Can sport jiu-jitsu transform into a participatory sport of the faithful into a spectator sport of the interested?
If Ralek Gracie has any say, it can. And it will.
The Helio Gracie-black belt and undefeated MMA fighter is the co-founder of Metamoris Pro Jiu-Jitsu Invitational, an event that follows the architecture of MMA fight cards and spectacle to present the submission sport in a more appealing way.
Metamoris I took place in October of 2012 saw jiu-jitsu luminaries like Roger Gracie, Dean Lister, Xande Ribeiro, Caio Terra, Jeff Glover, Andre Galvao and many others compete at the Viejas Arena, in San Diego, CA. The second event is scheduled to be held June 9th and is headlined by a bout between Shinya Aoki and Rickson Gracie's son, Kron.
The idea of the event? Put the best against the best in a submission-only showcase. If there's an entertaining way to present and showcase the sport at the highest level, Metamoris believes this is the formula.
"Essentially, my thing and my approach was there was nothing that really put jiu-jitsu on a pedestal and really created an environment for these top competitors to really showcase their skills in a way where people would really pay attention," Gracie told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "If you go to most jiu-jitsu tournaments, you have six mats or eight mats - kind of like a high school wrestling meet. In essence, it's very hard to focus on one match when you have six mats happening at the same time."
According to Gracie, this is a fine formant for competition's sake. But if the sport is to be presented in a palatable way that spectators can enjoy, things have to be done a little differently. In the end, presentation and quality matter.
But it isn't the form of MMA events the Metamoris is following. It's the use of actual MMA fighters, too. Metamoris II, which takes place at the Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA and will be broadcast on Internet pay-per-view, is using actual MMA fighters as part of their scheduled matches. Aoki, UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub and jiu-jitsu black belt turned fighter Ryan Hall will all be competing at the event.
"To be completely honest, yes," Gracie says in response to the question of whether it's necessary to use MMA fighters to get MMA fans to watch a jiu-jitsu event. "And the answer is also that Brendan Schaub really wanted to do this. He asked me. And I was like, 'Hey man, Are you sure? This is pure jiu-jitsu.' And he's like, 'No, man. This is a wonderful test for me. For my schedule it'll work perfect for my next fight. It'll be a great way for me to stay sharp and to test myself mentally and for my jiu-jitsu'. And he's so passionate about jiu-jitsu. I think it's really cool."
There's another purpose, however, to Gracie's use of MMA fighters: a competitive angle.
"A lot of UFC guys, pretty much everybody is claiming to be a black belt as far as I can see," he said. "There's really no way for us to know if you just go in there and throw some punches and get a knockout. How do we really know the legitimacy of somebody's black belt unless they put it out there in the most top tier of jiu-jitsu?
"I think it's honorable for [Schaub] to step in there and do that. Shinya Aoki as well. He's somebody with a black belt in jiu-jitsu and judo and he's putting it to the test. He's not afraid. He said, 'Man, I'll go with anybody in my weight class.' We put him with Kron [Gracie]. Nobody can sleep on Kron.
"It's really cool to see these guys really willing to put it up there," Gracie said enthusiastically. "Above all, they're just warriors."
While there's lots of benefits to following a MMA model in promoting an event, there are challenges, too. Gracie says the Metamoris II fight card payouts will be between $150,000 and $200,000 in aggregate. "These guys are being paid too much," he said laughing.
There's also the challenge of momentum. Gracie recognizes if Metamoris is to be successful, there has to be continuity from event to event. To do that they're aiming for four shows in a calendar year with one perhaps in New York City, although nothing's confirmed at the moment. Gracie said some fighters might be signed to exclusive deals as a way to have a consistent, promotable presence.
In addition, they're changing they're rules. In the inaugural Metamoris show, competitors either won by submission or all matches were a draw. This time a panel of three black belt judges will decide if there's a winner in the event of a draw. But unlike boxing or MMA, they won't be scoring rounds. Unlike other jiu-jitsu tournaments, they won't be scoring points for sweeps, reversals and other definable actions.
Instead, Gracie is looking for a "certain openness" that lets the individual judges draw on their expertise and experience. Much like PRIDE rules, matches will be viewed as a whole.
This method of scoring, Gracie believes, will also help inform their matchmaking down the road at future shows. "The problem is as far as building a future for Metamoris and the campaign, it's hard to just give a draw when clearly one guy is completely controlling technically a match and being able to keep that control throughout the match," he said.
The key, Gracie contends, and what this effort is primarily about, is centering the entire exercise on what makes jiu-jitsu the most exciting: the submission. Competitors will still be expected to hunt for it even with the new scoring system. In fact, Metamoris has plans to introduce championship belts at some point in the future that can only be earned or lost by submission.
"We want to really honor the submission," Gracie argues, "because ultimately, that's what really going to do it for you."
It isn't just the submission Metamoris is honoring, though. It's the idea that consumers should be given what they want, from a rule set that makes a sport exciting, to competitors they recognize and care about to a format that focuses on showcasing the best talent available.
"We thought the most respect we can do for the art is to create a place where only the best come together and we have just one mat, we have the lights on that mat. And then we just creatively started building everything outside of that to the point where we felt like it was in alignment with that black belt philosophy: the production is black belt, the stream is black belt, the experience of the fighters is black belt," Gracie said. "I try to keep that integrity all the way through."