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Jiu-Jitsu Books 


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To Gi or not to Gi? 

 Robert Drysdale

Posted May 4, 2022 (JST)

It has been a widely discussed topic among jiu-jitsu practitioners in gyms and on forums, the merits and differences between practicing jiu-jitsu in the gi and in no-gi as well as their purposes for competition, the reality of combat as well as for the future of the sport. Truth be told, the debate is far from new but that, nonetheless, lingers in our contemporary practice.

The debate raises a number of questions: What is the practical purpose of jiu-jitsu: self-defense or sport? What are the main differences between gi and no-gi? Is training in the gi beneficial or detrimental to the practice of no-gi? If so, how and why? What about the opposite? Wouldnft the specialization in a single practice yield superior performance in the chosen practice? If so, how do we explain the overwhelming dominance of gi practitioners in no-gi in the past 20 years. In more recent years however, hasnft there been a shift in terms of this dominance (or so goes the algorithm lead perception)? The purpose of this article is to think critically and grant perspective to these questions. But first, a little contemporary history to give background to this debate.

To begin with, the word "jiu-jitsu" is an old and vague term with many meanings. In fact, it was such a vague term that it didnft say much in terms of what was being practiced. Jiu-jitsu, as the term became popularized in the West, could mean anything and everything vaguely associated with athletics or healthy, moral life-styles, not merely combat.

With that said, for a variety of reasons discussed elsewhere, Brazilians took hold of the term to designate a specific practice of Judo they were dedicated to reshaping according to their own values, preferences and beliefs. The new definition would make its way into the American market, where the specific definition of jiu-jitsu would establish itself and thrive as a house-hold name in the following 40 years. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Rorion Gracie and the performances in the UFC of his younger brother Royce who would vindicate a story that had been long in the making.

To put all this differently, the term jiu-jitsu has been in constant mutation since it first began its immigration from Japan to the West. So why should it be of any surprise that it continues to change? Long story short, no one is in the position to determine what jiu-jitsu is or isnft. With that said, the issue of what is best for its future, is an agreement between all practitioners who collectively decide the shape or shapes jiu-jitsu will take moving forward. But before that, we need to agree on what is the purpose of our JJ practice: is it self-defense? Sport? Or both? Or something else entirely.

When I first began my own practice in March 1998, jiu-jitsu was still a fresh product even for Brazilians. It wasnft only a martial arts practice or skill-set for self-defense, it was a culture embedded with a certain ethical practice of courage, manliness, hierarchy and whose platform for growth was the fear that outsiders had of what you could do to them in a fight. Needless to say, all appealing qualities to young and competitive males. From this wave, the first generation of jiu-jitsu black-belts in the post-Royce Gracie and CBJJ/IBJJF era was born, an initial wave to which I include myself.

The memories arenft distant and it is easy to recall what the standard definition of jiu-jitsu was for this young generation. Jiu-jitsu was the set of techniques and skills that would win you a fight, any fight: gi, no-gi, Vale-Tudo (later MMA) or in the streets. Just as an example as how jiu-jitsu was all in one, we can revisit the press at the time (which consisted of 2-3 nationally circulated magazines) and how the press covered everything that was understood to be jiu-jitsu. As practitioners, we made no distinction whatsoever. Jiu-jitsu, to us, meant knowing how to fight well as well as the perks that came with others believing that you knew what to do in a fight, even if you didnft. But a second wave was in the making, one that is marked by the IBJJFfs immigration from Rio de Janeiro to the US in 2007 (incidentally, the same year I relocated to the US from Brazil; I had been surfing the second wave this entire time). It is to this second wave that the rest of the article is directed.

Perhaps it was inevitable, but the growth of what was now popularly known as gBJJh created an enormous demand for structure and cohesion that the art was not yet ready to deliver. IBJJF, for all its merits and importance, landed in California at a time where the seeds of discord had already been sowed and a variety of diverging rule-sets were already somewhat established here. The problems were several. Firstly, the growth outdid IBJJFfs ability to create absolute cohesion (something that its Judo equivalent, the Kodokan, had succeeded in doing to a larger extent) and a separate hierarchy was on its way to being formed (see here for more on this). Secondly, the growth of jiu-jitsu around the world created a demand for an increasingly individualistic, narcissistic and social media fueled generation to seek its place in the sun at a time when the competition was quickly getting tougher.

Thirdly, the growth made it possible for what had been the definition of jiu-jitsu during the first wave (jiu-jitsu is anything that works in a fight and that intimidates non-practitioners) to become more specific. The belief that gjiu-jitsu is anything that works in a fighth was on its way to being severed into categories of ggi,h gno-gi,h gVale-Tudoh (from this moment onwards referred to as gMMAh) and gSD,h while the machista intimidation factor that was possibly the main selling point for young practitioners of the first-wave (in Brazil at least) had been replaced by the more politically-correct values of jiu-jitsu being a tool for ganti-bullyingh when it previously had been a tool for the gbullyh (again, in Brazil at least).

The (now historical and continuous) diversification of the term jiu-jitsu gave space for different categories to be created within its sphere and even separate classes where paying members could choose to attend this class or that class, according to their personal preferences or needs. The division even had specific curricula (something that to my knowledge had been inexistent in Brazil), that were specific to the preferred practices. In other words, now he had gjiu-jitsu for SD,h gjiu-jitsu in the gi,h gno-gi jiu-jitsu,h and gjiu-jitsu for MMA.h

And while the first-wave generation in both Brazil and US saw these practices as universal and one, the second-wave didnft. As an example, I recall that in the first jiu-jitsu academy I attended, the instructor would never tell us if the class would be gi, no-gi or gtapariah (which translates into something akin to a gslap-festh in English) meant to mimic a real-fight and where all adherents would take off their gi jackets and where the rules were the same as in Vale-Tudo minus closed-fist strikes to the head (hence the slapping). A practice which, to be honest, was rare, but that we nonetheless looked forward to as it was meant to prepare us to the reality of a fight and away from the competitive jiu-jitsu that was already taking a more specific and dominant shape in the late 90s.

The truth was, the second-wave didnft want to get slapped at all. I recall when, during my first belt ceremony in Las Vegas in 2008, I introduced the tradition of the gcorredorh (known as ggauntleth in the US), only to see parents horrified watching their children get beat with belts, in what to them may have been perceived as a barbaric practice to which I was subjecting their coddled children. The environment in the academies had also changed during the second-wave. They were now businesses and because upset parents were bad for business, changes followed and just like that, the old tradition of gtapariah and gcorredorh became extinct practices. While those who wanted a more realistic approach to combat, but still wanted or needed to learn jiu-jitsu, found themselves in a whole new category of business model that had been given birth in the midst of all these same changes, namely, the gMMA schoolh which most closely embodied the tradition of gtapariah and that made its living side-by-side with the simultaneous growth of the UFC and the new markets it was creating.

Interestingly, the MMA schools were now attracting the original jiu-jitsu demographic of the first-wave, while the jiu-jitsu schools now contended themselves with the SD, gi, no-gi and children markets, who were, after all, far more lucrative markets anyway (because young-males rarely have money and, in case their careers change that, they donft like to pay because now they believe their presence is a service to the gym). 

From this point onwards, jiu-jitsu gyms became primarily focused on gi or no-gi, since the SD classes had less financial success, possibly due the boredom of the excessiveness of tedious repetition; lack of potential for creativity; and the lack of the addictive endorphins so common in the gi and no-gi classes with their glive-rolling.h

The stage was now set for the mass market of jiu-jitsu, now largely centered around gi and no-gi. But fundamentally, which one is more useful as a tool for SD? Do we even care about SD anymore? Or has jiu-jitsu become a sport that uses the enormous draw of SD, only to teach a competitive practice that has increasingly drifted from the reality of combat after the second-wave? A reality that has found its new home in the new category of MMA gyms, rather than in jiu-jitsu ones. Having given a brief and overly simplified background to the path pursued by jiu-jitsu in the past 2-3 decades, we can now turn to our original questions.

1.  What is the practical purpose of jiu-jitsu, Self Defense or Sport?

As noted earlier, jiu-jitsu has always been an ill-defined term. Couple that with the individual choice of which of its categories to partake in and you have a recipe for confusion. On a personal note, people should choose to practice what and as they wish. However, I do find it strange that some would choose to practice jiu-jitsu in a way that is completely removed from the reality of combat rather than practicing in it in a format that accomplishes both. While to each their own, I know which one I prefer to practice and teach.

With that said, the discussion of whether jiu-jitsu is SD or Sport is also necessarily illustrated by the gi vs. no-gi debate. So, what should we wear when we train?  Out of the two, and with our gi vs. no-gi discussion in mind, Sport is definitively the easier one to tackle, because truth be told, it doesnft matter, they can both be practiced in a Sport format. Whether Sport has drifted too far from the reality of combat is a subject for a different article, but is clear that uniforms donft limit or augment a competitive sport practice in any way, shape or form. In terms of SD, however, that is a very different story.

I have always been hesitant to teach or even defend stances in SD (here) because the reality of a street-fight is far too unpredictable to even begin to develop a curriculum for its practice. The complete lack of rules, followed by the infinitude of variables such as: ground (how steep or slippery it may be), number of aggressors (almost always unknown), number and type of weapons (also almost always unknown), obstacles (such as a street curb, a table, a wall, etc.) as well as what we might be carrying when attacked (say a child or a back-pack) make the development of a curriculum virtually impossible. And if we canft predict these, we certainly canft predict or control what our attackers might be wearing.

It is a common argument against gi advocates that gno one is wearing a gi on the streetsh.  Which is, depending on where and what time of the year, true to an extent. In the summer at least, people donft always wear a jacket or suit that might resemble a gi. At any rate, many of the moves in the gi (primarily lapel oriented moves, collar chokes and spider-guard) would not translate well into a fight even if the attackers were wearing jacket.

The same argument cannot be made against the practice of no-gi where the vast majority of techniques (I can hardly think of exceptions other than the butt-scooting, which is also prevalent in the practice with gi, and risky leg-attacks) would actually work in a real fight. Therefore, for the most part and keeping in mind the infinitude of variables, no-gi is closer to the reality of combat than the gi is. Keeping in mind that it is also much closer to what a fight in a cage or ring would look like than the gi is. Granted that, in the cage or ring, the gi has the potential advantage of drying the sweat off our opponents and creating more friction as a result, in order to make a possible escape from the clinch or dominant position harder, not to mention potential chokes such as the Ezequiel. While on the other hand, the gi can be used against the one who wears it in a non-quid-pro-quo way.

With all said and done, it is fair to say that no-gi (particularly when it is practiced alongside takedowns and not a sub-only format) is closer to the reality of combat than the gi.

2. What are the main differences between gi and no-gi?

Aside from the obvious grips and handles that the gi offer and that the gi soaks up sweat which creates more friction and making everything less slippery, there are no fundamental differences between the two. Problem is, that these two differences are far from insignificant and undoubtedly play a role in how grappling is practiced.

For the most part, grips and handles add the element of gpullh which is practically inexistent in the No-gi version of jiu-jitsu which is almost exclusively a game of gblock and pushh in terms of movements. With the exceptions of hands connected around legs, waste or chest and the more than rare wrist or ankle control from which the opponent canft simply slip out of when pulling, the No-gi is, for the most part, less sophisticated, in terms of possibilities, due to this. Granted the sophistication happens to be exactly those things which wouldnft help anyone much during an attack on the streets or in an MMA fight. Which is to say, the gi offers for more unrealistic situations that can, at any rate, make the fight more interesting for practitioners and audience alike.

There are nonetheless, a few advantages to wearing a gi. Firstly, the gi offers more friction which teaches the practitioner to preemptively react to the opponentfs offense. As an example, escaping a tight side-control in the gi is decisively harder than in No-gi. Why? Because in the gi the bottom person is left, for the most part, with the exact same devices available in No-gi: blocking and pushing. While the one who holds side-control not only has a number of added controls (collar, lapel, belt, etc.), but also the gpullh element which allows the top person to pull themselves into the bottom person, adding to the weight. Something that is (with exceptions such as the hands connected which even so, is less tight), available in the gi only.

The preemptive movement that is taught by this dynamic, added to the enhanced isometric strength granted by the gpullingh arenft irrelevant forces and do, to a large extent, teach the bottom person to react in a preemptive manner. This preemptive movement is harder to teach in no-gi because one can always rely on gexplosiveh movements to correct the error, a behavior that is rewarded by the slipperiness of the situation, but that is punished in the gi because explosive movements from the bottom have the added burden of dealing with the friction of the gi, while the failed attempts can easily lead to exhaustion. This behavior that is easier to correct when the reliance on explosiveness and lack of friction don't work. Not to mention how much harder it is to create space and move when explosiveness isnft as helpful, making the way out more technical (which is to say, less reliant on athletic ability) by necessity.

Furthermore, the gi adds the increased development of gpullh and gisometrich strength of the top performer. Which is not to say that preemptive movement and gpullh strength canft be taught without the gi, but that they are, in general terms, harder to teach due to the explosiveness coupled with the slipperiness, being often successful, albeit being less technical in general terms.

Conversely, no-gi has the added benefit of possessing a higher arsenal of weapons because, in most rule-sets at least, they allow for heel-hooks, which significantly broadens the possibilities for attacking. To my knowledge, there has been only one event that allowed heel-hooks in the gi: Rickson Graciefs Budo Challenge held in 2005. I had the opportunity to compete in the event and despite the panic of many competitors of what would happen in case heel-hooks were allowed in the gi, no one was injured, nor was a single heel-hook attempt made (granted I did not watch all fights). Possibly because they are in fact, easier to defend with the gi than without the gi, because the contestant can simply grab a sleeve of the attacker, ending any possibility for a heel-hook. Which does in effect make the heel-hook more dangerous without the gi than with it on. Strangely, most (if not all) believe it is the opposite, despite no evidence to support either belief and keeping in mind that my eholding the sleevef observation is based on my own practice attempting heel-hooks in the gi.  This, while not evidence, is food for thought.

Needless to say, the advantages of gi and no-gi are different in nature. The gi offers advantages that are of a reflexive nature (the prevention of the under-hook from side-control or half-guard for example) and physical nature (the added extra gpullh strength). While the advantage of no-gi is a technical one (heel-hooks) which can be easily solved by making heel-hooks legal in the gi. Yet all this does little to satisfy what seems to most of us the obvious verdict in this discussion: specialization will clearly yield superior results than attempting to be dominant in, apparently, two different skill sets. Or will it?

3. Is training in the gi beneficial or detrimental to the practice of No-gi? If so, how and why? What about the opposite? Wouldnft the specialization in a single practice yield superior performance in the chosen practice?

There is a story that circulates in Brazil, amongst Soccer enthusiasts, that a group of European Soccer coaches flew to Brazil to study the practice there. Puzzled as to why Brazilians had produced such good players in that sport despite a much smaller financial investment and lacking the infrastructure and coaching that were so readily available in Europe. Upon arriving in Brazil, the group of coaches were shocked to learn, to their surprise, that there were in fact very few soccer fields in Brazil (which is true) and that Brazilians almost exclusively play in what in the English-speaking world is called indoor-soccer or Futsal.

This story is more likely than not to be apocryphal but that, at any rate, is grounded in reality: Brazilians rarely play in the field or have a coach. It isnft until they enter a team, normally when they are on the verge of becoming professionals, that they will begin practicing in a field regularly and with the guidance of a coach.

The lack of a coach is an interesting topic but that wonft serve our purpose here so Ifll skip it. More interesting for our purpose is the question of how can the best field soccer players in the world have had almost all their experience in indoor-soccer? In fact, only going on to play in a field regularly when they are on the verge of becoming professionals.

As anyone who was has played both well knows, indoor-soccer is infinitely harder because it is so much faster than field soccer. Not surprising, since the size of the indoor soccer court is less than an eighth of the size of most fields despite having over half the players. In other words, you better know what to do with that ball before it even gets to you, because by the time you touch it with your feet, there is a guarantee that you will have 2-3 people in your face trying to steal it.

Naturally, as a result of a much smaller court, the game is faster, tighter, demands more dexterity and always thinking two steps ahead. Compared to indoor-soccer, field soccer is a luxury in terms of time and space. Admittedly, these cross-comparisons arenft always fair and can easily fall into the category of false-equivalencies. Still, this insight can grant us a peek into the issue of specialization and its relevance to the gi vs. no-gi debate.

My point here is to perhaps convince the reader that specialization isnft always the best or fastest way of learning. People react differently to learning and a variety of stimuli is far more challenging than being exposed to a single set of stimuli. Strangely, those who advocate for specialization and refuse to train JJ in both forms, donft seem to mind adding weights, jogging, swimming and other athletic practices to their training routine, completely ignoring that training without a gi, (or with one), is infinitely closer to their preferred style than weights, jogging or swimming will ever be. A truism that seems to escape almost every MMA fighter on the planet.

As discussed above, the advantages of training in the gi transfer well into training without one. The practices are, in reality, practically identical. It is only due to a fluke of our perception that they are not. In fact, it is more likely to be a case of focusing exclusively on the differences while ignoring that there are far more similarities than differences. The exposure to a slightly different way of grappling is challenging in a way that can stimulate other possibilities. 

Of course, making unrealistic situations a part of the Sport only because they are potentially interesting for practitioners and audiences alike is a terrible way of organizing the sport. One can also think of adding extra handles on the gi jacket and pants in order to make it even more sophisticated and interesting I suppose. Changes that might make the practice more interesting but that arenft in anyway beneficial to jiu-jitsu, assuming we hold jiu-jitsu to be a martial art capable of being functional in a live situation. For this same reason, what is called glapel-guardh is far from befitting a realistic approach to combat. With all this in mind, the argument that the Gi is unrealistic gains weight, particularly when we consider how unrealistic the modern practice of eopen-guardf is and how removed it is from the reality of combat. For this reason, I am against the use of lapels and long-sleeves. It would be useful to perhaps think of different uniform formats where the potential advantages of wearing the gi are kept, while eliminating anything that steers the practice of jiu-jitsu away from the reality of combat isnft.

Personally, throughout my life on the mats, I have shifted back in forth between the two and have no particular favorite. It is my belief that they augment each other in different ways and this different variety of stimulation and challenges is beneficial in many ways. As for those who remain unconvinced, consider that at the very least, one can gain twice the competition experience by engaging in both and added benefit that is far from irrelevant. Which leads us to the next question.

4. How do we explain the overwhelming dominance of gi practitioners in no-gi in the past 20 years? In more recent years however, hasnft there been a shift in terms of this dominance?

It is unquestionable those who train and compete in both have been overwhelmingly dominant in both gi and no-gi competitions, what is less obvious are the reasons for this. I believe it is possible that due to the variety of stimuli those who train both, gi and No-gi, coupled with the fact that they are able to garner twice the competition experience, that they are, overall better grapplers, even when we factor the element of specialization of gi versus no-gi) in.

To be fair, there are other possibilities. One could be that up to recently, the overwhelming majority of practitioners had trained mostly in both and more often than not in the gi, which could lead us to the biased conclusion that gi grapplers dominate in no-gi because they train in the gi, and not because of other factors, one being that there have been, so far at least, many more of them represented. 

My point that those who train in both gi and no-gi have been decisively dominant may strike some readers as absurd. This impression is largely due to the lack of statistics our sport suffers from and the way algorithms lead the way instead. In the age of the internet, perception is in the driving seat while reality is a personal choice for those who rely on their social media feed to provide them with all the true and necessary facts about jiu-jitsu. This is a relevant discussion that doesnft fit here. What does fit here is the observation that anyone who spends a couple hours looking at results over the past 20 years will not disagree with the statement that those who have trained in both have, overall, been more successful in both. Granted exact numbers need to be drawn by competent analysis and not a two-hour dive in search engines.

The purpose of this article is not to give a definitive and final answer to a question that more likely than not, has no definitive answer. Training methodology, especially in something as complex as jiu-jitsu, is and always will be up to discussion much like any other field of knowledge that attempts to organize human behavior. In the unpredictability and difficulty in establishing a definitive methodology lies also a world of surprises, novelty and contradictions for us to grapple with. The overall purpose of this article is to attempt to shed some light on this old debate and having failed that (in case it does fail), at the very least the moment is registered in the long chain of events, changes, contradictions, marketing ploys and technical adaptations that are in essence, the modern history of martial-arts."

(c) 2022 Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.


More by Robert Drysdale:

Americanization of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

BJ Penn for President

Remembering George Mehdi

Reflections on the Evolution of BJJ

Who Taught Oscar Gracie?

I was Skeptical

Selling Self-Defense

Rickson Gracie is Wrong

Rev. of book by João Alberto Barreto

Maeda Promotes Five Brazilians

Science and Sanity in BJJ

Jiu-Jitsu in Cuba

Is Oswaldo Fada Jiu-Jitsu a Non-Gracie Lineage?










GTR Archives 2000-2022