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Metamoris, Garry Tonon and the truth about exclusive contracts in sport jiu-jitsu

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Photo courtesy Garry Tonon

Garry Tonon won't be competing at Metamoris 6 on May 9th. It's true he was offered a match opposite UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon, but ultimately turned down the opportunity (Marcelo Garcia brown belt Dillon Danis is now scheduled to face off against Lauzon).

The reason for his decline, it has been rumored, is Tonon wasn't merely offered the match against Lauzon, but the match as part of an exclusive deal that would limit his professional grappling opportunities to Metamoris events only (IBJJF and ADCC competitions, however, are still fair game). Tonon ultimately declined the offer and competed instead most recently at the third Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) this past Sunday. When the sudden and late absence of jiu-jitsu black belt Marcelo Mafra from EBI 3 was tied to the rumored exclusivity of all Metamoris contracts, speculation only intensified.

With rumors circulating the two-time Metamoris veteran in Tonon wouldn't be returning for the May card because of exclusivity restrictions, Tonon released a statement Monday explaining his position.

"There's been a lot of speculation about my participation, or lack thereof, in Metamoris 6," a portion of Tonon's statement reads. "I was asked to do Metamoris 6 competing against Joe Lauzon under the pretense that I would sign an exclusive contract with Metamoris. In my opinion, this offer neither benefited myself nor the growth of our sport. Thus, I declined the offer.

"There has also been speculation about other people signing exclusive contracts," Tonon's statement continues, "it is confirmed to me that Dillon Danis has signed one. It is not confirmed to me that Marcelo Mafra has signed one. As far as I know, his lack of participation in EBI could be for any number of reasons."

Tonon's management declined to comment when reached by MMA Fighting, but outrage over Tonons's revelation has been palpable. Exclusivity clauses in fight sports are common, but almost entirely unheard of in sport grappling where events are infrequent and talent relatively scarce. UFC commentator and jiu-jitsu black belt Joe Rogan, for example, stated he will no longer "support" the burgeoning grappling organization due to Tonon's disclosure.

According to Metamoris founder and president Ralek Gracie, however, while Tonon is "trying to speak from the heart", he's also offering a "misleading position."

"First and foremost," Gracie says, "what we did with Garry and we did with a couple other athletes, is we approached them to get their feedback. I had a great conversation with him and a couple other athletes where I expressed the goals of Metamoris. What a lot of people don't know is that one of those goals and ideas is that we were going to sign these guys to a year-long contract with, let's say for Garry and his case, I think it was $140,000 in a year that we offered him and an opportunity to do up to 12 matches."

Gracie says understanding the offer to Tonon and select other grapplers requires acknowledging Metamoris' plans for growth. Recently, Metamoris launched a subscription network called 'All Access'. Gracie says in addition to the premium events the organization already stages a handful of times a year, smaller events or matches will soon be produced in-house and released solely via their new subscription service. This would include what they're tentatively calling their "competition network", a series dedicated to existing top professionals as well as the Road to Metamoris tournaments that will feature up-and-coming grapplers. Some matches will also experiment with rule adjustments, including but not limited to, no time-limit, submission-only matches.

That, Gracie contends, would give Tonon and other exclusively-signed athletes the chance to compete monthly in various Metamoris events, thereby eliminating the need to seek competition opportunities elsewhere.

"We're going to have all kinds of content coming through there and we're going to be building content out of our exclusive studios. Matches that are going to happen over the course of years to build up and create people and build up upcoming athletes and take athletes who already exist to a new level and give them opportunities to compete against the best guys in the game more often. That's something we've had in the works for years that we literally just launched.

"If people really want to support the industry, they'll basically subscribe to Metamoris All Access and give us the ability to do what we continue to do, which is invest every dime into blowing these guys up and making them look cooler than shit. I don't know what anyone's complaining about," he argues.

Still, the issue of exclusivity raises red flags in a sport short on stars and young in terms of professionalization. According to Gracie, Metamoris does not require all participants sign exclusively with them. As it stands, he says they currently have none who work for them under this arrangement. He acknowledges they are pursing three other athletes with offers of exclusivity, but claims exclusivity clauses aren't the norm, but the exception.

When reached for comment by MMA Fighting, Dillon Danis declined to say whether his deal with Metamoris is exclusive. If it is, his situation would not be unique in sport grappling. Another professional grappling organization based out of Brazil, Copa Podio, uses them in nearly identical ways that Gracie envisions for Metamoris.

"Regarding Leandro Lo, he has had an exclusivity contract with Copa Podio since 2012, when he was crowned champion for the second time," Jeferson Mayca, Executive Director of Copa Podio, tells MMA Fighting. "I believe he is the first truly professional fighter in the history of jiu-jitsu. When Felipe Preguiça won his second title he also signed an exclusivity agreement with our event. Their annual salaries increase as they win more titles in the event. This is the career plan we are offering our fighters."

Like Metamoris' pitch to Tonon, Copa Podio allows for IBJJF and ADCC exemptions as well as the Abu Dhabi World Jiu-Jitsu Championships. Mayca notes these events may "pay a cash prize but do not pay for the fighters' image rights," making them acceptable for athlete participation. Metamoris, however, is off limits for Lo and Preguiça.

It is not entirely clear if or how many other professional grappling organizations require exclusivity among their participants.

Those competitors are the crux of the issue. The existence of those other leagues, Gracie says, is what's driving Metamoris' desire to lock up elite talent. Gracie estimates there are "20, 30 events that are directly trying to compete with us." However, none of them, he claims, can do for Tonon what Metmaoris is uniquely positioned to do.

"These are just events that are basically trying to be like us and they're very late if you look at the landscape of things and you look at where we are positioned in the market," Gracie says.

"[Tonon]'s just coming into his strength and fans are figuring out who he is, mostly in part, due to Metamoris, I believe and his exposure in Metamoris," Gracie contends. "Before that, he was just known for basically losing to Kron [Gracie] and doing a good job in the process. We basically built him up and created an opportunity to really showcase his skills, which we do for all grapplers who are very submission hungry. That's what we're going to continue to do."

Gracie insists Metamoris is the brand leader in the professional grappling space, but more than that, they're "a media company, basically" in an environment where most events of this type look "trashy." Aside from the ability to simply get a match, none have the the "capability or infrastructure of building any fighter's brand," he says.

"We're continuing to give these grapplers that are relatively unknown, if you look at the martial arts landscape overall and if you look at the global landscape for sports, they're basically unknown, but we're trying to get them opportunities to compete and pair up against people like Joe Lauzon or like these other athletes who have opportunity or who already have names and recognition.

"That's a really big opportunity," he continues. "They recognize that. My thing is, who am I going to give that opportunity to? Am I going to give that to somebody who wants to take a deal where we're giving them $140,000 a year with options for licensing, clothing deals, with bonus options depending on how they do in their matches, with other ancillary sponsorship opportunities that we're negotiating on their behalf and we're building and getting them opportunities for in addition to all the media that we're so passionate about building and have the ability to project these guys off into the universe as far as grappling and sport and everything in our industry?

"It's select people and people who we feel are directly in line with what we represent, which is Garry Tonon," Gracie continues. "All he does is go for submissions. We know this. That's why we put him on. That's why we want him involved and did nothing but honor that and appreciate that and focus on that. He is basically a hero in our organization. We want nothing but to fully represent him."

As for the $140,000, Gracie was unable to provide full specifics of payment breakdown, but says Tonon's base pay would begin at $5,000 for his first match and would rise incrementally with wins or finishes. Draws or losses in Metamoris events would allow Tonon to maintain whatever level of pay he already achieved.

Gracie intends to move forward with the limited offers of exclusivity and wouldn't say if there are a specific amount of athletes he'd like to see Metamoris sign under these conditions, but would try to seek this kind of arrangement with the appropriate parties.

"I'm not out here to screw anybody," Gracie contends. "I'm not out here to take advantage of anybody and if you talk to people that I connect with and talk to the people that I work with, I don't think you're going to get that kind of feeling. I never felt you could be successful working like that. That's not my plan and that's not what I want to do."