IBJJF Adult Competition: Jiu-Jitsu’s Major League

Its difficult to convey to a new prospective member the difference between some of the accomplishments we have had as an academy and how this fits in to the big picture. It requires nuance. Every gym will have pictures of students at various belts medaling at tournaments posted on social media and websites. Without an understanding of the competitive Jiu-Jitsu landscape, it’s difficult to know where everything fits in. In turn, this makes it challenging to articulate what we have been able to do differently than other academies.

Lets start off with the fact that there are many local level tournaments in Southern California. Jiu-Jitsu World League and NABJJF are popular choices but there are many more. While occasionally a top competitor will attend these tournaments, it is not the norm in most divisions for most tournaments. These tournaments typically draw the non elite American talent from Southern California. This isn’t entirely obvious to somebody new to Jiu-Jitsu as many of their tournaments are called “world championships” or something equally grand sounding. The reality is that these tournaments are a good proving ground to build up competition experience and it is indeed an accomplishment to highlight when students do well or you win a team trophy.

But lets be honest, there are levels to this.

The highest level of our sport is a “grand slam” event in the adult division in the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation. I would just like to reemphasize adult (18-30) in bold one more time – not masters (30-65+). These qualifiers are often left off of social media posts highlighting accomplishments. Leaving off “masters 3” to the post is typically intentional as it sounds better. This isn’t to say its not a wonderful accomplishment, but it is not the top level of our sport.

These grand slam tournaments, probably listed in order of perceived prestige, are Brazilian Nationals, European Championships, Pans and Worlds. Pans and Worlds are a step above the other two. These tournaments attract the top talent from all over the world, but the main thing is that the Brazilians are there.

It doesn’t even matter the belt. If you medal at these two events, its a huge accomplishment for both athlete and gym. Further, even a blue belt (2nd belt) who medals at a major will be able to beat almost all recreational black belts they roll with. If they are winning purple belt (3rd belt), they will beat most competitor black belts they roll with. Sometimes they even get the better of the ultra elite. At brown belt, there is usually no difference between an ultra elite black belt and somebody that wins at brown. This is all not to undermine black belts. They are, in general, highly skilled. You just need to be that good to win these things.

Now for the next bit of honesty: Americans are not good at this.

Here is the nationality of black belt adult world champions in the modern era to give you a sense of it:

These results are also also approximately replicated in the colored belts as well. You might see 1-2 Americans of all the belts combined winning at colored belts. Sometimes none.

Our student Nolan Stuart (now a black belt) earned a gold medal in the brown belt adult medium heavy division at Pans in 2023.

How many other male Americans won gold at Pans?

Nolan Stuart (brown – middle heavy; Brea Jiu-Jitsu)

Cole Abate (brown – light; AOJJ)

Damian Hosokawa (purple – light feather; Nova Uniao)

Angelo Fortes (blue – middle heavy; BTT)

USA was able to pull in a gold in just 13% of colored belt divisions. That’s terrible, but that’s the situation. Nolan’s accomplishment was 10+ years in the making. Read Nolans BJJ Heroes bio here.

You can count on your hands the number of gyms that are producing a top American talent. Heath Pedigo is doing it in Illinois. Art of Jiu-Jitsu in Costa Mesa is doing it. Maybe a handful few others. We are on the short list. If you ask further which one of these gyms are producing their top adult male black belts from scratch, we stand nearly alone. This is why its important to give you the scope of where our accomplishments fit into context.

Here is our student Michelle, now a black belt, taking double silver at brown belt in the adult division at IBJJF Worlds. This means she took 2nd in her weight class and in the open weight class. She did so balancing new motherhood and still training twice daily without fail.

The truth is that most gyms do not even have a possibility of producing an elite black belt as a possible outcome. There are a whole host of reasons of why this is and it is incredibly nuanced. On a Jiu-Jitsu level, it boils down to a combination of a lack of understanding of what high level BJJ is (right concept) and having the skills needed to realize the concept (right technique). Many others are optimizing the wrong problems and hence developing technical solutions that do not accurately capture what high level BJJ is. Everything we teach is a downstream consequence of some very fundamental conceptual differences we have from most others.

Technique at the high level is evolving too. You must stay constantly on top of things. Sadly, a very large number of American gyms have not evolved their BJJ in the past 20 years, much less keeping up with what competitors on the scene are doing this month. BJJ has evolved so much the past 15 years that 20 years ago is akin to pre internet/pre computer phase and today we are in the smart phone, ChatGPT and virtual reality phase. Good luck taking your slide rule into competition when the other guy has a calculator in his phone with the internet and GPS.

There’s more to it than that. Producing an elite black belt from scratch is more than Jiu-Jitsu. Its about maintaining a student to mentor relationship over the course of 10+ years. Just like any relationship you have in your life, there is a ton that goes into maintaining this. Many are not capable of this, and those that are might not have the skill to bring a student to the highest level. If you imagine a Venn diagram in your mind, the overlapping part in the middle is quite small.

Most don’t aspire to be a top black belt competitor and that’s fine. However, the information and culture is in the classes to take it as far as you want to go. Nolan and Michelle are distillations of the knowledge that is in our academy.