BJJ needs rules changes to increase fight relevancy

Brian McLaughlin is the owner of Precision Mixed Martial Arts in LaGrange, NY, coaches at Sussex County MMA in Augusta, NJ, and is part of the coaching staff at Miller Brothers MMA, in Sparta, NJ. He is a black belt under Rob Kahn, who is in turn the first black belt under Royce Gracie.

In this Guest Blog, McLaughlin argues for changes in the rules of sport BJJ, to return it to its roots, and restore relevancy in actual fighting.

Over the last 20 years no martial art has enjoyed a greater surge in popularity and participation than Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.  Once as common as unicorns, BJJ black belts now inhabit every major city in the US.  The catalyst for this explosion of popularity was without question the dominance of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu fighters in the UFC.  In 1972 Carley Gracie came to the US and began teaching his family’s art; however for two decades Brazilian Jiu-jitsu toiled in obscurity until Rorion Gracie’s formation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Royce Gracie’s subsequent victories.

Martial arts were historically formed to serve different purposes.  Tae kwon do was used to defend against invading armies; flying kicks were utilized to knock people from horseback.  Kali was a system based of armed combat with knives and sticks.  Brazilian Jiu-jitsu was designed for one on one unarmed fighting.  Meada, Carlos, George and Helio all carried on the tradition of challenging other practitioners under the most limited rules set possible.  BJJ was not spread simply by promising to simply defeat untrained attackers, but to overcome even the most seasoned martial arts and combative sport experts.  The techniques and positional hierarchies essential to the art were developed and refined as the result of the challenge matches of the art’s founders.

As Brazilian Jiu-jitsu’s popularity increased the tournament style Jiu-jitsu became more common place, with the first Mundials (World Championship) in 1996.  For the next decade sport jiu-jitsu champions enjoyed broad-based MMA success.  BJ Penn, Vitor Ribeiro and Bibiano Fernandes were capturing titles in both sport jiu-jitsu and high level MMA.  As sport tournaments became more popular schools began a greater degree of specified training.  Techniques and strategies were developed exclusively for the sportive realm.  The idea of two opponents simultaneously pulling guard went from a joke, to a reality, to the expected norm.  More matches were determined not by submission or positional dominance, but by a series of half successful maneuvers known as “advantages”.  Complex clothing manipulation and upside down and inverted leg entanglements replaced the tight controls of old.  Concurrently, the presence of sport jiu-jitsu champions in high level MMA has dwindled and even the most dominant BJJ champions have seen mixed results at the UFC level.

The original intent of sport jiu-jitsu training was to safely train the positions and strategies that would be most beneficial in a real fight.  Mount and back mount were deemed the most dominant positions and were therefore scored the most heavily.  In fact, knee on belly was originally worth more points than passing the guard since it was deemed such an effective position to deliver strikes.  The parameters of competition heavily influence the curriculum and training methods of academies.  When the IBJJF removed knee reaping school stopped training techniques that included that foot placement.  Despite 20 years of professional mixed martial arts, sport jiu-jitsu has done very little to change its scoring criteria or amend the less effective fighting strategies that have arisen on the tournament scene.  Here are a few changes that if implemented could lead BJJ practitioners back to their former MMA glory.

#1 – Reward being on top
Unless someone is ignorant of basic submissions being on top in the guard is not a bad place to be.  In MMA getting on top and staying there is perhaps the biggest determining factor for who will be successful in the grappling range.  However, in sport jiu-jitsu students train to immediately jump to their backs and embrace this inferior fighting position.  The reason is no points or advantage is garnered by being on top and passing the guard is very difficult and laborious.  However, when a fighter is on bottom they can work freely to sweep because of the absence of striking.  Additionally, even if they are unable to sweep or submit, if they are at least close they will earn advantages and ultimately the victory.  There is no sense of urgency for the bottom man, no incentive to make something happen.  Jiu-jitsu rewards top mount heavily because of the damaging strikes that can be landed to the face.  However, if one were to watch Frankie Edgar vs BJ Penn they would see that despite never fully passing BJ’s guard Edgar was able to land devastating strikes from top guard.  Jiu-jitsu awards points for takedowns, but in the case of a guard pull.  In a fight it doesn’t really matter how one arrives on top, but once they are there they are undoubtedly in the superior position.  If BJJ fighters want to remain relevant in MMA they must incentivize being on top.    

#2 – Escape Points
Wrestling is often cited as the best base for mixed martial arts.  In my opinion the number one reason for this is that wrestling heavily emphasizes escapes and reversals.  In Jiu-jitsu, a practitioner that goes from bottom guard to top guard is awarded two points.  However, one reverses from bottom mount to top guard is given nothing.  The end result is the same in these two scenarios.  Additionally, in terms of a fight, the person that originated in bottom mount improved their position to a greater degree than the person originating in bottom guard yet this massive momentum change results in zero points.  If a person is in bottom side control and they roll their opponent to achieve top side control they receive no points despite having a clear position of advantage.  The escape point is more valuable for creating strong top players than dynamic escape artists though.  In jiu-jitsu once someone has achieved the mount, side or back they don’t have to concentrate on truly holding the position or pinning their opponent down.  If they escape it won’t affect their scoring and they already were awarded the points for the position so why expend the energy to stop a bridge attempt?  This is not only true for escaping the worst of positions.  BJJ in no way incentives standing up after a takedown, this affects the grappling range.  The current trend in BJJ is towards standing passing.  However, the distances at which these passes are executed often provide space for the bottom man to easily stand up themselves.  In MMA the strategy for someone fighting a BJJ artist on the ground is simple – stand up.  In Jiu-jitsu no escape point is given so bottom players rarely ever work back to their feet and top players never feel the need the smother or pin the bottom man. If takedowns are neglected in BJJ, countering the stand up is non-existent.  There are numerous online Jiu-jitsu resources on the web today, on any one of them you will see at least half a dozen ways to pass the half guard, but I’d be surprised if any showed countering a stand up.                  

#3 – Expand the definition of dominant position
Side control, knee on belly, mount, back with hooks, these are the only positions that can be considered dominant in sport jiu-jitsu.  BJJers are conditioned to achieve these positions since they are they are the best points to control, strike, or submit an opponent.  While clearly those are very advantageous spots, there is a wide array of additional positions that are worth rewarding. 

Jiu-jitsu awards for passing a person’s legs, which although very important is not nearly as important as by passing a person’s ARMS.  If your grappling style provides dominant hand, wrist and arm control then you will be close to unstoppable in a real fight.  BJJ practitioners currently only work towards arm pins as mean to pass or submit and not as ends in themselves.  There are numerous positions which eliminate an opponent’s arms and warrant points, but here are a few of the most common.

The Handcuff

The Back Crucifix

Some of these positions come from within the existing dominant position, if passing to side control is worth three points then achieving the Matt Hughes Crucifix should be worth three more.

If mount if worth 4 points, achieving the Gift Wrap should be even more.

If taking the back is worth 4 points then tack on a few more if the arm is trapped (technically in sport BJJ this position would not be awarded points since the ankles are crossed; the ridiculous technicalities of the IBJJF is an article for another time though).

Another position that warrants reward is Back Mount with no hooks.  George St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar showed that in some cases you can do far more damage taking the back without hooks than with them.  BJJers constantly “turtle” to avoid giving up points for a guard pass despite the fact that they are far more vulnerable to strikes when on all fours than they are in a traditional bottom side control. Combine this with the fact that most BJJers have absolutely no idea how to stand up from this position (due to the lack of escape points) and the habit is a recipe for disaster. 

Often times skilled jiu-jitsu fighters achieve mount, back or side control in MMA and if they cannot immediately submit they are unable to achieve a stoppage or even inflict meaningful damage.  Once a position in BJJ is awarded points the grappling scientists of the world develop untold numbers of ways to achieve the position.  If Jiu-jitsu fighters were training to gift wrap and crucifix their opponents from day 1 then once they passed or mounted it would be game over.

Some might say “who care?” BJJ is just a sport now, MMA doesn’t matter.  Why change the strategy and positions of the art?  Everyone is doing BJJ today because of those dominant vale tudo and MMA victories.  Reclaiming Jiu-jitsu dominance pays homage to the battles fought by the early pioneers of the art.  Additionally, people begin training BJJ because it “works.”  They passed on other traditional martial arts because in a sense they felt jiu-jitsu was better at what martial arts were supposed to be good at – fighting.