To Gi, or Not to Gi, that is the question: Whether tis nobler on the mats to suffer the bow and arrow submissions of your opponent, or to free yourself from the grips, and thus avoid them. For the uninitiated, I speak of course about the age-old (though new to me) obsession, dilemma, rift, cold-war between those who would practice traditional jiu-jitsu (for the purposes of this discussion, by traditional I mean those who wear Gi), and the No-Gi grappling contingent. If you don’t wear a Gi are you practicing jiu-jitsu, catch wrestling, or something else? I will not pretend to be an authoritative voice on the matter, because half of the time I think that my professor might want to see me move to a corner of the mats and practice hip escapes for the duration of the class. (I might still be doing just that twenty years from now!) The only thing that I can offer to the discussion is the following question: What’s the best kind of music?
You could hardly argue that Classical music is not the best? Have you heard Beethoven’s 5th symphony, “Ode to Joy”, or perhaps Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries”? How about Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”; powerful stuff! Then again what about Classic Rock? Have you heard the in your face blast of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train”, the dark melodious thump of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, or the melancholy, introductory movements of “Stairway to Heaven” (regardless of possible borrowing by Zeppelin)? Then there’s the incomparable Jimi Hendrix with a little “Voodoo Child”, “All Along the Watchtower”, and my generation’s messiah, Kurt Cobain, accompanied by a little group called Nirvana. Now those examples are just a tiny sliver of the spectrum of great music out there, each with its objectively arguable elements that stand as testament to its greatness. However, you will find people that will stand on one side and argue that the other is without merit. And so it goes that there are those camps in jiu-jitsu that look at Gi practitioners as dinosaurs; curmudgeons wearing relics of a bygone era (the white Gi being representative of Samurai burial dress), while those sans Gi are looked upon as unrefined, unshaven wrestlers turned submission artists who sport shockingly ostentatious rashguards, and a plethora of tattoos.
The knock on Gi practitioners is that they hold on (pun) to quaint training methods that do not translate to the cage or “the street”. I can see where the first part of the argument might make sense where in mixed martial arts competitions competitors merely wear shorts and a smile, but I don’t believe that the assertion holds true for “street” (self-defense) purposes. I’ve never found the street where nudity was the norm, but if anyone knows its whereabouts please send me the exact address—for research purposes of course. People are usually clothed, at least wherever I tend to be in public, and any altercation will tend to involve clothed people. (No one wants to fight a naked guy! Point of fact taking off all of your clothes and chasing a would-be opponent might just be a great self-defense strategy—tons of YouTube clips on this.)
Coming back to the issue, traditional jiu-jitsu teaches you how to use your attacker’s clothes to your advantage not only for control, but as a weapon against them. Practicing jiu-jitsu in the Gi fine-tunes the muscle memory as to the proper hand positions required to play the notes. Collars, ties, sleeves, pant legs, and belts, can be harmoniously manipulated as instruments in a symphony of pain. This symphony will no doubt astound a tone-deaf attacker. When I first set foot on the mats, I certainly was ignorant to the fact that I could be choked unconscious so easily with my own collar. It reminds me of when I took my Classical music composition class in college. I was frustrated. My mind struggled to comprehend the diatonic scale, but I was moved by it nonetheless.
So what about the No-Gi contingent? What is the benefit of practicing that type of grappling? From my limited experience in both forms, I can see that No-Gi grappling is more dynamic than its counterpart, in that it is more kinetic. It’s a Jazz quartet playing in the chromatic scale, incorporating the typical seven keys of the diatonic, but leaving room to add color and improvisation. Once you have freed yourself from the bonds of the Gi, you can rely on your instinctual abilities to move, to flow. The lack of grips allows you to escape the clutches of your opponent more readily. You don’t have to worry about the collars, the sleeves, or the pant legs, but your opponent shares the same advantages, and so you have to develop different patterns to create your choke, arm-bar, and leg-lock compositions. Its free-flow brings with it its own complicated techniques that are no less difficult to master than the classical Gi hits.
My points are nothing controversial. There are many grapplers who appreciate both Gi and No-Gi for what they are, and for what each can bring to the practice of the other. Ask someone what the best kind of music is. When they give you the answer ask them if they listen to anything else. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t. This is undoubtedly the case in jiu-jitsu. We all have our favorites, but variety strikes different chords that add to the richness of our experience. Both types are poetry in motion. And what is poetry, but a song in words?
It has been too long since I’ve listened to a little Wynton Marsalis, so let me just pop in my earbuds. Oh, and next week I’ll get back to the mats without the Gi.
© J. Manuel Writes