Gi Vs No Gi – The Classic Mixed Martial Arts Debate

In my last article on the merits of Judo and BJJ, I alluded to the classic “Gi vs. No Gi” debate. I am sure that every MMA and BJJ site on the web has experienced several postings on this topic and whilst experienced practitioners of “alive / reality based” martial arts will have made their own minds up; we must not forget that MMA and BJJ must be the fastest growing “martial arts” in the world. In order to achieve this growth, these sports are gaining daily newcomers both in competition and fanfare. As such, I believe it remains an extremely important topic and one that needs resolving as far as possible. I am going to have a go at this somewhat chicken and egg argument, please feed back to me and if you disagree, you may well change my mind on many of the points I make!

The Gi vs. No Gi debate generally takes place on the forums. Such is the notoriety of this debate, those posting on this topic are often accused, and rightly so, of being trolls. The debate normally centres around the following arguments:

The Gi proponents argue that:

1) Gi players are more technical and hold the greatest number of no-gi titles, especially the prestigious No-Gi ADCC title. Marcelo Garcia’s success in No-Gi (multiple ADCC championships) whilst training predominately in the Gi are highlighted by the Gi fraternity as indisputable evidence of Gi training’s benefits. Marcelo has only dominated his weight class but won the absolute division as well; an incredible feat given that he is outweighed by most of his opponents. Gi advocates also support their argument with the success of numerous other predominately Gi-based players; Saulo and Xande Ribeiro, Jacare, and countless other BJJ Gi exponents who have enjoyed No Gi success.
2) Traditional BJJ instructors (many of whom hold multiple world titles) have been known to recommend that practitioners gain a certain amount of gi experience prior to training without the gi in MMA or submission wrestling. And countless BJJ World Champions continue to argue in favour of Gi training; Marcelo Garcia being one of many.
3) Training without a Gi is argued to be less technical due to the sweat factor but in order to hone technical skills, training in the Gi is said to encourage a slower and therefore more technical game where speed and physical attributes are more limited: “A more even playing field”.
4) Judo players emphasize that the leverage generated from a superior grip is far greater than without a Gi and the superior number of handles allows the superior thrower to exert his skills more quickly and conclusively wet and wavy. Eddie Bravo made a similar observation in his first book Jiu-Jitsu Unleashed with comparisons made to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts success in rolling with a Gi, and without, against a wrestler, although he was not arguing in favour, more emphasizing that traditional BJJ players were lost without the handles and struggled in No Gi against wrestlers.

The No Gi proponents argue that:

1) No Gi practice is more relevant to MMA. Cage fights are No Gi so why train in the Gi when you are not going to fight in it? They also highlight some of the heavy punishment that BJJ players have taken in the guard and some argue that the reliance upon Gi training has been a major contributor.
2) Eddie Bravo has been the most famous and vocal of the No Gi movement. Popular for his KOTC and UFC commentary and of course submitting Royler Gracie in ADCC, Bravo has written three BJJ instructional books, all exclusively on BJJ for No Gi competition / MMA. He argues that traditional BJJ Gi players are continually subject to ground’n’pound partly because of their failure to train No Gi. As a result, their guard in particular is highlighted for no longer being appropriate due to the difference in ‘handles’. Bravo argues that his own 10th Planet system is superior for no gi and mixed martial arts groundwork. Bravo continues to train dozens of world class fighters, such as Chuck Liddell, Shinya Aoki, Dean Lister, and Jason Miller.
3) The sweat factor is there in MMA regardless, so why learn in a Gi which is slower, when in the reality of submission wrestling or MMA competition; the fight will be fast and furious anyway

From my perspective, the irony is that the No Gi vs. Gi debate is probably most irrelevant to those who in reality place the most importance upon it . Newcomers to the sport who then select their training protocol and club based on gi or no gi classes rather than seeking the best coaching available for MMA, BJJ, wrestling or Judo.

The first point on ADCC titles being almost completely dominated by Gi-players is probably a weak argument. In truth, No-Gi submission grappling has only been on a competitive level for a relatively short period of time compared to Carlos and Helio’s Gi-based art spanning the best part of a hundred years (I am not getting into deep historical accuracies here). Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a gi-based art and without doubt, is fundamentally superior (Sambo has an advantage in leglocks but that is it) and is foremost ground art. Period! The best ground work instruction comes from those who have studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the No Gi proponents such as Eddie Bravo, Marc Laimon, Dean Lister, etc, all learned from this source and could all be argued, probably inaccurately, to be Gi players. The key here is the experience of competitive groundwork, not the material of cloth, and the quality of instruction and fundamentals known and practised from the Gracie and Machado source. However, this can be easily carried on into No Gi classes by Bravo, Laimon, Lister, etc, and anyone else with good grounding in BJJ fundamentals.

The second point of BJJ instructors advocating the Gi probably stems from a number of motivations. Partly, there is the Gi tradition and this cannot be denied -doing as we’ve always done. The belt system also acts as a hierarchy and reward system. People like rewards and symbols of success and the system helps to assist in loyalty both ways although does not guarantee it. Some instructors utilise the belt system to control students by with-holding promotions for excessive periods. Another reason maybe that the instructor can only watch and monitor so many bodies, and with speed and aggression comes injury. Many BJJ instructors may feel that the slower pace and greater leverage of gi grappling can assist in the creation of a slower and more progressive approach in class.

Overall though, the Gi itself does not mean that the last two factors cause No Gi clubs to be faster or that coaches do not monitor the class, such a statement would be stupid and the logic is perhaps understood but misguided. And sometimes the speed of no gi can really assist smaller players such as Marcelo Garcia against larger opponents.

The Gi does allow for a greater benefit to be gained from any positional advantage; from a grip on the sleeve end in stand-up to a deeply placed grip in the collar on the ground. However, Bravo’s argument is that the percentages in No Gi, especially for MMA, must be as high as possible. Can we afford a grip on the wrist in guard when we’re getting punched in the head. Probably Not! There’s little advantage here but a poor grip with cloth can go less punished in tradional BJJ. The key here is that many traditional BJJ practitioners never really learn to grip cloth effectively in the way Judokas do. And Judoka’s understand the point Bravo is really making; when you grip your opponent it really needs to exert control, real control, in the sense that when you grip and move the arm, you move the guys whole body. In Bravo’s case, he’s often referring to a very tight high or Rubber Guard, locking in the shoulders and breaking the posture in guard in the same way a world class judoka or wrestler will keep his opponents head buried downwards in standing and only allow good posture when it suits him i.e. to set a rear throw or double leg shot. This is the part I feel that is missing from the traditional BJJ mindset. If it is understood by the top Brazilian Gi proponents, I get the impression that it’s not always being communicated to their students resulting in slow matches and irritating but ultimately ineffective grips that simply cause delays and stalling.

The Gi when used by a judoka, can be a tool to emphasize this type of control to beginners and anyone who’s sparred with a good judoka knows the “straight jacket feel” of their grips; something you rarely ever feel in BJJ. Many traditional BJJ players can use their excellent hip movement to make up for their weak grips but surely the best of both worlds is optimal? And this I think is again the key – it’s not the material, but the knowledge of fundamentals, (whether hip movement, grip fighting, or “controlling” posture or a limb) and the learning curve increase when effective coaching is aligned to these principles.

In research for this article, I Googled “gi vs. no gi”. Gumby at OnTheMat highlights that the posture in the Guard for gi is more appropriate for MMA. Good posture with the hips forward and buttocks resting on the heels whilst in the guard is required to defend chokes and sweeps in Gi BJJ. This also creates adequate space for MMA in order to strike effectively. I would also add that this same point is applicable to the mount. However, any reasonable groundwork specialist who has trained in BJJ (typically at Gi schools) will be able to quickly apply these skills in no gi and it would not be necessary need to wear a gi in order to learn these skills in the correct coaching environment.

Eddie Bravo is often waved around forums as the no gi flagbearer. His books and comments are quoted but I have often found that Eddie is misquoted by “No Gi” proponents and that they do not really understand Eddie’s perspective. In a radio interview with Dave Camarillo and Josh Koscheck, Dave (often cited by the Gi-ists) agreed with Eddie on the vast majority of points on this very debate; that BJJ should not be a points scoring exercise, that friction is important and Eddie himself advocates wearing Gi bottoms and underlying materials to tighten up his guard game submissions. From memory (and it may be rusty!), the main disagreement was that Eddie argued that the upper body grips in No Gi were more difficult to adapt to from Gi training whereas Dave felt it was a simple transition.

I am a big Bravo fan, and I feel that Eddie Bravo’s own innovation has shown many weaknesses in the traditional system that have little to do with the Gi vs. No Gi, although the Gi is often blamed. The traditional BJJ guard with the legs closed around the hips is fundamentally weaker than the high / rubber guard that he has done so much to popularise. Regardless of where someone chooses to grip with their hands is irrelevant to Gi or No Gi; the ideal guard locks in the upper body with the legs not the arms. A good grip is a good grip. By being so high with the rubber guard, the opponents shoulders are locked and this reduces punching power and space whilst at the same time massively increasing submission percentages. Eddie has been a huge proponent of this approach and in my experience of applying Rubber Guard in the Gi, I would argue that it becomes even more dangerous. Bravo’s lockdown in half guard is again superior to the traditional Brazilian half guard; whether a Gi is worn or not. And the Twister can be easily adapted as well to a collar choke. The Truck and Dogfight have allowed BJJ practitioners worldwide to enjoy greater understanding of positions that would otherwise be considered pure scrambles. Perhaps Eddie feels that these positions would never have been found in Gi training, but I think they work very well in Gi regardless.

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