The IBJJF World Championships are underway this week and seems to be set in the larger context of an approaching cross roads. The International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) is the dominant force in the jiu jitsu competition scene is, and hosts the largest and most historic gi competitions in the jiu jitsu world, including the Brazilian Nationals, the Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships, and the Worlds or "Mundials." Winning these events is a huge accomplishment and earning a spot in history alongside other great champions has proved to be an outstanding motivator for generations of jiujiteiros. But recently, the IBJJF has been facing increasing criticism from all sides as a divide in the competition scene continues to deepen.
The IBJJF format works well for the lower belts and hobbyist competitors: they provide well-organized, consistently run events for people to compete in. But, for people trying to make a living as a jiu jitsu competitor it's starting to make less and less sense to treat IBJJF events as the premier events of the year. The evolution of professional grappling promotions increasing give top grapplers a different path, one that offers better athlete support and better incentives for the athletes to return, and more open rulesets.
This year's limited registration for the black belt levels of Worlds reflects this. Big names and past champions such as Rodolfo Vieira, Gui Mendes, Kit Dale, Caio Terra, Andre Galvao, Clark Gracie, and Romulo Barral are missing. The number of high level and well known competitors skipping the Worlds is part of a larger trend as the importance of the major IBJJF competitions have been eroding away.
The influence of paid jiu jitsu tournaments can also be seen as Romulo Barral is declining a chance to compete at worlds to focus on the upcoming Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Submission Wrestling World Championships. Andre Galvao, who is currently out due to injury, has a super fight at the same ADCC event against Robert "Cyborg" Abreu, who is also skipping the Worlds due to an injury he suffered training for a Metamoris event.
It isn't hard to surpass the IBJJF when it comes to supporting its top athletes, because it does basically nothing. The black belts who compete at the Worlds pay for their own travel, hotels, and entry fees and if they win get a medal and the title of "World Champion" in return. Additionally now the IBJJF has created a point ranking system used to qualify black belts for the Worlds, which means they have to travel and register to compete at multiple regional IBJJF competitions. Some, such as Clark Gracie (who didn't have enough points to enter the brackets this year), have not bothered to attend minor IBJJF competitions, especially with a slew of other major competitions available. This isn't to say Clark has been inactive, he has been competing frequently. But with Metamoris and World Pro paying athletes to compete in far higher profile competitions, it seems like an easy choice, instead of spending money to compete in a regional level IBJJF event.
As the profile of these professional competitions continues to rise it is no surprise that athletes are taking the payday over competing at a loss. The lack of pay has meant that a competition lifestyle has never been sustainable for an athlete. In the past, most top jiu jitsu players tended to have two basic choices after establishing themselves as a world class grappler: Go into MMA, or become an instructor. In both these scenarios the IBJJF was only useful as a way to raise one's profile and leverage their BJJ experience into greater earnings through better MMA contracts or more students turning out for seminars.
For the last 20 years or so there has been an evolving and growing professional scene. The ADCCs have been around since 1998. And the slightly less well known World Professional Jiu Jitsu Cup has been a very successful cash prize tournament in the past 6 years and fields brackets to rival those of the Worlds. Now with the recent rise of events like Metamoris and the increasingly common practice of hosting paid "Superfights" at grappling events gives high level grapplers more chances to pick and choose when and where they compete and to get compensated for their time and effort.
Another divide that the IBJJF finds itself in the epicenter of is that of their jiu jitsu rule sets. There was a time that jiu jitsu competitions were a mess of improvised regulations. The IBJJF helped create a template rule set that is universally recognized. The problem now is that the grappling scene has continued to grow and the rules have not grown to reflect that, especially those limiting submissions.
Jiu jitsu is a submission grappling art and there are many practitioners who learned the art without artificial restrictions placed on it. They view jiu jitsu as primarily a fighting art. The goal of that art being to attain a fight ending hold, one that doesn't discriminate against particular types or limbs.
Leg locks are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the modern submission game. In addition to the old school leg lockers like Dean Lister, there are a whole generation of up-and-coming grapplers who make excellent use of leg locks. Grapplers like Eddie Cummings and Garry Tonon; these are high level grapplers. In Lister's case, he's a two-time ADCC Champion, who entirely skips IBJJF events due to their rules regarding leg locks and only competes in professional events with open rule sets. There is a large section of the no gi community who will not compete even in IBJJF no gi events due to the rules. The lack of those elite competitors is why the winners of the IBJJF No Gi World Championships are often relegated to a second-class status when compared to ADCC Champions. The best of the best turn out for the professional tournament.
Breaking down the rules limiting submissions hasn't been a popular idea just for most professional level competitors. Submission Only events are growing quickly as hobbyist grapplers are flocking to more open rule competition, as it allows them to explore and practice a wider range of grappling styles. Professional grappling events currently offer better incentives and support for athletes, and provide a more open grappling experience allowing for participants from the full range of the grappling community to participate. But, there is one severe limiting factor right now: sustainability.
The IBJJF has been operating high level, well organized tournaments for nearly 20 years at this point. They are extremely well established and when they run a regional competition, normally almost the entire local BJJ community turns out for it. The Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships sets the record for biggest jiu jitsu competition in history, on a nearly annual basis. Considering that registration costs ~$100 per person, the IBJJF has solid financial footing to be a stable force in the BJJ world for years to come.
The same cannot be said of many of the professional events; by all outward appearances Metamoris is struggling to keep afloat. FIVE Grappling, which was attempting to craft itself as a new promotion that features both amateur and professional events was forced to cancel the first half of their 2015 schedule. Professional grappling events take a great deal of expense to put on and their return on investment doesn't seem to be consistent. Some of the only professional leagues that appears to be going strong right now are Copa Podio, which is primarily based in Brazil and still working on gaining traction with the American grappling community, and the Eddie Bravo Invitational, which is still a relatively small event when compared with other professional events.
The only truly strong and stable professional leagues are those with strong financial benefactors. The World Pro series and ADCCs exist on the generosity of Sheiks from the jiu jitsu crazed nation of the U.A.E. Because of that, they are able to operate at losses when needed. Polaris Pro BJJ, which hosts Metamoris style submission only events in Europe, has a real chance of emerging as another stable promotion due to its backing by Scramble, a popular apparel line in the grappling world. They are set to hold their second event this fall.
Open rule sets and professional competition aren't new to the BJJ scene, but it does seem like they are approaching a tipping point. The grappling world has grown and the current structure of jiu jitsu competition is going to change. The professional aspect of the sport is growing. If it can stabilize, the IBJJF could remain the place for newer grapplers to make their name. But, once established the best athletes will likely be competing in cash prize tournaments and professional events rather than returning to amateur ranks. This year's competitors list shows that even the Mundials can be superseded by other obligations for top competitors. At this point it seems safe to expect the list of grapplers passing on the historically big name IBJJF events to grow longer by the year.