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In Defense Of Point Fighting

The derision directed toward “point fighters” seems to be growing lately. Hey, I’ve even engaged in it myself.

At first blush, this seems reasonable. The match is about the tap. The logical conclusion of an encounter between two grapplers is a submission: this gives us the finality our minds crave. To settle for less — for merely achieving a position of control — seems to diminish the martial artist in many eyes.

As I reflect on this, though, I think so-called point fighting has gotten a bad rap beyond what it deserves.

Since I’m still pretty early in the journey — hello, blue belt here — I’d like to hear what others think about this.

Making fun of point fighting is not productive. It is, however, funny.

Making fun of point fighting is not productive. It is, however, funny.

Before I get into the details of my argument, here is the essence: positional dominance is at the core of jiu-jitsu. It’s critically important to get to a safe position (sidemount or mount, for example) and be able to hold that position. In many contexts — say, a 5 minute BJJ match or a 15 minute MMA fight — this faces criticism as “stalling” or “playing for points.”

Let me also explain a few things I don’t mean. I certainly don’t mean that you shouldn’t focus on submissions in training. We should all be developing a robust, diverse submission game and working hard on finishing those submissions during matches and rolling sessions.

Believe me, I’m also not arguing against Submission Only tournaments. Quite the opposite: I love them. Being forced to fight until the end without time limits gets back to the roots of jiu-jitsu. Having multiple tournaments with different rulesets is also good, in my view, since it forces people to adapt to multiple situations. I think as we build our jiu-jitsu, we’re wise to focus on control first.

My reasons are two: first, jiu-jitsu is about self defense, and controlling position is an essential self-defense skill; and second, many objections to so-called “point fighting” are actually objections to certain tactics of gamesmanship in sport tournaments and sport MMA.

Jiu-jitsu is rooted in self-defense, and controlling position is vital for self defense. 

As the saying goes, we should put position before submission. My instructor consistently preaches the importance of submission setups: when we put enough time and effort into the setup, the finish should be easy.

Why do we put position before submission? Several reasons. The ideal outcome of a self-defense situation — for me, at least — is to end the confrontation without anyone getting hurt. This isn’t always realistic, but from a human and legal perspective, it’s a good vision to start from. What’s most likely to lead to this outcome? Avoid fights. If a guy tries to fight you, leave, or talk your way out of it.

If that fails, though, and someone does attack you, the best way to stop anyone from getting hurt is to take that person to the ground, get a dominant position, and control that person. It’s also a lot easier to explain to the police “he was attacking me, so I controlled him to protect myself” than it is to explain “he was attacking me, so I broke his arm.”

This is one reason I’ll even defend stalling to a certain degree — or I should say a certain type of stalling. A lot of fights are “heat of the moment” fights, where if you give the angry guy the chance to calm down — or exhaust him underneath you, and let him see his struggles are fruitless — that’s the end of it.

And let’s delineate what I’m calling “stalling” here from common jiu-jitsu tournament stalling. There’s a big difference between locking someone down in side control, where I’m largely safe in a fight, than in 50/50, where I’m not. Similarly, there’s a big difference between going for an actual submission and pretending to toehold someone while making a constipated face. I think these are the practices most reasonable people — legitimately — take issue with.

Are there self-defense situations where taking someone down and controlling them isn’t sufficient? Certainly. Sometimes, a person defending themselves will need to just get up and get away (in the event of multiple attackers, for example); and in some rare cases, only a submission will keep someone safe. This is why we train for as many potential situations as we can.

But I would argue that even in these two situations, controlling position is vital. Need to get away? You’d better be able to either sweep from the bottom or stand up and create distance. Need to get a submission? Again, in the majority of cases, you’ve got to be controlling position first — and you’re taking a big risk if you go for a submission when you aren’t.

This, incidentally, is one thing I worry about with sport tournaments. People often talk about the bad self-defense habits tournaments create: artificially insulating you from punches and kicks, incentivizing being on bottom, etc. One thing I haven’t heard folks talk about a lot is encouraging premature submission attempts due to the match time limits.

It’s certainly important to develop a dangerous submission game. It’s more important, in my view, to develop a dominant positional game. One follows from the other. If you can control someone and give them no chance to escape, you’ll submit them eventually.

JoJo isn't trying to submit me here. But don't you think he's going to eventually?

JoJo isn’t trying to submit me here. But don’t you think he’s going to eventually?

Speaking of sport tournaments:

Most of the objections to “point fighting” are rooted in a spectator mentality. 

Submissions are exciting. That much is undeniable. It’s rare that you come away from a tournament or a fight card saying “wow, my favorite part of that match was his mount maintenance.”

From a self-defense perspective, though, it’s not the point to be exciting. The point is to stay safe. The point is to survive the situation and, using technique, ensure that you face minimal danger throughout. Grandmaster Helio Gracie famously wanted jiu-jitsu practitioners to be able to defend themselves with no rules, no time limits and no points, and he was willing to defend that principle in his own fights. No one can deny the effectiveness of the art he created.

When we talk about entertainment, though, we’re talking about something different. How many of today’s UFC fans would have watched Helio Gracie fight Waldemar Santana for nearly four hours? (And how many shouts of “Stand them up, ref!” would we have had to endure if they did?) This is fan mentality, and an unproductive one.

In a real-life situation, there is no referee to stand you up. If your attacker can’t escape your mount, that’s it: he’s stuck. That’s why, imperfect as they are, we have points: as a proxy to encourage fighters to achieve dominant positions.

"Point fighter ... non-point fighter. I'm the guy in the mount."

“Point fighter … non-point fighter. I’m the guy in the mount.”

Again, I’m not defending the get-an-advantage-and-stall style of sport jiujitsu that has rendered many matches unwatchable. It’s fine to want to create a sport that is exciting for the viewer. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a sport competition for entertainment is a totally different thing, with a totally different purpose, than self-defense jiu-jitsu.

The fact is that excitement is often in tension with safety. A fighter that is always going rapid-fire for the finish is a thrilling thing to watch. That strategy isn’t usually optimal for that fighter’s safety, however. And jiu-jitsu isn’t just for young competitive athletes who can wow the crowd with their skills: it’s also for older people like me, who of necessity must take greater care.

My ideal jiu-jitsu is jiu-jitsu that maximizes my safety in all situations. I feel like focusing first on position, and taking the time to secure positional control before I even think about the tap, stands the best chance to do this in most cases.

So: what do you think?

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About Jeff

I write, work for social justice, listen to music and grapple. That's about it for now.

5 responses to “In Defense Of Point Fighting

  1. ranardbrown ⋅

    good read!

  2. I get what you are saying about positional dominance being at the core of jiu-jitsu… But so is self defence. And self-defence does not necessitate positional dominance, though it helps. Helio Gracie famously told people “you won’t beat me”, but never “I will beat you” — he focused entirely on being able to defend yourself, even in the worst positions.

    The simple fact of the matter is that I have no problem at all sitting in somebody’s mount all day long if all they are going to do is sit on me. That means nothing. If they have the guts to actually try jiu-jitsu, which means opening up a little to try submissions, THEN the positional game comes into play because now it MATTERS that I get out of that position and into a better one — and I probably will. Dudes that just flatten you out and sit there aren’t fighting, and you aren’t losing except on paper.

  3. Jeff

    I see your point, and you raise a good point about Helio and surviving bad positions (especially training).

    I’d make a couple of distinctions, though, and both are related to out-of-gym self-defense situations. In terms of self defense, I’m not talking *exclusively* about achieving dominant positions, but rather being able to improve position for wherever you find yourself. (For example, getting up and out from under a dude who is hitting you in the face, or who has friends that are on the way).

    It seems like you’re talking about situations involving another trained person, and in those cases I mostly agree. Situations involving untrained folks are different, though.

  4. aiseop

    Excellent post. I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of finding a proper balance between what the art is for (self-defense) and the most practical and safest way we can prepare for that (in a tournament with someone our own skill and size). Excellent!

  5. point tournaments have instilled my desire to to achieve positional dominance through a hierarchy of dominance but at the expense of going for the submission at the risk perhaps of positional dominance.
    submission only, for me gets to the root of 2 man enter, 1 man leave type reality of fighting and the sheer stress of knowing you must finish to win and that just being on top or having the back or having more points doesn’t mean the match is anywhere near over. it definitely is the battle of will and grit at the sub only format.
    fighting mma also fundamentally instilled my desire to get off my back and get up if not sweep, because much punishment is meted out whilst in that position which is very much a self-defense type mentality for me, knowing that it’s not about the perfect sweep or a beautiful lapel-o-plata but just getting the *&^% out of immediate danger as quickly as possible.

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