In Defense of Points

There is never a shortage of things to argue about in the grappling community. It seems like whenever we aren’t rolling on the mats, we’re taking sides on one debate or another. One of the most recent and heated discussions has been about rule sets, specifically pitting the concept of submission-only competition against rule sets that award points. Avoiding taking sides is difficult, but I am going to attempt to avoid feeding into the dichotomous nature of the larger argument. To put it plainly, I think both point and submission only rule sets are worth having.

Submission-only events have gained a great deal of traction in recent years, largely for the action they provide and the finality a submission offers to viewers. So while I love submission-only events and have competed in them myself, I feel the point system deserves a defense.

The free space to express grappling that submission-only creates is excellent, but alongside that free space should exist a slightly more structured environment that emphasize some aspects of grappling that submission-only tends to leave behind, such as positional control and takedowns. Left to its own devices, the metagame of submission-only could easily evolve into a game where position matters very little. While aggressive submission hunting is good to have in one’s game, it is important to remember what set Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu apart from other grappling arts was its emphasis on positional grappling.

Before you get up in arms that position always matters, consider for a moment the rise of leglock-centric gameplans, many of which have gotten attention for their performances in submission-only match-ups. In those matches, we see a great deal of guard pulling and a relentless hunt for heel hooks, oftentimes with little interest shown in advancing top position.

While it is something of a trope in modern jiu-jitsu to invoke the argument of “in a real fight,” it is important to remember that jiu-jitsu competitions are a martial sport and as a result should keep a foot in the basic concepts that made it a successful martial art in the first place. The mount, for example, isn’t highly sought after in submission-only because in no-gi few submissions can result from there, but is scored very highly sport jiu-jitsu criteria because of the value it provides in combative situation.

This keeps the art grounded in the realities of not just submission grappling but also the inclusion of strikes to a lesser degree without the need to actually pummel each other on a daily basis. The basic philosophy of jiu-jitsu is well represented by its scoring system: a takedown occurs, the bottom fighter looks for sweeps, top fighter looks to pass, both try to attain a dominant position and then a submission.

Submission-only gives grapplers a chance to explore and evolve outside that game, playing in concepts like limb control; using kimura grips, the crucifix, or leg entanglements to control and then submit their opponents. The point system allows for exploration and evolution within the basic philosophy. The advent and growth of pressure guard passing or the berimbolo sweep, for example, likely would not have occurred without point competitions. And as reviled as the berimbolo is by those in the jiu jitsu community that focus on self-defense, no matter the rule set some sport specific strategies will develop, submission only is not immune that.

The tendency of submission only competitors to sit straight down and not even seek to contest takedowns and to utterly sacrifice position, such as Sergio Hernandez pulling North/South against Eddie Cummings in an effort to avoid leg locks at EBI 7, make perfect sense in the context of submission only, but are strikes against the idea that submission-only results in the most “realistic” style of grappling.

Submission only and point tournaments serve as balances to each other, creating different arenas for experimentation. This is not to say point systems are above critique. There are very real problems with the rule sets used by many point tournaments. The rules have been largely static for years and point tournaments have fallen prey to creep of athletes learning to game the system in the same spirit that submission-only competitors game their rule set. As a result the rules of point tournaments are badly in need of reimagination to encourage a more aggressive style of grappling that is grounded in the root philosophy of jiu-jitu.

First, advantages need to be done away with. The need for a tie breaker is very real, but creating a ‘minor point’ system has given athletes a path to victory in a match without actually achieving a successful technique in a match. The intent of advantages is understandable. In a match where both athletes are aggressively seeking dominant positions and submissions, advantages reward the more active, aggressive grappler. But now it has become a common strategy in closely contested matches to rack up advantages and then prevent points from being scored, meaning that the athlete’s best strategy might be to prevent activity rather than pursue it.

Removal of advantages would force athletes to once again focus on finding submissions and accomplishing actions worthy of points. There is still the possibility of stalling, but that can be addressed by harsher stalling penalties. Negative tie breakers are very useful as penalties as well, which is why disadvantages still have a role to play. An increased use of disadvantages in the face of stalling and a shortened process for actually penalizing a staller with negative points would help address the possibility of stalling or passivity in matches.

Other tweaks could be made, such as a minor penalty to pulling guard to encourage slightly engagement on the feet or shortening black belt matches from 10 minutes to 6 minutes. Some of these steps have been taken by some point tournaments; Copa Podio has 6 minute matches and aggressive stalling penalties, FIVE Grappling did away with advantages, and the ADCCs have very open submission rules as well as penalties for pulling guard. The results have been highly entertaining point matches that reflect a more complete style of grappling than those in more restrictive point rule sets.

We need both formats, and both formats can still be improved. Revamped point rule sets working alongside submission-only competition would create an excellent pair of laboratories for jiu-jitsu to develop, grow, and evolve as a sport whilst staying true to its martial roots.

About the Author: T.P. Grant

T.P. Grant has written for Bloody Elbow, FloGrappling, and FloCombat. He is a brown belt with Team Redzovic and dabbles in Sambo and Judo as well.


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Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Silverfox says...

    Well written with keen insights. Something I might add as a need in point-based systems is finding a way to reward compelling submission attempts other than by advantage – perhaps rewarding submission attempts/positions with points. The only challenge there becomes the subjectivity associated with defining ‘compelling’ submission and adequate referee training to enforce the rule effectively.

    October 20, 2016

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