Kevin Gallagher


Guard passing is an essential element of any serious jiu-jitsu practitioner’s game. However, despite many prominent members of the professional jiu-jitsu community recently marketing DVDs promoting their passing systems, there is still a recognizable lack of interest in becoming a formidable guard passer amongst academy students.

Professional jiu-jitsu has become a serious business. Now complete with high-dollar matchmakers and star athletes exhibiting all the traits expected from their newfound fame and fortune. So, as the sport grows to these new, previously never before seen heights, many purists are torn between the newfound interest in their passion and the necessary steps needed to make professional jiu-jitsu cards the spectator-friendly, pay-per-view events they have become. 

Admittedly, like many of the elders of the art, I am constantly torn between watching jiu-jitsu explode over these last few years and seeing the often cringe-worthy interactions between its stars hyping a match.

Saturday’s knockout defeat at Dustin Poirier’s hands seems to answer many questions concerning Conor McGregor and his legacy. The former two-division champion turned business mogul from Ireland captivated our interests for the last half-decade, and seeing it all come crashing down around him engulfed me in an emotional mix of cathartic schadenfreude and painful disappointment. The McGregor circus was finally leaving town.  

The Masters World Championships is the tournament that always showcases the best qualities the art of Jiu-Jitsu has to offer. The competitors are past their primes, so there are no egocentric misconceptions about who the greatest grappler on the planet is or Instagram callouts to get rich off sponsorship money. They are only here because they love to compete in Jiu-Jitsu.

There is purity in that intent when a few thousand old dudes and gals from around the globe show up just to see who is the best for a chance to be called a World Champion. It echoes back to the Bushido codes of honor that often get lost in the spotlight of the adult division and pro Grappling circuit. This year’s competition held up to that same standard despite Covid-19 dampening the turnout.

I was walking the auditorium floor and breathing in the excitement pulsating in the atmosphere while coaching competitors, occasionally stopping to watch an interesting match or catch up with a friend, when a longtime Jit’s brother and recent Black Belt appointee pointed out a particularly interesting matchup.

A few mats over, there was a super heavyweight division Black Belt match going on. But one of the competitors was clearly not a super Heavyweight. 

I walked over to inspect because I automatically assumed it was an absolute division and was shocked to read on the monitor that my friend had been correct. It was, in fact, a Super HeavyWeight Finals match.

The mentioned out of place grappler was Marcos da Matta, “Parrumpinha” by his Brazilian nickname.

His story captivated me. What set of circumstances lead to this scenario? He had obviously chosen to compete at this weight class, and I would learn later that at 5’4” and 167, he was sometimes outweighed by 75-100 pounds. Why would he put himself at such a weight disadvantage?

To understand the answers to these questions, we have first to understand a little about this Carlson Gracie Black Belt from Copacabana. 

Marcos da Matta grew up like any young boy from Rio. He wanted to be a soccer player. So, he spent most of his childhood playing soccer and foot volley. But Master Carlson took notice of him on the streets near his academy while teaching in the same burg and finally convinced Marcos to start training BJJ at age 14. 

He quickly became one of Carlson’s best competitors, winning a World title at purple belt in ’96 and later under a new affiliation with Brazilian Top Team won titles in the Brazilian Nationals, Pan Am championships, and the Worlds at Black Belt.

In 2002, at the request of his fellow teammate and BJJ legend Ricardo Liborio, Marcos moved to Miami to teach the Jiu-Jitsu program at the now-famous American Top Team academy. He spent many years after the move focusing on an impressive MMA career until, around 2015, he got the urge to get back into the competitive BJJ circuit in the States.

Now over 40 and still fighting at featherweight, there never were any competitors at the Masters divisions in his weight class. This inconvenience forced him to go up in weight to compete against bigger opponents continually, a struggle any grappler can relate to as challenging to handle.

As opponents get bigger, they get stronger, and even though Jiu-Jitsu is an art designed to utilize leverage to equalize this gap, strength still matters, and Marcos’s years of experience made him aware of this. 

So, determined to show the power of Jiu-Jitsu, he decided to go all the way up to the top and compete at super heavyweight, and the results have been successful. Since 2016 he has three bronze finishes and a silver medal in this year’s World Championship.

How can this be, though?  His competitors are all skilled, Black Belt grapplers. Why is Marcos able to defy conventional wisdom and continue to succeed with such a size disadvantage? He thinks it a question of technique.

Larger grapplers benefit from their size and strength while learning throughout the evolution of their Jiu-Jitsu Journey. So, it is natural that they utilize this god-given attribute while they are sparring. It is tough to control the impulses to “muscle” something that doesn’t seem to be working while the undeniable struggle of live rolling is taking place.

But the techniques of Jiu-Jitsu are designed around efficiency and when bigger opponents break those rules, they reinforce poor technique. So, even though it is successful for them because they are strong enough to make the poor execution work, they still get better at doing things wrong. 

Smaller grapplers not gifted with size and strength don’t have the luxury to break the rules. They can only do the techniques perfect for them to function. This “handicap” means they are training to execute every technique correctly at all times.

Marcos believes this difference in training focus gives him a unique advantage against the Superheavy weights. His technique is just better than the big guys. So, he can take advance of this when he competes against them.

While Marcos’s high-level Judo game and extra agility due to his slight frame have proven to be a nightmare for his much slower opponents, the crispness of his Jiu-Jitsu skill is undeniably his best asset against the Super Heavyweights he competes with. So, it’s difficult to dispute his claims. 

As a bigger grappler myself, I’ve often defended larger grapplers’ unique skillsets to debate against this school of thought. However, there is still truth in smaller grapplers having better technique, and the rationale comes from Marcos himself. “Technique is everything when I compete, and my Jiu-Jitsu works for everybody because it works for a small guy like me. I want my students to see that Technique is everything.”

So, in reflection on the Masters Worlds, I am reminded of why I love BJJ. When you see competitors just in it for the joy of being there, the purity of the art is beautiful. But, seeing a competitor displaying what Helio and Kano, both slight men themselves, had in mind when they designed and perfected it reminds us why it’s so special. Thank you, Marcos da Matta, for being a living representation of this universal truth. Your unconventional approach has done more to represent Jiu-Jitsu’s primary purpose than any medal you could ever win. OSS Professor. 

The debate between NOGI Jiu-Jitsu and Gi Jiu-Jitsu has raged since the early days of the creation of our sport with no sign of slowing down in the present. Many students swear their allegiance to one form other with cultish vigor supporting their choice of attire while training. In my experience with this topic, both sides offer equal amounts of rational talking points to prove their opinions on the subject.