I caught up with Polaris 11 at the weekend. As well as watching several old friends and training partners competing, I really enjoyed seeing the brilliant Ffion Davies defending her title. Ffion is one of the most successful grapplers – male or female – that the UK has produced, and it was great to see Polaris showcasing her talent in the main event.
It made me reflect on how far women’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has come. This year is the 20th anniversary of my first introduction to the sport, and when I first started competing it was common for there to be no women’s division at all at local competitions – and where there was one, it was usually the same two or three women each time. Recently, in contrast, I had the opportunity to coach on the annual Female Fighters camp – an event run by former Olympian, IBJJF European gold medallist and GB judo coach Sophie Cox where more than 50 women came together from all over the country for a weekend of training in judo, BJJ and wrestling.
Watching several of the previous matches got me thinking about the scoring system can dramatically affect not just the outcome of a contest, but how the match unfolds. The introduction of submission only events in the grappling world was a game changer that in some ways incentivised a more open and dynamic style of jiu-jitsu, but with the drawback that if a competitor felt they were unlikely to win outright, they could try to stall for a draw. The early Polaris events used this system, but after Polaris 3 (in which every contest went to a draw) a scoring system was introduced. Unlike the points system used for IBJJF competitions where points are scored for specific positions or transitions, the Polaris system uses a judges decision based on submission attempts, pace and initiating exchanges. This is similar to the system used to judge MMA fights, where emphasis is placed on effective aggression, cage control and dominating the action across the round as a whole, rather than having a system of accumulating points for specific moves; but one key difference is that in Polaris the rounds are not separated by a break in the action.
In theory, this can make it harder for competitors to game the system. In an IBJJF match, one person may score points for a takedown and a guard pass, and then proceed to spend the rest of the match maintaining top position (while doing just enough not to be penalised for passivity). By rewarding the competitor who initiates the action, the aim is to keep matches exciting. In the main, this seems a good compromise – although in at least one match, a competitor clearly sought to avoid engaging following a good submission attempt. There’s a good piece here that looks at the submission rate in different competitions to see how ruleset may affect how competitors behave (though it’s always important to remember that there are other factors at play, such as the skill difference between competitors, and even the influence of the referee or the crowd).
Having competitions with different formats may occasionally be confusing for spectators, but I think it does the grappling world a huge favour. It prevents the sport from becoming too specialised. Looking at how international judo has evolved in response to rule changes illustrates some of the problems when competitors become focused only on one very specific set of rules; sometimes rule changes that were made with the intention of making the sport more exciting have in some cases had the opposite effect once competitors adjusted to them (more on that here). High level BJJ competitors who compete in different events – and sometimes even different sports (several of the competitors on the Polaris card are also MMA fighters), can’t rely too much on strategies and tactics that take advantage of a specific quirk of one specific ruleset.
Polaris has also been very successful in bringing BJJ to a wider audience and also offering grapplers the opportunity to take part in a superfight format rather than a tournament format. Although this type of event is now becoming more popular in the grappling world, Polaris stands out as being one of the ground-breaking promotions, both in the UK and internationally.