At the first UFC in 1993, Brazilian jiu jitsu was introduced to the world. Royce Gracie, a physically modest 27-year-old weighing 175 pounds dominated the tournament, using a simple but devastating grappling system to subdue a cadre of unwitting fighters. In the intervening years, Gracie became a household name among MMA enthusiasts. His dominance in the sport – in 2003, he was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame – catalyzed Brazilian jiu jitsu's emergence as the fastest growing martial art worldwide, helping the Gracie family enter the status of legend in places far away from their home of Rio de Janeiro.
While MMA has become more of a spectator sport that produces blockbuster pay-per-view events and eminent celebrity-athletes, BJJ has remained more humble. Jiu jitsu's competitive circuit is robust, but athletes are seldom rewarded with a cash purse for winning prestigious and physically grinding tournaments.
But after years of slowly burgeoning popularity throughout the world, that's finally starting to change. The recent emergence of serious prize fighting has taken center stage in BJJ, giving blue-collar athletes the chance to choke each other for large checks. Franchises like Polaris, Metamoris, The Eddie Bravo Invitational, Copa Podio and others are seeking to instill the sport with a greater air of professionalism. Some organizers are cooking up big schemes to place BJJ on equal footing with mainstream sports that accrue airtime on ESPN, but the road to success has been paved with setbacks and sometimes questionable business acumen.
For Eddie Bravo, a legendary, albeit divisive figure in the BJJ world, the sport has never leant itself to entertainment. "The reason there hasn't been any money in jiu jitsu is because it's been boring" he says. For his part, Bravo has a point: Watching two competitors vie for chokes and joint locks in a traditional match can often look like a laborious, sweat-soaked, hugging contest – which won't compel fans to buy tickets en masse or tune in via pay-per-view.
In an attempt to make the sport more palatable to viewers outside the BJJ community, Bravo and various other organizers emphasize submission-only tournaments. Under that premise, competitors can only win a match if they physically force an opponent to submit or "tap out." This urges a particularly relentless pace and ruthless style of grappling – the kind of showmanship that might inspire commercial hype and potential corporate endorsements.
The most illustrious tournaments in BJJ – such as the World Championships, which is orchestrated by the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation – hinge on a points system, which occasionally sees competitors slow down and hold certain positions after cementing a strong lead.
When it comes to points, Bravo seethes: "The points system has killed jiu jitsu," he says. "People fall in love with jiu jitsu because they go to a dojo and have an incredible experience, a humbling experience, and there's never any points or anything...and all of a sudden you go to a tournament and there's points, and the points change the whole dynamic of the sport."
Injecting money into the mix also promotes entertainment value, and can create something of a narrative for fans to latch onto. Bravo’s EBI tournament, which has produced seven shows so far, urges athletes to hunt for submissions and to ensure finality – otherwise they don't get paid.
While there is an overtime period in EBI matches, according to Bravo, "It's winner take all and the winner only gets paid if he wins the match in regulation." At the last EBI event, first place finisher Gordon Ryan was paid $25,000 out of a possible $50,000.
Like most MMA fighters, jiu jitsu athletes carve out a living through various means, whether it's owning a gym, teaching seminars or cashing sponsorship checks. Garry Tonon, an elite grappler with a growing deal of cache attached to his name, welcomes the prospect of more prize fighting tournaments in professional jiu jitsu. In fact, the infusion of cash could possibly represent something momentous for him and his fellow athletes.
"What was holding BJJ back were organizations that weren’t willing to give back to the athletes in any meaningful way," he says. "Only a small number of people can afford to go wherever they need to go to compete in the IBJJF competitions. And even if you win, you potentially just get a title, and don’t get any money for it."
The monetary incentive hasn’t exactly created a path to total career sustainability for Tonon, who owns a BJJ school in East Brunswick, New Jersey. "It's not like these tournaments have popped up and now everyone can make a living, but we’re heading in the right direction," he says.
Echoing that sentiment is Dominyka Obelenyte, a 21-year-old World Champion black belt who trains in New York City. Videos of Obelenyte’s biggest fights show her competing before thongs of whistling spectators, and raising her arms in a celebratory rush after securing titles. But even after winning a few venerable championships, Obelenyte still only sees a few paths to making a career in BJJ.
"I only make money through my sponsors if I [win a] medal,” she says, adding that “you have to already be a winner to get any money.” Even as someone who’s already entered the pinnacle of achievement in her sport, Obelenyte is weighing her career options outside of jiu jitsu. She’s a student at Columbia University, and says “I always focused a lot on school. I never considered having BJJ even as a full time career, but more as a supplemental career.”
Certain controversies pertaining to BJJ prize fighting circuits lend credence to Obelenyte’s words. In January, grappler AJ Agazarm was given free reign over Metamoris’ Instagram account for a routine marketing promotion, but used the opportunity to excoriate Metamoris CEO Ralek Gracie, explaining that he hadn’t been paid for a fight that took place six months prior.
"It has been over 6 months since my bout against Karo Parisyan, and I still haven't been paid. It's not about the money (it wasn't a lot) but instead it is about the principle. We put everything on the line to make it as exciting and entertaining as possible for the fans...to this date my match is still behind your paywall and I have not yet seen a single dollar," he wrote. Ralek Gracie has also come under sharp criticism from the grappling community for comments about female athletes.
Garry Tonon notes that most of the newer circuits are pretty bereft of professionalism. "I can't think of one organization, or one time when I've been a part of a show, where I ever felt like...it was super professional," he says.
But that doesn’t mean that the emergence of prize fighting has been marred. Many athletes, including promoters like Bravo, see a very bright future ahead for the sport – one in which these events can shed their niche underpinnings and see wider recognition and more lucrative checks. In an ideal world, Bravo would like to see prize purses nearing $100,000 become standard in jiu jitsu competitions.
"If you get there, getting to $1 million wouldn't be that hard,' he says.
Tonon agrees, surmising that jiu jitsu is definitely worthy of airtime on cable: "Do I think there's room for it in terms of professional events that people are gonna watch on TV? Of course. You can't tell me there’s no way to make jiu jitsu as exciting as Texas hold'em poker."