There was once a time when the best brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners in the world were also the best over all fighters. BJJ hero Royce Gracie famously dominated “brawlers,” kickboxers, and wrestlers — many of whom outweighed him by 50+ pounds — in the first few UFC events in the mid-90s.
Shortly thereafter, however, fighters learned how to defend against those previously inscrutable submission attacks of brazilian jiu jitsu. BJJ practitioners stopped dominating, and then, not so long after that, were routinely dominated themselves by wrestlers who could control them on the floor but defend against their no-longer-new-fangled submission attacks. Strikers who could defend against submission attacks and knock you senseless in the meantime joined the fray next.
Ever since, BJJ has taken two separate directions. The pure BJJ specialists — who are versed in submissions but who shun striking and are comfortable “on bottom” in a fight — compete in jiu jitsu-only tournaments. When they venture into the UFC, they are routinely crushed. On the flip side, BJJ has essentially become integrated into the arsenal of every MMA fighter: everyone who fights in the UFC at a minimum can defend submissions, and most — whether they are primarily a wrestler or striker — can apply their share of submissions as well, even if they don’t call themselves a brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner.
It is to the pure BJJ folks that I address this essay:
I don’t think anyone wanted BJJ to evolve to a point where the best (pure) BJJ artists are essentially ineffective in general fighting. While there will always be at least some gap — even the best BJJ practitioners must learn striking from some other art — BJJ has evolved into a strange beast with many habits and tools that simply do not exist in regular fighting / MMA. Consider the “lapel guard,” currently being popularized by one of the brightest young stars in BJJ, Keenan Cornelius, which involves looping one’s opponent’s gi around your legs several times before ever even initiating clinching up with him. It’s an extremely inventive strategy, one that works amazingly in BJJ competition, but simply will not work on shirtless dudes in the UFC.
So the question, then, is how to make tournament BJJ more (if not perfectly) applicable to general fighting / MMA. How to make it such that the best brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners are also competitive in MMA, in the same manner that the best wrestlers and strikers today routinely are (after some additional training to round out their skills as well).
The first thing I would do is de-emphasize the gi. Many have made this argument before me and I will defer to them on this subject. But, the bottom line is, MMA practitioners do not wear a gi, and even a plain-clothes street fight — unless your opponent were wearing a tie or a leather jacket — wouldn’t allow you to perform most of the maneuvers modern-day gi BJJ asks you to perform.
In general, if you want to adjust the behavior of participants in a game, you should adjust the rules. Ideas for rule changes in BJJ tournaments to make them more like real fights abound. There is a large movement for “submission only” tournaments. I think this rule structure does avoid a lot of the problems of current point-based BJJ tournaments that award “advantages” for doing things that do not represent advantages at all, but they are also imperfect. Sometimes a fighter dominates another but can’t lock on that definitive submission. Should that match simply be a tie? (Incidentally, actually I think it’s OK to call such matches a tie; not every match needs a “winner,” but will save that for another day as well.)
One idea that I haven’t heard proposed that I think would work well would be for duration of control to matter. Currently if your opponent takes your back (or mounts you or puts you in side control), your opponent is awarded a few points, independent of if they control you for a few seconds or a few minutes. This is a major difference between a BJJ tournament and a UFC fight. In a UFC fight, if you gave up the mount for any length of time, you will probably be punched into oblivion. Same for giving up side or back control. The threat of being punched in these inferior positions means you can’t devote 100% of your energies to defending submissions. At a minimum, you would lose the round, and in your average three round fight, this is a big deal. What I often see in BJJ fighters in the UFC is that they are able to take dominant positions such as back control or threaten with submissions — things that would earn them points or “advantages” that would win them the match in BJJ tournaments — but they are unable to hang on to these positions enough to either win the round or knock out or submit their opponent in the UFC. Perhaps having to “hang on” to dominant positions in BJJ tournaments would translate into improved outcomes in UFC tournaments. It would encourage in BJJ practitioners the sort of stifling control that made Royce Gracie so formidable, and, for that matter, makes wrestlers so frequently dominant today.
Moreover, I think making duration of dominant control positions matter squares with who is really “winning.” That is to say, if you watch a BJJ match where Person A takes Person B’s back for most of the match, and, try as he might, is unable to finish, and — going for a final wild finish at the end — ends up getting swept and giving up his own back for a few seconds toward the end of the match, while this match would technically be a draw or even a win for Person B, I think it’s definitely the case that Person A dominated or “won.”
I think this rule change would also encourage BJJ practitioners to try to actively escape bad positions. Frequently BJJ folks are trapped beneath the weight of a wrestler but are not versed in escaping (at least, not from an opponent who is not trying to actively submit them but is only trying to control them). Having duration of being controlled matter would encourage the development of active defensive movement/sweeps on the part of BJJ practitioners.
Another benefit of this change is — I think — that it would actually lead to more submissions by BJJ practitioners in the UFC. A sad truth is that rarely are fights won by submission anymore, and even when they are, it is typically the cherry on top after a good clean shot to the head. A big part of this, as mentioned above, is that fighters of all stripes have learned how to defend submissions. But I think another part is that BJJ players themselves have begun to de-emphasize submissions. In BJJ tournaments that are often decided by an advantage or a sweep, why risk position to go for a submission? To be sure, it is extremely hard to submit someone who has 10+ years of experience exclusively defending submissions as a BJJ practitioner.
But you know who doesn’t know how to expertly defend submissions? Your average UFC fighter. Unfortunately, because BJJ players are only taking dominant position from which they could submit their opponents for flashes of time on these opponents, (I would argue) they are unable to sink them in. I would argue that if duration of dominant position in BJJ tournaments were emphasized, it would encourage BJJ fighters to learn how to stay on people’s backs for entire rounds, giving them ample time to submit their BJJ-naive UFC opponents.
So, that’s my proposal: make it not only matter that you got your back taken, but make it matter how long you were in this inferior position. I think that this simple change would encourage tendencies in tournament BJJ that better correlate with success in fighting/MMA. These include: ability to control one’s opponent; increased amount of time available to submit one’s opponent; and better ability to escape from beneath dominating wrestlers. I also think duration of control squares with our own thoughts on who really “won” — all mounts were not created equal!
I should also mention that I think submission-only tournaments are a notable improvement to the existing points-based tournaments. I do think though that if we were going to award some type of points, I’d go with duration of control as the thing that matters most. What do you think?