The growth of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu parallels the rise of Mixed Martial Arts around the globe. Largely due to the successes of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters experienced in the varying rule sets early on in the sport's development. But since those early days, MMA and Jiu Jitsu have grown further and further apart. Still there remains a strong pull for Sport Jiu Jitsu competitors to test themselves in MMA. And while many have found success, the ability of a cross over athlete more in doubt than ever.
In part, this is because the dominance of Jiu Jitsu in the early days has become a bit overstated. Yes, Royce Gracie won the early UFCs and other Jiu Jitsu fighters found a great deal of success, but there has never been anything like a 100% success rate for Jiu Jitsu players crossing over into MMA. Even in the 90's there were Jiu Jitsu stars who struggled. Four time BJJ World Champion and famed coach Fabio Gurgel lost his only UFC fight against Jerry Bohlander and went 3-2 overall in MMA. Andre Pederneiras lost his only UFC fight to Pat Miletich and went 1-1-2 overall, Ricardo Libiro's only professional MMA fight ended in draw.
By the late 90's it wasn't so much Jiu Jitsu that dominated so much as grapplers in general, many of them hailing from American Folk Style Wrestling. And since then the success of wrestlers has continued while it seems as though the success of Jiu Jitsu fighters has only declined. Why?
I first want to discard the theory that "Jiu Jitsu doesn't work anymore." This idea is often invoked with the declining numbers of submissions in high level MMA, but this is a misunderstanding of what effective grappling in MMA can look like. Likewise, the theory that "modern sport Jiu Jitsu won't work in MMA" often is thrown around as a possible explanation; the idea that modern BJJ grapplers spend too much time on specialized techniques for sport grappling situations that won't work in MMA. But, this seems to ignore the very real success being had by several high level sport grapplers at the elite levels.
Fabricio Werdum won the UFC Heavyweight Champion in 2015. Jacare Souza is a former Strikeforce Champion and current contender in the UFC Middleweight Division. Demian Maia has been a Top 10 fighter first at Middleweight and now at Welterweight in an MMA career spanning a full decade at this point. UFC Lightweight Champion Rafeal dos Anjos first tested his mettle in Brazilain Jiu Jitsu tournaments as a teenager. Additionally Beneil Dariush and Gilbert Burns are both very good rising fighters in the lightweight division, one of the deepest talent pools in all of MMA. Long time WEC/UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo started his martial arts career in competitive grappling and was a standout talent on his way up to black belt before he switched fully over to MMA. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a very complete ground grappling art and transition, guard passing, reversals, sweeps, submissions, and positional dominance are all key aspects of ground fighting in MMA.
Still, and despite these successes, MMA has become its own distinct sport with hundreds of high level athletes training specifically to succeed within it. Anyone who comes from a distinct martial art style into MMA, be it Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Sambo, Wrestling, Boxing, Muay Thai, Karate or any other of the hundreds of martial arts around the world, needs to adapt their personal style to meet the specific demands of an MMA match. This means both adding new skills, and pairing down old skills to create an overall MMA game geared towards winning fights. For grapplers this means, among other things, attaining a level striking required to compete on the feet and set up clinch entries and takedowns, something many Jiu Jitsu greats have struggled with.
This speaks to the real problem, in MMA athleticism matters and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu does not have the infrastructure, talent pool, or rule set to develop athletes geared towards the MMA game in large numbers. The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world can seem very large at times, but compared to other martial arts it pales in comparison.
The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community is largely comprised of privately owned schools that charge membership and require a baseline of hobbyist grapplers to support a team of professionally competitive grapplers. This can be a successful format for developing athletes, but it is highly dependent on the individual schools and athletes' personal motivations to train, compete, and excel.
Compare this to folk style wrestling in the United States, which feeds into the Olympic styles of wrestling and thus is a state supported sport. Wrestling programs are built into secondary schools and support a much larger rate of participation and provide systemic advantages over that of the private business model. The athletes are provided with coaching, regular practice times, and access to strength and conditioning programs free of charge (more or less). And all members of a wrestling team compete on some level regularly during their season and some opt to continue to train and compete out of season.
The National Wrestling Coaches Association maintains numbers of high school wrestlers and wrestling programs and the last decade the numbers have settled to somewhere around 10,000 programs supporting slightly over 250,000 wrestlers a year. This means, due to the nature of school turnover, in a given year about 60,000 US high schoolers join wrestling programs while 60,000 high schoolers graduate with as much as 4 years (in some cases more) of strength and conditioning, grappling training, and competition experience. All within a rules format that encourages high paced, very demanding matches.
The most successful of those 60,000 can attempt to join one of the 329 NCAA Varsity Wrestling programs in the U.S., 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 the 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 means less than 1% of high school wrestlers will compete at the Division I level of wrestling. Once there they receive a higher level of coaching, strength and conditioning and competition. They engage in a grueling season of meets and competitions which ends in a qualifier-only Championship were the top eight in each weightclass are named "All-Americans".
Compare these numbers and talent distillation process to what occurs in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As per the IBJJF's records (which are not a complete catalog of all BJJ black belts, but give a good baseline number) there are ~2,300 registered black belts with the organization. This makes it seem like the two sports are of comparable size, until you consider that the IBJJF is a global organization that registers any willing black belts, not just those competing. The NCAA Division I roster represents only about a third of all competitive wrestlers of college age in the United States, and that limited section of the wrestling community is a comparable size to the global Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community, and that NCAA community is completely turned over with new wrestlers every four years while a grappler can remain on the black belt registry for the rest of his or her life.
The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community does not have a process of talent distillation nearly as demanding as going through the process of whittling down a cycle of 250,000 high school wrestlers to four classes of All-Americans over the course of eight years. That process develops and fosters athletes, while the Jiu Jitsu process waits for athletes. So it should be no small wonder that a stand out All-American Wrestler such as Chris Weidman is able to develop a fully evolved MMA striking and grappling game in a very short period of time, while jiu jitsu legend Roger Gracie struggled to become a regularly competitive high level MMA fighter.
This constant production and graduation of high level athletes is one of the primary reasons wrestlers have become such a dominant force in MMA. Every year there are approximately 590 freshly graduated Division I wrestlers and even if only a few of them enter into MMA in a given year and none of them actually develop into an elite fighter next year there is another class of 590 new potential fighters which might contain the next great wrestling to MMA crossover.
With those numbers considered, it seems relatively simple that the sport side of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu actually produces a disproportionate number of elite MMA fighters to its relatively small size and systemic disadvantages. Compare Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to Judo for instance, which in the United States largely operates on the club and school system similar to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (except at the very high ends of competition).
USA Judo (the organization in the United States for Olympic Judo) has 1,800 verified black belts, well over half the total number of IBJJF registered BJJ black belts (remember the IBJJF is a global organization with USA Judo represents only the U.S. Olympic Judo community). And Judo enjoys a much higher global participation rate than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by being an Olympic sport and older martial art. But, Judo's rate of elite fighter production is much lower historically, and currently there are only three ranked UFC fighters with competitive Judo backgrounds: Hector Lombard, Dong Hyun Kim, and Ronda Rousey.
While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA continue to drift apart in terms of rule sets and philosophical views on fighting and grappling, there is clearly still a relatively strong connection. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu does not produce enough athletes to be the primary talent farm for MMA any longer; the sport has grown far too large. But, the fact that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu still produces elite fighters at the rate that it does speaks to the value of the grappling style and the historic ties between Jiu Jitsu and MMA.
Based on the growth of MMA as sport and the massive size of the current UFC roster, which sits at over 500 fighters currently, a very plausible theory could be the success rate of Sport Jiu Jitsu grapplers going into MMA has not actually changed all that much, there just are not enough Jiu Jitsu crossovers to have the same impact on MMA as they did ten years ago. The systemic advantages provided to wrestling have allowed it to keep up with the growth of MMA. And while Brazilian Jiu Jitsu still provides high level talent to MMA those numbers stand in contrast to how much the sport has grown.