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Jiu-Jitsu World League aims to professionalize the sport

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Photo courtesy Jiu-Jitsu World League

There are two changes happening simultaneously today in the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

First, it's popularity has grown and continues to expand. There have never been more competitors at more age ranges and in more geographical locations than there are today. YouTube is filled with grappling tutorials, competition footage and even documentaries about the sport. There are clothing lines and an entire economy of small businesses making training gear or other supplemental content. Jiu-jitsu is as much a self-defense art as it is a lifestyle.

Second, there's more competition than ever. That's as true for the competitors as it is the grappling organizations. If a grappler wants to challenge him or herself, they can do so nearly every weekend. If an organization wants to stage an event, they will do so in a more crowded landscape than ever.

Yet, despite this flourishing, structural problems persist, limiting the sport's appeal. For the highest level of competition (with some exception), athletes are not paid. A world-class black belt who medals at the annual IBJJF World Championships earns no prize money for their victory. In addition, for all of jiu-jitsu's growth, it is not a spectator sport. Crowd attendance at even the most prestigious, high-profile events is comprised more of competitors' teammates than fans without a direct link to what's happening on the mats.

That, say Rigan Machado and Mathew Tinley, is why they've created the Jiu-Jitsu World League (JJWL)

Machado, a Carlos Gracie, Jr. black belt and member of one of jiu-jitsu's royal families, along with Tinley, a sports entrepreneur whose has held pursued myriad efforts such as representing Mike Tyson or creating sports programming for television networks, argue the sport's potential is woefully untapped. The athletes don't need to be mistreated, they contend, to say nothing of the fact there are other consequences to not properly compensating them. In addition, they are adamant jiu-jitsu should be fun for everyone, including fans who shouldn't have to train to enjoy what's happening.

"The problem we have is that the last 20 years, this sport has been amateur," Rigan tells MMA Fighting. "We are going to push to be more exciting, to have a chance to reach past the amateur level.

"I want this sport to be bigger, like any other sport."

That process begins on January 15 when the JJWL holds their first event in Irvine, California. The tournament, which will be exclusively in the gi (although some events will be both gi and no gi), will accomplish a number of tasks. For starters, there are two open divisions - one for lighter, the other for heavier competitors - where the winner in each will claim $5,000 dollars in a winner-take-all format.

In addition, competitors at all levels will accrue points at JJWL events for their achievements, which will enable them to either go 'professional' after rankings are established or earn prize money once the first calendar year of events is complete.

"We introduced money," notes Tinley. "These guys at the top, they are professionals. They're putting their whole lives into this. They really are top athletes. There's money in this sport and it's not being distributed to the athletes fairly.

"Even the white belts will walk away with a significant amount of money."

Tinley says the twelve tournaments will all be in the United States and in all corners of the country. "We're going to go to every region in America. Most people are within three or four hour drive of at least one tournament, probably several tournaments."

"We want to keep the athletes in the sport. We're losing the top guys in jiu-jitsu to mixed martial arts," Rigan argues. "A lot of guys are going to the UFC because there's no money."

The key to JJWL's value add, its founders argue, is not merely that this is another jiu-jitsu tournament, only competitors can earn prize money. Instead, the rules (which can be read in their entirely here) have been adapted to encourage activity.

"We're doing points that encourage submission. The first thing Rigan did was changed the rules. Our rules are much more aggressive than what's out there now.

"We listened to everyone - white belt, blue belt, purple belts up to the top, very, very top guys - a guy like 'Buchecha' says that he can't even hardly watch jiu-jitsu anymore because the guys just hold," Tinley claims. "It's painful to watch and these guys are going to lose, anyway. We've changed the rules so you cannot hold. If you hold and you try to stall the fight, you get points deducted. The third time it happens, you are disqualified. You have to keep the fight moving."

The rules Machadao has authored award more points for high amplitude throws, fewer for dominant if static positions like mount and aggressively penalize stalling. A single warning deducts two points from a competitor. The second removes four. Any third warning merits automatic disqualification.

To make these and other adjustments work, Tinley says the referees will be unbiased, not affiliated with any team or school and have their performances graded. How they score after being reviewed will determine what matches they'll oversee with better referees earning spots in important black belt contests.

"The second thing we've done is we have unbiased referees," he says. "They're not beholden to any particular organization and those referees will be rated, just like they are in the NBA, NFL. The top referees will do the black belt fights. The other ones will, if they do not do a good job, will not be our referees anymore. We will put them through professional training."

While JJWL may be holding points-based tournaments and matches, they're adamant actual submissions are important and should be the focal point of competition. That's why, they say, they've added incentives to landing one in their competitions.

"We reward submissions. We have a points system throughout the year, no different than tennis. If you win a match by submission, you get the double the points you do than if you win by a decision. We're encouraging scoring and submissions."

In a novel twist for points-based competition, JJWL has completely eliminated any and all use of advantages.

"We've gotten rid of advantages," Tinley notes. "In semis and finals, in all classes, there will be an overtime. So, if you're tied at the end, they'll be a sudden death overtime. People don't like draws. There's very good fighting going on, but then you get a draw and it's a little like kissing your sister. There should be a winner."

Whether these changes can work and JJWL can, in practice more than theory, offer substantive evolution is impossible to predict. Tinley argues, though, their mission is noble. What JJWL intends to do is not merely aimed at benefiting their organization, but fundamentally transforming the sport into something it currently is not.

"We're trying to do [all of this] not only so they don't leave the sport, but for all competitors - white, blue, purple belts - so when they invest all their time training and pour everything into it and make an investment by going out on a Saturday of their time, that they go their and know they're going to have a fight. They're not going to go out there and be held and lose on an advantage.

"People go out there stalling not to lose instead of fighting to win,"

Perhaps most importantly, even jiu-jitsu's biggest advocates have long been resigned to the what they see as inevitable: jiu-jitsu is boring, unless you've trained. Tinley says Marcus Almeida 'Buchecha', the sport's top competitor who is also JJWL's promotional face, is uninteresting even for initiated. Unless this changes, Tinley believes the sport can only be a limited version of itself, removed from key audiences that spaces like broadcast television can offer.

"It's just not exciting for the fans," he says. "It's not going to grow the right way. You're going to have people in the gym, but you're not going to be able to grow the sport the way you should. So, this really takes jiu-jitsu back to its essence if you listen to top guys talk. They talk about how jiu-jitsu's gone away from its essence and has become deluded. We're trying to take it back to its essence."

The opening event in January won't be live streamed, but recorded with matches and highlights released for free once the event is over. From there on out, Tinley claims, all events will be live streamed without charge.

A question hovers over the entire endeavor, despite all its intended nobility and practicality. If what JJWL diagnoses as problematic and what they propose as solutions are so obvious, why did it take so long for someone to do it? Aside from lacking the infrastructure, Tinley doesn't really know why.

More importantly, the JJWL President and CEO doesn't really care.

"There's a huge, pent-up demand to do this right and it's not being done right, and we're going to do it right," he says matter-of-factly.

"It's just that simple."