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From A Fighter's Perspective: Gi vs. No Gi

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Below is a piece written by local professional fighter Jake Whitfield:

One debate that will never end within the jiu-jitsu and MMA communities is the debate over which is superior: training with the gi or training without the gi. Each side is able to state many examples in their favor but the basic argument breaks down to a few simple statements. First, gi training gives you better technique. Second, since you are going to fight without a gi, you should train without a gi. Both arguments have some truth to them and both have merit. I will attempt to examine the issue from a reasonable and logical view point.

Let us start off by saying that in an ideal world, a fighter would be equally balanced in all aspects of fighting. The dream fighter would have world class boxing, K-1 level kickboxing, a nasty clinch, Olympic level wrestling, and a Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Unfortunately, this is not reasonable. It would be virtually impossible to make the Olympic team in wrestling without training full time as a wrestler. (As an illustration, note that no wrestler has ever made an Olympic team after debuting in MMA.) So since it is not reasonable to actually be on that level that our dream fighter is on, the next best thing would be train with fighters that are individually on that level. Box with world class boxers, kickbox with world class kickboxers, clinch with stadium champions from Thailand, wrestle with world class wrestlers, and roll with Jiu-Jitsu black belts. GSP does exactly this and as a result is one of the three or four most complete fighters in the history of MMA. But once again, is this training schedule reasonable? Not for most people. How many people live in an area with even any two of those things? With Olympic wrestlers and K-1 kickboxers or Jiu-Jitsu black belts and world class boxers? Very few people are that fortunate. Hopefully at this point, everyone can understand my first point: what is ideal is not always plausible.

More after the jump:

With that said, in a perfect world, MMA training would take place with each individual discipline then be combined together at a later date. GSP and Rich Franklin are just two examples of fighters that have used this strategy successfully. The implication is that in a perfect world, you would train jiu-jitsu in its purest state before applying it to MMA. This would mean training in the gi. At most jiu-jitsu schools throughout the world, students will be first introduced to training with a gi. Why is this the case? The simple answer would be tradition. However, let's dig a little deeper. Every tradition begins due to some type of practical consideration. Oftentimes this practical consideration is forgotten through time, yet the tradition carries on. So what practical consideration gave birth to the tradition of training in the gi? The answer begins with jiu-jitsu's very origin. Jiu-jitsu was a Japanese art and in 19th century Japan, people wore kimonos. Thus training took place wearing a kimono. This tradition was carried over as the Japanese exported their arts throughout the world. The instructors felt most comfortable teaching and training how they were taught and trained, that is, while wearing a kimono. So then why didn't the westerners get rid of the kimono after branching out from the Japanese teachers? One obvious but often overlooked answer is hygiene. The gi or kimono makes training a cleaner and more hygienic experience by soaking up much of the sweat that would otherwise end up on your training partner or on the mat. A second reason is that even today the gi makes a good substitute for street clothes. It is January and virtually everyone is wearing some type of jacket and long pants. The gi is a great alternative to tearing and ruining your street clothes. However, gi training goes beyond the practical considerations.

Over time, training adapted to include the use of the gi. The gi can be used to choke, sweep, and control an opponent far beyond what is possible without it. And here is our first speed bump: by only training in the gi, an individual will naturally adapt to gripping the gi and using it to control the opponent. An over-dependence on the gi can leave a grappler confused without it such as in an MMA fight or a street altercation during the summer.

One answer to this dilemma is to completely put an end to training in the gi. The thought process being that by learning to control your opponent with nothing to grip, it will be that much easier if they happen to have extra clothing to assist you. And once again, this thought process carries a tremendous amount of value. Learning to control someone without anything to hold onto is an important skill to gain. So once again, the logical answer would be to put away the gi altogether. And this is a plan that many people subscribe to.

Over time, a person training no gi will develop a great ability to control the opponent as well as an ability to scramble away from danger. In fact, its not at all uncommon to see an athletic purple belt beat a technically superior opponent, possibly even a black belt. Does this mean that the purple belt is on the same level as the black belt? No. If you were to replace the gi, that same black belt would likely handle the purple belt with relative ease.

This brings us to an important point to understand: belt ranks have no meaning without the gi. When the gi comes off, the belt comes off with it. There's no reason for a belt ranking if there is no belt and there is no reason for a belt if it isn't being used to hold together a gi.

The original argument in favor of gi training is that it makes you more technical. Is this true? And if so, why is it true? And if it is true, does it matter?

Let's start with does the gi make you more technical? Yes. Why? Because the gi serves to level off other attributes. Strength, speed, and scrambling ability can all be limited or negated by controling the gi. It is not at all uncommon to see an athletic, no gi grappler regularly escape arm bars simply by ripping their arm out of the hold. Then this same grappler gets caught in an arm bar early in the match, before he is sweaty, and is forced to tap. Why did this happen? Because he never learned a technically correct arm bar escape. He became accustomed to escaping positions because of his athleticism and sweat.

I know for a fact that one of the first thing that Josh Koscheck did when he got to American Kickboxing Academy was to begin training in a gi. Several years ago I discussed this at length with David Camarillo, head jiu-jitsu instructor at AKA. He explained that Koscheck is an incredible athlete and 99.9% of the time, he is going to be the superior athlete. And likewise, 99.9% of the time that athleticism would allow him to easily escape bad situations and positions. However, the top ten fighters in MMA represent that 00.1% that will be able to match or exceed his athleticism, therefore they needed a way to FORCE Koscheck to learn correct technique. That tool is the gi.

In situations like the one with Koscheck, the gi serves as a weighted vest to slow the athlete down and make him easier to control for lesser athletes. This allows the athlete to train productively with a larger number of training partners.

So which is better: training with gi or without gi? The answer is... Both!

The gi does a tremendous job of teaching defense. Training with the gi gives the offensive person a huge advantage in his attacks. He can control your entire arm with one hand and your entire body with two. This forces you to become very skilled at escaping positions and submissions. Additionally, the gi will drastically improve your hip movement in the guard. When your opponent can control your pants to facilitate your passing, you learn the importance of hip movement and positioning to defend the pass.

No gi on the other hand drastically improves your offense and control. It can be very difficult to control an explosive and sweaty opponent without anything to hold onto. No gi training forces you to learn the art of body positioning and weight distribution. It teaches you to position your hips exactly right so that your opponent can not pull his arm out of the arm bar and to control the bottom person's hips so that you can pass his guard.

The best training method is a balance between gi and no gi. As the fight or competition approaches you should start to shift your training one way or the other depending on if it is a gi or no gi competition but you should almost never completely eliminate either one for an extended period of time.

But you might ask me "Jake, I'm not a competitor or an athlete, I'm just doing this thing as a hobby. What should I do?" I would say to you, do whatever makes you happy. If you want to train gi, then train gi. If you want to train no gi, then train no gi. Just ignore anyone that tries to criticize you for doing what you enjoy.