“POSITION BEFORE SUBMISSION!!!!”
Said the wise Jiu-Jitsu master back when Jiu-Jitsu fighters were the most dominant martial artists on earth.
“IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SUBMISSION!!!”
Said the guy selling you a $20 internet stream in 2016, when Jiu-Jitsu is at its least relevant point in years.
What went wrong? Why are we here? After a series of increasingly dull sub-only events, including today’s Polaris card that featured zero submissions, we should address the issue of sub only, and why it’s bad martial arts.
The case for sub-only goes something like this: “What matters in fights is the finish. Getting a pass doesn’t mean you won a fight, but getting a submission does. Likewise, people want to watch exciting events, and submissions are more exciting, therefore we should watch submission only.”
These arguments have persuaded large segments of the community, but they’re ultimately flawed.
1) The focus on the submission puts the cart before the horse. Submissions end fights, but that does not mean that the best way to get submissions is to simply go for more of them at the expense of fighting for positional dominance. Getting submissions is difficult, so traditional Jiu-Jitsu strategy has been to first secure increasingly dominant positions and establish control. In the course of securing these positions, the opponent either (A) commits a major blunder in an attempt to scramble out of a bad position, (B) fatigues from fighting against superior leverage and gravity, or (C), allows you to establish such an immensely dominant position- such as a flattened out back mount- that imposing a finish becomes easy. Indeed, not only does this make the finish easier, but following this process also prevents your opponent from climbing up the positional hierarchy, and protects you from serious damage or defeat if you lose position while attempting a submission before securing dominant control. Imagine a striking coach saying that what matters is the KO, therefore let’s throw nothing but power punches to the head. Such a mindset should be treated as equally nonsensical in Jiu-Jitsu. Good process leads to good results, and submissions should be the end point of your strategy, not the starting point.
2)The submission only format does not lead to better fights. While this blog would disagree that only fights that end in submissions are exciting, let’s grant that premise for the sake of argument. The problem remains: Submission only matches don’t result in more submissions. Why is this so? Simply stated: Because the format abandons combat realism. As discussed in argument (1) above, submissions often occur in process of positional battle. In a real fight, positions represent dangerous striking, and so you fight to avoid them, or get damaged with strikes. In a point Jiu-Jitsu match, the rules respect that combative reality, and award large and oftentimes insurmountable point margins for transitions up the positional hierarchy. In submission only neither applies. You have neither of these things to contend with, and so you begin to lose the relevance of position, and with it the factors that make finishes happen. An overwhelmed opponent can go to a draw against superior opposition by avoiding risky scrambles, suffering no punishment from being controlled, and actually expending far less energy than the aggressor. This is why most sub-only tournaments now seem to be draw-only tournaments.
“But what about EBI?”
EBI suffers from the same thing, but they realized the issue earlier on and manufacture overtime submissions through a unique rule-set that can force people to give up their backs or an armbar, something their athletes often can’t get to during regulation because of the perverse incentives of no-points/sub-only rules. EBI overtime goes even further and adds a clock to this, flipping it on its head and making the awarded position super-dominant in OT by penalizing you for every second you spend being controlled. This is why submission rates shoot up during EBI overtime.
Conclusion: Examining the incentives of the sub-only rule set, and the various ways these tournaments deal with it, it’s clear that submissions come from the value of positions. In real fights, positions can be a matter of life and death. The more a rule set recognizes and respects that reality accordingly, the more that rule set will tend to produce submission finishes.