Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training in the gi for MMA?

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training in the gi for MMA?

To train with the gi or not, that is the question. It is a debate that comes up in often among MMA athletes. It also a debated topic in the contexts of self-defense and even general recreational training for beginners. In addition to the good arguments for either side it seems like a bias along the lines of background (wrestling, judo, mma, sambo, catch wrestling, ect.), and even personality always surfaces . So to start with I’ll get mine out of the way. I’m a Jiu Jitsu Blackbelt under Renzo Gracie and have done a fair amount of competitions with and without the gi over the years. The Renzo Team is known for no-gi among the Gracie family although, Renzo and his top instructors all train with the gi often. The Renzo Team has also been very successful in Mixed Martial Arts with one current UFC champion (Wiedman) and 3 other former champions (Edgar, St. Pierre, Serra) as well as many other top fighters. Before starting jiu jitsu I was a wrestler in high school and then in college at Lehigh. I’ve also had a few amateur mma fights. I definitely preferred no-gi when first making the transition from wrestling and still feel that I am a little better against tough competition without the gi.

GSP Shawn Williams

George St. Pierre poses during a trainings session with Renzo Gracie LA’s Shawn Williams

Let’s talk about training gi in the context of current Mixed Martial Arts. All of the current UFC champions train at least occasionally in the gi. Current and former UFC champions that are fellow members of our Renzo Graice Team (Edgar, St. Pierre, Wiedman) all train in gi relatively often. This is an argument that most proponents of training with the gi use to support their position. To me as a practitioner and coach this is a compelling reason to look at/ consider training in the gi for MMA. It is not a complete argument though, because correlation does not always mean causation. The question goes back to: Do these champions owe some of their success to gi training or is it an irrelevant or even detrimental factor in their rise to the top? When I start to examine this question I think of the history of MMA and how intertwined Brazilians and particularly the Gracie family is with the sport. Because “Gracie Jiu Jitsu” was relatively dominate in early UFC and Pride fights, competitors needed to learn the techniques that were being used successfully. The largest source of this knowledge was (and to some degree still is) Brazil and the Gracie family. Jiu jitsu existed much longer than MMA in its current form. Its history and traditions, for reasons outside of the scope of this writing, have been linked to training primarily with the gi. This historical perspective tends to muddy the water a bit when you consider our question. What I mean is that maybe, since the very effective overall system  of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, are linked to a tradition that trains in gi (possibly for reasons not relating to the sport of MMA) then it is possible that the gi is non-essential or even superfilous. We are back to our original question: Does training with a gi on give atheletes and advantage in MMA?

A better framing of the question for our debate becomes: Is the gi an integral part of the system of jiu jitsu as it relates to MMA competitions?
My position is that it is. The reason is NOT that it integrates specific technique that work in MMA. Each combative engagement environment or rules set will favor and highlight certain techniques. For example in MMA the cage environment brings about techniques that are different form grappling arts such as wrestling or judo where no vertical barrier is involved. The gloves are another factor that changes technique. The reason I feel gi is an important part of jiu jitsu is that it facilitates learning during the training process. Being on the ground makes movements necessarily slower than standing movement and grips further constrain speed of movement. This forces athletes into learning position versus relying on speed. The term “position” is often synonymous with the term “stance” as it is used in standup styles of grappling such as Judo or freestyle wrestling. Of course speed is still a factor but because of grips, it become less so, at least after the grips are made. This forces a focus on positioning. Learning to get into and maintain good positions will increase grappling efficiency, energy use, and make attacks and defense more effective. Can you learn good position without a gi? Probably yes, but it is much more difficult especially if you are faster and more athletic than your training partners. A faster more athletic person will rely on these things especially when pushed in training.  As good position relates to defense of submissions training with the gi will force athletes to use body position rather than the unreliable slippage or pure explosive power to get out of holds. If the strategy is to test power/explosiveness against someone’s hold strength, then it is unreliable for the simple reason that you can never be sure of an opponent’s strength in a position. Using superior position is more reliable.

In addition to teaching position the grips generally slowing down the grappling gives people more time to process what is going on in a training session. Again you can slow down no gi grappling; I think this is an important type of training. It is different though than having a natural slow down caused by the grips. In gi training it is often slower but full power can still be used this give the training a different feel than purposefully slowing down training. It allows you to work on your timing while still allowing some pause so that action can sometimes be slow enough to follow mentally during live training. As a secondary benefit for MMA gi training increases strength and balance of maintaining proper position (often called posture) on the top position when an opponent is playing guard. The grips and lapel make it easier for the bottom player to put pressure on the top persons position. Added pressure makes the top person better and stronger. Another benefit of gi training can be to highlight mistakes if a coach isn’t present. It is harder to get out of many gi submissions so that you can more easily see when you make a mistake.

Although I think gi training helps mma fighters reach their full potential, I also think it is essential to train grappling without the gi. There are also aspects of no-gi that facilitate learning. Transitional movements are quicker so that training with no gi builds transitional speed and explosiveness. It also builds technique and strength for specific holds that work in MMA. For example using overhooks and underhooks are very important in MMA. No-gi training forces you to use these grips and build specific techniques off of them.

GSP Renzo

GSP trains with Renzo Gracie at the NYC academy

Another important part of this debate is if training with the gi is worthwhile for lower level fighters who don’t have as much time for training. This is a valid argument and really should be decided on an individual basis. Generally though I see lower level fighters are often basically beginners in jiu jitsu and/or submission grappling. This is the time that learning basic position and not relying on speed and athleticism is the most important. The reason is that beginners need to be especially conscious of position. Often times beginners don’t even know what is a good position in every situation. The gi show both the practitioners and their coaches whether they are achieving good body position. If someone has a good grappling background such as a division I wrestling career or high level judo maybe gi training may take a back seat to other training. This is a decision a good coach will make on an individual basis . The decision will be based on the athlete’s time availability, competition level, and goals in addition to the person’s background. It may be the case that the majority of a particular MMA athlete’s time will be spent on striking training or possibly wrestling training. The gi vs no-gi training will be another part of this decision. Here we have diverged from the general topic of whether gi training in general is important for Mixed Martial Arts Fighter.

Some of what I have experienced and observed personally about training in the gi is that is seems to have made me able to grapple with more control of my body. I’ve see this with others also. This also may be related to the sport or background. Judo players sometimes feel “rough” when rolling on the ground. Maybe this is because the sport emphasizes, as does wrestling, more explosive, generally larger movements. The negative aspects for the sport of MMA that I’ve observed in myself when most of my training is with the gi is that I loose some explosiveness.

As sort of an interesting side note, Judo players such as Rhonda Rousey have had success in MMA. Judo is a very gi oriented sport. Some techniques such as the knee osotogari (think of George St. Pierre’s throw of 3 x Wrestling all American Matt Huges ) are not usually seen in no-gi grappling or wrestling , are prominent in Judo, and now have showed up in high level MMA fights. The case of the knee osotogari shows that rules dictate a techniques effectiveness. In wrestling people keep a lower stance most of the time with hips back. In Judo it is more upright as it is in MMA. In Judo rules and grips allow a more upright stance. The inclusion of knee strikes make the MMA stance more upright thus in a no-gi environment a technique that is prominent in gi grappling gets brought back in and is effective.  In this case I’m not sure that there is an argument for actually training Judo or with the gi but it shows that techniques from them can be adapted. Maybe actually training these arts in a manner focused on MMA will produce better technical learning than training the techniques specifically in the MMA environment/context. I don’t have a conclusive opinion on this point. It seems that it depends somewhat on time and the training that is available to each individual athlete.

In summary I do feel training with the gi benefits most MMA fighter but it is also essential and probably more important to train without the gi. If an MMA competitor is only interested in competing in Mixed Martial Arts and has no interest in other reasons for training in the gi (fun, self-defense) then they can still see the gi as a training tool. As the sport and training methods evolve it will be interesting to see in what direction high level training centers direct their MMA athletes’ training and the results they get. Maybe there will be more focus on MMA specific training instead of so much focus on individual disciplines. Or possibly individual disciplines (wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai, Karate, Savate, Sambo, BJJ, Judo) that develop certain skill very effectively will still be practiced along with specific MMA training. This is almost another topic and one I feel less qualified to weigh in on. My argument here is for the gi’s place in fighter’s training regiments. Current Mixed Martial Arts necessitates training in many areas and also training that is specific to the sport of MMA.

I’d welcome any experiential advice and/or well thought arguments in favor or against my position on training in the gi for MMA.