Are Jiu Jitsu Tournaments to Blame for Wrestling’s Dominance in MMA?

Fightland Blog

By Pedro Olavarria

Twenty years ago, when MMA was called NHB or vale tudo, jiu jitsu ruled the world. Royce Gracie had won three UFC tournaments; Rickson Gracie won Japan Vale Tudo 1 & 2; Renzo Gracie won the WCC tournament and both Ralph Gracie and Marcus “Conan” Silveira won their respective divisions in Extreme Fighting Championship. It seemed clear in those days that jiu jitsu was the martial art. Since jiu jitsu has been assimilated into every fighter’s repertoire, jiu jitsu based fighters, though successful, are no longer the most dominant in MMA; that distinction goes to collegiate wrestlers.

Of the current male UFC champions, all of them either wrestled in college or beat someone who wrestled in college to become champion, whether by winning their belts in the UFC or, as in the case of Jose Aldo, a precursor belt in WEC. The reasons for wrestler success are wrestling’s emphasis on takedowns and positioning coupled with the arduous overtraining of college wrestling rooms. These factors give wrestlers the ability to determine where the fight takes place. The successful transition from wrestling to MMA is so predictable that even American Top Team, a camp led by Carlson Gracie disciples, made an active push to train, house and feed wrestling prospects for careers in MMA. Whereas success in amateur wrestling is a predictable barometer for future success in MMA the same cannot be said for success in jiu jitsu tournaments.

There are many examples which I could use to illustrate a trend many jiu jitsu fans have noticed. When we google the most successful players of ADCC and IBJJF and then cross reference their MMA records and achievements, it seems that they aren’t as successful as collegiate wrestlers. These jiu jitsu champions are masters of their art and have freed themselves from the caffeine fueled, cellulite expanding drudgery of a spiritually dead commuter America; they are winners on the mat and in life. However they aren’t winning in MMA the way their jiu jitsu records would lead us to expect.

Why is college wrestling a better predictor of future MMA success than jiu jitsu? For jiu jitsu competitors lacking collegiate wrestling experience, what hope is there for success in MMA? The reason someone can be dominant in jiu jitsu and not have the same dominance in MMA is because the submissions emphasized and takedowns neglected in jiu jitsu tournaments hamper success in a way wrestling’s takedown emphasis does not.

The following is a very superficial look into why that is. It has been said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics; and perhaps those lies can be more damning when the data you are depending on was compiled by someone else. That, combined with the fact that we have more reliable statistics for the numbers of Americans on anti-depressants than we do for the outcome of jiu jitsu tournaments, makes the following more of an invitation for further inquiry than a declaration of the gospel truth. Despite the probable unrepresentative nature of the samples used in this piece, certain patterns appear that may be helpful in explaining the cause of jiu jitsu’s comparative lack of success in MMA. I also realize that in writing this piece I leave myself open to the ad hominum attack, a common logical fallacy. Just as Carl Sagan’s marijuana use is irrelevant in assessing the validity of his scientific research, my own lack of professional fighting experience or dark colored belt is irrelevant in assessing whether or not the following point I am trying to make is valid. The first reason for jiu jitsu’s comparative lack of success in modern MMA is the nature of submission in both jiu jitsu tournaments and the UFC.

67% of all submission wins in the UFC come by way of chokes, 21% come from arm locks and 12% come from leg locks and other submissions. This is almost an inversion of what we see in ADCC. If we crunch the numbers of ADCC 2013 and ADCC 2011, we get 39% of submission wins coming by way of leg locks, 18% by arm locks and 43% by chokes.  Whereas in the UFC more than half of the submissions come by chokes, in sport jiu jitsu, specifically ADCC, more than half of the submissions come via joint locks. No-gi jiu jitsu players are becoming most proficient in the submissions that are comparatively less effective in MMA.

The other reason for sport jiu jitsu’s relative non-transferability to MMA is the same reason for wrestling’s success. In MMA, slightly more than half of all takedowns are done with the double leg or single leg takedown; compare that to the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Finals, where from 2012-2014, 50% of successful takedowns were single leg and double leg takedowns. The most successful takedowns in wrestling are the most successful takedowns in MMA. In sport jiu jitsu, if we look at the 2012 Pan Ams, more than 75% of the matches got to the ground because one or both players pulled guard. In the 2012 Worlds, roughly 75% of all matches got to the ground because one or both players pulled guard, with more than 50% of the matches going to the ground, in less than 10 seconds. Despite the fact that jiu jitsu requires a fight to be on the ground, sport jiu jitsu competitors are spending comparatively little time training in or fighting for takedowns. Sport jiu jitsu champions who cross over into MMA are hampered by the submissions they have overemphasized and the wrestling takedowns they have neglected in winning tournaments. What is the solution to this overdependence on joint locks and the neglect of effective takedowns?

The solution to these problems is something for jiu jitsu masters and tournament promoters to figure out. Should they award more points for takedowns? Should they ban guard pulling while both players are on their feet? Should punches be allowed on the ground for higher belts? I don’t know. Certainly, the leaders of the jiu jitsu community need to answer for themselves whether MMA is even relevant to jiu jitsu anymore. The whole point of vale tudo and the original UFC was to prove that jiu jitsu works and that ground fighting is essential for anyone seriously interested in self-defense. Because of the Gracies, future generations of young men and women who want to learn actual fighting will be spared from the boredom and inefficacy of kata, one step-sparring and board breaking.

MMA is not vale tudo; wrapped hands and gloves make for combinations and power punching that are hand ruining in a real fight; stand ups and rounds sometimes ruin fight ending finishes. At the same time, MMA and real fighting both involve punching to the head; something that can make leg locks a dangerous tool for the user. Leg locks require a potential loss of position and temporary defenselessness, as both hands are committed to an opponent’s leg. Similarly, what good is jiu jitsu if you can’t get the fight to the ground? Eddie Bravo has argued that the gi is ruining jiu jitsu in MMA but the problem may be much deeper. Further statistical analysis and data is required to know for sure. It seems that if you want to use jiu jitsu effectively in a real fight, one must brush up on wrestling and get really good at chokes.



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