Tension fills the arena as a series of swirling spotlights strobe dully in the background. All eyes turn towards the ramp, where a man steps up confidently in a blue gi. As he steps up the walkway the lighting shifts to a deep red, casting an otherworldly effect upon the entire scene. Two smoke machines fire jets of steam that frame his silhouette for an instant, dyed crimson by the hellish lights. He looks down the elevated path to his opponent, who has taken his place on the huge mat, and strides forward confidently as his walkout music blares over the speakers:
“Oooooooooooh! Who lives in a pineapple under the sea!? SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS! …”
The competitor breaks into a grin and I throw my head back to join the peals of laughter filling the Reggie Lewis Center at Roxbury Community College in Boston Massachusetts. When the music and applause finally ended for this fighter, who had by then adopted a much more serious posture and expression, the two competitors tied up and engaged in a brief but exciting match. Within a minute the aforementioned fighter, whose name is Rodrigo Alonso, locked up a triangle choke and submitted his opponent in one of the fastest finishes of the night. As he raised his arms in triumph I shook my head and thought, “Only at a jiujitsu competition.”
Last night I joined about 60 people from my Brazilian Jiujitsu School to go see the Fight to Win Pro event in Boston, Massachusetts, and the night was filled with experiences like this. Fight to Win Promotions puts on MMA and grappling competitions across the country, and give out cash prizes to the winners. Most jiujitsu competitions are fairly straightforward events, with competitors of all belts gathering in painfully hot and crowded high school arenas to test their skills. Fight to Win attempts to imbue this event with the professionalism and polish of MMA and other combat sports. Not only do they publicize the event and the fighters by streaming the competitions online, but they also add showmanship to the events with music and effects that seem inspired by the glory days of the Japanese organization Pride Fighting Championships.
The night had moments of intense drama and impressive demonstrations of athleticism and technique. Anyone who says jiujitsu is boring has never seen a no gi match where a competitor cart wheels over his opponent’s guard, taking his back twice before finally submitting him. The night had dozens of similarly exciting matches that showed just how fascinating the sport of jiujitsu can be. Featuring fights between purple, brown, and black belts, it was hard to say that any match was ever met with anything but enthusiasm by the crowd. By far my favorite moment came during a brown belt match, when Haleem Syed locked up and finished a beautiful arm bar only to release it when he thought that his opponent Roman Solobiev had tapped. After a brief moment of confusion with the judges, he calmly proceeded to reengage and submit his opponent with the exact same move. It managed to be both a fascinating technical display that also keeping every member of the audience on the edge of their seat.
Fight to Win also gets major local fighters to come out and compete. This event featured Bellator fighter Rick Hawn, UFC veteran Gabriel Gonzaga, ADCC champ Yuri Simoes, and three time Olympian and silver medalist Travis Stevens. Each of these fights certainly lived up to the hype, and the crowd went wild at the entrance of each fighter. The main event was particularly captivating, and FloGrappling.com rightly called it “The real superfight we should be talking about.” Travis Stevens certainly made an impression upon the world of competitive bjj, leaping into the air and stomping the mat in a way that made everyone in the audience just a little bit nervous. The fight that followed was a nail-biting technical battle that went back and for the between the two experienced grapplers. Although I didn’t necessarily agree with the final decision for the main event, it was an incredible evening of entertainment.
These matches reminded me exactly why I love jiujitsu and why I think that it will continue to evolve as a spectator sport in years to come. Jiujitsu can be confusing at first for people who have never seen it before, but given a little time any individual can pick it up as easily as they do watching baseball or football. One of my friends brought his father along for the night, and he was having as much fun as anyone from our gym. Moreover, organizations like Fight to Win and the Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) push their fighters to have engaging and exciting fights by offering incentives to submit opponents rather than stalling for points. The result is more dynamic fights than one might see at the average IBJJF tournament that are more palatable to casual audiences. I was struck by this during some of the black belt gi fights, which can tend to be very heavy on stalling simply because both competitors understand the risks that every position holds. Yet most of the Fight to Win matches were riveting, and often ended in spectacular finishes.
What I appreciated most about the event however was that it gave the schools and the local jiujitsu community a chance to come together in one place in a beautiful celebration of what they love. It is always refreshing to talk to my friends from class when we’re not trying to choke each other, and it was a great moment of community to come out to support people competing out of our gym. Talking to a cameraman for the even that I had met earlier in the week, I also appreciated the platform that it gave to the fighters. The high quality show attracts significant attention, and even netted one of the regular grapplers a Bellator contract some time ago. Fight to Win is a very interesting event that is helping to promote jiujitsu as a spectator sport while giving excellent opportunities to fighters and their local community to come together and do what they love.
If nothing else there is something fascinating about looking around a packed auditorium and thinking, “God, I would not want to pick a fight in here.”