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Where have the jiu jitsu fighters gone?

Fabricio Werdum, the Interim Heavyweight Champion, is the only fighter from Sport Jiu Jitsu to have UFC gold around his waist. Meanwhile six current UFC champions hail from the ranks American folk-style wrestling. T.P. Grant takes a deeper look on why this is.

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Where have all the Jiu Jitsu fighters gone? It is a topic that gets tossed around MMA forums and in gyms. There a myriad of reasons that are given for the decline of BJJ fighters in MMA: gloves inhibiting grappling, shorter rounds, not training enough takedowns, judges having unfavorable views of the guard, or sport Jiu Jitsu becoming too unrealistic. While some of these factors are in play and are impactful on transitions from sport Jiu Jitsu to MMA, these are not the core reasons. It is not as if Jiu Jitsu fighters are not successful in modern MMA, Fabricio Werdum is the UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion, Jacare Souza and Demian Maia both are Top 10 fighters in their respective weight classes and multiple time BJJ world champion Gilbert Burns appears to very much to be a hot prospect for the Lightweight division to name a few.

So clearly fighters hailing from Sport Jiu Jitsu can fight at a high level, so why is it that some do and others don't? The answer is, by and large, athletic ability. This isn't to say Jiu Jitsu doesn't produce good athletes; it does. The level of athleticism among the elite level of Jiu Jitsu grappler on the international competition circuit is higher than ever before as strength and conditioning is a bigger part of training. And, as mentioned, there are outstanding athletes that take up Jiu Jitsu and excel in the sport, most notably Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida.

However, MMA is a far more aggressive, physical sport than sport grappling by its nature and it doesn't always favor the more technical over the more athletic fighter. There are myriad factors that contribute to success in modern MMA but it is well accepted that what wins at the highest levels is a combination of technical skill and athletic ability. For fighters looking to transition to MMA from another art, have a huge array of new technique and skills to acquire in addition to apply their old skills in a new context. That process is a difficult one and it often is the highest level athletes, not the most decorated, who are able to make that leap and find great success in MMA.

Sport Jiu Jitsu's root problem is that it does not have the infrastructure - an overlooked and vital aspect of athletic development - to consistently produce that level of athlete. For a variety of salient reasons, the sport jiu jitsu scene, lacks the structures that allow other sports to churn out physically talented competitors.

In both the United States and Brazil, Jiu Jitsu schools operate largely as private businesses. The vast majority of these schools rely on a student body of adult hobbyists to pay bills and keep the doors open. Of these student bodies only a portion compete, which varies depending on the school. And of that body of Jiu Jitsu grapplers willing to compete only a small portion of them compete regularly and will travel to do so. Those that are able to balance work and training, or eliminate the need to work altogether, can focus on becoming elite. Winning at the black belt level takes dedication, skill, talent, and athleticism but to simply take part takes the dedication to keep traveling and keep registering for competitions. And then of them only a small portion of them have any interest in starting an MMA career.

The numbers at the peak of the sport are shockingly small. Up until this year, the IBJJF World Championships have been open registration, meaning anyone with the rank of black belt could compete and even then a large black belt bracket is in the neighborhood of forty competitors, with small ones having under ten. And the large events, comparatively, aren't even that large.

The 2013 Pan Ams, which shattered the record for largest Jiu Jitsu competition in the world weighed in at approximately 1,800 jiujiteiros, for what is an open event which includes children, teens, adult, and senior divisions. Regional IBJJF events are smaller than the Worlds and Pan Ams, and other promotions host events with even more limited numbers of competitors. Let's compare that to another niche martial sport in the United States such as Fencing. The U.S. Fencing Association National Championships have fees and travel requirements similar for American competitors in major North American Jiu Jitsu events in addition to higher equipment costs and that they are qualification only events with a percentage of competition athletes failing to qualify to compete at any level.

Compare the USFA's National Championships to the 2013 IBJJF Pan Ams and the comparison is stark. According to the USFA's official website the 2013 Nationals had "nearly 3,500 athletes". And this doesn't count a separate event where the USFA puts its elite competitors who compete internationally representing the United States to crown their actual, official National Fencing Champions of the United States, removed from the other championships due to the competition getting too large. In 2013, that event also took place in Columbus, Ohio and according to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission the two events combined had " more than 4,300 athletes".

The fact that a sport, given an Olympic sport, with as little publicity and notoriety as fencing can field twice as many competitors with qualification only national events as open registration international Jiu Jitsu events should drive home the idea that Jiu Jitsu is still very much a small world. But fencing doesn't feed competitors into MMA, so it really only serves as a slightly tangential numbers comparison.

For a more direct and useful point of comparison on structural development of athletes let's examine the art that is the most successful at producing high level MMA prospects: American Folkstyle Wrestling. When compared to Jiu Jitsu and examined structurally, as a sport, wrestling enjoys several massive advantages. It is a very old sport - both wrestling and fencing were present in the first modern Olympics in 1896 - and existed and were practiced well before that in various forms.

American high schools of any appreciable size have wrestling teams and in 2014, the National Wrestling Coaches Association had the number of high school wrestling programs at 10,688, the highest it has ever been. The total number of wrestlers is experiencing a slight uptick of late, the peak of American teenage participation in scholastic wrestling taking place in 1976 and 1977 at 355,160 males in wrestling programs. Since the 1980's the numbers have steady to around a quarter a million high schoolers taking part in wrestling programs each year in the United States with total participation in 2014 set at 269,514.

These are high school programs so it is safe to assume approximately one-fourth of that number is seniors who will graduate at the end of the school year and that another fourth of that number is freshman who joined up at the start of the year. That means it is fairly safe to assume that in any given year there about 60,000 high schoolers joining wrestling programs and another 60,000 leaving wrestling programs, again this varies depending on the actual demographics of a given year.

These school programs are free for children to join, basically all of them are active competitors as there is no hobbyist aspect to scholastic sports, and all of the programs have access to varying degrees of strength and conditioning programs.

So those ~60,000 graduating wrestlers have 4 years, in some cases more, of strength and conditioning, grappling training and competition experience. The most successful of that graduating class can attempt to join an NCAA Varsity Wrestling team, but there is an extreme narrowing of opportunities to compete. While there are over 10,000 high school wrestling teams, according to there were only 329 NCAA Varsity Wrestling programs across all levels of NCAA competition in 2013. Those programs supported 9,613 athletes, with only 2,360 of those being at the Division I level. And it is important to remember that like the high schools, these numbers must at very least divided into fourths to gain a vague idea of how many freshman join teams each year, just 590 at the DI level.

This is a serious differentiation as less than one tenth of 1% of high school wrestlers will make a Division I team and only the best, most technical, and dedicated athletes can hope to achieve even that level. And then again those 2,360 are involved in competition, are receiving a higher level of coaching, and are in, what is very likely, a higher level of strength and conditioning program. They then engage in relentless competition with a final, qualifier only championship where the best eight in each of 10 weight class are named "All-Americans".

The sheer distillation of athletes down to these All-Americans dwarfs anything that occurs on the competitive Jiu Jitsu scene currently. In an eight-year cycle, around a group of 60,000 are whittled down to the 80 most elite competitors of their sport. And then at the end of their fourth year in the NCAA they graduate and if they wish to continue to make money from their athletic skills MMA is an easier path to larger paydays than pursuing an Olympic dream.

The All-American or DI Wrestling stand-outs that enter into MMA are the product a system that encourages, develops, and refines athleticism and arms wrestlers with highly relevant MMA skills through eight years of intensive and state-sponsored training, conditioning, and competition. This is a huge structural advantage that wrestling enjoys over Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition, which stems from it being ingrained in the American sports scene for over a century.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has the belt systems and tiered competition that helps bring along beginners to become more seasoned and technical without being utterly smashed by more experienced grapplers. But the amount of support those competitors in terms of coaching and conditioning, and the amount of time able to be devoted to training varies wildly based on the situation.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is still a very useful base for MMA competition. The fact that Sport BJJ standouts such as Werdum and Souza are still reaching the upper tiers of the sports with any sort of consistency is telling. It allows many competitors to achieve beyond their athletic abilities in MMA such as Maia's long term run as a Top 10 fighter at both Middleweight and Welterweight. It is also an extremely positive and applicable art for regular people looking to stay in shape, compete, and defend themselves in civilian life. None of this is in dispute here, and the average grappler coming out of sport Jiu Jitsu is a relatively high level ground fighter. However Jiu Jitsu just doesn't' have the systematic infrastructure to regularly produce an athlete on the level of Jacare Souza or Gilbert Durinho who have the right blend of athleticism and outstanding skill to succeed at the championship levels of MMA. This isn't to blame Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for these problems. The sport form of Jiu Jitsu is still very young compared to other grappling sports and it lacks the institutional advantages that age provides but this lack of widespread structural athlete development and support means that Jiu Jitsu isn't maximizing its athlete base in the same way that other martial sports are. Jiu Jitsu is left waiting for outstanding athletes to come along and learn to be great Jiu Jitsu players while wrestling has a system that builds athletes.

Special Thanks to Patrick Wyman to allowing me to bounce ideas and arguments off him and generally being extremely helpful in the creation of this article.