The Big Problem with BJJ
There is a big problem that has been sweeping through the vastly growing BJJ community. Every year more and more people start practicing the ever popular martial art known as Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, more schools pop up, more tournaments are had, and every year this problem grows bigger with it all. It's something that needs addressed, it's spreading like cancer, it's an ulcer that can no longer be ignored. I've watched it for years...and some people, outsiders or not, are completely oblivious to this problem or that they are even contributing to it. In order for BJJ to continue to grow and evolve, to maintain the spirit and purity, BJJ must first recognize it has a big problem.
Before I go on, I have to say that I am a huge fan of BJJ. It's a huge part of my life, I started it nearly ten years ago and in many ways, like most people, it saved my life. I just recently won Gold at the IBJJF Dallas International Open at the Adult Brown Belt level, the first guy ever from Kansas City to medal at that level. I medaled at the PanAms two years ago, again the first. I recently made the U.S. Sambo Team several times, competed a couple times in judo, been in seven different World Championships in just four years, seen over a dozen countries, and before even all that I wrestled my whole life. I love any challenges, big challenges, I love competition, and I only want the very best so that's why I'm writing this, and why I feel pretty qualified to do so.
In BJJ you'll find that many people don't want that, they don't care to compete against the best, the very highest level. They just want a medal. They want to participate, to win. They just want to belong, and that's ok. Probably the greatest thing about BJJ is that it has a place for everyone. Big, small, old, young, women, shy, unathletic, unskilled...BJJ does not discriminate. I can think of no other activity where that is the case. Anyone can do jiu-jitsu! In sport BJJ divisions include: kids, men, women, masters, weight, belt...so many different criteria to determine appropriate divisions for anyone and everyone. Therein lies the problem, however.
The problem is not that everyone gets a shot, it's that when they do they are not honest about it. It's simple deceit, fabrication, or white lies. There are three examples of this:
1. Medal without winning or Uncontested Divisions. I can't tell you how many times I see someone brag or post on social media about a bronze medal when they had three people in their division. They don't share any particulars or details, just a big smile with them and their newly acquired freebie medal and something like "I did it!", which brings loads of "likes" and "Congratulations! You're amazing" and "Wow good job" responses from friends, family, and students who don't know they are being lied to, subtlety. Human beings are naturally drawn to success and winners, this is just feeding that basic psychological principal. For what? To make yourself feel better? To get adoration and praise from people? To try and raise your legitimacy in the eyes of your students? For the purpose of gaining new students?
Solution: Stop it. You may be fooling outsiders or newcomers, but that doesn't last, and more importantly you are crippling yourself and BJJ as a whole. Just be honest with how your division played out and take your free medal as the ticket that it is, and try your hand in the Absolute Division! You can also move divisions up or down, weight or age to follow where more competitors or tougher competition is at. My coach and friend medaled without winning once, he took that medal, staked it up in the very back of the gym by the garbage where everyone changes out into their gis, with the words "No Fee Medals" because he is not proud of it. It serves as a harsh reminder. If you are still worried about losing, you're doing it wrong. In BJJ you lose a lot. What you do lose however, is integrity when you post bullshit, so again, stop it.
2. "State, National & World Championship" Tournaments. This one gets kind of hazy, so try to follow along. There are many different organizations and companies vying for the top spot, trying to bring the best tournaments to BJJ. Today, there are more options and great choices when it comes to the tournament experience than ever before, and even more popping up. It's amazing. However, it seems they all have their own version of "State" or "Nationals" or better yet, "The World Championships" and you've probably competed in one of those or even several. Keep in mind there is no governing body overseeing BJJ, and any tournament promoter can call a tournament anything they want.
Are you really a National Champ? No, because any nationality can enter and compete...Nationals should be only that nation, with it's citizens of that particular nation, hence the term "National" (I know it sounds redundant). Are you a State BJJ Champ? Doesn't matter, nobody cares. State is robbed from the wrestling model with league and regional qualifiers, but sadly all that is used in BJJ is just the name, "State" to drive up the number of competitors/sales for the promoter and just to sound cool. As with Nationals, there is no proof of residency necessary. It's not a legitimate state tournament.
The whole World Championship talk is of high debate as well, a much bigger conversation than can be covered here. Quickly though, what's often cited as the main argument is that a World Championship must have qualifiers and so many different countries involved to be considered a real World Championship. I understand that, but bottom line, you have to look at where do the best in the World go to compete, and you'll find the answer. I was curious back in 2011 why some of the best in just Brasil or U.S.A. didn't compete in FILA, and I found out the hard way. I can also tell you the best in the World don't gather to compete down in Texas every year in December. It's pretty well-known that even with all it's many issues, complaints from competitors, and corruption, the IBJJF is still the standard, the authority in Brazlian Jiu-jitsu. ADCC, although this year was not so good, for many years and still does, takes the top spot when talking no-gi grappling. Like it or not, those two organizations lead the field and are recognized by the masses as the very best, housing THE World Championships every June and Submission Grappling World Championships every two years, respectively.
Solution: More of the same, stop falsifying your accomplishments! Do your research, ask around, ask your professor or coach and you'll find tournaments that are respected, and those that aren't. It's more than fine to compete in local or small tournaments, it's encouraged, but if you knowingly boast about winning some dogshit tournament that just has a fancy name, your own ego and integrity is the issue at hand. Don't feed a greedy tournament promoter so they can keep running sub-par tournaments.
3. The Masters. This one is most important. As mentioned before, one of the many amazing things about BJJ is that any age gets a shot. In BJJ there are Masters divisions for every five years of age difference (Master 1: 30-35, Master 2: 35-40, Master 3: 41-45, Master 4: 46-50, Master 5: 51-55, Master 6: 56 and above). Within these age brackets you can compete at white belt all the way to black belt (except Master 3 and above, only blue to black) so if you got a late start in BJJ you will always have an appropriate division. Every IBJJF, and just about any other tournament has Masters divisions.
Since the inception of the first Brazilian Jiu-jitsu World Championships in 1996, there has also been a Masters and Seniors International Championship held in Rio de Janeiro in July every year. In 2012 that tournament moved to California, now called World Master Championships (They dropped the term "Seniors" and just use Masters) and just like everything else in BJJ, grows every year. This years rendition just took place last week, and loads of bronze, silver and gold medals could be seen flooding the BJJ community and all of social media, but unfortunately so were ill-informed "I am a World Champion" posts.
There is a huge difference between competing at the top of the top, the very best, the Adult level (18-30yrs old) and Masters (30+yrs old) so there is definitely a big distinction between a World Championship and a Masters World Championship. In wrestling, judo, sambo, other similar grappling sports and even golf, there is no option to compete in a different Masters age group every five years, it's just Senior (Adult) and then once you can no longer be competitive against the best, you move up to Veteran (Masters). Masters in BJJ is a privilege, one that is exploited, the line is blurred by leaving out that one world, and it happens at all tournaments (PanAms, Opens, etc.). To me, it is completely disrespectful to those who dare to step out among the very best, the Adult level.
Don't get me wrong, winning a Masters World Championships or medaling is a phenomenal accomplishment and there is absolutely nothing wrong with competing in Masters divisions, but falsifying your achievement is! I plan on moving into Masters someday and spending many, many years there. Some of the very best and favorite black belts are in Masters, it's amazing! The best Jiu-Jitsu in the world can be found in those divisions, but just call it what it is, like they do! I'm not talking about them, I'm talking about those who want all this exterior affirmation, or adoration from people, mascaraing around as someone they aren't. They can't wait to turn a year older so they can be in another age bracket, to get easier matches? Are you kidding me? I want the hardest matches, the best! You really won a World Championship? So you are on par with the likes of Buchecha, Keenan Cornelius, Bruno Malfacine, etc.? In Dallas, after I won the Heavyweight Brown Belt no-gi division (I moved up from Medium Heavyweight to chase competitors, I was underweight over eleven pounds), I heard this same thing I hear all the time again, "I got a late start [in BJJ], I wish I could compete in the Adult division like you" I guess he didn't know that I'm 31, soon to be 32 years old and I've ate, slept, trained and sacrificed to the bone for nearly a decade to be at that level, to just aspire to hang at that level. It's a slap in the face.
Solution: If you win at Masters, put "Masters" in your title. Again, who are you fooling? Yourself? Your students? Your kids? Is that what you want, for them to eventually realize it was not what you said someday? Just call it what it is, it's awesome enough! Another idea is from a friend, but it lies not with the competitors, rather, with the organization. Just as IBJJF has recently made white belt medals different, blasting "Novice" in big bold (which I didn't think was necessary, white belt is an important, very impressionable rank), I think the same can be done for Masters divisions, blast "Masters" in big bold across the medals, distinguishing them different from the Adult ones (except World Masters, they already are because it's a separate tournament). That way people couldn't falsify claims or white lie with a photo.
All three of these examples boil down to the same thing: Stop lying. You'd be surprised at how many people hear what you say, or don't say. Act with honor. Ignorance is dangerous, and friends and family who merely repeat your claims not knowing, are only contributing to and compounding the lack of integrity. "I trained with a World Champion today." Did you, really? Why do we have so many, and why is it that it feels like so many medals are self-esteem medals or participation awards? Is that elite? Is that the purity we strive for, BJJ holding the highest standards, that nothing can hide or lie on the mats, everything comes to truth? It's ruining the growth and development of the sport and art in every way. It confuses. If we who are already involved in BJJ are confused about who is who, what is what, then how are those not involved or new fans to know? Ego, fear, confusion, isn't that what martial arts and BJJ are supposed to squash? The spirit of the warrior, that a Champion is of the rarest of all people, a short list, they have a place reserved at the top because they are willing to do what it takes, pay the highest price with their mind, body and soul for years, for a lifetime. Maybe I'm alone with all this, maybe it's not as big as a problem as I see it...but one thing I do know is that I am sick of it, sick of busting my ass aspiring to belong with the elite for even just that one tiny moment, clawing and fighting to reach for the top, to be among the best, for that dream...and for what? Only to be constantly kicked down and slapped in the face. I love this sport, let's not keep ruining it.
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