I just returned late last night after flying back across the Atlantic, 20hrs, four airports and a great deal of time to do some reflection. Six days ago I flew to Belgrade, Serbia to compete in the 5th FILA World Grappling Championships. I was representing the United States of America in the 90kg gi spot after winning the Trials out in Las Vegas in early August.
I had known of FILA, but I wanted to know why it wasn't more popular and why the best in the world weren't competing there. Even after the Trials it was hard to know what to expect, regarding any aspect of the trip and actual tournament. USA Wrestling helped a little with bits of information via emails, but I was virtually in the dark...honestly, all I really knew was that I was flying to Serbia alone to meet up with and compete for Team USA. A scary notion, but anyone that knows me, knows I confront travel situations like this as a challenge, and just go along for the ride, smiling and enjoying it, whatever happens. My training was solid, I had unbelievable support, and I was invincible - that's all I needed to know.
From the moment I landed in Belgrade the FILA experience was not at all up to par. Although the Wrestling Federation of Serbia had a booth set up to greet the competitors, it took several minutes of wandering around, asking strangers for direction using a combination of what little broken-ass Serbian I had studied and English to try and communicate at all. As Marko, the hired driver drove me and a FILA referee representing Greece from the airport to the hotel I noticed giant red billboards and signs with the championships all over. This was awesome I thought, huge. Talking with the two, it became clear that I was in a different world altogether, however. After asking me if "grappling" was popular in the States, Peter, the ref, informed me he had not even heard of the IBJJF (International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation) but was familiar with NAGA and Grappler's Quest! Such a strange conversation, one that would reflect many of the European, and even American perspectives over the next few days. I was definitely in foreign territory.
Through heavy traffic, crazy drivers blatantly running red lights, blasting up onto curbs, driving over or through sidewalks crowded with people, and an endless blaring of horns, I finally made it to one of the two designated FILA hotels for competitors and officials, the Mr. President Hotel since 1983. A very modern, design savvy place, ahead of its time, set near the heart of Old Belgrade, a war-torn, beat up part of the city that reflects the history and tenacious nationalism of it's people. Being one of the nicest hotels in the city didn't save me from more problems, however. Feeling war-torn and beaten up myself from the long journey across the Atlantic, I was given no mercy, as I tried to check-in I was sent upstairs to accreditation (I guess another word for register, or check-in), with the FILA members who proceeded to practically scream at me in a combination of broken English and Serbian, claiming I had not paid for all my expenses! This was clearly a lie, as I had sent my payments well before the designated deadlines to USA Wrestling and they took care of it all, right? Apparently not. Come to find out they wired the money to FILA late and there was a huge argument and situation the day previous. Tired and hungry, sitting upstairs arguing with FILA for nearly an hour and trying, to no avail, to call hotel rooms of Americans who weren't in their rooms, I finally convinced them to complete my accreditation and let me check into a damn room. 7pm I crashed hard on the bed, falling asleep to droning horns and kids playing soccer on the pavement outside. Later that evening I finally ran into some of Team USA, never thinking I would be so happy to just talk to an American. Asking them, and then meeting and asking Coach Sheldon Marr what the fuck was going on I gained very little clarity, but enough to rest till morning. All I knew still was that I was here to take gold back to the U.S.
Weigh-ins were at 15:30 Thursday, and after having pounded an entire gallon of water upon the 10hr flight to Rome to combat any jet lag the day before, I was good to go. I took the shuttle to the venue holding the games, the Vozdovac Sports Centre. Arriving, again I was unimpressed, as the Vozdovac was nothing more than your basic middle school gymnasium, built in an era of times past. For hearing how popular FILA and grappling was in Europe, the crowd was unimpressive as well, and almost all competitors. This was a World Championship tournament, right? The bathrooms consisted of a dark, dungy hallway 30 meters long with about ten changing rooms along the one side. Hardly any of the facets and showers were in operation, toilets were primitive bowls, and along with no toilet paper or soap to be seen anywhere, the wretched smell that eeked out of those rooms could rival a pair of Satan's week old undies. I mean, having to walk up and down that hallway each day to get to the stairs leading down to the competition floor was like walking Death Row. For three days all the competitors just wrecked hell on those rooms, it was like all the countries waged a 21st century war on Serbia yet again with this three day bombing of Belgrade.
The weigh-in was another clusterfuck, Kelly Anundson (2009 110kg and Absolute No-Gi FILA World Champion) and I were told different things by different FILA officials on where to be. After standing in numerous lines over and over, for hours, we finally got medically checked and weigh-in. Watching the rest of Team USA compete, and the event in general, it was clear that the officiating was inconsistent and incompetent. In FILA, one official calls the points on the mat and controls the action with a whistle, while three other officials sit mat side confirming or denying the points. This is a great system, one that is used in Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, but in FILA grappling it is still a mess. All the officials come from different countries and different "styles" so even with rules set into place the discrepancies are many. Another aspect is the challenge cube, just as in wrestling. If the teams coach wants to challenge a call, the cube is thrown and the four officials review the video, much like the challenge rule in the NFL. If the challenge is overturned, the point(s) are adjusted accordingly and the challenger may challenge again later. If not, the opposition to the challenger is awarded 5 points, a huge deficit. I witnessed all day challenges lasting ten minutes, as the officials thumbed their butts, unable to conclude upon a decision. Beyond that, the scoring all day was bizarre and inconsistent, to say the least. New to FILA, it was easy to see how an outsider could be completely confused, or how difficult it would be for just a common sports fan to follow. Very frustrating. I also witnessed several knee bars and leg locks cause severe injury, as FILA carelessly allows these techniques in a field of competitors that many are unable to intelligently recognize and defend. I had studied the official FILA rules two months ago extensively, before competing in the Trials...I saw officials studying the rules on the bus ride to the event! Ridiculous. Negligence.
I was so ready to smash it, it was almost unbearable. I wanted to walk through this tournament, sub every opponent, represent jiu-jitsu, showing everyone that their mentality was from an era about fifteen years ago, outdated. The way some of these people talked and their techniques in their matches just blew me away. Didn't they get the memo all those years ago? Did they happen to miss that little family that came to America and created that UFC thing? Who knows where the disconnect lies, it didn't matter, I was ready to go. I got a good nights sleep, and the next morning watched Kelly fight his way to the absolute No-Gi finals once again. Running behind schedule, just like any other tournament, my first match was much later in the day.
It was against the returning 2010 90kg Gi Champion, Takanori Kuno of Japan. A very tough opponent and match, I squeaked out a 5-4 win. Early in the match, feeling his Judo base, I got in on a takedown, excited I transitioned all the way behind him and lifted, but only to have him front roll into a knee bar. I was in trouble, but defended and the edge of the mat saved me. From then on he was relentless with his leg attacks, securing a foot lock that I kept kicking and pulling away with my hands. He was screaming like a Kamikaze warrior, but unable to finish me. A great match, but not a good showing...first match of the tournament is always the hardest, the worst for me. Getting past that first one is obviously crucial. The next match was against Montenegro, and again I could recognize his Judo so I played it out, waited for him to miss an attempted throw, took his back and soon thereafter sunk in my grips for a nasty tight lapel choke, using my knee in his back to add extra leverage and the submission victory. I was in the finals.
With Pankration also taking place on the same mats, needing the presence of seven FILA officials for one match, the tournament was painfully dragging behind schedule. We sat around and witnessed more horrible officiating, including Kelly getting robbed out of his gold medal in the No-Gi Absolute Finals. In the closing minute his shorts were grabbed, keeping him from sprawling to defend the takedown from his oversized 300+lb opponent, and thus loosing the match due to it. The officials agreed with the foul, but claimed that the challenge cube had been thrown too late. Another horrible display of incompetence, as the rules state "immediately" which in my view is a vague, undefined term. My finals match began just before the midnight hour.
My Polish opponent was short and stalky, a little muscle ball. After a few seconds of grip fighting he pulled into half guard, and not until the action broke and I glanced at the scoreboard did I realize that I had not been awarded my takedown point! In the rules, if you pull guard without any attempt at offense your opponent will be awarded with a takedown. Just pulling guard is considered a form of passivity in FILA. Nothing was to stop me from the gold, and I focused no longer on the missing point, and instead, forged ahead with my control and the win in mind. I was the aggressor, pushing the pace and eventually securing the top position with front head control. The Pole tried to back out of bounds but I drug him back in and spun behind, threatening to take his back for points. I had him flattened down to the mat, threatening the choke. At the same time he reached back and clasped my pant leg, keeping my hooks from sinking in. Instinctively I brought my other knee up into the middle of his back to leverage my leg free, and in so doing I pulled on the choke as well, forcing him to let out a false cry, which in turn brought about the official blowing the whistle to stop the match. With a confused look on the official's face I asked him what was happening? Did I win? Did he submit? The hesitating ref, unsure of himself looked to his panel of three other incompetent officials, who also gave no assurance or direction at all. They in turn look to the Australian FILA official across the way, creepy Antonio Bandares man-bun and all. As he walks over the officials signal to him, "knee to the back" as if I was Kevin Nash in a pro wrestling match! So of course, with the blatant disconnect and misinterpretation of what had happened, Antonio Bandares said penalize him for that illegal technique, 1pt, without having even seen what had actually transpired! As Jeff, my USA coach was about to challenge the call, the Aussie looked at me and said, "you will loose the challenge." I knew the rules, so did the Pole though, and he faked his little bitch yell to play into them and the ref. Good for him. The rules list under illegal techniques: ripping of the chin, crucifix, full nelson, or can opener. I did none of these, but was still penalized. Why? Incompetence. I used a legitimate technique, one that a panel of "grappling" professionals could not recognize?! The same one that I used just hours earlier to submit my semi-finals opponent!
Again, with an unwavering determination I yelled, pleaded with Jeff to hold the cube, not throw it, for I would lose five points and the championship. I had to overcome, had to do this one myself. Nothing was to stop me, I was destined to win this joke of a tournament called the FILA Worlds. I had twenty seconds or so to pass the Pole's guard to gain two points for the win. The entire Polish Team was on their feet at mat side, chanting and screaming for their hero. I had this. I thrive in situations like this. This is where I shine. He was strong, I worked my pass, smashing through his defenses, but with my foot just inches, seconds away from being free to gain the points, time expired, the whistle blew, and I was in complete shock. Match over. 2-1. How could this have happened? Was this really happening? It can't be over...all these thoughts surged through my head in an instant, and I was in a daze.
In that same instant, as soon as the angry little Poland grappler jumped to his feet, he screamed loudly with his arms out, walking into me, taunting me in one of the most uncomfortable, unsportsmanlike situations I had ever been a part of. He quickly realized he was acting a fool and stuck out his hand for me to shake, as if to save face. Forced into playing his schematics, still in a daze, and not wanting to misrepresent USA in front of all the nations in attendance, I shook his hand, as much as it pained me. That was it. Unbelievable. I had opportunities to finish the match, or score, but I didn't. Yes I was outraged with the inept, maladroit FILA organization, but also at myself for not being able to overcome the situation. Several minutes later, (I am still in shock to this day) I had to step up onto the podium to receive my medal. This was bar-none the hardest loss (and I've had many) I have ever been dealt. To hear my opponents national anthem, knowing that it should be the Star Spangled Banner and me atop the stand was heart wrenching, one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. In all my years as a competitor, in all the tough losses, I have never had the urge to not step up on the podium, but I regret to tell you that the thought did cross my mind. I had to go up there, had to stand tall and strong. I remembered that this wasn't about me, it was about everyone back home, all my friends and family, training partners, everyone that backed me, everyone in the USA over 5,000 miles away. I was representing the USA. So I stood tall, in a daze and gutted out what seemed like the longest song I had ever heard. That was it. Second place. Silver.
My original curiosity, after hearing very little, and not being able to dig up any information or footage of FILA grappling was to go out to the Trials, see what these FILA rules and tournaments were all about. A mere two months later after competing in their World Championships I was still conflicted, confused, but sure now why the best in the world did not compete here. Incompetence is the one word to describe the experience. All these officials come from different countries and different martial arts backgrounds, so even though there is a unified set of rules, the calls and judgments are inconsistent at best. This system works great in wrestling, as I mentioned, but that is because everyone involved is from a wrestling background. The decisions are clean and clear. This being the number one reason, I can also see why Brazilians, traditional BJJ players don't do well, as they try to play guard and their traditional style, it just doesn't work within the FILA scoring system. I have competed all over the country at different organizations, at a high level, I'll take on anyone and look for any challenge, but...I didn't need to travel halfway across the world to have three matches in a bracket of ten opponents at this "World" Championship. Although I have pointed out numerous failures and shortcomings of the FILA organization, I have to also mention there are some good things I did see and like. Not enough to save my opinions, however. As I first arrived there I said to myself and to some of the others, even before witnessing the officiating fiasco and abortion over those two days and my finals match, that I would not return to a FILA Grappling event. I'm not one to say never, but I just don't see FILA on the right track to promoting a worthwhile tournament, let alone a World Championship. I mean, it's been five years and this is where it is still?! It was a huge let down. Part of my curiosity was to help jiu-jitsu, help the sport into the Olympics. FILA is not helping, not even close.
Enough of my rant. The deal is done. Lessoned learned. The next day, to end on a a more positive vibe, I got to go about the streets of Belgrade for some sight seeing, accompanied by some of the Team USA Pankration San Diego natives and the beautiful and vibrant BJJ ace, Penny Thomas. Kalemegdon Fortress was impressive, along with all the historical statues, landmarks, and the converging Sava and Danube Rivers. The city market was booming with vendors selling all the best fresh produce, as well as other vendors setting up their booths with odd-ball items, watches, batteries, facets, you name it! A truly remarkable city, one that you have to explore and really dive into to see it's qualities. Fantastic weather, good people, good company, it was a great last day in Serbia. After relaxing for a few more hours, talking with my new friends of Team USA Grappling, we again ventured out, this time to see the nightlife of Belgrade, It wasn't a disappointment, as I had heard it was the best in South Europe. The clubs were hopping, the beautiful Serbian women were out in flocks, and I finally got eat a tasty, giant pljeskavica (traditional Serbian food, like a hamburger). My experience in Belgrade was a good one, as it is hard for me not to have a good time anywhere. I met some amazing people, great connections, great city and people, a tournament battle in a different way, awesome food, history, and language. All this knowing that USA was backing me all the way, waiting for my return. What more could I ask for?