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PGF, the Brazilian tap, and the problem of voluntary injury in BJJ

About competition, the most exciting thing that’s recently happened is the PGF (Professional Grappling Federation). The PGF is a league that Brandon Mccaghren recently came out with, and it’s kind of special, in that rather than being a single tournament it’s set up like regular sports with teams a draft and four straight continuous days of competition with a playoff afterward. There’s a lot of reasons why it's special—the big one that a lot of people talked about is the prize money—the fact that the five-person team that won got a hundred thousand dollars, which is a massive prize in general but especially within the sport of jiu jitsu. Up to this point, ADCC, widely considered the most prestigious tournament in no-gi grappling, has a prize of ten thousand. Another thing about PGF is that rather than having to pay to enter, every single athlete was drafted and paid a salary to compete for those four days, which is very unique and different in jiu jitsu. The two things for me I found the most interesting: It either purposely or inadvertently solved one of the current problems in BJJ, which in my opinion is people choosing to let their limbs break in order to attempt to win competitions. Because in the past, with no money at all in the sport, this happened a little bit less. As bigger prize pools are coming, people are willing to hold out and not tap to arm-bars, leg-locks, et cetera. Because if they’re ahead on points, they would rather take the injury or some damage and win the match. Now, how does PGF stop this? By having a four-day season, if you know you have three matches a day for four days, you can’t let someone break your arm or leg on day one. And so it makes the matches, in my opinion, a bit more honest, a bit closer to what jiu jitsu is like at your regular gym. Because in the gym, generally speaking, people don’t let their training partners break their arms and legs. They tap.


Even in the past there would be scenarios whether someone might get broken in the semifinals but with the power of adrenaline, athletic tape, and pain killers they would still be able sometimes to go on to the finals and even win with an injured arm or leg just on pure toughness and grit alone. However the chance of you doing that and continuing for the next two or three days and even into the playoff tournament, becomes a lot less practical and probable. If you watch some of the matches, guys were tapping a bit sooner. There will be people who get broken anyway, but the smarter competitors, the ones who won, were the ones willing to tap before damage was taken.


Don't get me wrong, there were some competitors who were able to go the entire tournament without being submitted, however they did so with solid defense and actually were safe, and I think this ruleset truly separates what is a good defense and what is just internal toughness and ability to suffer with a strong face.


A secondary thing I think is interesting about PGF is another way it takes away incentive to accept injury: the point system. You get only three points if you win a match via a joint lock, but you get six points if you win a match via what they call a “kill,” which is a strangle or anything involving the neck. This kind of answers the question and the problem everyone was worried about—what if people do nothing but leg-locks? Because the meta of jiu jitsu right now has been leaning toward wrestling and leg-locks for quite some time now. I would say there’s been a shift in the past year or so, but I think that it tends to be the fear that a match will devolve into leglocks shootouts and stalling, which can be boring to watch.


Which brings me to another feature: the stalling calls. The PGF has a unique system where, if a competitor is stalling for a certain amount of time they get a yellow card and will be reset in the referee’s position. This cuts down on one of the complaints about the wrestling-heavy lean of the current meta where some jiu jitsu matches devolve into poorly contested wrestling hand-fighting with little to no action. With the threat of being reset into the referee position after being warned, this causes competitors to push the action. Secondarily, during the playoff tournament, if a competitor receives four stalling calls within the match, their opponent simply wins if there is no submission. And there is no overtime. This is to avoid competitors gaming the system and simply stalling in order to win in the overtime portion—a widely critiqued flaw in the EBI ruleset.


Returning to the issue of leg-locks, in the past year or so, have become a lot harder to leglock. Gone are the days where you can just walk up to someone and just do a basic entry, a basic heel-hook. There still exist people that have these glaring holes in their game, but for the most part as you get to the higher levels people have at least a standard-level defense as they do for strangles, arm-locks, and the rest of jiu jitsu. Now there will always be specialists, there are people on a different level with their leg-lock game, whether it be their sophistication or specialization. I would say on the sophistication end it would be Davis Asare and PJ Barch. PJ in particular was leg locking the leglockers, proving very deadly from 50/50. However, on the specialty end two guys from the event had truly unique games: both Elijah Carlton with his Jabroni Spin, as he calls it, and Jett Thompson, a seventeen-year-old prodigy who was just killing people with Aoki locks, his own variant, not the standard everyone else does. Another beautiful thing I saw when I was watching this event was that because of the team element, drafting random people who do not train together into a team environment saw some cross-pollination that I don't think otherwise would have happened in our sport. And you saw one of the generally widely regarded heels of the sport, when AJ Agazarm emerged as quite a loveable character throughout the event in his mentoring and positive attitude toward some of the younger competitors. He’s one of the people I was referring to who was not submitted for the entire regular season. He proved that his defensive ability was more than simple toughness but actual skill. And so overall as a jiu jitsu professional and fan of the sport I had such a great time watching the event over the four days despite the fact that because I was in Europe I had to watch it at odd hours. I’m super excited for more. The final thing I would add is that the playoffs of the event were not done in the same format as the rest of the PGF regular season. They were done in a more conventional EBI rules tournament. It was very clear that the overtime element at the end of each match in the EBI rules favored certain athletes that did not necessarily do as well in the regular season but were just clearly better suited to this ruleset. And the tournament environment—high pressure, higher reward—as the winner of the tournament was not a member of the winning team of the regular season. I would highly recommend watching the tournament to see for yourself but the semifinals and finals matches were very exciting. I’m gonna try my best not to ruin them for you here.


To go a bit deeper into the origin of the problem of people’s limbs breaking, it’s a two part problem. On one hand, you have the competitor or person who either A, refuses to tap or B, attempts to feign a tap, affectionately called the Brazilian tap (well, not affectionately—it’s a fuck-you, a kind of sweet fuck-you) where someone would attempt to tap the opponent without the referee seeing and then have their opponent release in order to gain an advantage or victory. This caused there to be some famous matches in early UFC where opponents quote “lost twice” in one night where a competitor tapped out without the referee seeing, escaped, attacked their opponent again and was subsequently tapped out a second time. Anger about this, betrayal and disrespect led to the rise of competitors not letting go of submissions when their opponent was tapping until the referee came and pulled them off. Or in other cases, simply applying submissions at such a high velocity that there was no opportunity for their opponents to tap. To a degree, the former is still considered foul play, to continue applying a submission. However the latter, applying a submission at a high velocity has to some degree become standard at higher level events where there’s a high amount of prestige or money on the line. Oftentimes when discussed this is seen as an unfortunate but necessary part of the game due to the nature of the Brazilian tap and other opponents being unwilling to cede matches. The pause and sportsmanship of giving the opponent ample time to tap is often punished with the opponent’s escape from the submission, leaving competitors in an unfortunate Catch-22 situation where they don’t want to get a bad reputation but at the same time they don't want to be a sucker and lose a high-profile match due to kindness. (Some people do want that reputation of being dangerous.)


In a training setting, I think this is very easy in general. There’s not really a reason in the training room to injure your partner. Just letting go of the submission and then you can have a conversation and let your opponent know they were in danger. Or a debate scenario when they genuinely believe that you could not have finished the submission. This problem was particularly prevalent in early MMA days, especially in early Japanese MMA where there was a culture of Japanese fighters simply refusing to tap. Ever. To anything. Where it was well known that if you wanted to defeat certain Japanese fighters you would have to choke them unconscious. Which I think is nicely captured in the ruleset of the PGF, where strangles are worth more. Because they are more definitive, and given that this martial art we do is generally considered an approximation of combat, in a combat situation, choking someone unconscious is a more definitive victory than damaging a limb.


This all makes reasonable sense, and there are scenarios you have seen in both MMA and BJJ where competitors have had limbs damaged or broken and been able to go on competing in some capacity. There was the famous match in the past year where Mikey Musumeci broke both legs in multiple places of one of his opponents, who refused to cede the match, and Mikey ended up winning the match on a decision. And that competitor will most likely never be the same. The amount of surgeries and repairs he’s going to need are life-changing.


Here’s the thing. There will never be a way to completely prevent this. The genie is out of the bottle. There will always be people and coaches who say it’s better to let their joints and limbs be damaged rather than conceding defeat. However, I think that a ruleset and system that has a multiple-day format drastically cuts down on the upside for a competitor making this decision.



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