10 Things I Learned From the 2021 IBJJF World Championships
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This past weekend, the IBJJF held its first gi world championships since 2019. I, along with a few of my teammates went out to Anaheim, CA, to compete.
Unfortunately, this time we came back with more lessons than medals.
However, that doesn’t mean that the lessons we learned aren’t worth their own weight in gold. Every time you compete in Jiu-Jitsu, you’re forced to evolve and learn new things about yourself, the sport, and your competition. This world championship was no different.
Here are the 10 biggest technical and philosophical lessons that I learned from competing in and watching the 2021 IBJJF World Championships all of last weekend.
1. The gi isn’t dead… sort of.
The number one thing that I learned from this tournament is that gi Jiu-Jitsu is still very much alive, especially in its hotbed of Southern California. Even with the explosion of no-gi competition during the pandemic (specifically, events like the ADCC Trials and Who’s Number One), the level of gi Jiu-Jitsu has not decreased at all.
Oh, and it’s still cool to do both.
Of all of the black belt world champions this weekend, just about all of them have been also active in no-gi competition not just this year, but even in recent months.
For a while, it seemed like you had to focus on either gi or no-gi to be a successful competitor, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Most world champions are doing both. Specialists still appear to be exceptions, not the rule.
2. Lapel 50/50 is Satan’s gift to Jiu-Jitsu.
In several instances, I saw matches that had the potential to be incredibly exciting become snoozefests because the athletes got stuck in lapel 50/50, and neither was willing to concede position.
50/50 makes the matches close, but it also kills action. Escaping lapel 50/50 is a risk that many athletes are not willing to take.
Obviously, the world finals are always going to be a game of inches. However, spending an entire match in the same position is boring as fuck. No one wants to watch stalling, no matter what is on the line. I don’t care if the black belt world finals—if you’re stalling to win by an advantage, you’re not a champion in my book. You’re boring.
Have fun building a career off of teaching stalling seminars.
For now, however, it doesn’t seem like there’s a good answer to the lapel 50/50 problem besides hoping that athletes are willing to concede position. I’m interested to see the evolution of this game in the coming months and years.
3. Lapel guards are still underutilized.
Keenan Cornelius pioneered the lapel guard a few years ago, and it seems like most athletes have still chosen to ignore the lapel game altogether. In my matches, I felt as if my opponents (very high-level competitors in their own right) we not savvy to the lapel game (especially the defensive side), and in the black belt divisions I noticed hardly anyone using the lapel attacks to do anything except to reinforce single leg x or 50/50 guards.
Lapels are still an untapped niche in competition. I’ve been saying this for years now.
4. Bermimbolos definitely still work.
A few years ago, there was a debate that "berimbolos don’t work anymore” in high-level Jiu-Jitsu because “everyone” is now aware of the bolo game and knows how to defend inverted back attacks.
After watching this weekend (and almost getting boloed myself in my first match), I definitely don’t think this is true. Berimbolo is definitely still a viable attack option, especially at the lighter weights.
If you’re ignoring the berimbolo/crab ride game in training and competition, you’re leaving a hole open in your game that will eventually be exploited. Bolos aren’t going anywhere.
5. This sport is 50% mental.
When I was finishing my weight cut in the sauna on Thursday night last week, my friends and I bumped into Jiu-Jitsu legend Cleber Luciano and one of his students.
One of the most unique parts about traveling for major tournaments is that during every single weight cut at a random 24-Hour Fitness, I end up meeting someone who’s far more experienced in Jiu-Jitsu competition than I am, and they always impart some sort of wisdom on me. It’s nice to talk with people who make you feel like a beginner, even after all these years.
When we talked with Cleber, he emphasized how important the mental aspect of competing is at a major tournament like Worlds or Pan Ams. At the highest levels, one mistake is enough to cost you a loss.
I experienced this during my quarterfinal match on Friday, which I lost via a referee’s decision.
6. Training isn’t everything.
This might be controversial, but I stand by it.
Most Jiu-Jitsu competitors train really hard, every single day.
Everyone shows up, everyone works hard, and everyone is fighting their hardest when they step onto the mats at a big tournament.
Training is important, but there are many factors that impact a competitor’s ability to win, and it’s not just about how hard you worked in the training room for the weeks prior.
For example, I only trained in the gi for 2 weeks for this tournament (I had been focused primarily on no-gi for months before), and I didn’t feel like my gi game had missed a beat. I was more than prepared to compete on Friday.
I didn’t lose because I didn’t train hard, I lost because I made a strategical error when defending a submission attempt that led to me giving up an advantage on a non-threatening submission attack. I fucked up in the tournament, I didn’t slack in the training room.
Here are some factors in Jiu-Jitsu competition that are not directly impacted by physical training alone: mindset, weight-cut, strategy, jet lag, pre-competition meal, competition anxiety, or the presence of a reliable coach/cornerman.
There are many other factors, and these are just a few. You have to train hard, but there’s more to winning than being good at Jiu-Jitsu.
7. Jiu-Jitsu is more popular than ever.
I’ve always thought of Southern California as the Mecca for Jiu-Jitsu, and every time I go to California to compete, I’m always impressed by the professionalism that the gyms and teams out there have in approaching competition.
The media coverage in Jiu-Jitsu is increasing every year, along with the talent level.
This year’s Worlds was small in comparison to how it’s been in years past, but you wouldn’t have known that if you didn’t obsessively study the brackets in years past like I did. This also doesn’t take away anything from this year’s champions and podium finishers. The tournament was smaller, but the level didn’t miss a beat.
It’s going to be wild to see where Jiu-Jitsu is in 1, 2, or 5 years from now.
8. Leg legs work… if you know what you’re doing.
I was concerned about using my leg lock attacks going into Worlds this year because it was a gi tournament, but I realized that when you get in on a leg attack, it doesn’t matter too much what type of clothing your opponent is wearing.
In the brown belt and black belt divisions this weekend, I saw a lot of different leg attacks. The heel hook isn’t allowed in the gi, but that didn’t matter. Many athletes were still able to finish straight ankle locks, toe holds, and knee bars in all rounds of the tournament.
“Why would you ignore 50% of the human body?”—Dean Lister/John Danaher
9. Gi and no-gi are different sports.
I know I said that “the gi is dead” earlier this year, and I know that that bothered some people.
Now that I’m back competing in the gi, I know that I’m never going to live that down.
The truth is that the gi isn’t dead, but it’s also not alive in the same way that it once was. The truth on the “gi is dead” issue is actually very complicated.
It’s more complicated than lapel guard, which no one still bothers to learn.
In the past, gi and no-gi were seen as sister arts. Gi Jiu-Jitsu was seen as the “more advanced” form of no-gi. No-gi was seen as primitive. They were “the same sport” with a few different aspects to each other.
This is no longer the case.
At the highest levels, the metagame in gi and no-gi is more different than it’s ever been. This is in part due to fabric, but it’s also due to the fact that in gi grappling, you have hundreds of different options that are not possible without the gi. The same is true in no-gi. The game is different in ways it’s never been before.
For now, it still seems to be possible to do both at a high level, but we might be one or two generations away from that no longer being the case.
10. Nicholas Meregali is the best black belt in the world.
I don’t have too many profound thoughts on the black belt divisions because I don’t think there was too much controversy that came out of this year’s Worlds, but I do believe that Nicholas Meregali got robbed when he was DQed from the entire tournament.
Meregali’s game looked smooth as hell during all of his matches, and his exciting, submission-oriented style is fun for everyone to watch. Victor Hugo (who replaced Meregali in the Ultra-Heavyweight final) also has an exciting, submission-heavy game, but Meregali beat Hugo fair and square (while flipping off some asshole in the crowd).
After Gordon Ryan won double gold at ADCC in 2019, he flipped off the entire crowd. This didn’t get him DQed from anything, it just gave him a cool picture for his Instagram account. I don’t really believe that it’s the IBJJF’s place to pull the moral high ground in this situation, especially given who else was competing in the tournament.
If anything, I would have preferred to see a fine taken away from Meregali’s gold medal prize money.
The punishment should fit the crime, and it didn’t here at all.
11. (Bonus) Nothing in Jiu-Jitsu is more fun than the major tournaments.
In all of my years doing martial arts and combat sports, I’ve never had as much fun with any aspect of training or competing as I have when I’m flying out to California for major tournaments with my friends and teammates.
I’m insanely focused on doing my best and giving it my all on the mat, but there are so many other aspects of the tournaments that you can only get when you’re in the venue watching, coaching, or competing.
The energy in the venue is different. The intensity is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The level of Jiu-Jitsu is ridiculous, the rate at which you can learn by watching and competing in these tournaments is 10 fold what you could get by watching on TV or competing in a smaller tournament.
Even if you don’t think you have what it takes to be a world champion, you can still get value from these tournaments. The experience you get from participating in an event of this magnitude and importance will make you more confident in all other aspects of your Jiu-Jitsu career, and perhaps even your life.
Plus, it’s fun as fuck. I laughed so hard this weekend that I cried more times than I can count. I had a blast competing and showing my hard work to the world. I had an awesome time watching my friends overcome obstacles and put themselves out there on the biggest stage in Jiu-Jitsu. It was inspiring.
I love this shit, and I can’t wait for the next one.
After Worlds this year, I sat around while eating copious amounts of sugar and thought “damn, I learned a lot of really awesome stuff this year, too bad there’s no place for me to write about it”.
I write a lot about life lessons on Medium and Quora, but there isn’t exactly a place for me to write about Jiu-Jitsu specific thoughts, lessons, and problems. Most of my Medium followers don’t want to learn how to escape from lapel guard or why Jiu-Jitsu has a steroid problem.
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