning multiple tournaments, without every learning how to take-down and/or submit, making the fight for the “advantage” the ticket to a world-championship (I will approach these problems in more detail in the third and last part of these articles.)

Photo: Robert Drysdale

I suspect that even if you ask competitors who are winning in this fashion, at least most of them, would agree that there certainly is a problem to be tackled here. Winning by an advantage shouldn’t make anyone overly proud and shouldn’t be the end goal of Jiu-Jitsu from a combative and martial-art perspective. However, one must admit, that from a sport perspective, how you score that win, ratter by submission or advantage, matters much less, since both wins will award you a ticket to the next round or to the title. Which explains the overly tactical battles for advantages and the fewer risks taken.

To blame the competitors is, in my view, a grave mistake. I have no shame in admitting that many times while competing, I held on to advantages while starring at the clock. Winning was simply too important to me and my respect for my opponents ability too great to allow myself any risk. After all, months of arduous preparation, emptying your bank-account, injuring yourself, sacrificing your personal-life, all add to the value and importance of that victory. For all these reasons, to blame the competitor, is not only unproductive, its fallacious. People when given a ruleset, any for that matter, will behave on the very fringe of what that ruleset allows for and invariably lean towards the most efficient strategies, a motion that could be described as “survival of the fittest techniques and strategies.” And I suspect this is not only true for Jiu-Jitsu, but for all competitive human endeavors that operate within a given framework on which the group of competitors agree upon. And here lies the “crux” of this article. Not everyone is content with the competitive framework we currently have available. 

The debate is far from new. In fact it predates not only IBJJF, but the brazilian version of JiuJitsu itself. In the last article, I gave a brief glimpse on the inception of Judo and how it split from other schools by establishing a ruleset and making Kodokan the gravitational center of Kano’s students. The traditional Jiu-Jitsu schools, or “ryus”, as they were referred to, were a series of academies with particular styles and rules. They agreed to call it “Jiu-Jitsu” (or “Ju-Jutsu” and “Ju-Jitsu”, depending on your western translation of the kanjis.) Some focussed on throws, others, joint manipulates and others on “atemis” (strikes). The brilliance of Kano, the founder of Judo, was to formalize a set of techniques into a system he would later call Judo (Initially, he still referred to it as “Kano Jiu-Jitsu”). This centralization around Kodokan was an enormous contrast, and a rift, from the eclectic and de-centralized Jiu-Jitsu scene of the time. Kano, a shrewd and influential individual had the solution.  By systematizing Judo and creating a set of strict rules, he would set his version of Jiu-Jitsu apart from these competing schools.

Destiny would have it, that a few of Kano’s graduate students from Japan who were spreading Jiu-Jitsu around the world, would land in the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1914 (Correio Paulistano September-23-1914. Although possibly as early as July-17). After its spread in popularity in that country, the debate would continue, albeit, under a different auspice. This time, two brothers, that would play an important role in the dissemination of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, and later the world, were locked in a never ending debate with members of the brazilian-japanese community and other brazilians over: gis (A noite July-13-1931); the length of these gis (Diario de Noticias June-13-1936); time limit and number of rounds (A Batalha October-14-1932); and points versus no-points (Diario Carioca October-8-1936.) As you can see, different definitions of what Jiu-Jitsu is or ought to be, are from a different epoch.

The current disagreements have led to a build-up of resentment of a sector of the Jiu-Jitsu community (mainly in North-America but also around the globe) that has a different understanding from the main-stream grappling community and is not fond of a point system. Another point, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous, is that much of the criticism directed towards IBJJF and their rules, myself, and others, have been making for well over a decade. So to make matters clear, there’s nothing new regarding these critiques and in fact they have been brought to IBJJF’s  attention many times with the difference that now, a wave of opposition, largely labelled “Submission-Only” has gathered enough momentum to warrant this discussion and attempt to branch away from main-stream competition.

Initially, I was more enthusiastic about the prospect of watching the development of a ruleset that was more prone to submissions and with no advantages. This excitement, however, was quickly replaced by skepticism, and later, the recognition that rather than solving the problem, “submission-only” tournaments have exacerbated it by drifting further away from the combat aspect of Jiu-Jitsu and closer to the sport end of the spectrum. The “sub-only” advocates, often take the argumentative route that “Jiu-Jitsu is all about the submission.” Within this limited and narrow definition of Jiu-Jitsu, lies the biggest problem with these “submission-only” tournaments: their neglect of position and control in a combat situation. 

It should go without saying that submissions are indeed at the core of Jiu-Jitsu, regardless of your definition of it. However, it is a simplistic view of Jiu-Jitsu to narrow it down to only that and ignore the importance of top position, for example, in a less sport oriented arena. Those who disagree, need only to watch the next UFC.

Take the recent match between Keenan Cornelius and Gordon Ryan, a “submission-only” with no time limit match. It turned out to be a ninety minute long slow paced event, where for both competitors sat on the mats for a considerable portion of the match waiting for the opponents mistake. For those readers who have watched that match, ask yourself in all honesty: In what way does that match resemble a real fight? I would like to add that I hope this does not come across as an attack on either competitor. Their skills are out of question, and a tactical match between them is to be expected, however, it is the ruleset that needs questioning here. And as I explained above, people will naturally gravitate towards the very edge of what the rules allow for in order to be tactically effective. From this perspective, Keenan’s and Gordon’s behavior during that match make perfect sense. 

Or take ADCC for example, a hybrid ruleset where the first 5 minutes follows a “sub-only” format, followed by another five minutes with a point system that resembles IBJJF. A common practice by competitors is to do close to nothing the first five minutes and “pick-up” the pace the following five when points are present. The change in behavior is easy to notice even for the untrained eye. As soon as the five minute bell rings, the action begins. One can only point out to exceptions, but sports and martial-arts aren’t made of exceptions, we need to focus on the overall pattern of competitive behavior.

We can always argue that positioning is used in these “point-free” tournaments and that they are necessary to set-up submissions in the first place. To which I would say: watch these events closer. I have often made the case against many of my training partners that submission doesn’t necessarily follow positioning, but often precedes it. I have in many situations “given-up” on passing a guard in order to attack a submission, creating a response that would facilitate the pass. Pursuing the opposite route, can create progress just the same, as any experienced grappler can attest to. Positions and submissions are interchangeable in the sense that they are both at the heart of Jiu-Jitsu as a martial-art and efficient form of combat. So what exactly is the problem with “sub-only?”

My first piece of critique, and most important one in fact, lies with the lack of take-downs in these tournaments. They are not illegal, but why don’t we see more of them? My answer, as to why they are missing, lies a few lines above when I explained that competitors will, naturally, gravitate towards the most efficient strategies framed by the rules. In the case of “sub-only”, the infamous behavior of “butt-scooting”. An already existing problem under IBJJf but taken to new heights in tournaments with no points by removing all incentives for being on top and controlling that position while moving to a submission. A recent study by a popular grappling website shows an astonishing zero percent takedown ratio for EBI, although to be fair, in the same article, the submission ratio was higher than the average point-system tournament ( Their promoter, in one of these events, went to the extreme of asking competitors, during rules meeting, “not to wrestle but to pull-guard.” Which, I will mention in passing, is completely at odds with a definition of Jiu-Jitsu that is MMA oriented or that bears any resemblance with a combat situation.

Why bother taking someone down? It is an enormous effort (energy) and risk (a guillotine for example). Much easier, and efficient under these rules, to specialize in sitting to the ground and attacking the feet, where you don’t have to fight for passing the guard or sweeping. And by doing so, neutralizing wrestling, completely and permanently while making top position irrelevant since no one is throwing punches and elbows, further drifting away from our roots, unfortunately.

Take another problem, directly related to the one above. Under a point-system, why bother preventing someone from passing your guard or mounting? If it gets too hard, let them pass, take your time and recover when your opponent decides to attack, creating space for the defense and recovery of your guard where you can go back to leg-attacking.  For the leg-lock expert, giving mount away can be an advantage (no elbow-strikes remember?) since there are no points and a good chance at escaping while attacking your opponents feet in the process. Keeping in mind that we are talking exclusively about a no-gi point system where submitting from mount and side-control are technically harder, the gi might change that in some respects. And additionally, why bother sweeping? It is an enormous risk (exposing yourself to a submission for example) and likely to be a waste of energy since there are no rewards for being on top. 

I have often observed that the rear-naked choke is likely to be the most common submission in both MMA and submission-wrestling. This says something about the back-attack, its significance and, above all, its efficiency. So why is it that the most common finishing move in “sub-only”, when there are no draws and submissions prevail, is a leg-attack and not the rear naked choke? I believe there are two likely answers: a) the unfamiliarity with “knee-reaping” by competitors accustomed to a point-system that bans these attacks (discussed in part one of these articles) and most importantly; b) theres no point on going to your knees on all fours to prevent the pass or to try to stand back up (like most MMA fighters do) after a sweep or take-down. The two most common ways of getting to that prime finishing position. Concluding that given the risks of going to your knees or standing back up, it makes sense that one would lay flat on his or hers back and wait to recover guard. Which is exactly what you can observe when there are no points to be avoided.

In a recent statistical study of IBJJF’s Gi World Championship (or “Mundial”) published on the same website mentioned above, they found that the submission ratio at the black-belt level was 41%, 42% and 32% for the years of 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively (, for an average of 38,33 submissions per fight. These numbers aren’t low and are in direct defiance of anyone who believes there are no submissions under a point-system (although certainly not enough in my opinion). It is also necessary to keep in mind the enormous amount of draws in tournaments without a point system (for obvious reasons, I am discounting overtimes where you start in a submission or near one, which renders the submission less relevant since you didn’t get there on your own, but because the time ran out.)

Another important point worth mentioning here, is that slower more tactical matches at IBJJF tournaments are often the result of two evenly skilled world-class competitors (at least in the study above where the submission ratio of 38,33 per match was reached at the black belt level at the IBJJF World Championships), resulting in a close score and a more tactical approach that doesn’t allow for mistakes. The same can’t always be said about “sub-only” events, where there is often a greater disparity between competitors in these tournaments and super-fights, which can help explain the high number of submissions.

When having this discussion with friends and students, I often make this analogy: Think of yourself as an investor with two options; first, to invest much of your resources into a “winner-take-all” type investment, where if you win, you take the grand prize (think of a submission here), whereas if you lose, you take nothing and lose all your investment (your effort and risk involved in attempting a submission). Now your second option, is of a very different nature, here, if you win, you win the big prize, whereas if you lose, you take back a certain percentage of your initial investment (a point). It is obvious which one any of us would choose. Points, don’t remove the incentive to take risk, they, increase it. The problem with IBJJF has nothing to do with their criteria or with a point-system, but with their reward system that favors position over submission. The “sub-only” wave is an attempt at correcting this, their mistake being, that they swung so far and wide the other way, that they missed the mark to a reasonable solution and created an even bigger problem: an even less efficient form of fighting than IBJJF has created.

These same friends and students often point out that these matches with no-points, are more exciting, and have less stalling than tournaments with points. As far as the excitement goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and it should be up to every individual to decide what is aesthetically pleasing and what is not. I will say this though, I didn’t begin training Jiu-Jitsu because it was aesthetically pleasing. Martial-arts with strikes have captivated the lay audience for decades and pro-wrestling is one of the most profitable athletic enterprises in the U.S. To me, Jiu-Jitsu’s beauty doesn’t lie in its excitement, but in its efficiency and realism. As far as the stalling goes, I remember cornering during an EBI and watching a specific match where one of the competitors held the other in “rubber-guard” and did absolutely nothing for 6:36 seconds. The referee didn’t say a word. Keeping in mind, IBJJF has systems in place, although often poorly used by the referees, to punish competitors every 20 seconds for stalling. This competitor in particular, would  have been disqualified, had he not moved after warning, 1:20 seconds into his “rubber-guard”. Those who believe there is a lack of stalling in “sub-only” tournaments, carry the difficult task of explaining the example above. 

With all its flaws, by favoring control, scoring a take-down and a sweep, IBJJF has, to some degree, created, by rewarding, a realistic sequence that resembles a real-fight: take-down, followed by guard-pass, followed by mount, followed by back-take, followed by rear-naked-choke. And even though IBJJF matches, don’t always go this way, by scoring and rewarding top control and position, they have created a system that approximates to the realities of a fight far more than a tournament where position is never rewarded.

As I hope I made clear in the first part of this article, there has been an important benefit brought forward by “sub-only” events: leg-locks. In all fairness, they were always present, many point oriented system have always allowed the “knee-reap”. But what this set of rules has done is remind us of the importance of attacking the lower-body and how blind so many of us could be for so long (myself included) to such an important family of submissions. I hope this changes and that we can make a crucial separation in between allowing important and efficient families of submissions and keeping a ruleset that maintains Jiu-Jitsu status as a martial-art, and not make the direct, and unjustified, association between “knee-reaping” and a no-point system. 

A final topic I would like to touch on is a broader brush on what it is we want Jiu-Jitsu to be like in the future. I have often argued that Jiu-Jitsu needs more take-downs and less “double-guard pull”. People are, and should be, free to differ. Nevertheless, it is of paramount importance to rethink what type of martial-art, or sport, we will be teaching in the future to our students. The implications of ridding ourselves of positions like “mount” and of all take-downs, will have potentially irreversible repercussions to the “gentle-art” and we might be rearing a generation of grapplers that are utterly inept to defend themselves in a real situation or to ever represent Jiu-Jitsu in MMA. One can always point out to exceptions of the problems I’ve mentioned above, but competitive martial-arts aren’t represented by single individuals and exceptions, but of the total average of all practitioners, who will invariably lean towards the most effective winning strategies. We ca always have a conceptual discussion of what “ought to be”, or we can have a realistic discussion about “what is”. Those who pay close attention to no-point events, will quickly notice how little resemblance they bear to any real situation you have ever been in or seen (even less so than IBJJF), or the UFC for that matter. Certainly something worth the thought and discussion.

Read Part 1


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