Vagna Rocha first stepped onto the mats to learn how to fight. “I started jiu-jitsu at 19 and I started it for fighting,” he tells Yahoo Sports, days after competing in the 2019 ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) Submission Wrestling World Championship in Anaheim, California. Rocha would go on to use his jiu-jitsu for fighting in top organizations like the UFC, and compiling a 17-4 record while also teaching and coaching out of his own South Florida academy.
There was a time when learning to fight — really fight, in what has become mixed martial arts — was why most people trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). The sport of MMA has grown a great deal in the past couple decades, and so has the style it was based on: BJJ.
The ADCC — created by Emirati Sheik Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and BJJ coach Nelson Monteiro — used to take place in Abu Dhabi every year, but now rotates nations and sometimes continents every two years, with multiple international qualifiers taking place in between. In modern ADCC tournaments, many of the best competitors are young (this year’s saw several teenagers impress, and numerous 20-somethings), and have focused on submission wrestling or grappling their entire careers, not fighting.
In MMA, athletes are allowed to grapple, punch, kick, knee, elbow and use a host of other holds and blows. In submission wrestling/grappling/BJJ, the striking elements of fighting are eliminated, while takedowns and submission holds like joint locks and strangles are retained. In years past, competition in elite submission wrestling events like ADCC were used to launch competitors into MMA careers where they could potentially make a living.
Most of the early ADCC competitors were also fighters. That isn’t always the case in modern submission wrestling.
As BJJ grew in popularity, opportunities to cobble together a living teaching jiu-jitsu in academies and to even earn money competing in tournaments increased as well. Now, as in other more mainstream sports, many of the ADCC athletes are not just younger than ever, they’re often bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, looking like modern titans.
Still, some are still the underdogs jiu-jitsu was meant to empower. Some are older, experienced MMA fighters who take their fighting attitude into grappling.
Chess vs. rugby
Eliot Marshall (10-4) is 39 years old, a retired UFC veteran and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who coaches everyone from office workers to professional fighters. Last weekend he was in California to compete and not just support his team, however, after agreeing to step in at ADCC 2019 as a late replacement.
Marshall was matched up in the opening round of the over 99 kilograms men’s division with the much younger 2017 champion Yuri Simoes. Marshall would lose to Simoes, but certainly did not seem to regret his decision to show up and compete.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” he told us later on the first day of the two-day tournament.
“They call and tell you that you’ve got this huge opportunity, on short notice, and you’re probably going to lose? How can you not?”
Many modern era BJJ champions have never stepped foot in the ring or cage to use their skills to actually fight, and some carefully manage their grappling matchups so as to avoid certain rule sets or potential rivals. So, athletes like Marshal who first used their martial arts skills to fight and only after retirement from MMA focused on submission wrestling competitions stand out.
The fact that many current jiu-jitsu champs are reluctant to take risks is “what’s wrong with jiu-jitsu,” according to Marshall.
Former fighters like Marshall and Rocha, who are used to getting last-minute calls to fight opponents not of their choosing under truly dangerous rule sets bring that gameness to jiu-jitsu competition now. “A lot of guys won’t fight this guy or that guy [in submission wrestling]. They might say, ‘Oh, that guy is not at my level,’ so they don’t want to risk losing to them,” he explains.
“I get paid to work. I don’t care who they put in front of me. If it’s a high-level black belt, or a blue belt, I don’t care. If I’m getting paid, I’ll work. That’s something I learned in MMA. How many times do you fight a blue belt in MMA? It doesn’t matter. Everyone is tough and dangerous. I don’t pick my opponents. I don’t care who it is.”
Since leaving MMA competition behind a couple of years ago when offers to compete in jiu-jitsu matches and tournaments began to pick up, the 37-year-old Rocha has earned a reputation for excitement and testing the boundaries of violence possible in submission wrestling competition.
Rocha continued to do just that at ADCC 2019 en route to earning a silver medal in a division where he was a decade or more older than many of his peers. Rocha pushed the pace in every match he was in, and often smiled in the midst of battle while grinding and flying on and about the mat in a brutally technical manner.
Rocha competes with an apparent ruthless joy. Grinning wide when opponents attempt to get rough, then outdoing them in that regard.
Rocha began training jiu-jitsu to fight, and he’s never really stopped. He took the lessons and training practices he used to become an elite MMA fighter and applied them to submission wrestling competition, where he’s managed to catch-up to elite and usually younger competition who have specialized for their entire lives in rule sets he’s relatively new to.
Rocha doesn’t game the rules the way many savvy submission wrestlers do, content to win on advantage or negative points, and often more intent on not losing than decidedly dominating opponents. “You’re supposed to have an urgency to submit your opponent whenever you get the chance. And, if you’re not submitting them you’re trying to make their life miserable and try to make sure they never get comfortable,” he says.
“My jiu-jitsu is different than these guys. Some of these guys are lazy, they’re too relaxed, they get very comfortable. Sometimes it’s like they’re playing chess and I’m playing rugby.”
Rocha hasn’t managed to climb the submission wrestling ranks on pure aggression alone, of course. His impeccable technique and smart training methods have allowed him to cover lots of ground the past few years.
“What I did [in transitioning from focusing on MMA to jiu-jitsu competition] was adapted my training schedule,” he details.
“When you fight MMA you’ve got to train all the arts. You need days for wrestling, days for jiu-jitsu, days for striking, days for strength and conditioning, days for boxing, days for specific drilling. It’s so much harder and so much more damaging on the body.
“When I started to focus on jiu-jitsu I took all those days and added in little intricate pieces that I didn’t have and wasn’t doing and it stepped up my jiu-jitsu so much faster. It made me feel like if I keep on training like this, who knows how good I’ll get in another three to four years. I was using my professional mentality from MMA for training for jiu-jitsu. A lot of jiu-jitsu guys don’t have that.”
A lot of jiu-jitsu athletes also don’t have a reliable way to make a real living wage from their world-class skills, either. Every two years ADCC gives the world’s best submission wrestlers a chance to earn cash prizes.
There are five men’s weight divisions, each featuring 16 of the best grapplers in the world. Only the top four finishers in each weight division, men’s or women’s, win cash, with the first-place champion earning $10,000 before taxes.
There are two women’s weight divisions of eight women per category, and the first-place finisher gets $6,000. The open-weight or “absolute” division first place champion earns $40,000, as does each year’s super match winner.
The tournament’s backers also give out small cash prizes for “Best Fighter,” “Best Takedown,” “Fastest Submission” and “Best Fight of the Competition.”
As Rocha says, “A lot of guys walked away empty-handed. Most of the competitors don’t make a dime.”
Rocha himself says he now makes more money as a submission wrestler than he did as an MMA fighter, but he understands that isn’t the case for everyone. “I’m not complaining about my pay at all, but I’m not agreeing with the level of the game,” he explains.
One of the burgeoning submission wrestling promotions that put on events throughout the year that has begun paying jiu-jitsu athletes for their effort is Fight to Win Pro. (Full disclosure: I’ve competed three times on Fight to Win Pro cards, and coached other athletes who have as well.)
Fight to Win Pro was hired to produce the ADCC 2019 event and there were noteworthy changes in 2019 compared to the last time it was held on American soil, in 2007 in Trenton, New Jersey. This year’s ADCC filled much more of the event arena, had far better warm-up areas for athletes and coaches, slicker production, and provided amenities like food and water backstage for teams.
Pay for jiu-jitsu athletes usually involves a complicated and precarious matrix of making a name for themselves by impressing at elite tournaments like ADCC, then leveraging that to sell their instruction as teachers to others in the form of academy group class or private instruction, traveling seminars and instructional videos. Jiu-jitsu competitors, even the world’s best, rarely get paid a living wage simply for competing.
Skill over brawn
Lachlan Giles would have walked away with nothing, but entered the absolute. The 77kg competitor lost his first and only match in his weight class on Day 1 of ADCC 2019 but then submitted his name to event organizer Mo Jassim backstage on Day 2 in the surprisingly informal open-weight bracketing process that involved a sign-up sheet taken around backstage and then a few officials sitting at a table next to the catering to decide who would compete and who they’d face.
Giles humbly raised his hand when Jassim entered the area where athletes warm-up. “Lachlan Giles!” Jassim exclaimed, perhaps in surprise or just enthusiasm.
Giles smiled and nodded and his name was submitted. He was ultimately selected, but with a caveat — the 30-something would have to take on the young, huge champion Kaynan Duarte, who’d just won the over 99kg division.
Jassim could be overheard later telling another competitor that Giles asked him for “the biggest guy you can give me,” when he signed up for the open-weight division. Giles is a teacher out of the Aussie team Absolute MMA, has earned a Ph.D. as well as a black belt in BJJ, and competed alongside his wife, Liv Giles, at ADCC 2019.
The pair became the first wife and husband duo to compete at an ADCC world championship. After exiting early in their respective weight divisions, Giles’ last chance at cash and increased notoriety from ADCC 2019 would have to come against the giants of the absolute division.
Giles walked onto the center mat for the absolute division with little fanfare but left the tournament four matches later as perhaps the championship’s biggest star. Giles submitted Duarte with a heel hook, shocking the crowd and bringing them to a confused frenzy.
Then, he submitted Patrick Gaudio with another heel hook before losing to the eventual absolute champion Gordon Ryan in a competitive match. Giles had already made himself the breakout star of ADCC 2019 by getting to the bronze medal match against Mahamed Aly.
Not content on getting the world to focus on him and his skills, Giles went back to his De La Riva guard into 50/50 entry and heel hooked Aly, earning the bronze medal and podium position among giants. Giles raised his hands in victory and ran over to his corner person and wife who leapt into his arms.
Giles went from overlooked to in-demand in one day, and even after the event ended, fans from the crowd poured down to the floor to ask him for photos. After obliging fan after fan, the soft-spoken Giles tore himself away only when he was being beckoned to go receive his medal on the podium stand.
Per usual, this year’s ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship featured many skilled behemoths. More of them than in years past are young prodigies focused exclusively on winning under grappling-only rule sets.
Still, ADCC remains a place where old-school fighters can keep their competitive fire alive, and where underdogs have a chance to use superior technique to shock opponents and the martial arts world.
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