The Rollercoaster timeline of professional grappling’s journey has been an exciting ride. The idea of getting paid to compete in a Jiu-Jitsu match seemed unthinkable ten years ago. But a combat sports hungry society fueled by the desire to train Jiu-Jitsu over the last decade created a new collection of fans ready to be entertained by the masters of the art they recently discovered.
Professional grappling events began to pop up on Facebook feeds and small website pay-per-views just as rapidly as BJJ schools started filling. The sport of Jiu-Jitsu became a real thing, complete with stars and, in some cases, villains.
On October 14, 2012, Ralek Gracie, son of Rorion Gracie, legendary creator of the UFC, presented Metamoris 1. It was the professional grappling event audacious enough to gain status as the first of its kind, and the high production value and Southern California location gave this event the star power needed to garner the attention it created.
Most importantly, though, the talent stacked card represented the best names in the sport at the time. Roger Gracie vs. Buchecha, in a 20-minute sub only match, headlined this deep card, also featuring Jeff Glover, Kron Gracie, Dean Lister, and Andre Galvao.
The event also hit a few productional highs too. Everything went relatively smoothly. The pay-per-view feed held, and the stage and arena looked gladiatorial, yet posh enough to exhibit the elegance of a night at the fights.
They had a good run and managed to put on eight shows of the highest quality grappling in the game to that point until 2017 when complaints of money mismanagement eventually bankrupted the production. Ralek Gracie became notorious for not paying his fighters, which is unfortunate because he paved the road other organizations drive on today by proving that there was a market for professional grappling.
From those early days of the sport to now, many events have emerged. Some of them have lasted, but most of them failed after a few attempts. The few good ones remaining allow fighters to compete and show off their skills at arenas filled with cheering fans or catch themselves live on Flograppling or UFC Fight Pass.
These big-budget events have helped grow the sport, primarily by giving elite grapplers money. Getting paid incentivizes struggling athletes to train hard for these significant events. Just being able to make some extra cash to pay a few bills or a free flight and hotel room are often all it takes to help a young grappler continue to train hard enough to chase the next level.
EBI, F2W, Polaris, Kasi, 3rd Coast Grappling, and Chael Sonnen’s Submission Underground Grappling have pulled away to set the bar high for up and coming events to imitate. All of these promotions focus on putting out the most entertaining product on the market, and that is a tough job for a few reasons.
It’s time to have a problematic conversation many sport Jiu-Jitsu enthusiast might find uncomfortable. Watching Jiu-Jitsu is boring. I have dedicated the last 12 years of my life to studying it. It is the most important thing for my soul I have left, which is why it pains me much to say this. But, watching Jiu-Jitsu even at the highest level can be very dull. And I know what’s going on. I can’t imagine being some blue belt’s mom or girlfriend getting stuck at an event watching 15 more matches after the guy they came to cheer on finished competing.
So, in a quest to create a format action-packed enough to entertain the crowds, different organizations continually came up with new rules or styles. In the beginning, the debate was just sub-only or points grappling. But that wasn’t enough. Events further manipulated those sub-genres to discover who the better grappler was while also making an exciting fight card. It was the wild west for grappling as every new event tried to outdo the other with a fun new ruleset.
Those competitions helped create the now prosperous pro circuit, but the fallout created a divided community, which still causes chaos.
The cut-throat business of professional grappling is brutal, and promotors continue to make “improvements” to be the best. Unfortunately, the fans are starting to suffer.
Competitors are getting confused about scoring and making critical errors while trying to remember the best strategy for success. Odd judging criteria often leaves fans unsure of a victor even after their hand gets raised. Promotors fight publicly with one another over the mistakes of their rivals. And all this is happening while the sport continues to grow and the folks at home are trying to decide if it’s worth 15 dollars a month to buy fight pass or flow grappling to tune in.
The point could be made that controversy adds to the drama. Promoting fights needs people to tune in to the hype, and there is no such thing as bad publicity. But the purest in me wants to believe that we as a community can do better. Drama pedaling is a shallow well that will only yield water after significant rain. The real longevity of the sport will come from producing a consistent product, and that only happens with a united front from promoters in these early years of the game while everyone is still working out the bugs.
My love/hate relationship with the sport of Jiu-Jitsu is complicated. I benefited greatly from competing for a few significant events, and the notoriety that brought has opened the door for many opportunities. I also enjoy watching the greatest BJJ athletes get a platform to compete on. It lets me know that the art I love is growing every day. But I can’t deny that I am often disappointed with the sophomoric drama and silly mistakes that event promotors keep making in the pursuit of winning the market.
Maybe I’m a cynical keyboard warrior that doesn’t have a clue what it takes to put on an event, and things are fine as is. Or maybe I’m just jaded because I wasn’t good enough to make the big time as a grappler. Both are possible. But I know I love Jiu-Jitsu, and in my heart, I want what is best for it. So, promotors, just think about what a grumpy old man that couldn’t ‘t cut it has to say on the topic. There could be some solid advice there to build off.
Kevin is a 1st degree Black Belt under Matt Arroyo and an active competitor on the professional jiu-jitsu circuit.