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Opinion

Sub-Only Rulesets Are Overcorrecting The Problem

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You see the credo “BJJ vs. The World” on several articles of clothing. It tells the casual onlooker that jiu-jitsu is a united front– one where all of its practitioners exist in harmony, ready to lash out at anyone that questions the art’s merits. But, after your third class, you’ll find that this is, at best, a facade. Indeed, while everyone in jiu-jitsu agrees that the art is great, there are many bitter disagreements over BJJ’s path. The lack of a consensus ruleset chief among them. 

On one end, you’ll find the point argument, which tries to give credence to positions– creating a hierarchy of them and assigning points based on how far the competitor can advance. Of course, the submission takes precedence over everything. You could be down twenty points, but if you land a submission, you win the match. 

Then there’s the sub-only argument– one that, more or less, does away with the points philosophy and puts sole emphasis on if one participant of the match taps. It’s a ruleset that tries to reward fighting for a submission and to discourage simply holding on until time expires once you’ve accrued enough points to secure a win. After all, jiu-jitsu is the art of submitting your opponent with a choke or joint lock. 

People look at the fight between Royce Gracie and Dan Severn as inspiration for this ruleset. It was a twenty-plus minute affair where the physically superior Severn was dominating Royce. Any casual onlooker would think that Severn won. And under modern MMA rulesets, he probably would have. But we don’t see many 20 plus minute rounds in any popular MMA promotions– least of all the UFC. 

But this was the old days– the bygone age of the nineties; Royce locked a triangle on Severn, who tapped soon after. This gave Royce the win, and it undoubtedly captured the imagination of martial artists the world over about the possibilities of jiu-jitsu. 

I just feel that many sub-only rulesets are an overcorrection to points tournaments. This isn’t to say that hybrid rulesets exist that capture the best of both worlds. They do, and they’re among the most popular promotions in jiu-jitsu. But there are other sub-only tournaments I see that exacerbate the problems they try to fix. 

Stalling 

You hear it a lot. Spectators hate it when a competitor sweeps or takes their opponent down, passes their guard, and then just holds until the conclusion of the match. It’s always more exciting when a submission happens, as it puts the total capacity of jiu-jitsu on display. I agree with that, but there is an issue that sub-only rulesets present. 

While stalling in points tournaments can create an incentive for those ahead to secure a path to victory, it can do the same in sub-only tournaments for not losing. 

I’ve been to countless tournaments with differing rulesets, and the most boring thing to watch is someone mounted in a sub-only match and not moving, waiting for time to expire, so they can secure the tie match. A tie isn’t exciting; it’s less exciting for the spectators than if one person wins and another loses. The only person this tactic incentivizes is the one that would be losing on points if the ruleset was different.

Also, you see confusion among people who aren’t too familiar with jiu-jitsu watching the match; they see someone being smothered for 15 minutes, only for the match to be declared a draw. Why didn’t the person who was clearly more dominant win? I’ve often heard these questions asked by non-practitioners at various combat sports events, and creating confusion just isn’t the best way to promote an art that is trying to find ways to be more spectator friendly. 

Fewer Submissions 

Sub-only rulesets can be counter-intuitive– mostly because I often see fewer submissions in them. This builds off my issue with stalling in the previous section. In points tournaments, when you’re losing, you need to move, make something happen, and try to go for a submission. This opens you up to get submitted, and it captures those great moments in jiu-jitsu everyone loves to see. 

Either way, the person behind in points will lose, but there is a pathway to win via submission, and if he doesn’t get it, he’ll lose. Clearly, the possibility of losing creates an incentive to move and make something happen. The chance of not winning, though, promotes what I outlined previously– stalling in a bad position and waiting for time to expire, at which the match would be declared a draw, or overtimes would start. 

While points tournaments do have issues, and some sub-only rule sets try to do away with dubious things like advantages, it’s an overcorrection that makes many of the problems in points tournaments worse. 

What To Do About It? 

Luckily, these issues are starting to be addressed. We’re seeing new rulesets coming out with different promotions, and they combine the best of both worlds– encouraging a submission while still having judges decide a winner if needed. 

In the meantime, an open dialogue would help create the best possible rulesets. Let’s get the top jiu-jitsu fighters from the IBJJF, sub only, and others to discuss what could make the best viable product for spectators. In recent years, there’s been a push to try and make jiu-jitsu more spectator-friendly, and this could be the best way to do so.

Author

Author

Jeff Nelson is a brown belt under Danilo Cherman of Team Nova Uniao. He started training jiu-jitsu in 2014, and he always complains about Star Wars on his personal Instagram account.

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