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.

 

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.

Developing your guard to the next level

Playing guard for a beginning student isn’t easy.

In fact, starting a new activity or study comes with a lot of trial and error. In Jiu Jitsu, that means a lot of tapping.

From Giving feedback:

Getting feedback from training partners and instructors is an important aspect in the life of a martial artist. Feedback is how we correct holes in our games. Feedback is how we help our training partners get better. Feedback keeps us honest and humble.

I think that’s why it’s important to study instructors and competitors at high levels of mastery.

Study how it seems like they know all the possible outcomes that can occur from their guard(s).

All of the defenses.

All of the attacks.

Developing a good guard yourself is a challenging task.
Throughout your entire life, whether that included other sporting activities or just sitting at a desk studying. The movements of Jiu Jitsu on the ground are strange and foreign.

Getting down the basic movements like shrimping, rolling, and bridging will keep you preoccupied for a few months (or years).

In the beginning, you will get passed a lot. There’s just no other way. You don’t have the coordination or the experience yet.

So many beginners and intermediate students become afraid of playing on bottom.

They become afraid of having their guard passed and being crushed or being put into an even worse position.

Guard Development

Guard development usually begins in earnest at the blue belt level but I’m starting to witness more and more people putting off developing their guards until higher belt levels. Much to their own disservice. And it’s this observation that I want to focus on in this post.

I’ve been there before as well.

When I was a blue belt I didn’t have a guard. I was okay on top. Tough and athletic.

But if I was on bottom. It was only a matter of time before a decent passer would slide through my guard like a hot knife through butter.

My solution at the time?

I couldn’t get my guard passed if I turtled.

And this strategy worked for a while. At least until I went up against someone with really good back control or someone bigger that could stop me from rolling to turtle.

So I didn’t really solve my problem of not having a guard. I just kept putting it off.

Listen.

No matter how good you are on top. If you don’t have a comparatively good bottom guard. You will never be able to tap into your true potential.

It’s not a coincidence that the best guard passers in the world also have great guards.

Leandro Lo

Rafa Mendes

Lucas Lepri

Having confidence in your guard makes your passing that much better. You can commit 100% of your focus on passing and if your opponent manages to sweep you. It’s okay.

But if you don’t have that duality.

Being good on top and bottom. Then the fear of being swept or just the fear of playing on bottom will always be in that back of your head and it will cause you to hesitate. Especially when you go up against a tough guard player.

There is no right or wrong here, but I believe that if you want to be good at Jiu Jitsu. Whether or not that includes competing. You will need to develop a workable guard and the earlier you start to build that foundation up, the better off you will be in the long run.

It’s better to put in the ground work now (at lower belts) than to have to address your guard game at a higher belt. Because at that point you will be far behind your peers.

Body type

Your body type will play a major role in your guard development.

Your body type won’t limit the guard(s) you will play but it will determine which guards you will be able to do easily.

Much like an IQ test.

Your body type represents your potential to play certain guards and not your actual success in playing those guards.

EX. Short guys that play spider guards or tall guys that play butterfly.

A useful guide is to find a competitor, higher belt, or an instructor with the same or similar body type as you and study their game. Then try to add elements of their style to your own game.

Flexibility

Flexibility is an often overlooked factor in the development of a guard. A common misconception is that you have to be flexible to play guard.

While this is not the case. Being flexible does make playing guard easier.

With flexibility, you will be able to get into the right positions faster and have more strength in those positions.

Even if you’re not naturally flexible you can work on it and after a few sessions it will payoff.

Constant Study

This is more for advanced guard players.

Jiu Jitsu is constantly evolving so you will need to keep updating your toolset/guard game.

If you get to the point where the majority of your training partners cannot pass your guard. Then that is a sign that you need to start developing the other aspects of your guard.

If you have a great half guard. Maybe try working on closed guard or an open guard.

But if you find that everyone you roll with gives you a hard time when you play on bottom or everyone passes your guard. Then you will need to invest more time and effort in studying the bottom game.

Studying can mean watching competition footage of really good guard players.

Studying could be taking a private lesson.

Studying could be meeting a few times a week with a partner to positional spar.

Whatever the case, Jiu Jitsu is very democratic. You get back what you put into it.

Mindful Practice

If you want to develop an effective guard you’re going to have to put in the work.

Even if you have the best instructors and training partners in the world, and access to private lessons and online tools.

That can only take you so far.

Eventually, there will come a time when your instructor will no longer have to hold your hands through techniques and instead become more of a motivator and mentor.

When that time comes, it will be up to you to take charge of your training.

You will have to take the initiative in learning new positions.

You will have to decide what techniques you will need to improve upon.

You will have to push yourself in creating a game unique to yourself.

Very much like a role playing game (rpg), the more time and energy that you invest in your Jiu Jitsu the quicker you will be able to level up and learn other skills.

Developing your own guard game

The ultimate expression of Jiu Jitsu is the creation of your own style.

Only you will be able to master your unique body type.

From my own personal experience. I was only able start developing my own guard game when I acknowledge that my guard was a weakness of mine. Then I had to make the conscious decision to actively work on it.

Even if it meant starting on bottom or pulling guard.

Of course, I got my guard passed a lot.

But I was able to work my side mount escapes and my guard recomposing. Eventually being able to hold better guard positions and advance from there.