The Gi vs No Gi debate is one of the oldest in the history of Jiu-Jitsu, and can lead many newer grapplers into having a great deal of difficulty deciding which to choose when they first start training and competing. For those unaware of the difference it might seem as though it just boils down to the clothing worn, but that then forces changes in the way the game is played and even leads to different rulesets forming. The presence of a gi allows for a multitude more grips to be used and then has also resulted in entire systems of guards being built around them that are literally impossible once the gi is removed, Keenan Cornelius and his work on lapel guards is the perfect example of this.
It’s not just guards either, there’s a whole family of attacks built around using the opponent’s collars to choke them and several Judo techniques lose most of their efficacy when gi grips are removed. That doesn’t mean that no gi is more limited either though, because almost all major gi tournaments actually place artificial limits on the techniques that can be used instead. No gi is where things get really interesting for a lot of competitors as even the IBJJF has gotten on board and allowed heelhooks and reaping in no gi competition at the highest levels, something virtually never allowed in the gi.
What you end up with is what looks like two almost entirely different sports. The standing portion of them tend to look more like Judo with guard-pulling or Wrestling with butt-scooting, and the grounded portion has massive differences. Gi competition tends to involve more intricate setups and wider variation of submissions with the more reliable grips potentially slowing the pace of BJJ down, vs the lack of reliable grips in no gi that tends to make for a faster-paced match and the difference of rulesets that allows for a much heavier focus on leg attacks.
Gi vs No Gi Round 1: Self-Defense
You’ll hear arguments from both sides of the gi vs no gi debate as to which one is more effective when learning for self-defense purposes outside of just BJJ, but the truth is that there isn’t a clear winner here. No gi proponents will say that the gi is unrealistic because nobody wears thick and durable clothing but realistically, that’s exactly what a parka or a hoodie actually is. Bare in mind of course that if you’re thinking of defending yourself, the attacker’s clothing doesn’t need to be durable enough to have thirty minutes of sparring rounds, it just needs to hold together long enough for you to throw them to the ground. The same argument could reasonably be used against no gi, because you don’t see many people walking around in skin-tight rashguards and spats in the streets and getting proficient in escaping leg entanglements doesn’t tend to be a skill you’d need.
This round really is a straight draw, because self-defense is all about going against an opponent that is likely untrained. At that point, any form of grappling experience is a measurable benefit and it doesn’t matter if you’re grabbing a hold of their hoodie or fishing for an underhook, they still won’t have a clue how to stop you.
Round 2: MMA
For many people, training BJJ is just a means to an end and because that end is MMA competition, the answer to the gi vs no gi debate seems straightforward to them. After all, MMA is always performed without a gi and there’s no grabbing of the clothing allowed so focusing on no gi exclusively does make sense at first glance. However, there are several elite MMA competitors like Demian Maia and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza who have never stopped training in the gi regardless of the fact that they started competing exclusively without it. John Danaher himself actually believes that training in the gi helps improve defensive reactions whereas no gi helps improve offensive reactions instead, so both have their own unique benefits regardless of how you compete.
With that being said, it’s worth noting that those top-tier gi competitors who move to MMA undoubtedly alter their training. They might not throw away the gi altogether but they certainly taper down their time spent in it, and Danaher’s own competition team specialized heavily in no gi throughout their time together. All grappling training is beneficial for MMA, but this round has to be given to no gi just for the more direct transference of skills.
Round 3: Jiu-Jitsu Competition
The final round seems like an obvious choice, if your intention is to compete in the gi then you should train in it and if your intention is to compete in no gi then you should train without it. But if you’re serious about your aspirations as a competitor then your choice of avenue might have huge implications for your career, because you would naturally want to choose the option that could lead to the most success. As it stands the most prestigious grappling tournament is undoubtedly the ADCC world championships, beating out the IBJJF world championships in most competitor’s and fan’s opinions. That’s an exclusively no gi tournament but specializing in that might lead to less opportunities for competition overall, as competitors then need to rely on being invited to superfight events like Fight 2 Win and Polaris during the years in between ADCC world championships, or attend the less prestigious IBJJF events.
Conversely, major gi tournaments happen several times a year. While the IBJJF Pan-Ams, European open, and world championships are not quite as prestigious as ADCC generally speaking, they are the most prestigious gi events by a mile. In short, success in no gi competition can keep elite athletes at the forefront of BJJ news and media all year-round whereas gi competition might be more sporadic throughout the year.
And The Winner of Gi vs No Gi Is…
Whichever one you choose! Seriously, weigh up the pros and cons for yourself and decide which one you prefer. There’s no real right or wrong answer for everyone and you’ll see this reflected in the feelings of some of the greatest grapplers in history. The grappling world seems pretty evenly split in terms of their preferred method of training and in fact, most coaches and retired competitors will continue training in both once their athletic prime is over. Most of the need for specialization comes at the highest levels of the sport, where ADCC world championship hopefuls might spend all of their time training no gi to prepare for the event, or those aiming for the IBJJF world championships might do the opposite.
Specialization is certainly not necessary for those looking to start the sport as a hobby, but it isn’t an inherently bad thing either. At the end of the day, which side you land on in the gi vs no gi debate and whether you choose to train in one or both doesn’t really matter, so long as you get on the mats.
you mentioned IBJJF Pan-Ams, European open, and World Championships as an example of gi competitions happening more often, but the IBJJF also organises the no-gi version of each one of those tournaments. If you look at the IBJJF 2021 calendar, the number of gi and no-gi competitions is similar.