Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the most complex and interesting sports on the planet but really it should be considered two different sports, as gi and no gi competition have such stark differences. This wasn’t always the case though, and originally there were no real differences beyond the two outside of collar-chokes. The original Gracie family members tended to enter competitions in the gi and showed a clear preference for it when answering challenge matches. Not in every case though, sometimes they competed in wrestling tournaments had Vale Tudo matches without the gi. What they did never really looked any different though, it was the same sport really, just with different clothing.
1990s: Gi Competition Dominates
When BJJ competition first started to formalise and athletes from outside the Gracie family started to compete in large numbers, the gi was really the only avenue available for athletes. If you only did no gi back in the early 90s then you simply didn’t compete, or the only reason you were doing it was to become a professional MMA fighter. Back in those days many wrestlers who might have made the transition to Jiu-Jitsu competition never did, because adjusting to a gi was a pretty big leap. By the time the 90s had ended there was finally high level competition opportunities with the invention of the ADCC world championship, but the athletes competing were still primarily either MMA fighters or gi competitors who changed their tactics a little for one event.
2000s: No Gi Is Finally A Viable Option
The IBJJF were slow to get on board, but they finally accepted that no gi was the future of the sport in 2007 when they introduced the IBJJF no gi world championship. Although the competition pool was still comparatively small, the opportunities were finally there. Between the IBJJF majors and the ADCC trials circuit, grapplers could actually spend their entire time training no gi and compete several times a year at major events. Wrestlers had another avenue outside of MMA now, and they could transition to no gi grappling instead if they really wanted to. The money still wasn’t really there, but at least they could regularly compete and make a name for themselves in the sport.
Then, in 2012, the world of professional grappling changed forever with the invention of Metamoris. It took everything that people thought they knew about BJJ competition and completely flipped it on it’s head. Rather than tournaments that athletes pay to enter, people would actually pay to watch single-night matches between big names in the sport. Competitors now had their own individual value instead of the tournament itself having value, because they could each command different purses depending on how popular they were. This wasn’t immediately obvious and Metamoris might have just seen like a fun experiment at the time, but the impact this event had is clear to all now.
2012+: No Gi Becomes The Gold Standard
It was a slow creep at first, with Metamoris staging one event each year in 2012 and 2013. Then Eddie Bravo took lessons from the promotion and really ran with the idea in 2014. He created the Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) and over the next few years, the promotion introduced fans to some of the men and women who would reach the top of the sport.. This was the place where many viewers first saw top grapplers like Geo Martinez, Eddie Cummings, Gordon Ryan, and Garry Tonon. It also proved to the breeding ground for the leglock revolution, as people finally began to see for themselves the gigantic hole in most BJJ competitor’s games exposed.
This was only made possible by the IBJJF enjoying their stifling ruleset for so long, and creating a generation of competitors who didn’t understand how vital leglocks were to a well-rounded game. Because the opportunities for no gi competition were few and far between, those who did see the value in leglocks never really had much chance to demonstrate it. Now that there were major tournaments happening every few months and superfights on a regular basis, leglock specialists had plenty of chances to expose their fellow grapplers. The world of submission grappling was changing forever.
This is where the two sports started to clearly diverge and grapplers started to specialise in one over the other, prompting fans of each sport to proclaim one as the superior sport. Because certain competitors were specialising, it meant that there was only one way to watch some of them compete. If you were a huge fan of Geo Martinez or Garry Tonon then you simply had no reason to watch any IBJJF event, the relationship between the athlete and the promotion did a complete 180 degree turn. Athletes themselves started to realise that nobody cared about the IBJJF world championships for what they were any more.
Fans no longer watched certain promotions because of their name, and enjoyed the grapplers who competed. Instead, fans were watching specific athletes and following them to whatever promotion they were competing at. Gordon Ryan broke through every ceiling that anybody could have imagined existed in the sport and with him, no gi competition did exactly the same. With no comparable faces doing the heavy lifting in the gi, athletes started to see bigger opportunities in no gi and many of them transitioned to it instead. That left many competitors and fans to proclaim that gi competition was dead, or crawling along on life support.
The Future: Gi Competition Comes Back To Life
There were a few years where things genuinely did look bleak for the gi, with major events like ADCC 2022 dominating the news cycle and attracting more fans than any event in the history of the sport. At the same time though, there was a new movement starting quietly in the background. There was a new generation of top competitors who valued the gi just as much as no gi, and sought above all else to find the finish in their matches. A large part of this revolution is the incredible work that the Mendes brothers have done at Art of Jiu-Jitsu. While everyone else was looking at exciting no gi grapplers at the top of their game, AOJ was focusing on the children who might dominate the sport in years to come.
They developed the current king of the gi, Tainan Dalpra, who is already dominating the middleweight division with an unprecedented level of success. He doesn’t just win matches though, he puts on incredible performance that have viewers dying to see his next outing. He isn’t alone though of course, as Nicholas Meregali is also doing everything he can to lift gi competition out of the darkness it has found itself in by dominating the heavier divisions. The Ruotolo brothers, Kade and Tye, also trained at AOJ in their youth and are intent on putting on exciting performances no matter whether they compete in gi or no gi.
The revolution isn’t just in America either, with the young stars under Melqui Galvao leading the way for Brazil by excelling in both gi and no gi too. Diogo Reis and Fabricio Andrey are fantastic talents, while his son Mica has been outspoken about wanting to bring attention back to the gi too. Shortly behind these athletes is Cole Abate, who is attracting more attention to coloured belt divisions than many people would have thought possible, and the young star Helena Crevar, who is dominating almost everyone who stands across from her and succeeding in both gi and no gi in equal measure.
There are many fresh competitors promoted to black belt over the last few years who are leading the way for the revival of gi competition, and many more who will be following in their footsteps soon. Just like the popularity of no gi exploded thanks to individual efforts, these young grapplers are the ones leading the charge to save gi competition, and it’s clearly in safe hands.
For more of our opinion pieces on various topics, visit our opinion piece archives.