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)