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.

 

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.

Training at a high level competition academy

I’ve been fortunate enough to train at many different types of academies throughout my career.

Different in their atmosphere.

Different in their focus.

Different in training philosophies and techniques.

I just want to start off by saying that there is no one best school or academy. It all comes down to whether or not it’s a good fit for you.

You could have access to the best training partners and instructors in the world. But if the training environment is toxic, it’s no good.

In this post we’re going to look at the benefits (or upsides) of training at a well known, competition oriented Jiu Jitsu academy and in the following weeks I hope to examine some of the downsides as well.

High Level Academy

Most regular people aren’t looking for the most competitive academy.

Gold medals and championship wins have no meaning to them.

That’s something that I try to drive home to any martial arts business owners or future academy owners.

Your average student is looking for a fun, safe, and decently located place to workout.

Being a world class facility only has sway over students who are: (1) into competitive Jiu Jitsu, (2) understand your accolades, (3) want to train hard.

There are lots of reasons for training at a competitive Jiu Jitsu academy but they all boil down to pushing your comfort zone.

Of course, not every student is going to compete. But there will be this culture of doing tournaments or atleast training hard that will permeat through all the programs within that academy.

During the late 2000’s early 2010’s, the academy that I trained at was one of the best academies in America and arguably one of the best in the world.

In addition to myself, we had numerous pans champions, world champions at the lower belts, and ADCC vets.

We were the quintessential competition academy. Of course, we still had a strong foundation in self defense and the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu. But we were mostly known through our success in tournaments.

And because of this we were able to attract many like minded students from all over the U.S.A. in addition to developing our own home grown students.

1 High level training partners

The biggest reason for training at a high level academy is because you’ll have access to high level training partners.

No matter how naturally talented you are. You can only go so far watching competition video, drilling, and visualizing. Eventually, you get to a point where you will need the help of good training partners to help push you past your limits.

It wasn’t uncommon to have athletes decide to completely uproot their lives, quit their jobs, and move down to train at my academy. Some guys wanted to be world champions. While others wanted to dedicate themselves more to their practice by surrounding themselves with those who wanted to become world champions.

Everyone had their reasons.

Having access to a large stable of tough training partners. All with different body types and skill sets. Is the fastest way to improve your Jiu Jitsu.

A popular saying in Jiu Jitsu is that, “iron sharpens iron”.

And this is very true for the best academies in the world like Atos/Art of Jiu Jitsu, Alliance, and all of the other top academies. They attract the best talent which in turn helps them to do bettter in competitions.

Outside of the training aspects. High level training partners allow you to immerse yourself completely into the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle.

Not only are you be able to train hard, but you’re also able to have in depth discussion about techniques, mindset, and training.

You’re surrounded by like minded individuals that have similar goals and can help motivate you.

You also become more accountable in your training. So if you’re slacking off or taking too much time off. You have someone that can and will call you out on it.

I won’t lie and say that this is always the most fun or inviting environment.

It’s not.

But if you have dreams of reaching a new level in your Jiu Jitsu and doing well nationally or internationally. It makes a big difference training at a high level academy versus a lesser skilled academy.

2 Knowledgeable instructors

High level academies tend to have very knowledgeable instructors.

As important as it is to have good training partners. Having the right instructor(s) is the cornerstone of a great competitor and on the larger scale, a competitive academy.

Examples such as Fernando Terere and the offshoots of the old TT academy such as cobrinha, Andre Galvao, Lucas Lepri, and Michael Langhi.

We see this even more recently with Romulo Barral and his students Edwin Najimi and Gabriel Arges.

Great instructors make great students.

It’s no wonder that the top academies tend to stay on top for years. They are able to take students with potential and mold them in to champions.

Your instructor influences everything from developing your foundational knowledge as an athlete to helping you overcome the highs and lows of our sport.

High level academies are able to develop inhouse or attract many of the best instructors because of their great training environment.

I’ve written about this before, but if you’re a lower belt and you are beating the majority of your training partners (and even the instructor) then there is a good chance that academy might not be the best place for you to pursue a competive career.

I know this advice sounds harsh and it is.

3 Competitive environment

Combine high level training partners with really great instructors and you get the perfect competitive environment.

It’s hard to explain if you haven’t had the chance to experience it yet. The feeling of training hard everyday and knowing that your training is often harder than the actual competition.

The feeling of having close teammates doing well in big tournaments and having the confidence that you will do well too.

Or being able to get an invite to an exclusive tournament, or increased exposure on social media and Jiu Jitsu news sites because you train with so and so.

There are so many benefits to training at a high level academy that it’s not possible for me to list them all.

If you have plans of competing in Jiu Jitsu and want to do well at the bigest tournaments. Then training at a high level academy or moving to one could be the deciding factor.

Over the years I have met many talented grapplers. They had all the attributes of a great competitor but without the proper training environment to help you develop and grow. That potential can easily be wasted or not fully tapped into.