Who is the best…?

Who is the best of all time?  Who is the current pound-for-pound king?

Who is the best finisher?  The best at takedowns and throws?  The best guard passer?  Who is the best INSERT INSTRUCTOR NAME’s black belt?

The questions go on and on, as does the debate.  Is Marcelo better than Leo or Terere?  Who’s the competition king – Cobrinha or Royler?  Roger or Rickson?  And while passions run deep in any sport, they seem to run especially deep in Brazilian Jiujitsu.  Theoretical debates flare up into heated arguments which become personal.  Peruse any BJJ forum, and you might read something like this.

Rickson’s the best?  You’re a nuthugger.  …Rickson’s not the best?  Why don’t you say that to his face?  …My cousin’s neighbor’s grandmother’s dogwalker who trains at such-and-such school says that INSERT NAME destroys visiting black belts on a daily basis.  With his hands and feet bound.  For real.  He trains there!  So fuck you!

A competitive sport’s first child, even before a fan base, is the question: who is the best?  It makes sense.  The point of competition is to determine who is better given a benchmark, whether relative or absolute.  But these debates are meaningless exercises without agreed-upon criteria.  They are vulnerable to prejudice.  You might lean towards a certain competitor because you train under the same banner.  Or you’ve seen more of his/her matches and so your mental database has a disproportionate sense of their body of work relative to another person.  Or you like fancy, shiny things and so if there isn’t a cutting edge sweep-to-back-take involved, then you just don’t identify what you see as greatness.

However, these debates don’t have to be meaningless.  In fact, I would argue, that for our sport to grow, we need agreed upon criteria to frame these debates.  And the building block of criteria is data.

The major pro sports religiously define, record, and archive stats, which are the numerical representations of some skill, quality, or achievement.

If you take a look at the body of work [read: the numbers] of Michael Jordan compared to Kobe Bryant or Lebron James, it’s hard to argues against MJ being the better player.

Stats provide a way to measure in a manner that can be disputed and fact checked.  It’s verifiable, and thus, less prone to prejudice.

If we kept stats on each guard pass, each takedown, each submission, gradually, a picture would develop, enabling us to determine things like the best guard passer.  (I might posit that the best guard passer is the competitor who has the best overall guard passing percentage AND is the most proficient at passing on both sides.)

I admit it.  Stats can’t completely resolve the debate.  Nuances matter.  Does being the best mean having the best winning percentage?  How does the submission percentage factor in?   What about point margin over opponents – should this be factored into the equation?  Are clutch performers, who win when winning matters most, when the stakes are highest and the pressure most palpable, better than overall winners?  Is winning your weight division in the 70s quite as impressive as winning today, when the density of competition talent is greater and each of the competitors follows an athletic training regimen superior to that of a generation before?

While nuances keep the debate interesting and open to interpretation, statistics and data will establish the parameters so that we as a community are not arguing out of pride and emotion, but from a position of intelligence.  In addition, I would argue we owe it to the generation of practitioners ahead of us to provide a legacy they can build on and we owe it to the competitors of today who might not grab the headlines but, when the numbers are allowed to speak their part, offer greatness to our beloved sport.

And so I issue a challenge.  I challenge the IBJJF and the ADCC, the most prestigious tournament circuits today, to define what metrics to measure and to create (or find) the tools which will allow them to measure those metrics.

Call Carlinhos.  Call the Sheik.  Let them know we want to take the sport to the next level.