Why do Jiu Jitsu competitors transition to MMA?

I first wrote about this topic in a guest post I did last year, The Next Great American Champion, but it’s still very relevant today.

It’s not easy to make it in Jiu Jitsu. But it’s definitely getting easier.

When I was coming up the ranks. I never thought that I would be doing Jiu Jitsu as a career. It was just a hobby that I was really passionate about. However, I still went to school and worked while I trained. I didn’t have dreams of opening an academy or being an instructor.

But I think the generation coming up now is different. They will want to make Jiu Jitsu their livelihood and they will have more access to money making opportunities.

As a high level competitor today you have a few options to support yourself.

Instruct
Compete
Work (full or part-time)
Be independently wealthy

How much potential earning power you have will depend on a number of factors. Like which tournaments you’ve won, your social media, your personality, your business sense.

You could be one of the greatest grapplers in the world but if no one knows who you are. It will be very hard to promote yourself for seminars, instructor positions, and super fights.

The very best competitors in Jiu Jitsu might make some where in the low six figures. Not including those with academies or large associations. But this is only for the top 1%. Everyone else is left fighting for scraps and trying to carve out a niche for themselves.

I believe teaching Jiu Jitsu is a good long term career plan and running your own academy is a great investment.

But what about young athletes who aren’t established yet and have many years of competitions ahead of themselves?

Running an academy and being an active competitors isn’t easy. Let alone trying to become the very best in the world in order to make a decent living.

Comparably, a middle tier professional fighter in the UFC or Bellator has the potential to earn as much as or more than the very best Jiu Jitsu athletes, with more exposure and a lot more name recognition.

While a top tier black belt competitor ranked in the IBJJF, world’s or Pans medalist might have to scrape by with a lot less.

I’m not advocating that all Jiu Jitsu competitors should move on to mixed martial arts. It needs to be something that you’re passionate about.

However, I am saying that if you decide to pursue mma and happen to do well. The sky’s the limit. Just look at figures like Conor Mcgregor or Ronda Rousey. They were able to transcend their sport into mainstream popularity, wealth, and unlimited opportunities.

I can’t say the same thing about Jiu Jitsu. You could win the world championship and the open class, and still be broke.

Recall Jacare Souza and his transition from Jiu Jitsu to mma after breaking his arm in a match against Roger Gracie. Of course he won, but afterwards there was no reward outside of a hard fought victory. At least in mma they will cover your doctor bill.

Even the success and popularity of Jiu Jitsu is often contributed to the rise of mma.

Popularity

While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is growing every year, it’s growth is nowhere near what MMA has experienced during a similar time frame.

It’s important to note that the optimal years for Jiu Jitsu athletes are the same as those of MMA fighters.

I think many Jiu Jitsu athletes get to the point where they consider making the transition to mixed martial arts often due to financial reasons. If you’ve reached a high level in Jiu Jitsu but don’t see a way of supporting yourself. MMA is one way to utilize your developed skill set to make a living.

MMA has a lot to offer athletes that is just not currently present in the sport of Jiu Jitsu namely:
Millions of people potentially knowing who you are
Ability to make a great living, even millions of dollars
Exposure to branch out into other fields like acting
Status as a professional athlete
Lucrative sponsorships with well known companies

There have already been many top competitors and world champions that have made the move to MMA and been successful. Being a Jiu Jitsu athlete, it’s inspiring when I seen guys that I used to compete against in tournaments making it to the most prestigious MMA events and making 5-6 figures per fight. I can see why a lot of competitors make the move from Jiu Jitsu to MMA.

If you love the lifestyle of training all the time and want to monetize you martial art and athletic skills then you really only have one option.

Jiu Jitsu Athletes that transitioned to MMA
Beneil Dariush
Roberto Satoshi
Demian Maia
Ronaldo Jacare
Roger Gracie
Rodolfo Vieira
Ryan Hall
Gilbert Burns
Augusto Mendes
Gabi Garcia
Mackenzie Dern
DJ Jackson

I could keep going but this list is only going to keep getting longer, especially as MMA continues to grow and be able to offer Jiu Jitsu athletes access to more resources, sponsorships, and paydays.

Moving forward

I predict that a lot of up and coming athletes will use the greater popularity and potential earning power of mma in order to fund their lives and martial arts academies.

And while there are more and more resources being put into Jiu Jitsu competitions like the IBJJF Grand Prix, Abu Dhabi World Pro, and their best of the season awards.

Only the very best competitors in the world will win. Compared to an mma fight where both athletes walk away with something. Things are slowly changing as our industry moves towards more superfight for high level competitors. But the prizes still pale in comparison.

A good example of this would be my old rival Benny Dariush. He was able to use his success in the UFC to start his own academy. While I’m sure he would have a great career in Jiu Jitsu. If he were to do the same thing doing only Jiu Jitsu. It might take a greater time commitment and effort to achieve similar.

And just because you pursue MMA doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your Jiu Jitsu. There are many fighters that still manage to compete in many of the biggest grappling events. But at a certain level you will have to decide which path to dedicate yourself too.

 

Promoting a great training environment

The environment of an academy can make or break it.

I’ve thought a lot about this topic. Both as an instructor and as a student. And my hypothesis is that academies with a great training environment tend to do better financially and in competitions.

It’s hard to explain what makes for a great training environment. However, I do know that no matter how good your academy is there will always be someone that gets rubbed the wrong way.

You can’t please everyone. And that’s okay.

But I will touch on a few key factors that have no part of any academy. As well as things that I look for in the academies that I visit and train under.

Drama between students

A lot of the drama between students (and sometimes instructors) occurs because of their relationship outside of the academy.

I’ve seen a lot of drama ensue after two students began dating, break up, and then start dating other students within the academy.

There’s been a few instances where I’ve tried to pair students to train not knowing that they had some prior romantic relationship. One time, I had a student flat out tell me that he would not work with another student right in the middle of the class.

Not only was this an awkward situation but it really hindered the mood of the training. The environment went from fun and exciting to unpleasant and heavy.

I’ve yet to find a solution to this outside of asking students to keep their personal lives (and relationships) out of the academy but this topic definitely deserves its own post.

In school fighting

This also relates to personal issues and relationships. But instead of students, this often involves academy owners and/or instructors.

Here in Sweden, we actually have a board that decides many of the important issues that affect an academy.

But most academies have one or two owners that also instruct.

In this case, if there are differences in how they believe they should run their academy. Like which students to graduate, or who they should affiliate with. This can cause a lot of tension that students can feel even if they don’t know the details of the situation. Negatively affecting the environment for everyone.

Splits and breaks

Splits or breaks from an academy can often be seen in two different lights.

In one way, it could be seen as filtering out bad students or members that don’t follow the code of conduct.

I’ve see this a lot with some of the top academies. Often, the students will continue pushing the limit until their behavior will have to be addressed by the instructors or the owners of the academy.

I believe this is what happened fairly recently when Dillon Danis and Mansher Khera were asked to leave MGA earlier this year (2017).

On the other hand, a break or split could be the sign of a toxic training environment.

A few years ago there was a major team break off from TLI that I was a part of at the time.

I won’t got into to much detail, but I will say that a negative environment can often attract a bad element into your academy. Undoing all of your hard work and making the training unbearable.

There’s just no way to sustain an academy with a bad or toxic environment. It affects everything from the energy, moral, and motivation of students and instructors alike.

Academy culture

The best academies that I’ve had the pleasure of attending all had a strong culture.

A culture of mutual respect between: students and teachers, lower belts and higher belts, men and women, and young and old.

It’s hard to put into words what exactly an academy’s culture is. It’s more of the experience that you have when you train. It’s different shades of grey between good or bad, and differs between academies and our own individual perception.

As a some what well known black belt I (usually) get treated differently than a new white belt off of the street.

But a great academy will treat us both equally well.

As my friend Sam Yang writes in his post Lead from the Front – Don’t Boss from the Back

“In the dojo, the teacher must be egalitarian. The techniques should be libertarian. The culture should be socialistic. This is the balancing act of any sound leadership.”

Promoting a great training environment

Promoting a great training environment is no easy task. It takes a lot of time, effort, and thought.

In all honesty, it’s best to create the training environment that you want from the very start. Having it ingrained into your academy’s core. Obviously, this is the task for the academy owner/instructors.

It’s much harder to clean up a toxic environment that’s been left to fester and completely take over an entire academy. Even for the best, most experienced instructors out there.

Change has to come from the top. Down to the students.

As an instructor, you have to constantly monitor the environment at your academy.

Is it positive?

Are students motivated?

Do they have a good time?

How can I make the environment even better?

These are just a few of the questions that I ask myself on a daily basis.

As a student, you can also do your part to enhance the training environment at your academy.

Like, if you see a new student struggling with a technique. If the instructor is preoccupied, take the initiative and go help them out.

Or if there’s an event hosted by your academy. Go and give your support.

I really feel that mutual respect is also a major key behind keeping and maintaining a great environment.

There have been times when I was traveling and some of the academies didn’t have a culture of respect. It was really offputting.

It doesn’t matter how technically good an academy is if the environment is bad.

Similar to my post Building Better Relationships with your students.

I believe that the key to promoting a great training environment is like cultivating any of your other relationships.

There needs to be clear and open communication. Members have to feel and know that their thoughts and concerns are heard and valued.

Instructors and academy owners also need to keep bringing value. This could mean upgrading to better facilities, teaching newer techniques, or even bringing in instructors for seminars.

A Jiu Jitsu academy is really a little community. Made of people from all different walks of life, status, age groups, ethnicities, social class, etc. Where else could all of these people mix together?

This shared environment is definitely worth cultivating and protecting.

White Belt Mindset Revisited

My friend Sam has written a lot about the beginner mindset.

If you have the time I definitely recommend reading up on this topic at musttriumph.com.

This is the first resource that I direct many of my beginning students too. Especially, if they have a lot of questions and want to delve deeper into understanding Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a martial art and a lifestyle philosophy.

Maintaining the mindset of a white belt (or that of a beginner) has helped me so much during my training and my travels.

There have been many times when I was in a foreign country teaching Jiu Jitsu where I only knew a few words of the local language with no other way of communicating.

It’s a very humbling experience.

Sometimes it gets hard. Like when I say the wrong thing or I don’t quite convey the details behind a technique the right away.

I might embarrass myself.

In fact, I have embarrassed myself numerous times.

But through it all, I never give up.

Doing Jiu Jitsu has taught me how to persevere.

How to break complex moves and ideas down, and make them smaller and easier to understand.

And of course patience.

Patience is key.

As an instructor, I have taught many students at all levels.

But I’ve made it a point to focus on beginners for this post because they (or you) are the most easily influenced and seeking guidance.

I’ve taught Jiu Jitsu for over 10 years now and have come to notice a lot of trends concerning BJJ students among many topics.

Namely, the differences between those students that continue with their training and go on to higher levels. Compared to those students that plateau and eventually give up.

I believe it all comes down to mindset.

That and a few actions that we can all develop to make ourselves better students, better teachers, and better people.

White belt mindset

White belts learn so quickly for a number of reasons.

Everything is new to them so when they are first exposed to techniques they look at it with no judgements, no preconceived notions or any past reference of what they are being taught.

Much like a toddler learning to walk. White belts are so focused on the task at hand that they don’t over think the move. They just try their best.

A quality that many higher belts lose along the way.

By putting in their best effort and focusing all of their energy into learning something new. White belts are able to reach a clearer state of mind.

They are not thinking about their lousy day at work.

Or the girl that turned them down for a date.

They just focus on the techniques.

Very zen like.

Because they have no past reference of what they are learning. They are more likely to listen.

They listen to their fellow white belts.

They listen to the higher ranked students.

They listen to their instructors.

We have two ears for a reason.

This is one skill that has personally helped me throughout my years training.

Being able to listen to instruction or being coachable is an asset that many people lack. Even more important if you have plans towards competing.

And once white belts are done listening. They always have a question.

Some instructors frown upon students asking questions.

This is more common in traditional academies where the instructor shows a technique and then expects the students to perform just like robots. Drilling the move to completion.

But most of the top academies encourage asking questions.

Not only does it help open dialogue between teacher and student. It’s also a great learning tool.

By allowing students to ask questions they deepen their understanding of Jiu Jitsu and they are more engaged. More involved.

But the most instructive experience comes from white belts lack of experience.

They fail and they fail often.

It doesn’t matter how good the instructor is or the level of the academy.

Starting out we all fail.

But how we handle failure and all the other set backs to come. Shapes us.

I think this is the essence of what it means to have a white belt mindset. It’s a pure focusing of energy for a singular task. Ever moving forward.

Common pitfalls of the white belt mindset

The white belt mindset is not without its downsides. I believe that the major pitfall of the white belt mindset is the rush to improve.

Improvement is good.

I think it’s what really hooks beginners when they first start training martial arts.

Every day they go to the academy they are learning something new.

A new technique.

A new exercise.

A new form of movement.

It’s actually quite addictive! Getting better at something everyday. I think it’s very similar to a lot of video games. Where with enough time at the start, you can level up a lot in a short period.

This is all fine and good. But when beginning students begin to rush improvement or when more advanced students want to rush competitive success, that’s when they lose sight of the power of the white belt mindset.

In fact, many students begin to lose their white belt mindset at the awareness of new belts and higher ranks. Especially in the U.S., where we have a history of misusing martial arts belts.

There’s a famous video of a purple belt that decides one day to promote himself to brown belt which is a whole other issue in itself. But during his speech (in which he or one of his students decided to post online) he talked about never having another belt placed on him by another.

The sparkle of the new belt and the responsibility that comes with it weighs heavily on less experienced students.

I remember going from being a happy go lucky white belt. It didn’t matter if I got tapped out or if I loss in a tournament. It’s was okay. I was just a white belt so there was no pressure or expectation on me to do well. If I did well it was great. To a blue belt that represented my academy and my instructor. It didn’t help that I trained at a world class academy with other really great competitors. No one put that pressure on me directly, but I definitely felt driven to uphold the quality and the results that were expected from my academy.

As humans, I believe we instinctively want to compare ourselves with our training partners.

However, our time would be better spent developing the white belt mindset. Not being in such a hurry to pass it by.

Improvement is good and no one can stay a white belt in skill forever (hopefully).

But again, it’s all about having the right mindset.

How to redevelop the white belt mindset

In my post [Rushing Success] I talked a little bit about my own battle with wanting immediate success. My own impatience actually causing me to underperform in the academy and in competitions.

I think many competitors get caught in this trap.

The harder you try to force a technique the less effective that technique becomes.

And it’s the same with the white belt mindset.

It’s funny, but I rely on the white belt mindset more now as a black belt than I did when I was a white belt.

I wish someone would have told me this a long time ago. It would have saved me countless hours that I wasted beating myself up over every little mistake or when I felt like I wasn’t living up to my potential.

Now I embrace failure or negative feedback as I like to understand it.

However, it’s easy to let our ego get in the way. To keep you from further developing yourself.

I’ve seen guys that trained for years.

Competing in every tournament.

Make no improvement whatsoever in their Jiu Jitsu game.

Hours of training and thousands of dollars wasted.

However, this isn’t just regulated to Jiu Jitsu and martial arts.

You can see this in every walk of life. People who seem stuck in time. Just going through the motions.

But like any skill. The white belt mindset can be developed and honed for any imaginable task.

If you wish to develop or to redevelop your white belt mindset then I think you will need to focus on four major steps.

Do your best in whatever it is you choose to focus on.

Listen intently to mentors and those with more qualified experience than you.

Ask Questions if (and when) you are unsure of any details or need a simplified explanation.

Fail often because this is the quickest route to gaining more experience.

It’s that simple.