Jiu Jitsu's Granny Style

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Are there moves that are statistically better but are underrepresented in jiu-jitsu due to a cultural stigma? In Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Big Man can’t Shoot” episode of the Revisionist History Podcast, he asks this question about basketball. Specifically about shooting free throws underhanded, granny style. In the episode Gladwell interviews Rick Barry who shot underhanded. He asks Barry about the stigma of shooting granny style and asked if that bothered him. Barry repeats what his Dad had told him, “They can’t make fun of you if you’re making them.” They go on to talk about how underhanded free throws are a superior technique and are statistically more accurate, but nobody in the NBA will shoot them because they don’t want to be picked on. This got me thinking. What jiu-jitsu moves are being unfairly stigmatized despite being highly successful?

At first I thought of leg locks. In the 1990’s and 2000’s leglocks were highly frowned upon. However, in the last few years leg locks have lost a lot of that old school brazilian stigma. In fact there are even athletes developing counter techniques. Just look at Felipe Pena’s and Vinny Magalhaes’ wins against Gordon Ryan and Garry Tonon. If leglocks are surging in popularity and defenses are making them less effective, then they aren’t a high stigma, high success technique like granny style free throws.

Then I thought maybe something like a wrist lock would be jiu-jitsu’s underhanded free throw. But wrist locks aren’t that heavily stigmatized and aren’t wildly successful. Certainly leg locks were more strongly stigmatized than wrist locks. Wrist locks will always be a fringe move at best. They work, but you can’t build an entire game around just wrist locks.

Then I struck upon jiu-jitsu’s real granny style technique. Both highly stigmatized and highly successful, and with statistical evidence to back up its efficacy. Guard pulling. Guard pullers have been made fun of for years, called butt scooters, accused of not being able to defend themselves in a street fight, and roundly mocked for their inability to do takedowns. I contend that these accusations are strawman arguments. Why is the butt scooter made fun of and not the person fleeing the butt scooter? Just because someone chooses to pull guard doesn’t mean they can’t execute a takedown. Sometimes guard pulling is the better tactical or strategic move. Guard pulling is more efficient. A guard puller wouldn’t need to pull in a street fight. Takedowns against untrained opponents are easy compared to taking down a trained, prepared opponent in a tournament with points and time limits. If you are surprised in a street fight and find yourself on bottom wouldn’t you want to be versed in defending yourself off your back? The stigmatization of guard pulling and its practitioners is both unfair and untrue.


But, what about the statistical evidence I mentioned? In the 2012 world’s case study done by Jena and Tyler Bishop they noted that 49% of matches were won by the guard puller. 40% were won by the person who started on top, whether they achieved a takedown or had guard pulled on them. 11% of matches were won by someone in a double guard pull situation. If we combine the double guard pull wins with the single guard pull wins, the guard puller wins 60% of the time. This could lead someone to say that the athlete with the takedown game plan would win 40% of the time and a 60/40 split isn’t very significant. However, this is wrong. The 40% combines both takedowns and people who won despite being pulled on. This means that the number of people who won by takedown is less than 40%. Suddenly this is beginning to look much more significant. If you could win 60% of the time would you do it? [Reference: BishopBJJ]

This data is amplified in my own experience. I have two matches where I opened with a takedown. I lost both matches. When I started looking at the Bishop study and making my guard pull faster and more efficient I won 17 of 20 matches when I pulled first. I won only 2 of 6 when my opponent pulled first. I also lost one match where I got taken down before I could pull guard. My takeaway here is that I win way more when I pull guard first, I lose more when my opponent pulls guard first, and I always lose when takedowns are involved. Now you might conclude that I just suck at takedowns. I don’t think that is the case. I enjoy practicing takedowns. The takedowns I opened with took a lot of drilling and were successful, but didn’t pay off with wins. The takedown loss was a well timed ankle pick off my guard pull, this means my guard pull was sloppy. The fact is that takedowns are risky, take a lot of energy, and I can’t always predict what position we might land in. By contrast guard pulls are very predictable. I always know where my guard pull will lead. They are also very low energy. This allows me to focus on what happens once the match hits the ground. Takedowns against high level opponents require good set ups. This takes time. Time that could be better utilized on the mat working for a submission. Guard pulls require much less set up time. This means the match can get to the ground faster and I have more time to work for a submission. Pulling guard is faster, more efficient, and higher percentage. Why should it be stigmatized?

I also tallied the submissions in these matches. I lost by submission twice, both times when the opponent pulled first. I won by submission 16 times, all when I pulled first. All other matches were decided by points or advantages. This tells me that pulling guard=submissions. Why should pulling guard be stigmatized when it leads to submission wins? Submission is the ultimate victory in jiu-jitsu. Why does it matter how it happens? Do you want to win matches or look cool? If you want to look cool why are you wrestling in pajamas? I echo Rick Barry’s Dad, “They can’t make fun of you if you’re submitting them.”

Reference for stats: Bishopbjj.com

P.S. I compiled my stats by hand but it would have been much easier with Grapple.Ninja. Use it to track your own data and share your conclusions here or on on the forum.

P.S.S. If you're interested in learning more about this, listen to this podcast by Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) regarding Wilt Chamberlin and Rick Barry.