This is a guest post by Ben Thapa, part of the Bloody Elbow grappling coverage team.
The black belt divisions are always the big attraction at the Mundials. Here is where legends are forged in the crucible of competition and mini-fortunes in seminars and DVD deals are kick-started. Due to several key injuries and unfortunately timed MMA bouts, the divisions are a bit more open than we've seen in the past.
I'll go through them one by one and pick out the ones who have a cool story or some serious heat in their game. Note that the Brazilians have a habit of using their middle names as their commonplace last name. Marcelo Garcia is actually registered as Marcelo Garcia Vespucio. It's the whole Pele thing they have going (Edison Arantes do Nascimento).
Men's black belt divisions:
This is fated to be a duel between Bruno Malfacine (Atos JJ) and Caio Terra (Gracie Elite Team). Both guys have been tearing it up at their weight class, as Malfacine is the reigning champ and Caio's won the most recent Pan Ams at the next weight class up. Rafael Freitas (Gracie Barra) may play spoiler, but the grappling world pretty much wants the two hotshots to go at it in the finals.
Guilherme Mendes (Atos JJ) is the younger brother of Rafael Mendes and a true world class competitor in his own right. He finished second to his brother in the Abu Dhabi Pro and won the Mundials in this division in 2009. He's favored to win a second gold this year.
However, Ary Farias (Atos JJ) is a superstar in the makings with many, many lower belt titles to his name already and several high profile hops between camps. He was in one of the Arte Suave videos rolling no gi with Jacare de Souza (the Strikeforce 185 champion) at 10 or 11, a title winning purple belt by 16 and is now a black belt under Ramon Lemos, who won the 2011 Brasileiros. He might have the most potential of anyone in the division, but he's the youngest, so take that with a small grain of salt.
It's entirely possible Atos closes out this division, but with 33 competitors, it's sure to be a close-out earned through the high speed wars of the little guys. Pablo Silva (Gracie Barra) is the current champion and is looking to repeat. Last year's runner-up, Samuel Braga (Gracie Barra) should make a strong showing as well.
This is where Atos Jiu Jitsu's army of tiny badasses resides.
The various branches of Atos have six competitors in this division and almost all of the world's premier grappling titles reside in their hands right now. However, this division will probably get a ton of attention for a potential battle between two men and not for Atos's dominance. I wrote a fan-post about this, but hey, we can always recap.
Rafael Mendes (Atos JJ) is one of the five best grapplers on the planet right now and perhaps one of the most disliked too. The older style of 50/50 has largely given way to something resembling a submission heavy and near perfectly timed fugue state in which Mendes destroys almost everyone he grapples. He's won just about every title there is to be won and won them while developing a Federer and Nadal-like rivalry with the other true great at featherweight - Cobrinha.
Rubens Charles (Alliance) is world famous for his ridiculously impressive and acrobatic jiu jitsu. He's a legend in the sport and had ostensibly retired after meeting defeat several times against Rafael Mendes. However, he was prompted back into competition midway through the Abu Dhabi Pro competition and won two medals against much larger competition. Cobrinha's been training like a madman ever since and with Alliance's team at Leve being so strong, he may be able to return to the finals and battle Rafael Mendes in a heavily anticipated matchup. It may also be a possible ADCC preview, as Rafael and Cobrinha seem to be at least a nose ahead of the field at times.
Possible grapplers looking to spoil the awesome narrative: Tanquinho Mendes (Soul Fighters), who beat four Atos grapplers on the way to winning gold at the Abu Dhabi Pro. Ryan Hall (Brasa) has been competing all over the world lately and doing pretty well too. He may not have the skill and strength to break into that upper echelon yet, but he's always entertaining to watch. Wellington Dias (Gracie Humaita) has competed in every Mundials yet. He probably would win the Masters divisions, but he's still competitive with the young guys, so he stays in and brings as much game as he can.
Continue reading this preview after the jump.
With 46 fighters in the division, Leve is the biggest and perhaps the most competitive of the black belt sections this year. Any one of at least six or seven people could make the semi-finals.
Kron Gracie (Gracie Humaita) has dropped from Medio, perhaps conceding that he doesn't quite have the muscle to hang with Marcelo and Calasans. Being the son of Rickson Gracie, he's been expected to be amazing at every level and has mostly delivered. His recent Italian Open win showcased just how good he is.
Alliance has two strong, strong title threats in Michael Langhi and Lucas Lepri. I've seen Lepri basically run circles around people at the last two Pan Ams and Langhi has lost something like two or three matches in the last couple years. Langhi won the 2010 Mundials and I'm not convinced he's better than Lepri. One of the two is probably going to be in the finals. Kron may not be able to beat either.
The man that's beaten Langhi twice in a row, Leandro Lo Nascimento (PSLPB Cicero Costha) won the World Pro gi and the Brasileiros at this weight. He's on a hot streak and could continue that amazing run all the way to gold. Do not sleep on this man.
Celso Vinicus (Gracie Elite Team) is a tough, tough competitor who took silver in last year's Mundials and beat Cobrinha in the Abu Dhabi Pro. He and Davi Ramos (Atos JJ) are the potential spoilers and medal threats to look for. JT Torres (Lloyd Irvin) has a lot of hype and a good amount of success in no gi, but I don't think his gi game is strong enough to survive long in this division.
Fantastic matchups abound and the coverage should linger long on this marquee division.
This may be Marcelo Garcia's division to lose, but Claudio Calasans (Atos JJ), Lucas Leite (Checkmat BJJ) and Victor Estima (Gracie Barra, and brother of Braulio Estima, the reigning ADCC Absolute champion) will do their level best to win it. Kayron Gracie is injured and won't be competing this year, but the field is large enough and strong enough at 39 competitors for an out of condition favorite to be exposed and beaten.
But Romulo Barral (Gracie Barra) is! You basically cannot bet against Romulo in Meio-Pesado. Even if his surgically repaired knee is bothering him, he's still so good that he'll probably win this division.
Sergio Moraes (Alliance) is likely to be a semi-finalist as his game's too good to be cracked open and beaten by anything other than a phenomenal grappler. It seems like he's bulked up a bit to avoid clashing with Marcelo and perhaps to better support his Absolute endeavors.
Ian McPherson, the newly promoted Alliance black belt and possessor of legs you can't leglock, is making his big stage debut and is always a fan favorite for his non-stop action matches.
Kevin Casey (Rickson Gracie Center) is more famous for his friends - Spencer Pratt from The Hills- and for self-promoting to black belt when he was a brown belt under Kron and Rickson Gracie. After being kicked out of the academy, he seems to have patched things up and is competing. Casey also lost to Matt Lindland in an MMA fight last year. He may be interesting to watch in a trainwreck sort of deal.
Eduardo Telles (Nine Nine) is a legend in the sport for his turtle guard innovations. I don't know how he'll do competitively, but for the BJJ completist, try not to miss a match he's in.
Right now, the shining star in this division is Rodolfo Vieira (GF Team). He had an absolutely massive Abu Dhabi Pro tournament and won the Pan Ams division this year too. He's the trendy pick, but there are other grapplers who could beat him.
Bernardo Faria (Alliance) is on form and looks to be contending for at least one medal. The kerfluffle in the Italian Cup final with Romulo served to mask a little bit how good his game is.
Rafael Lovato Jr. (Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu) is an American jiu jitsu legend and beat Rodolfo in the Abu Dhabi Pro no gi division with some pretty sweet guillotine work. He could do it again.
Roberto Tussa (Gracie Barra) is the 2009 no-gi Worlds champ, but may not be as on form as Lovato, Faria or Rodolfo.
As Roger Gracie is not competing in Super-Pesado this year due to a unfortunately timed knee injury and Lucio Lagarto did not get a visa in time, this division is wide open. It is perhaps the biggest question mark in the entire tournament and is the place where rising talent will clash with the older established grapplers.
Bruno Bastos (Nova Uniao) hauled home a silver and a bronze from the Abu Dhabi Pro. However, almost everyone he grappled with is in the division below him. He may have moved up to seize advantage of the weaker division, but his game's very well suited to tournaments with a strong emphasis on keeping position and slowly advancing through an opponent's guard.
Checkmat BJJ has two possible medal threats in Joao Assis and Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida. Joao has been on the scene longer and has several significant titles to his name, but Buchecha has been winning a ton of world titles over the last two years. Buchecha is the trendy pick to win the title, but it remains to be seen how he adapts to the games of the others.
Antonio "Batista" Peinado (Alliance) is a newer name on the scene. He's won multiple Brasileiros titles in the various lower belt categories in his young career and you may know him as one of Dos Santos's coaches on TUF 13. Abruptly put - he's legit. Look for him to upset one of the established names.
There are 15 grapplers in the Ultra Heavy division this year and some of the usual suspects for Absolute titles will compete.
Rodrigo Cavaca (Checkmat BJJ) is the reigning Pesadissimo champion and gave Roger Gracie a heck of a fight in last year's Absoluto before succumbing to the inevitable cross-choke. His jiu-jitsu is very fluid and very good. Rumors of a hand injury persist and he may have a tough time dealing with that on top of the competition.
Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu (The Avengers) is perhaps the hottest name in the division, as his competition success is considerable, and he's managed to successfully play and brand his particular flavor of inverted guard as the "Tornado Guard". He's one of the favorites to make the final.
One of the surprises of this year's Mundials was to see the name of Marcio Ribeiro da Cruz (Marcio Cruz BJJ) on the registered competitors list. Some of you may know him better as Pe de Pano or the guy who smashed Frank Mir into oblivion at UFC 57. Pe de Pano's seemingly been around forever, but he's only 33 and has won the Absolute before and several golds at the Mundials. He's definitely a threat to win any match he's in if things are going well.
Braga Neto (Gracie Elite Team) just opened up a brand new school in San Francisco. He plays a heavy, heavy top game and won this year's Pan Ams. Braga's a likely semi-finalist at least and may take out one of the Cavaca/Cyborg dual favorites.
Jarrod Bunch (Werdum Combat) is an ex-NFL running back who unfortunately had a career-debilitating knee injury back in 1994. Like most ex-NFL players, he's got excellent arm and grip strength, as well as an unusual degree of "anti-takedown" ability. Think Marcus Jones, but much better and a bit shorter. He may not have the flat out skills to compete, but he's a tough out if he gets on top.
Unfortunately, Marcelo probably won't win. Size does matter when the skill levels are within shouting distance of each other. The chalked in favorites are probably Rodolfo Vieira, either one of Cavaca/Cyborg Abreau and Romulo Barral. But who knows - Caio Terra could surprise us all!
Like Marcelo at men's Medio, this is probably Leticia Ribeiro's division to lose. The Gracie Humaita fighter has won five world titles already and looks like the dominant favorite to add a sixth.
The big name is Kyra Gracie's, but the division isn't locked up already. There's a few competitors who can win it all, but other than Michelle Nicolini (Checkmat BJJ), none have really developed a strong international reputation.
Tiny division, with six competitors. Luana Alzuguir (Alliance) will win. Beatriz Mesquita (Gracie Humaita) will probably come in second. This division will get enormously better in about three years as the purple belts move up through the ranks.
Another small division at seven grapplers, but more open than Leve. My sentimental pick is Hilary Williams (The Avengers), who won last year and capped off an insanely short march from white belt to black belt world champion - and graduated med school. She also picked up Portuguese at the same time and might be the BJJ world's leading polymath at this point.
At the same time, Hannette Staack (Brazil 021) is the smart pick to win the gold. She's won pretty much every major title there exists in women's grappling and did not compete last year. This should be an excellent barometer of how far Hilary has come over the last couple of years. This is another division that will benefit greatly from the incoming numbers of future black belts.
Penny Thomas (Gracie Humaita) has dominated this division like Luana Alzuguir and Leticia Ribeiro have theirs. It probably won't be any different this year.
Can Lana Stefanac (Alliance) knock off the reigning queen of women's Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Gabi Garcia (Alliance)? We shall see.
It's a grim hope against hope, but if anyone other than Gabi Garcia wins this, I'll be surprised. Hannette Staack usually does well in these, but Lana Stefanac or Penny Thomas could be a finalist as well.
Anyone I missed? Let us know in the comments.