Misleading! The Sub-Only Competition Lie!
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
Currently, young competitors are either choosing or being persuaded to prefer sub-only formats versus progressive point scoring systems. The allure is the claim that scoring systems force a more passive, strategic game while sub-only competition better incentivizes submissions, which is the ultimate goal of grappling. Plainly stated, no points and less rules equals more submissions. But if it is presented that sub-only actually promotes more submissions by its very structure, then people are being misled.
Historically, many grappling sports developed with some type of scoring system. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu codified a progressive scoring system more than half a century ago. Since the art was primarily designed for self defense and the Founders preferred submission only formats, it was designed in such a way as to reward grappling that most closely resembled actual fighting. John Danaher aptly described Jiu Jitsu competition as a series of actions and positions that progresses to the most enviable place to strike and finish a fight. This level of progression demonstrates control and dominance over an opponent, so much so, that even if the submission is not secured, it becomes evident who was ‘objectively’ winning the match.
This is why sweeping an opponent from bottom guard to top guard is only worth two points, but securing a mount or back mount is four points – the better the position, the higher the reward. This reward for progression through advantageous actions and positions is designed to incentivize behavior that leads to submissions, which is the still the ultimate goal. But submission-only claims to dismantle this notion with a different premise. Instead, submission-only tries to remove the shackles of a scoring system, eliminating the burden of concern for a scoreboard in the pure pursuit of submission. Because there is no scoring, competitors are free to take chances and even experiment without fear of scoring retribution for failed efforts. So theoretically, this freedom from scoring will result in more opportunities and thus more submissions.
In reality, though, progressive scoring and submission-only systems tend to have nearly identical submission statistics. In 2019, ADCC had only a 31% submission rate, largely bolstered by the Absolute division, which was on fire at a 75% submission rate. It’s likely the fatigue of many matches over a two-day tournament took their toll, but there were just some incredible performances that catapulted those submission statistics. For comparison, consider that the IBJJF Black Belt World championships data between 2014-2017 had a submission rate between 31%-40% in a restrictive points-based only system with matches that were considerably shorter by design.
So, if not promoting more submissions, what is the submission-only actually accomplishing? It is true that some less prestigious submission-only tournaments do post a higher number percentage of submissions per event. But even the best-case scenario, typically even submission-only goes to a judges/referees’ decision up to half the matches.
This means that submission-only has to use some scoring mechanism, obviously unrecorded, to decide the outcome of matches with no submission. So then how is that done? Ironically, it is then decided by a panel who likely base the match on progressive scoring measurements to determine the outcome. Often, submissions are most highly weighted, but still, usually an unrecorded progressive scoring system undergirds those decisions.
Additionally, to avoid decisions and further incentivize finishes, submission-only matches tend to often be 2-3 times longer duration. They tend to include overtime periods to use endurance as an additional factor to enable submissions. But, this too can result in passivity, where competitors believe they must pace themselves for a long match with overtimes rather than go hard for a shorter duration. Yet, submission-only events are typically poor at enforcing stalling, since it’s difficult to penalize in a non-scoring system. So for all the promises of more submissions, and a foundation in a progressive scoring system anyway, the notion that any event is truly ‘sub-only’ is really more hope than reality. For this reason, submission-only events really need to explain the decision-making process for matches with no submission so it’s understood what’s occurring in the judge’s minds about half an event’s matches. The question remains if this was better understood, would sub-only matches be as popular and seem to have a better reputation as true to Jiu Jitsu?
Author David ‘Silverfox’ Karchmer was awarded his black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in June 2012 and has been training for more than 20 years. In addition to training and instructing, David has focused the last twelve years on officiating grappling competitions and has officiated more than 4000 gi and no-gi matches at over 85 events for multiple organizations. He was a previous head referee at Grapplers Quest, Tap Cancer Out, FIVE Grappling, UAEJJF New York Open, Copa NoVA, and Rollmore SuperComp tournaments, and routinely officiates events in North America. For more about David, go to: www.thegrapplingreferee.com