Challenge Matches, Rulesets, and Their Impact on BJJ

Challenge matches, duels and the benefits and disadvantages of rulesets in jiujitsu competition

Whether you have trained jiujitsu for years or just a few months, competition is ever present. Some people compete on a regular basis, becoming semi pro or professional grapplers. Some people compete every so often just for fun, and to hone their technique. Others compete sparingly, just enough to know they don’t like it, and prefer to focus on teaching. A large portion of practitioners haven’t even competed at all.

How did you come to decide you want to train jiujitsu? Were you picked on mercilessly as a youth? Did you see Royce and the other Gracies beat the holy hell out of everyone who challenged them in grainy VHS videos of the UFC and told yourself “I need to know how to do that”? Perhaps you realized you needed to make changes in your life after your blood pressure / cholesterol was higher than a kite, and your spouse said they were worried about you? Or maybe you’re the victim of a violent encounter, such as a fight you couldn’t avoid or, worse yet, a sexual assault, and now you refuse to be a victim again?

Whatever the reason, and whether or not you compete, you as a student of jiujitsu are now an inheritor of a vast, sometimes bewildering amount of martial arts technical skill and knowledge. The repertoire of martial arts is so vast that men have spent their entire lives trying to master just small parts of it. Just think about that! And if you were to write down all the different martial arts out there in the world, how long would that list be? It would be pages. Some arts arguably could be considered the same as others. But regardless, the world of martial arts is full. Full of weapons, full of “empty hands”. Full of experts, and full of frauds. We all want to be better, and we all want to be practicing something beneficial. Thus, for some, competition helps iron out the kinks. But should there be rules? Should there be weight classes? Should a white belt with 6 months of mat time be thrust in against a 4 stripe white belt at a competition and then be allowed to attempt a leg lock?

THE BEGINNING

The men who forged the original*, and arguably the “true” systems of martial arts were men of unique caliber. They typically, but not always, were born into the warrior class. In all cases, they were eternal students, constantly on the search for anything to use to their advantage. Their goals varied. Some looked only for the physical victory over the enemy, while some were deeply introspective, and also sought out religious reasons for why things were the way that they were. They all searched for purity of technique, not just for self-preservation, but sometimes for defense of the common good, as in defense of a village or town, their allies or comrades, and sometimes an idea or cause.

Of course,for the first professional spectator fights, everyone thinks of are the gladiator rings of Rome. Yet, that was not the beginning. In all of recorded history, everywhere, there have been pride fights with rulesets, and fights without. Greece, India, China, (no doubt pre-Columbian Mesoamerica), and Africa all contain historical references to challenge matches. In all of the cultures where this was the case, emphasis on a proficiency of technique was paramount. That is what separates the professional from the amateur.

There is one area of the world where we can look to historical examples of competition, its benefits, and its results when strictly measured by the authorities. This method was designed by a warrior class to perfect their arts in the search for spiritual enlightenment through martial skill. Enter Feudal Japan of the 16th century.

SHINKEN SHOBU

The Samurai of 16th century Japan were constantly armed, and thus were obsessed with the sword and spear and their usage. However, as anyone who has studied close quarter fighting with weapons can attest to, unless a quick victory is achieved, the two combatants inevitably clinch, and then a push/pull tussle with weaponry follows. In fact, this was the impetus for how jiujitsu was originally created. By the 1580s, many schools and styles had emerged. Due to the secrecy surrounding these schools and the nature of their social structure, the men who trained at these various schools trained only with one another. When a teacher was going to retire, if he had no family to pass on the school to, he would choose an inheritor from amongst his best students.

The martial Ryu were and still are meritocracies. Only the best student could uphold the reputation of the school and defend its style against challengers. It was not uncommon for several students to become so skilled that they could all be considered for appointment into the leadership role. Sometimes, the teacher just appointed a specific student as his replacement and told the other students at the school that if they didn’t like who he picked as his successor, too bad. Other times, as in the case of the Itto school, a duel to the death between the two best swordsmen was held to determine who would carry on the tradition after the founder. Insulated groups of men with no martial barometer other than each other tend to become rowdy, and in an age when war was ever present, many swordsmen left after a few years to enroll in a local feudal army. This was a sure way one could earn some money, maybe even climb a few rungs on the social ladder, and then retire from active fighting and either open their own school, or settle into life pursuing whatever vocation they wanted.  

But for the men who decided either through fascination with the art, or a feeling of necessity, that they must pursue martial arts further, it became apparent very quickly that in order to progress, they needed to be able to try their hand against other schools and fighters outside of the battlefield setting. Once decided on their course, these men would pack their bag, and then leave on a journey where they would walk the width and breadth of the Japanese Islands looking for fights. These men typically had little or no money, and would rely on the kindness of strangers or religious institutions for food and lodging. Some however did have money, and after their reputation had been established, they traveled with ostentatious entourages of dozens, or sometimes hundreds of followers. Such was the case of Tsukuhara Bokuden, a wealthy Samurai from Easter Japan who would travel in caravans of disciples and onlookers. His entourage grew so large, in fact, they were eventually complete with chef and mobile sleeping quarters.

This practice of going on a journey to find and challenge other proponents of various martial schools was called “Shinken Shobu,” literally “real sword match”.

The common method of seeking out challenges was carried out in accordance with the ruleset the warrior class had developed for itself. Upon entering a village, or castle town, the bushi (warrior) would, when he felt ready, go to the local town square and write a notice which stated his name, his pedigree, his challenge, and the location he could be found. Sometimes, if a well known school was in the area, a challenge could be directed specifically to the headmaster or senior student of that school. Upon acceptance of the challenge, he and whoever had accepted his challenge would agree upon the rules of engagement, occasionally with a contract being signed by both parties. After the contest was over, if it was to the death, the winner would go to the local magistrates office and report the killing. He would then be given a slip of paper absolving him from criminal prosecution. Many swordsmen, spearmen, and grapplers in 16th century Japan made their reputations this way.

The benefits of this kind of challenge is obvious. The emotional control, the physical skill, and the mental awareness needed to defeat an opponent who may be cheating or simply substantially better than you are immense. This produced a fighter who was able to “turn off his brain”. When a certain level of skill is reached, things become natural. You are able to move from position to position, attack while simultaneously keeping the defenses up and active. This isn’t just muscle memory, it’s the body acting in unison with the brain. When no ruleset is applied to the contest, a true test of skill can be seen. The combatants must literally be ready for anything. You do not tell yourself to attempt a technique, you automatically apply it when the opening presents itself. This level of skill can only be reached by many hours of deep study. It is the sign of an expert technician

By the mid Edo period, the age of civil war and large scale set piece battles was over. But it did not take long before many of the more active warriors now found that dueling and calling out other samurai in challenges was a good way to test their skill in lieu of battlefield experience. The extended years of peace had forced the warrior class to centralize somewhat. With the number of warriors diminished, there wasn’t a need for so many martial arts schools, and thus, the amount of schools dropped from the thousands, into the hundreds. Most schools that did remain were in the employ of the wealthier families and clans. A lot of Samurai only trained sporadically due to  their time being split between bureaucratic work, family, and other responsibilities. As mentioned above, there were some who did train on a constant basis. They tended to be related to the founder of a school, were avid martial artists, some were employed by the government in some kind of direct martial capacity such as cavalry or pikeman. Some were also farmer samurai who worked their fields during the day and then trained in the evening (this was the case with many rural Samurai).

The ruling establishment, however, noticed a worrisome trend; the martial Ryu were hotbeds of political activity, and they knew some of it was anti government. Also, since the various Ryu were ruthlessly secretive, it was hard to say for sure what side they were on of the political divide. The Edo period government, in an effort to keep the clans who were hostile to them in a submissive state, tried to curb the ability of these warriors to train and fight. They enforced strict rules on the types of duels and challenge fights that could be carried out.

First, no more fights with real swords. Since many Samurai were equally lethal with wooden training weapons, and used that as a loophole to continue fighting, they then flat out legislated that there would be no more fights to the death. In fact, they even went as far as to say no challenge matches could be issued without explicit government permission. The Samurai would not be dissuaded from fighting so easily; all this did was force the dueling and fighting into secret times and places. What it also did, was provide an excuse for the Samurai and headmasters of schools who were a bit cowardly an excuse to decline these now “under the table” challenges without losing face.

It was not all constant challenging and fighting and death and violence. The government had a tight grip, and wise people knew it was best to go with the flow. Inventive headmasters had begun to devise new training methods that broke from tradition. These new tools seemingly made the old ways obsolete, and these also began to affect the warriors attitudes. Training Armor similar to what is used today in Kendo, as well as the modern Judo and jiujitsu style training Gi, were developed at about this time. Warriors could now don armor, train spiritedly, and not worry about receiving fatal or disfiguring injuries. This also was the time jiujitsu began to become more prominent with the majority of the warrior class as an area of study, due to it being able to be used in confined spaces, and without death being an essential factor in its application. Of the whole country, the Aizu region, Satsuma, Tosa, and Nagato(Choshu) continued to defy the central government and were noted for maintaining an exceptionally high level of martial skill level.

GRACIE VS KIMURA

Jiujitsu now is practiced for the most part by hobbyists. There are professionals of course, but these professionals are also for the most part, not true fighters (sorry, but a sport BJJ match is NOT a fight). The contests that the original Kodokan was a part of to test the mettle of its members, for instance, is a thing of the past. But for any student of jiujitsu, or judo, and especially the competitors, those stories are a must read**. No one doubts the skill of any of the old samurai or Judo fighters. They forged a legacy we still reflect back on with strong admiration. But did their training methods make them better than the average fighter of today? Would Gordon Ryan, Andre Galvao, Kron Gracie, or Demian Maia be able to hold their own against a feudal jiujitsu master, or champion Kodokan fighter from the early 20th century? We will never know for sure, but in all likelihood, yes.

There is one match that we can analyze in an attempt to answer this question. This match is, in a way, a fight between the ancient and the modern, the old way, and the new. Let us take a look at one of the most famous challenge matches in jiujitsu’s history:

Helio Gracie vs Masahiko Kimura.

By 1950 Helio Gracie was the (self-styled) jiujitsu champion of Brazil. Many underground fights had sealed his and his elder brother Carlos’ reputations as technical and tenacious fighters who accepted all challenges. Judo was, at this time, still the big fish in a small, but growing pond. Postwar Japan was not the martial Mecca it had been, and thus many of its most promising and skilled fighters and teachers who made it through WW2 had started leaving the country. Most went to the United States, but a good chunk went to South America (Brazil and Peru in particular). Judo’s repertoire at this time was still composed of many ne waza techniques, with this focus even being named as a separate style, Kosen [Judo], with its own tournaments, albeit with modified rules, as early as 1898. The average judoka then, like now, did hours of drills. They drilled, and then drilled some more. The focus on Judo’s technique then, however, unlike now, was more true Ippon oriented. Throws were intended to knock out the opponent, chokes were applied often, with one or both arms being pinned or otherwise immobilized so as to prevent resistance (this also prevented the tap out).

Helio Gracie had, in his various fights, found himself on the other end of the mats with a certain Takeo Yano. Yano was a highly skilled judo grappler and in 1937 he fought Helio, but the fight ended in a draw. This result was a testament to Helio’s slippery and effective body movement. Yano had requested many rematches, but was always turned away by the Gracie brothers. He then got the idea to invite his friend Kimura, along with Toshio Yamaguchi and Yukio Kato, to Brazil, knowing Helio would issue a challenge and it would not be turned down by Kimura.

Kimura was already known as one of the best Judoka alive.

A man of incredible strength, he was known for his throws and pinning ability. After a verbal back and forth, Helio first fought Yukio Kato, the lowest ranked member of the Japanese entourage. Years of training with the best Judo grapplers in the world paid off, and Kato was able to continuously toss Helio around like a rag doll, but the padded flooring prevented knockouts. A rematch was issued, and accepted by both parties. This time however, Helio successfully choked Kato unconscious, to the frustration of some who claimed he cheated.

The Brazilians were quite happy with Helio’s victory and gallivanted around the streets with a coffin signifying Katos defeat. Yamaguchi was challenged next but Kimura took his place when it was rumored he backed out due to fear of getting beaten up. Kimura, who had been involved in many other actual fights, had no qualms, and took his place. The fight then was scheduled and proceeded. There was no weigh in, and the only real “rule” was that both parties had to wear a gi. Victory was decided by TKO, submission, or choke out.

I don’t wish to lecture the reader with continuous details of the fight. Wikipedia, Graciemag.com, and numerous other sources have much more info on the fight than what I can present in the short writing here. But long story short, Kimura was clearly of greater strength and skill and was able to throw Gracie repeatedly and get the win via Gyaku ude garami, forcing Helio’s arm to break in two places and Carlos to throw in the towel.

What is important to this article is not who won, or in fact with which technique was used to attain victory. Our topic is the benefit or disadvantage of rulesets in martial arts competition. This fight had tremendous impact on BJJ’s development. Mainly with the Gracies realizing they could hold their own with the best in the world, which came from Japan at that time, and developed their game thusly (the technique used to defeat Helio was henceforth affectionately called the Kimura) around ground fighting which tends to nullify the ability to generate explosive power on the part of the person on bottom. The Gracie family continued fight, to accept challenges and to improve. Their interpretation of jiujitsu is now considered a pivotal and integral component of the curriculum of any serious martial arts student. Judo, although being highly respected in the martial arts world, is not known for producing highly skilled fight and self defense oriented practitioners any longer. Rhonda Rousey, Rick Hawn, Hector Lombard, and Yuki Nakai are perhaps the most well known modern judokas. And yet, they all cross train in Brazilian jiujitsu, the modern art descended from Helio Gracie. Judo has, because of its self-imposed rules and regulations, relegated itself to the world of entertainment sports, and removed itself from the self defense conversation.

The Gracies always searched for a purity of technique.

Renzo, Royler, Rickson, and Royce were at the forefront of the “fight it out” opinion, using challenges to prove their method of training was superior for self defense with Kron and Neiman now showcasing their way as still being relevant in the modern age. Except for leg and foot oriented technique, they and the numerous other members of the family built a foundation on which innovation and new thought was not only encouraged, but was sought out. This then spawned numerous schools of similar but different emphasis, with perhaps the most noted being Eddie Bravo and his unique approach to no gi grappling, and John Danaher’s stable being obsessed with techniques on the lower 50% of the body.

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

There are some rules which are beneficial and necessary, such as weight classes. Brock Lesnar should not be paired against Joseph Beneviedez. All things being equal, if striking is allowed, the stronger man will win. But what about when striking is not allowed? This poses and interesting situation, as now a smaller, but perhaps more scrappy fighter can use endurance and speed to his advantage. Most BJJ tournaments now have an absolute bracket, and thus smaller fighters have a chance to out-grapple a larger opponent. Also, with the advent and success of Eddie Bravo’s Combat Jiujitsu, there is yet another arena where grapplers can test their skills. Of course, for many, MMA will remain the ultimate test of competitive martial skill. There is no shortage of ways an eager student can challenge themselves in the sport right now.

Should we limit which techniques are used in sport BJJ competition?

Some say yes, lower ranks do not have the control to know when to let go. Some say no, a leg lock is just as dangerous as any technique such as a choke if the one applying does not stop, and in fact, a choke is more so, as it can lead to death.

The purpose of this writing is not to condone underground, unsanctioned, bizarre, or Hollywood-esque fights to the death. Biting, eye gouging, and other unsavory tactics should be banned, mainly due to the risk of infection, and also because most of the time it will not significantly affect the course of a fight if proper position is achieved by the one on the receiving end of the bite or gouge. Nor is this writing a defense of trying to kill or beat up people in search of improving skill and technique. What this piece is trying to show however, is the way rulesets affect martial arts.

It is the opinion of the author that knee reaping, foot locks, and other positional or technical movements, should not be illegal within the lower ranks. All ranks, including white belts who compete, should be prepared for these strategies and should plan, train, and thus be emotionally ready to tap out and accept defeat accordingly. Jiujitsu’s strength, like any martial skill, is in the ability of the practitioner to identify and neutralize or reverse the technique of the opponent. Thus, training escapes and transitions should especially not be neglected amongst those newer students desiring to compete. The argument of “lower ranks not having control” to stop when applying ankle or knee specific techniques, or not knowing when they should tap to said technique, is in my opinion irrelevant. Such is the way of jiujitsu. We do not do ourselves any favors by watering down the sport to coddle those who are not ready to enter into the competition arena.

*In this writing, “original” refers to historically documented martial arts traditions existing before 1650, when the warrior class in Europe had essentially ended, and only Japan maintained a warrior class centered around a feudal and not tribal social structure.

**For an in depth account of how these fights were carried out, read “The Fighting Spirit of Japan” by EJ Harrison, and “The Fighting Man of Japan” by FJ Norman.

Giles Alexander

Giles Alexander is a purple belt residing in Seattle and representing Kindred Jiu-Jitsu.