The 2012 Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships and the Evolution of Jiu Jitsu

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Evolution is often implied to mean a change for the better. But like the evolution of sightless fish deep in the Marina Trench, evolution can also mean adapting to the constraints of a given environment, even if something important is lost. Jiu Jitsu is evolving at breakneck speeds, but some influential coaches and competitors argue that this change is moving the art away from its spirit and intent.

The Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships were founded in 1995, and were originally billed as the Campeonato Panamericano, or Pan American Championships. Traditionally, events that bill themselves as “Pan Ams” are open to athletes from North and South America and are often second in prestige only to the World Championships (or Olympics). In 2004 the IBJJF stopped billing the tournament as the Pan Ams, as the event had always been open to athletes from anywhere in the world. The title of Pan Championships was therefore fitting, as the prefix Pan- is Greek for “of everything,” making the Pans functionally indistinguishable from the World Jiu Jitsu Championships. Yet despite hosting the highest number of competitors of any tournament, the Pans are seen as less prestigious than the Worlds.

Watching the 2012 Pans comfortably from home thanks to the effort of the Budovideos team’s multi-mat live video feed, I found myself blown away by the caliber of Jiu Jitsu taking place in Irvine, California, but also worried in small, nagging ways about the direction the art was taking. In many ways the 2012 Pans were a great competition. The level of Jiu Jitsu was high, the presentation was more professional than ever, and the officiating was for the most part fair and accurate. But following the Pans there was a chorus of criticism from competitors and coaches that demonstrated clearly that Jiu Jitsu competitions were at something of an impasse.

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Pan Jiu Jitsu 2012 – Kron Gracie vs Marcus Almeaida and Bernardo Faria vs Carlos Antonio Jr. (Budovideos)

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Jiu Jitsu competitors are true athletes, which is increasing the pace and level of the competition, but also forcing out the more casual participants. This isn’t inherently negative. For these people there are still smaller, regional tournaments in which to participate. However, as an open tournament the Pans are functionally the same as both the most prestigious tournament, the Mundials, and the lesser local competitions. It’s becoming more difficult for Jiu Jitsu students to know where to gain the experience needed to compete at the highest levels when there is no clear hierarchy of competition.

If the average blue or purple bet entered the Pans, they would find themselves competing against professional-level athletes in an amateur sport whose only job is to train Jiu Jitsu every day with the help of their sponsors, many of whom have been competing and winning for years at the same belt level. Is this fair? I think it is. The best competitions should showcase the best athletes. But holding every event on the IBJJF calendar as an open tournament creates an issue where there is no need to qualify, there are few methods of ranking or seeding the athletes, creating the difficulty of managing a tournament of over 3200 participants. The size of the Pans is a major contributor to many of the other issues that came up this weekend, argues Alan “Gumby” Marques, co-owner of On The Mat.

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Rafael Mendes vs. Mario Reis

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The two main obstacles for instituting a regional qualifying tournament series is the size of the sport and the nature of for-profit tournaments. Despite the record enrollment in the Pans, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu just is not big enough to support a full schedule of qualifying events worldwide. But more importantly, by limiting the participants in the Pans or other major tournaments, the IBJJF would be limiting its own revenue stream.

The number of participants must have made refereeing a difficult job, and the vast majority of referees performed admirably, making really difficult calls that were for the most part fair. However, organization and officiating and was an issue for some competitors. There were instances of questionable disqualifications, for example for purported slamming and knee-reaping, as well as competitors whose names ceased to be called to matches due to organizational errors.

Andre Galvao took to social media after the event to suggest that, “The IBJJF is doing a very huge mistake for having only 1 referee per mat.” The Atos captain suggests that it is contradictory to have three referees to officiate the black belt finals, but only one for all other matches. If Jiu Jitsu requires three officials for some matches, why does it not require them for others? This is not an issue in other combat sports where the number of officials is standardized. Galvao goes so far as to question why the money made from the record number of competitors is not spent on more officials to lessen the amount of referee mistakes that are inevitable with overworked referees.

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Ruben Cobrinha Charles vs. new Atos member Mike Fowler

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The mythology of Jiu Jitsu and the practice of Jiu Jitsu are increasingly divergent. We tell ourselves that Jiu Jitsu is a fighting art created by a scrawny Brazilian family for self-defense and proven in unarmed combat in one of the first no-rules tournaments of its kind. There are several things wrong with that statement, but for the most part the idea that Jiu Jitsu is a vital martial art for both defense and fighting is one that most practitioners feel as both a truth and a point of pride. Seeing the action on the weekend, many matches lived up to this description. To watch some of the competitors, notably the epic absolute semi-final match between Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida and Kron Gracie seemed like a fight without strikes, even if it took place for periods of time in the 50/50 guard.  Some coaches and athletes were admittedly disgusted with the use of strategies such as the double guard pull and the 50/50 guard, which they say led to stalling and playing for advantages.

Two of the most successful American Jiu Jitsu coaches, Rafael Lovato Jr. and Llyod Irvin, both remarked after the Pans that they were unhappy with the direction of the sport. Lovato stated that he was, “Speechless after that experience…. The art I love & have devoted my life to is becoming a point sport.” Lovato also criticized the flagrant sand-bagging that was evident, as previous winners in the lower belts were still competing without promotion. Irvin’s thousand-word rant on Facebook boiled down to the fact that with the current rule-set incentivizing double-guard pulling and stalling from the 50/50 was taking Jiu Jitsu further away from its roots, “I didn’t sign up for that but am now forced to practice it or quit bjj competitions.” As Irvin mentions, his athletes, such as JT Torres and up-and-coming purple belt Keenan Cornelius, are notable for their use of both tactics – although they are submitting people with them. Cornelius pulled off a string of submissions to win his weight and the open class at the 2012 Pans, including the same 50/50 armbar twice.

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Keenan Cornelius vs. Joao Miyao, Middleweight Open Class

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Hostility to the 50/50 guard has existed in Jiu Jitsu since the position made an appearance on the competition scene. The position came to prominence through its use to slow down Cobrinha and led to competition victories by Rafael Mendes and his Atos teammates. Mendes has been vague on where he learned the position, but it seems to have been developed by Roberto “Gordo” Correa and exists in other martial arts such as sambo. Ryan Hall is another prominent developer of the position, which he learned through Brandon Vera and Dean Lister.

The primary attack from 50/50 is the reverse heel-hook, which is banned by the IBJJF. While teaching a seminar at my academy Rafael Lovato Jr. stated that he believes heel-hooks are rightfully disallowed, due to the difficulty of escape when wearing the gi. This leaves the 50/50 as a predominantly sweep-based position, which can be abused due to the ease of stalling without heel-hooks and the difficulty of disengaging. In this Pans, however, we saw Keenan Cornelius armlocking his opponents from 50/50, as well as Marcus Buchecha spinning into a kneebar from the position. Early in its use there were calls for the IBJJF to ban the position. I think that given more time to evolve, competitors will learn to use the 50/50 more effectively to improve position and submit their opponents – so long as stalling calls continue to be actively enforced.

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Rafael Mendes vs. Cobrinha – featherweight finals

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The other technique that leads to double guard pulling is the berimbolo from de la Riva guard. Ironically, like the 50/50 the berimbolo was brought to fame by Rafael Mendes, who does anything but stall from the position. The berimbolo is a technique that was formerly obscure enough to make it an easy sweep, but as more competitors become knowledgeable of its counters we may see it relied upon less in competition, no matter how cool it feels to pull off.

The most vocal critic of the IBJJF this week did not compete at the 2012 Pans. Ryan Hall was featured on the Open Mat Radio podcast, where he stated, “I’m getting a little bit frustrated with jiu-jitsu to be honest. It’s getting to the point where the rules, I feel, are really getting in the way.” Hall highlighted the farcicality of the instant knee-reaping disqualification, the arbitrary positional rules, and competitors who he feels are cheating to win. The two-part interview is a tour-de-force denunciation of the absurdity in the sport, and in the IBJJF in particular. Yet Hall acknowledges the prestige of the federation’s tournaments and thus the need to compete in them – “I love jiu-jitsu. I don’t love competitive jiu-jitsu. I love competing against the best people, but I do it in spite of the rules, in spite of the fact that I know a lot of times people aren’t gonna get a fair shake.”

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Victor Estima vs. Kron Gracie 2 – Middleweight

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With all of the negativity directed towards the 2012 Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships, it is important not to lose sight of the amazing things we witnessed this weekend. Many of the matches were fast-paced, highly-technical, and action packed. It is also the largest competition for the Masters and Seniors divisions. Since the Jiu Jitsu population skews older in North America, for many the Pans are the epitome of the sport. Budovideos high-definition footage of every mat and every match over four long days truly brought the sport of Jiu Jitsu to a higher level, and let those of us stuck at home feel like we were right there in Irvine. It also helped to be able to watch the competition at white through brown, particularly for the viewers who compete in those divisions. I found it very educational to watch the purple belts, since these are the guys that I would be competing against (Michael Leira Jr. won purple adult Leve). Without this ability many would still be in the dark about purple-belt middle and open champion Keenan Cornilius’s outstanding skills and killer instinct. In the black belt division the performances of Rafael Mendes, Leandro Lo, Kron Gracie, Zak Maxwell, Kayron Gracie, Marcus Buchecha, and Antônio “Cara de Sapato” Carlos Jr. demonstrated what Jiu Jitsu is supposed to be.

The featherweights blew the doors off the competition with Rafael Mendes and Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles submitting their opponents to meet in another epic final match. Unlike their previous meetings this match ended decisively after Rafael orchestrated a beautiful sweep set up from the de la Riva guard directly into a leg drag pass. Cobrinha’s grip on Mendes’s collar became his undoing as it led to Cobrinha being caught in a nasty armbar. Mendes submitted every opponent he faced at the pans without having a point scored on him or even breaking a sweat. Surprisingly Rafael’s brother Guilherme lost in the light-featherweight finals to the smaller Bruno Malfacine in a highly strategic match that was decided on an early takedown.

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Guilherme Mendes vs. Bruno Malfacine – light featherweight finals

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At lightweight Leandro Lo confirmed the suspicions of those who follow Jiu Jitsu at all, cleaning out the division and beating Lucas Lepri in the finals. I was surprised after the event to learn that many had not heard of Lo until his Pan victory. At least now everyone will know who to look out for at the 2012 Worlds. While he did not win his division or the open, Kron’s double-bronze winning performance seemed much more epic than the results suggest. Always attacking, Kron had one of the best matches of the tournament with Marcus Buchecha in the semifinals of the absolute division. Almost lost in all of the controversies coming out of the Pans was the performance of Kayron Gracie whose victories, including a beautiful submission against Vitor Toledo in the finals, were made to look effortless. Marcus Buchecha, though, was the standout of the tournament. With a weight-class gold against CheckMat teammate Alexander Trans, Buchecha closed out the absolute with another teammate, Carlos Antonio Jr., giving the newcomer Cara de Sapato the championship. The full results can be found at BJJ Heroes, and a special summary of the female division can be found at the Grappling Girls Guild blog.

In the team competition, the powerhouse of Alliance won the gold with 86 points, followed by Checkmat (63) and Gracie Barra (58). It is notable that Checkmat had about half the athletes as Alliance and a large part of their points came from their domination of the higher weights at black belt. Notable team victories also include Gracie Barra’s first place rank in the juvenile, masters and seniors divisions, demonstrating their commitment to Jiu Jitsu across all age groups, as well as Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu, Gracie Elite and Team Lloyd Irvin showing good results at the lower belts and age classes, demonstrating that they will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

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Kron Gracie vs. Jake Mackenzie

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The 2012 Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships seem to be a watershed moment for Jiu Jitsu. In short, the Pans represented the full metamorphosis of Jiu Jitsu from a martial art to a sport. Or at least it was when many people finally admitted this was the case. The transformation isn’t entirely detrimental.  Streaming live on the internet in HD and with a packed arena, more people are competing in and watching Jiu Jitsu tournaments than ever, and the professionalism of the athletes and officials is improving every year.

Yet this competition was marked with the most vocal criticism of any tournament in recent memory. As Jiu Jitsu is increasing separated from mixed martial arts into its own sport it is still vital to retain the spirit of the martial arts, of fighting. A fight is real. It’s why many of us gravitated towards Jiu Jitsu in the first place to escape from the contrived, bubble-wrapped world around us. Competing under rules that penalize passivity and unrealistic strategies keeps us closer to our roots and the usefulness of the sport in fighting and in self-defense, and keeps Jiu Jitsu from becoming another blind fish in a world of sharks.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “The 2012 Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships and the Evolution of Jiu Jitsu

  1. Christian

    Hi There,

    Firstly let me say, once again, that this is singularly the best BJJ info of any kind available on line. No other site is as in depth or interesting. Most of them desend into “just go train more” so congratulations.

    On to the subject of this article I think I can add something. In Australia we are, just now, instituting individual memberships with member numbers.

    Electronically online all results will be tracked and points awarded with certain competitions worth more then others. This will lead to an annual leader board and individual rankings and will also eliminate people entering as a purple belt one year and then a blue belt the next, along with eliminating all sorts of shenanigans in the junior sections.

    We were told that the IBJJF will be heading this way and that Australia was able to be one of he first countries to go this was due to being slightly more organised than others. Also we have less competitors to track so the task is somewhat simplified.

    I think it would be a great advancement if there was an annual ranking system with weighting given to the bigger tournements and, I am told that this is where we are heading

    Christian

  2. Sean

    Your tournament recap is well written and has great info and insight. I do however feel compelled to play a little devil’s advocate on a few items.

    I think the situation with Galvao’s student is awful, but not indicative of how the tournament was run overall. I was there for 3 days, and competed for one, and while things were running a little bit behind, the organization was impressive, especially considering the record number of competitors. I also did not witness an excessive amount of refereeing complaints– that said, more refs would always be a good thing.

    Also, I read Lloyd Irvin’s rant about double guard pulling. My interpretation is that it started as an offhand comment– that the double guard pull annoyed him– and he was forced to clarify at length after a FB comment war ensued, many bashing the guard pull strategy. But guess what, guard pulling has been around for a long time, and for obvious reasons. The double guard pull (which is understandably annoying to some) is just two competitors doing it at the same time. Again, this has been happening for a few years now and not new to the 2012 Pans.

    Certainly there is room for improvement with the rules. But to praise Mendes is to also praise the style he is popularizing with his success, which leads to more competitors in the 50/50, and facing each other feet to feet. I think he’s incredible, but it’s a little contradictory to bow to his greatness while simultaneously admonishing those who are trying to emulate his game just because they get tangled up while trying.

    my two cents anyway…

    • Agree completely Sean – I tried to point out that overall the officiating was very well done. But I also think it’s important to talk about what didn’t go well and what can be done about it.

  3. having watched ryan hall sit inverted for 8 minutes and do little or nothing in some of his previous matches at other high level tournaments, and having seen lovato’s last Pan Am match where he wasn’t doing much to take any chances and lost by referee decision, some of their complaints feel a bit disingenuous.

    Gui lost to Malfacine b/c he refused to open up while off his back. Malfacine also, was stalling like i’ve never seen stalling done before in a black belt match. the referee admittedly should have restarted them or thrown out penalties. it is clear by how some referee’s act toward coaches and/or competitors that they are afraid of using the penalties for stalling and/or other calls especially when dealing with super well-known/high level famous guys in BJJ. A young guy beat Gianni Grippo if I’m not mistaken, pretty clearly, but that wasn’t the narrative, Gianni was supposed to go on to the finals match and I had the feeling during that match that the match was almost decided before it began if it was a close match. The other guy just wasn’t going to get the nod or the advantages.

    • Fantastic comment, it’s always important to look at the other side of any argument.

      I liked the lapel grip choke Guilherme was going for, but he played it awfully safe for someone who was down two points. I wonder if the hype is getting to him?

  4. Drew

    ^ Are you suggesting apathy with the hype comment? Just curious…

    I think Gui was probably shocked he was taken down, and I think once the omoplata sweep failed, we saw him go hard for the berimbolo for a bit, and then he went back to closed guard, which did surprise me too.

    I will say this, and most people don’t realize it, but Gui is a top player. He usually gets the takedown, and from there stays on top until the finish. If he does pull guard, the sweep is usually fast.

    Definitely an odd match though.

  5. Very well written and insightful critique. I pretty much agree with all of it.

  6. Joe

    Nicely written, whilst you presented your valid criticisms, you also offered feasible recommendations to improve the said areas.

    It’s a shame that the most prestigious BJJ tournaments such as the Pans and Mundials have remained ‘open’ tournaments. Where’s the prestige if anyone can just sign up and enter these tournaments? We don’t see just any country, say, Lithuania, who wishes to compete in the Soccer World Cup, just signs up, pays the entry fee, and competes on the grand stage along with heavyweights such as Brazil, Italy and England. No, any country who wishes to compete in the World Cup has to go thru a series of qualifying tournaments in order to qualify for the final round.

    Prestigious tournaments such as the World Cup and Olympics are always defined by the difficulty of the participants qualifying for it. Another analogy is that, where’s the prestige if Harvard and Oxford were open universities (no, I wasn’t smart or rich enough to go to those Ivy Leagues). Unfortunately, unlike other grappling sports such as Judo and Wrestling, BJJ has not had the same qualifying systems for its own version of World Championship.

    The open format of BJJ prestigious tournaments has resulted in the excessive size and chaos, has put tremendous strain on the organizer’s ability and resources, and has hampered the competitors from competing at their best level. I mean, how can one expect to perform optimally in a weight bracket of 100+ competitors after all the long queue of weighing in and waiting in the bullpen? And this does not include the extra matches if he/she competes in the absolute category.

    It’s quite obvious that the open format tournaments run by IBJJF are designed to maximize the income generated from the entry fee charged on the competitors, and indirectly, to maximize the wealth of IBJJF owner. Andre Galvao pointed out a simple math that since the last Pan Championship attracted more than 3000 participants, multiple that with $100 fee, the organizer must have collected more than $300 thousand.

    The issue is that IBJJF is basically owned by a single person with no other co-owners, or at least, a set of Board of Directors, and it is rather not difficult to see that these IBJJF tournaments have become a rather lucrative and growing source of income for IBJJF.

    Taking IBJJF’s interest point of view, I’d say that the current business model of collecting entry fees from the competitors is not a viable long term business model. IBJJF, if it intends to maximize its owner’s wealth from running the tournaments, have to look at generating more income from the sponsorship b/c this is where the bulk of revenue should ideally come from (look at the Soccer World Cup, Olympics etc, what’s their primary source of income? That’s right, sponsorship).

    In order to attract the sponsors though, the IBJJF tournaments have to increase its prestige and visibility, and may I say, excitement (50-50 tangle for 10 minutes is not exciting). They need to first make the tournament exclusive to the best 16 competitors who have earned their spots for the tournaments via qualifying series, or have demonstrated consistency in the world class tournaments in recent years (something like ADCC).

    Hopefully we will see these changes happening soon. Otherwise, the IBJJF runs the risk of losing the top talents from competing in its competitions. The trend has already begun with some of the top competitors such as Xande Ribeiro, Andre Galvao and Rodolfo Viera opting out from the last Pan Championship to compete in the World Pro Cup in Abu Dhabi which pays out lucrative prize money to winners, and yes, they have the competitors qualified for the main tournament too.

    • Wow, Joe. I think you win “best comment” ever on this site! I want to clarify that I have no problem with a “for-profit” tournament, particularly the IBJJF’s which have done so much good for Jiu Jitsu. But as you point out, there can be problems with this approach.

    • Sean

      Regarding Joe’s comments, I share the sentiment to raise the prestigiousness of the major tournaments and increase the quality, but I think it’s important to point out that “chaos” is an inaccurate way to describe the organization of the Pan Championships.

      Despite the large numbers of competitors, the Pan (and other IBJJF run) tournaments are typically the best run and least chaotic of any competitions that I’m aware of. LCD screens tell competitors which mat their division will be on well in advance of their scheduled time. Brackets are clear. Division schedules are posted days in advance (sounds basic, but trust me not all organizers do this). There is an organized system in place to direct competitors where to be and when. Are there mistakes made? Sure. Are scheduled times delayed? Sometimes, yes.
      But in the context of overall organization and professionalism compared to tournaments run by other bodies, it’s not even close, IBJJF is far ahead.

      Don’t get me wrong, the IBJJF has a much to improve– but ask anyone who regularly competes and they will tell you the same. It’s important to remember that Galvao’s example is annectodal and not representative of a systemic problem– I’ve heard way more egregious stories from other much smaller tournaments. I.e. we shouldn’t blow it out of proportion.

      Regarding the presigiousness, the World Cup of soccer/football is presigious because you have to beat the best in the world to be the champion. If more teams were allowed to qualify to enter, this would in no way diminish the accomplishment of being the World Cup winner. Same as with Worlds and Pans. I agree that there will be a tipping point which will be (which has likely already arrived in some lower belt divisions) where there are just too many competitors in certain divisions. That said, while I think it’s inevitable I just don’t think qualifying tournaments would be a positive addition (among other reason I won’t ramble further on about, it will only exaserbate “sandbagging”/ delaying belt promotions).

  7. open or not, the amount of matches is about comparable to Judo where one must qualify to make it to those events.
    in my blue belt/feather/adult division, it was 7 matches to win Gold.
    To win the Olympics in Judo by comparison, it is 7 matches.
    I don’t think the Pans nor the Worlds even in the biggest divisions have yet hit the point where they are TOO big and must have qualifying requirements.

    I think based on the competition and level therein, you don’t get recreational players that just “show up to do the Pans and have fun”. You might see this in some of the masters divisions, but beyond the blue belt divisions, in the adult divisions, it’s is by and large only dedicated competitors with elite level experience that show up.
    there were plenty of divisions at the Pans where it was only 3 matches to Gold.
    And you think we should make it harder for athletes to make it to the Pans?
    3 matches. 3 matches to win the PAN CHAMPIONSHIP.
    There are other IBJJF events where in the lighter weight categories, it is 1 match for Gold.
    The day may come when popularity forces a qualifying system, but that day hasn’t arrived.
    As for comparisons with Judo, in Judo there is only your weight class at the national and international events.
    There aren’t 14 world champion divisions based on senior 1-3, master, executive, adult, whatever.
    b/c virtually every black belt in the world in Judo at a particular weight is essentially in the same division if they are under 30, you have to limit those who qualify.

  8. Josh

    I think any criticism of his comments on Rafael Mendes are slightly unfair. This is due to the fact that yes, he uses the 50/50 and yes, he uses the berimbolo. However he does so with an efficiency that almost everyone else lacks, there is no way you could claim he stalls with them. i think it is very unfair to criticize someone that slaughters one of the best ever competitors in Cobrinha in under 5 minutes. It is not his fault that other competitors abuse his techniques to stall.

  9. Ted Moseby

    Black Belt Pro League

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