PRO SPOT­LIGHT

Black Belt - - CONTENTS - BY MARK JA­COBS

Grap­pling com­pe­ti­tion typ­i­cally hasn’t of­fered pay­days that are sub­stan­tial enough to keep the best ath­letes — those with the tal­ent needed to go pro — in the sport, but that’s slowly chang­ing.

It’s the dream of many mar­tial artists to be able to earn money do­ing what they love. His­tor­i­cally, the only way to make that hap­pen has been to open a school. But teach­ing is not the same as do­ing.

In re­cent years, pro­fes­sional mixed mar­tial arts and kick­box­ing have al­lowed a few tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als to make money from ac­tu­ally do­ing their arts and then com­pet­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, MMA and kick­box­ing come with a se­vere price to pay in terms of phys­i­cal dam­age. Those who prac­tice a grap­pling art, like Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu or judo, and don’t par­tic­u­larly want to take a lot of punches to the head have al­ways been out of luck when it comes to mak­ing money from com­pet­ing. With the ex­cep­tion of the Abu Dhabi Com­bat Club Sub­mis­sion Wrestling World Cham­pi­onship, held only once ev­ery two years and pay­ing out sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars to those who medal and noth­ing to those who don’t, world-class grap­plers were for­tu­nate just to make pocket change. BUT THE WORM be­gan to turn in 2012 when Ralek Gracie in­tro­duced Me­ta­moris, a slickly pro­duced pro­fes­sional grap­pling show. Broad­cast on a pay-per-view ba­sis over the in­ter­net, it fea­tured elite grap­plers who were paid to com­pete in in­di­vid­ual con­tests much like in a high-end MMA show.

“Prior to Me­ta­moris, I’d done a cou­ple of su­per­fights at grap­pling tour­na­ments and was paid like $200,” said J.T. Tor­res, the 2013 world no- gi Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu cham­pion. “Then I got in­vited to do Me­ta­moris, and my first show paid me around $2,000. My sec­ond show was around $3,000. They had amaz­ing pro­duc­tion, pro­mo­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion. For the first time, I re­ally felt like I was a pro ath­lete out there.”

While Me­ta­moris couldn’t sus­tain its costs and im­ploded amid

ac­cu­sa­tions that some com­peti­tors weren’t be­ing paid what they were promised, other would-be pro­mot­ers sat up and took no­tice of a po­ten­tial mar­ket for pro­fes­sional grap­pling. Nu­mer­ous pro con­tests sprang up in the United States and overseas. Some barely lasted through their first show, but oth­ers man­aged to carve out a place for them­selves and show con­sis­tent growth. SETH DANIELS, a life­long ju­doka and BJJ brown belt, be­gan or­ga­niz­ing pro­fes­sional grap­pling in the Denver area in 2015. Since then, his Fight to Win pro­mo­tion has run more than 50 shows across Amer­ica and is poised to ex­pand internationally in 2018.

“I was pro­mot­ing MMA fights and rock con­certs but even­tu­ally got burned out with that, but I still had all the equip­ment, and the only thing I re­ally en­joyed any­way was grap­pling,” Daniels said. “So my wife and I came up with the idea to com­bine our knowl­edge of pro­mot­ing cage fight­ing and con­certs for a pro-grap­pling show and see if peo­ple would come. Me­ta­moris had al­ready set the tem­plate, and we fig­ured we’d put on a show, make sure every­one got paid and see if we could grow the sport.”

The re­ac­tion to his first few events was so pos­i­tive that Daniels be­gan branch­ing out to Texas, then Cal­i­for­nia and fi­nally across the coun­try. Along the way, he at­tracted the at­ten­tion of a new in­ter­net sub­scriber ser­vice called FloGrap­pling, which was look­ing to broad­cast jiu-jitsu and grap­pling matches on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

“It’s a huge part of the busi­ness,” Daniels said. “If you do jiu-jitsu, you have to have a FloGrap­pling ac­count. Be­cause of how much Flo pays us, I can af­ford to pay the fight­ers more. I’ll pay out close to a mil­lion dol­lars to fight­ers for 2017 and still be in the black.” WHILE NO ONE is get­ting rich from grap­pling just yet, the signs of progress are there. Jef­frey Chu man­ages a sta­ble of fight­ers that in­cludes Gor­don Ryan, Garry Tonon and Ed­die Cum­mings, all of whom have be­come ma­jor names in the jiu-jitsu world, pri­mar­ily be­cause of their suc­cess in pro­fes­sional matches. Chu said the sport is start­ing to get to where his ath­letes can make a liv­ing from it.

“We’ve built up good re­la­tion­ships with most of the pro­mot­ers, and the pay can vary from $5,000 up to five fig­ures with them com­pet­ing six to eight times a year,” Chu said. “Some ath­letes will get spon­sor­ships from com­pa­nies that make mar­tial arts gear, but now we’re also start­ing to see more main­stream com­pa­nies like Mus­cle­Pharm spon­sor­ing grap­plers. Sem­i­nars are an­other great way the ath­letes earn money. As the sport grows and stars emerge, more peo­ple want to learn from them. We’ve had of­fers to do sem­i­nars all over the world.”

But pro grap­pling is still a niche mar­ket, and pro­mot­ers need to find ways to at­tract at­ten­tion. One or­ga­ni­za­tion, Sub­mis­sion Un­der­ground, of­ten uses a for­mat that en­tails pit­ting ex­pert grap­plers against bet­ter-known MMA fight­ers in grap­pling matches de­signed to gen­er­ate mass ap­peal.

Fight to Win, while con­cen­trat­ing more on pure grap­plers and us­ing up­com­ing lo­cal tal­ent in its shows, also has brought in some big-name fight­ers. Tor­res, fresh off win­ning the 2017 ADCC World Cham­pi­onship, was slated to take on for­mer UFC light­weight champ Benson Hen­der­son in the main event at Fight to Win’s New York de­but in Oc­to­ber 2017 when Hen­der­son had to pull out be­cause of in­jury.

“It’s def­i­nitely more in­ter­est­ing go­ing against an MMA fighter like that be­cause they bring a whole new level of ex­po­sure,” Tor­res said. “More ex­po­sure is good for me, and it’s good for the sport.”

While MMA fight­ers won’t earn nearly as much from grap­pling as they do from a ma­jor MMA con­test, it does pro­vide a com­pet­i­tive out­let for older fight­ers who no longer want to take the pun­ish­ment dished out in a strik­ing bat­tle. AF­TER DO­ING 50 bare-knuckle Burmese-box­ing matches in South­east Asia fol­lowed by sev­eral MMA and kick­box­ing bouts when he was in his late 30s, Phil Dun­lap thought he was done with se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion.

“I had my last fight when I was 40 but felt I was slow­ing down and couldn’t hang at the level I wanted,” said Dun­lap, 54. “I had done some grap­pling tour­na­ments just for fun, but then I got sick and was mis­di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic can­cer. I fig­ured I might as well make some mem­o­ries while I could, so I started do­ing more tour­na­ments. Some pro shows took no­tice and con­tacted me. Now I think I’m the old­est one com­pet­ing on the pro cir­cuit, and that makes me pretty pop­u­lar with the crowd.”

Dun­lap said that while grap­pling is much eas­ier on the body than MMA, the pro matches are very close to the hype and ex­cite­ment lev­els that sur­round pro­fes­sional fights — but with much less ego.

“You’re treated like stars, but there are a lot less hard cases in grap­pling,” he said. “Half the time, you’re chill­ing back­stage with your op­po­nent be­fore the match. At the end of the day, it’s just grap­pling. I feel I can do these till they drag my corpse off the mats.”

It’s just grap­pling — and you get paid for it. Who could ask for more?

Phil Dun­lap (right)

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