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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

08 April 2010

Article - Competition & BJJ

Article #13, by Can Sönmez
[For the practical side of competition, such as when to compete, how to prepare, weight cutting, tournament listings etc, go here]

bjj competitionWhen Jigoro Kano was in the process of developing judo, competition was central to the fledgling style's success. By defeating all-comers, judo established itself as the premier martial art in Japan at the time. Brazilian jiu jitsu, an outgrowth of judo, followed in this tradition. Indeed, you could say that BJJ is the very epitome of competition as a means of expansion: it first came to attention due to the vale tudo exploits of the original Gracie brothers, most famously Hélio. Decades later, his son Rorion created a superlative marketing tool in the form of the UFC, which has led to BJJ's popularity today. MMA and BJJ continue to have a close relationship.

It is therefore unsurprising that competition has remained a staple of BJJ. In many clubs, tournament performance is a significant factor in promotion, which has the dual effect of objectively evaluating a student and simultaneously enhancing an academy's reputation. That has disadvantages, such as the 'sand bagging' phenomenon, but generally it is a positive part of jiu jitsu. There are even some schools where rank is purely predicated on competition record.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the Gracie University online training system, where the Gracie Academy in Torrance loudly denounces competition as unrealistic. Given their history, this is unsurprising, and at first it seems a logical argument.

However, numerous other styles have hidden behind the "self defence, not a sport" excuse, to their great detriment. By removing competition, a martial art stagnates, as techniques are no longer pressure tested. Instead of empirical data, students are left with their instructor's anecdotes, and training steadily degenerates into compliant drilling and dead movements.

Full contact competition sustains a martial art's vitality and efficacy: fortunately, BJJers generally treasure tournaments. Instructors will often list their personal competitive accomplishments on the school website, where it is treated as a selling point. A gleaming pile of trophies makes for effective advertising.

Yet this comes with its own problems: it can also mean that a black belt scalp is highly prized. As Dave Jacobs discussed on The Underground and NHBGear, higher belts can be put off competing as a result. Particularly when competing against lower ranks, it is arguable that a black belt running a school has nothing to gain, but everything to lose.

Due to the inclusion of a ranking system, competition has an added importance. It is seen as the litmus test, proving to both yourself and anyone who asks that you are indisputably worthy of your belt. For an instructor, it enables them to claim they can prepare others to enter the arena, because they can prove they know what it takes to succeed in that environment.

BJJ is unusual in the sporting world in that the most prestigious competitions, such as the Mundials and Europeans, are open to everyone, not just elite athletes. There is no qualification requirement beyond the often expensive entry fee, which means the only barriers to competition are cost and inclination.

competitionHobbyists like me can take solace in teachers such as John Danaher. He has never competed, but is nevertheless widely regarded as one of the best jiu jitsu instructors in the world. The paradox is that BJJ could not survive if everyone took the same approach as Danaher.

There is nothing wrong with not competing, but that luxury is only available because of the many who do compete. Without them, BJJ would become debased into yet another martial art with meaningless rank, populated by ten-year olds wearing black belts. Gaining rank in BJJ is currently a long road filled with sweat, years of mat time and tapping: I'd hate to see that change to rapid promotion, grading fees and kata.

BJJ Competition: Further Reading ^
[started 08/04/10, last update 29/10/2013]

-When to Compete: FAQ Entry
-Weight Cutting: Shama, Stephanie
-Preparation: Leslie, Georgette (1) (2), Shawn, Dev (1), (2), Nic Gregoriades
-Why Compete: Mark, Georgette, Dave, Liam (1) (2), Rafael Lovato, Steve, Seymour, Me, Calf of War, heavytraining, side control, DirtyRancher on ("I'm Afraid I'll Get Hurt" and "Should I Compete Later Due To [Reasons]?"), Tracy, Andrew 'Goatfury' Smith, BJJ Canvas, No Guts, No Glory?, Rob Taylor
-Where to Compete: (global), EFN (Europe, especially UK), (Ireland), (USA)

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  1. Thanks, and that reminds me, you were going to write something on 'why compete', IIRC? Can't remember if you did or not, but it did prompt me to go check: this looks like the kind of thing I want to stick in the 'further reading' bit. ;)

  2. Very Good buddy!

    I actually think that without competition, BJJ would die. Having said that, we compete on a daily basis on mat. Of course, many hours are spent learning and position drilling and pocket-drilling but many hours are spent trying to use what you have leaned to actually win. I don't feel that attending a competition is the ONLY way to compete. It's a valuable way and it tests you differently but it's not the only way.

  3. "we compete on a daily basis on the mat"

    Hmm. This is going to get into semantics, but I try to never treat training in class as a form of competition. I'm also uncomfortable using terms like 'win' and 'lose' in class: 'learn' is the only one I want to pursue.

    Reason being, a lot of people get very competitive when rolling in class, and it is ultimately detrimental (as per my favourite thread ever).

    But yeah, semantics. I similarly don't like the term 'aggression'. In this case, I'd probably replace 'compete' with 'resist'.

    Full resistance in class is important (after the instructor has introduced the technique and you've then practiced through drilling: 'i' method stuff I'm sure you're very familiar with), as you need to test a technique, but I don't see that as competing.

    On top of that, rolling in class has potential mitigating factors. They could be going easy on you, they might be trying to work something specific, they might be resting an injury, they might have a massive hangover from the night before etc.

    So you can never be totally certain if you REALLY tapped somebody in class, which is why I try not to put much stock in tapping people in that environment.

    In a competition, you know your opponent is going to be doing everything within their power to stop you applying your technique. That's the only situation where I could feel completely confident I'd actually got something to work on a resisting partner, especially when it comes to submissions.

  4. As always, fantastic post!

    I also like your last comment about "competing" in class. I think we all start thinking that way, to a degree, but you gain that experience with a little time.

    Also, I hadn't thought about the idea that someone competing gives everyone else the ability to choose whether or not to compete. Very intriguing - similar in many ways to cliches about militaries - serving in harm's way to preserve someone's god-given right to disagree with serving in the military.

    Anyway, very thought-provoking for me. Thanks, buddy.

  5. Great post as always. I'm not a competitive person, but one of the things that attracted me to BJJ over the traditional art I'd been studying is that it's tested both in live rolling and in competition. Which is of course not the same as being tested on the streets, but it's the next best thing and makes me confident that I'm studying a functional art.

  6. Great post, Slidey! As someone who doesn't particularly like competing, I am glad that my school doesn't base promotions of tournament performance. But, having said that, I think it is important for a person to compete every now and then because, as you said, you can never really tell if that tap you got in class was real or if the person was just rolling light. When you compete, you have to deal with all sorts of things you wouldn't normally deal with in class: nerves, the unknown factor of your opponent, the all-out, sometimes frantic people you have to go against, the adrenaline rush and crash. You really find out where your strengths and weaknesses are.

  7. @theclumsyninja: The 'aliveness' of BJJ is undoubtedly one of the most attractive things about it, even if like me, you don't necessarily care about self defence or compete a lot. I think this is especially true when you've come from other martial arts where that element isn't always present.

    For me, my previous martial art did regularly spar, and in general I still think it's a pretty good striking style. However, the gradings only really become meaningful at black belt: I was getting disillusioned with having a whole bunch of belts when I felt my sparring was still pants. That doesn't happen in BJJ.

    A.D. McClish: Yeah, I do think it is important to try competition at least once. Personally, I'd also like to try and compete at least once at every belt level, just to see where I'm at. I don't think there is any danger of me getting a purple belt for a good few years at least, so I'm in no rush. ;p

  8. hey Slidey, what about Carlos Gracie Jr. I mean did he ever compete in BJJ himself do you know? I read he is not against but also does not support BJJ guys going into MMA.

  9. I'm sure Carlos Gracie Jr is very keen on competition, given that he runs the most prestigious BJJ tournament, the Mundials. ;)

    If you're interested in his views on competing and his own history, he talks about the topic in his Fightworks Podcast interview, where he also discusses it as a way of building character.

    Not sure on what he thinks about MMA, though I imagine he might find it irksome that top BJJ athletes like Jacare have left BJJ to concentrate on MMA instead, due to cash which BJJ simply can't provide at present.