From L to R: Rafael Lovato Jr., Alexandre Ribeiro, Braulio Estima, Renzo Gracie, Luca Atalla. Via Lovato Jr's Twitter.
A possible future of the competitive Brazilian jiu jitsu world has been shown to us at the 2012 Abu Dhabi World Professional Championships. This vision of the forthcoming is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and it relies upon the benevolence of a single very rich backer, but this could be what the biggest events of the sport look like in a decade.
The 2012 World Pro is a gi-based Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament sponsored by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nayhan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, one of the component states of the United Arab Emirates. The tournament was begun roughly three years ago and in terms of competition level, the World Pro rivals the very best tournaments ever held. The cash prizes offered to the winners of the higher belt divisions have a great deal to do with that competitiveness though.
The big winner of the 2012 World Pro is undoubtedly Rodolfo Vieira Srour, who had one of the finest years anyone in competitive grappling has ever had in 2011. Rodolfo won the Open Weight division by beating Andre Galvao on points, and his own -100 kg division by armbarring Roberto "Tussa" Alencar. In a gi, it is very, very difficult to beat the young Brazilian right now and nobody currently competing seems to be able to deter Vieira much from taking them down and passing guard. His command of timing, manacle-like hands and very mobile footwork for a big man make him a grappling nightmare to deal with.
The Open Weight runner-up, Andre Galvao, may be a name some recognize from his brief time in Strikeforce or as the reigning ADCC open weight champion. Galvao won his -94 kg division handily and managed to beat Xande Ribeiro (perhaps the most decorated grappler alive right now) in the semi-finals of the open weight before losing to Vieira on points.
Of the matches I have seen, I would consider this -74 kg finals match the most interesting from a pure sport jiu jitsu standpoint. Satoshi is a new face on the competitive black belt scene who now lives in Japan and combines a very movement-based guard game with a difficult to dislodge top game. Lucas Lepri has won quite a few tournaments over the last few years (including a Mundials title in 2007) and is one of the mainstays of the Alliance machine in Atlanta. The match is very narrowly decided and features some wild guard work from both grapplers.
The rest of the results will be below the jump.Men's Brown & Black Belts:
-64 kg champion: Thiago Barreto, Points victory over Fernando Vieira
-70 kg champion: Samuel Canquerino, Points victory over Isaque Paiva
-76 kg champion: Roberto Satoshi, Points victory over Lucas Lepri
-82 kg champion: Claudio Calasans, Points victory over Lucas Leite
-88 kg champion: Andre Galvao, Collar choke from the back on Vitor Toledo.
-94 kg champion: Rodolfo Vieira, Armbarred Roberto "Tussa" Alencar
-100 kg champion: Xande Ribeiro, Points victory over Bernardo Faria
+100 kg champion: Marcus Buchecha Almeida, Footlocked Antonio Braga Neto
Open Weight: Rodolfo Vieira, Points victory over Andre Galvao
Women's Purple, Brown & Black Belts:
-54 kg champion: Nyjah Easton, Points victory over Samara Reis
-60 kg champion: Michelle Nicolini, Footlocked Kyra Gracie
-66 kg champion: Luanna Alzuguir, Points victory over Luiza Monteiro
-72 kg champion: Fernanda Mazelli, Points victory over Jessica Oliveira
+72 kg champion: Gabi Garcia, Points victory over Maria Malyjasiak
Open Weight: Gabi Garcia, Points victory over Beatriz Mesquita
Most of these names are the familiar names grappling devotees have seen for years. However, Lucas Lepri beating Leandro Lo and Roberto Satoshi passing the guard of Davi Ramos are minor upsets. Satoshi is perhaps the only person here who really came from an outlier gym - although having four other brothers who are black belts helps some considerable amount. In the women's side, Bia Mesquita making it to the finals of the open weight is either an incredible story of a very small, yet insanely talented grappler, a seeding imbalance or some combination of both.
The missing notables made a small list, but running them down shows that most either had a good excuse or are now focused on other projects. Marcelo Garcia apparently hurt his collarbone snowboarding and sat out the qualifications process and World Pro. The Mendes brothers competed in the qualifiers, but chose to forgo the World Pro in favor of the Mundials in June. Bruno Malfacine and Cobrinha did the same. Kron Gracie did not qualify for the World Pro, as Zak Maxwell beat him in the San Diego Trials. Gilbert Burns decided to work with Vitor Belfort on the TUF Brazil set and focus on his own MMA development. Sergio Moraes was a contestant on TUF Brazil (No spoilers are to be found here!). Roger Gracie released news of his impending drop to middleweight and then went on a seminar tour out to Singapore and other far-off places. Braulio Estima is also working on his MMA career and is hoping to super-charge things by meeting Nick Diaz in a one-shot grappling match soon.
Also, Jordon Schultz has a pretty good look at Galvao vs. Xande in terms of the Leg Weave Pass.
The Future of the Sport:
One of the problems of sport is the tendency of the big professional leagues to claim a world championship in something that is plainly not. Do Major League Baseball teams play Cuban, Dominican or Puerto Rican teams? In Brazilian jiu jitsu, a world championship has a closer claim to true fact - although the money required to travel to the location of the World Championships, often called the Mundials, may deter some of the less affluent or financially successful grapplers from entering. People from all over the planet enter the Mundials, the Pans and other tournaments and despite the continued dominance of Brazilian athletes, athletes living in or originating from other countries regularly win.
The explosion of submission grappling as a global sport means that divisions are deeper than ever. The 2011 Mundials had adult blue belt divisions of over 130 men. Just about anyone who pays the tournament registration fee can compete - and the tournaments get longer and denser as time goes on. A breaking point is starting to be reached in terms of the current big organizations' abilities to handle these numbers of competitors. People in the lower belt levels are regularly getting lost as brackets are reshuffled, the mats are run in a haphazard manner and even the black belts are starting to see strains in officiating and time spent waiting and waiting. Further compounding things is the arbitrary decisions of tournament organizers to award this prize or that victory for reasons not transparent to all. This happens often enough that the BJJ world regularly accuses the referees and organizers of having biases this way or that way and nearly everyone believes them.
The obvious solution is to run qualifying tournaments - as the World Pro now does - but that takes a certain level of financial backing that is not yet available to the self-sustaining tournaments. The growing pains either have to be suffered through or a financial backer found. However, the way the World Pro does things with its globe-spanning Trials process combines the best of the freestyle wrestling and judo worlds. A limited amount of grapplers are able to win entrance into the April main tournament and more than one person per country can be entered, so the best of the best truly are able to compete. At the same time, the competition levels are so high that gaining entrance to the World Pro requires that one be training BJJ or other grappling arts as a full time job. Almost all of the competitors in this tournament are poised on a razor's edge between "Boom or Bust". The prize money helps, but only a few can win those medals and only a few will turn those medals and prizes into anything resembling a profitable career.
The grappling magazines and sites across the internet were mostly following along thanks to a select few having the wherewithal or the event budgets to attend and the blessings that the organizers were smart enough to sell live streams online. It is still nigh upon impossible for sites to make much money off grappling news alone, so sponsorship remains the domain of clothing/gi companies and whatever other sponsors grapplers can pick up. As those who pay attention to MMA sponsorship can attest, this type of grab-bag sponsorship can work out for some and really trouble others. There really is a "rich get richer" effect, although there is considerably more altruism present in the jiu jitsu world than there is in MMA (probably a function of there being less money at stake).
The pros and cons of both approaches are many, although the UAE does seem to be getting around the risk of a single backer by instituting BJJ in school physical education programs, importing skilled instructors and heavily incentivizing local grapplers to train very hard and win big tournaments. The Brazilians and the adopted Westerners or home-grown Westerners still win almost everything though. The head starts they have and the relative affluence of Western nations allow for people to train harder and specialize much more than in the nations where BJJ is still new or the people actually have to work for a living.
This is one vision of the future. The IBJJF seems firmly determined to hold their course of not paying any prizes to winners and to ban certain techniques now and then. Other grappling competitions with different rules or similar rules now exist, but may never catch on to the degree that the IBJJF did or attract the backers like the ADCC or World Pro have done. Right now, a slow attritionist battle is being fought to determine which tournament model wins out and right now, the IBJJF is losing ground - as it rightly should.
The gold standard for grappling tournaments remain the freestyle world championships and Olympic events. So long as the premier events of the Brazilian jiu jitsu competitive world cannot hold a candle to these tournaments, the sport will have no real shot at being an Olympic sport in its own right. Perhaps we will be treated to it as a demo sport when we watch the opening ceremonies of Rio 2016.
As a reminder that these BJJ athletes are finally competing for more than pride and prestige, this publicized prize money table shows that Rodolfo Vieira had at least 38k going his way for the double gold medals and possibly more in future earnings will be added to his career. This is one positive about this event and hopefully, Rodolfo takes this boost and flies even higher into the jiu jitsu stratosphere.