The Most Important Thing I’ve Done With My Life

This post is not about jiujitsu except in the most tangential of ways, but it is timely and important to me. I hope you enjoy it anyway, and if so moved, you click through and take 2 minutes to register your vote, which is absolutely free and generates no spam. I would also love it if you would share. Thank you!

I started doing debate in 1989 at Canby High School in Oregon. Debate taught me to think, to work hard, and to listen to other people.

For a lot of other debaters, this turns them into lawyers. Me, it turned me into a journalist and, later, a public relations person for social justice causes (among other things).

If there is a common thread to my delightfully odd life, it comes from debate: you identify a problem. You think about what you can do to help, listening to the smartest folks you can find along the way. And you do what you can. This isn’t so different from what animates me about jiujitsu, now that I think about it.

That’s more or less how the Women’s Debate Institute started.

Year one of the Women's Debate Institute, 15 years ago.

Year one of the Women’s Debate Institute, 15 years ago.

When I was coaching high school debate in Washington, we had amazing young women debaters in the state … and they almost all quit debate after a few days, or weeks, or months. I thought about that human potential and how valuable debate could have been for these folks that were, for one reason or another, leaving the activity in droves. I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember (being the only male child of a single mom can do that to you), and it seemed like a crime to let this keep happening.

That was in 2000. Almost 15 years later, a bunch of fantastic people have helped WDI grow beyond my wildest dreams. Improvements I couldn’t possibly have envisioned, other folks made happen.

Debate camps typically cost thousands of dollars, excluding the very populations for whom debate is most beneficial. It was always important to me to keep the camp affordable, and we did. But the team that took the reins was able to raise enough money to do national outreach and make the camp free. Free!

Last year's camp.

Last year’s camp.

The lesson, for me: No one of us is as smart as all of us. No individual is capable of what we’re capable of together.

Debate’s transformational power can’t be overstated. I probably would not have gone to college without it. Through WDI, hundreds of young people have had this and other doors opened to them. Where there was tremendous need, we’ve made incredible strides.

 

I’ve been really lucky over the course of my 40 years on this planet: I’ve lived and worked in incredible places and met a ton of wonderful people, people I’m in awe of.

But WDI is the best thing I’ve ever done with my life, and it’s populated with some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met, and I’m proud to still be a small part of it.

I could tell you hundreds of WDI stories. Instead, though, I’m going to ask you for your help. It will take you two minutes, won’t cost you anything and won’t get you spam.

Sometime between now and the end of Thursday night, please vote for us to receive a $10,000 grant. You can vote once just by clicking and have your vote count three other times by sharing on Facebook, Twitter and via email. This grant is almost one-fourth of our budget, and will enable us to bring in deserving students from all around the country to learn — for free — from debate’s top minds.

To make an analogy, imagine getting to train with Rickson Gracie, the Mendes Brothers and Marcelo Garcia — as a teenager. For free. When you never thought anything like that was possible before. Imagine how much that would change your life.

Now imagine you could make that happen for someone else with a few clicks of the mouse.

Wouldn’t you do it? Won’t you?

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How Metamoris Can Seize An Opportunity By Booking Dern And Garcia

The first thing I did when I got up this morning was watch Mackenzie Dern’s match against Gabi Garcia at ADCC. The second thing I did was send messages to several of my friends along the lines of “Wow, Dern beat Gabi?” with multiple interrobangs.

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, 80 percent of the jiujitsu people you know seem to be reacting roughly the same way.

This isn’t too surprising: as I’ve written before, every great match has a great story behind it.  “Much smaller person defeats imposing, seemingly unstoppable giant” has been a classic story since way before Hulk Hogan bodyslammed Andre. In fact, with all respect to the scriptural source of the name “Goliath,” this trope probably pre-dates the slingshot itself.

Plus, it was a fun match:

Many will say that the response to this match proves that Ralek Gracie has been wrong about saying Metamoris can’t afford to bring in women for matches, and those people will be right. But I want to take a different slant on that, partially because I try to look forward instead of backward, and partially because I do public relations for a living.

Practically everyone is talking about Gabi-Dern right now. With the world’s attention on this match, Metamoris has a serious opportunity to capitalize on that attention — and to earn back some goodwill from grappling fans.

If I were the Metamoris PR guy, I would tell Ralek that the world had given him a tremendous gift. I’d tell him to get on the phone with both Garcia and Dern right now and offer them a rematch at Metamoris in May.

For one thing, it would be a great match with a great story. Now that Gabi’s aura of invincibility has been punctured, people are more interested in her matches than ever; it’s extension of the great underdog story, where now the question becomes “can she do it again?”; they’re both in shape; Dern has nothing to lose, and Gabi probably wants redemption.

Finally, this gives Ralek Gracie himself a chance at a graceful withdrawal from his earlier comments. Ralek could give a statement that says “Wow, was I wrong: people are interested in women’s matches, and that’s why we’re bringing in these two great athletes.” Everybody wins. Remember when Dana White said women would never, ever fight in the UFC — and then he met Ronda Rousey? This could be that moment for Metamoris.

People are interested in matchups when they have great stories behind them. Right now, the world is thrilled because a dynamic underdog pulled on upset against a dominant force: imagine if we could see a repeat of that under submission-focused rules next month.

I’m interested in how the next chapter of the story ends: aren’t you?

My happiest BJJ moment

Who is more successful, the single guy who has a billion dollars or the married guy with three great kids who just scrapes by?

I sometimes use this analogy to get across a principle: what success looks like depends upon the criteria you use. If we define success as happiness, which I do, we don’t have enough information to answer the question. Maybe the rich bachelor has only ever really wanted to fall in love and have children; maybe the married guy’s financial stresses blind him to how wonderful his offspring are. Or maybe the single guy is thrilled to have no commitments and enough money to fly in Rickson Gracie for constant private lessons (which is what I would do) and maybe the family man has just what he’s always wanted.

Jiu-jitsu is like life: how you define success depends upon your goals. I think about my own goals a lot, and yet my happiest moment in jiu-jitsu came as a real surprise when I tried to figure out what it was.

If I had a billion dollars ...

If I had a billion dollars …

What was that happiest moment, and why was it a surprise? Well, I’ll get to that in a second. We all know jiu-jitsu can make you happier (and that post I just linked has great strategies for doing so). But the manner in which it does this varies from person to person.

Some highlights are common, obvious even. After I decided I was going to devote a lot of time to jiu-jitsu, competition became a priority for me. At white and blue belt, I entered a ton of tournaments, trying both to get wins and improve as fast as I could. I’ve lost a lot of jiu-jitsu matches, which means I’ve also won a fair amount of jiu-jitsu matches, and some of those wins tasted pretty sweet.

I’ve never been overly focused on belt promotion — I’m a huge believer in “keep your head down and train hard, and that stuff will take care of itself” — but when I got promoted to blue and especially purple, those were great days as well.

Those are common highlight-reel moments for just about everyone, I think. If you’re at the right gym, you probably also have some great memories of camaraderie on road trips or during post-training bonding sessions.

When I read Andrew Smith’s article about happiness in BJJ and thought about the singular moment that made me happiest, though, I didn’t think about any medal or even the day I got my purple belt. I flashed on an otherwise banal moment.

That morning, I’d been teaching the 6 a.m. fundamentals class. A white belt expressed to me that he’d never been able to hit the basic hip bump sweep I was showing, so I offered details on a setup that had helped me out.

During the night class, he showed up again. I was watching him roll with another white belt, and he saw the chance to use the setup. I swear his eyes got as big as dinner plates. The guy actually looked over and said my name as he set the technique up, like he was whispering “watch this!”

He hit for the first time and I have never seen a person smile so big. But that might only be true because there wasn’t a mirror in the room.

It was a super-basic technique and an inconsequential gym roll, but that moment stands out to me for some reason. I finally got some small version of what my instructor must feel regularly.

Why is this? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Some combination of the sheer joy on his face, the direct line between teaching the setup and seeing it work in a few short hours, perhaps. Also, I’ve achieved a lot of my competition goals, which means I generally compete for fun and view those tournaments as an extension of my training. The more I teach, the more I improve at it and the more fun I have.

I started training when I was 36, so long-term I always knew that teaching was a more sustainable path for me than competing full-time. Competition is still something I enjoy a lot, and I still train as hard for competition as I ever have.

Maybe this is part of a mental transition where other “wins” are becoming as important to me — or even more so. Roy Marsh once told me that, in his view, a purple belt absolutely should be able to teach. I’m finding that this is certainly part of the growth curve for me.

There’s something deeply gratifying to me about helping somebody else achieve their goals. Being useful to others in that way, I’m coming to understand, is a critical part of my own goals, too.

How about you? What are your happiest moments in jiu-jitsu?

Get That Funk Out Of Your Gi

It finally happened. I was That Guy.

One of my most beloved gis is my first Toro. It fits great, is comfortable, has just the right amount of wear so I look like neither a first-day guy nor a slob, and it has my team and affiliation patches on it. It was my regular competition gi for a long time, and some of my favorite tournament memories happened in that gi. I still train in it regularly.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when it finally got the funky gi smell. I know because one of my training partners informed me of this in the manner of De La Soul:

Granted, this dude has scent powers comparable to Daredevil or Willy the Nose from the McGurk Mysteries. Still, the lesson was clear. If I wanted to keep using this righteous gi, I had to be a considerate training partner.

I’m a pound-for-pound sweating champion, so I try super-hard to stay on top of the standard BJJ hygiene practices — deodorant, regular showers, nails clipped, teeth brushed, etc. — but my “body as a temple” attitude had to extend to my gi, too. So I returned to a tactic that I’d used for months but gotten away from after I ran out of it. I want to tell y’all about it.

This embarrassing incident caused me to go back to Odoban, which is a product you can get for $10 at various home improvement retailers. They use it in fire restoration, so you know it’s powerful. Throw a little bit of it into the load of laundry and your old gi comes out smelling fresh. I’d used it before (for similar reasons), but had slacked off until being duly chastised.

Odoban

I am not sponsored by Odoban and have not received any compensation for this unsolicited endorsement, although if y’all want to ship a case to the Dirty White Belt Mansion in historic Durham, NC, I promise it’ll get used.

We all know who That Guy is. None of us want to be him. I was him for a session. Don’t let this happen to you!

The Economic Argument For Women At Metamoris

People love stories. Whether it’s a great book, movie, or TV show, humans love to get caught up in a gripping narrative. That’s why people watch sports: the best contests feature rising action, a climax and satisfying resolution.

This applies to jiujitsu competitions, too. I’ve watched an absurd amount of jiujitsu matches, but there will always be a few that stand out to me, and I understand them the same way I understand any good story.

I want to talk today about one of the two best matches I’ve seen in person, a match featuring a legendary multiple-time world champion facing a newer, up-and-coming competitor.

Time was running short. With the world championship on the line, the six-time black belt world champion was down on points against the young upstart. There was just over a minute to go.

Then, from guard, the champ caught the challenger in a dangerous armlock: this elicited a fierce battle, with both competitors fully aware that the outcome of this submission hold would decide the match — and the Mundial championship. The champ was fighting to finish, with the challenger trying to hold on and win that first black belt Mundial gold.

Then the shoulder went. The challenger’s arm was suddenly at an angle that seemed all wrong.

But there was no tap. Arm hanging loosely in the air, the challenger refused to submit.

This was at the 2014 Mundials. I was a few rows back, watching this match live next to a tough purple belt friend of mine. “Why isn’t she tapping, Mary?” I asked. Mary has way more technical knowledge than I do, so I assumed she had an explanation. “I … I don’t know,” Mary said.

You might have figured this out from the headline or the match description, but the pronoun should give it away: this was Michelle Nicolini against Tammi Musumeci in the 2014 black belt final. Ultimately, an unbelievably tough but one-armed Musumeci gave up the sweep, yielding points — and a seventh world title — for Nicolini.

Speaking as a fan, this match doesn’t just represent why I watch jiujitsu, this is why I watch sports itself.

It has every element you need for a dramatic viewing experience: a great story, top-level skills, athletic prowess and a tremendous act of will. It features rising action, dramatic tension, and a last-minute comeback by a legendary competitor to defend her crown against the next generation.

It’s a great match and a great story. Here, watch it for yourself:

 

So why doesn’t Metamoris founder Ralek Gracie think matches like this will drive pay-per-view purchases?

A BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE

From the beginning, I want to say that there are many non-economic reasons to ensure some women’s matches make it onto PPV cards. The women I’m most interested in watching — Nicolini, Leticia Ribeiro, Beatriz Mesquita, Ana Laura Cordeiro, Gezary Matuda and Luiza Monteiro to name a few — have simply earned the right to compete in high-profile events. With six matches on every card, surely simple respect dictates that we get more than one match every six events.

metamoristurtle

But since basically every argument in defense of Metamoris starts with “the women’s matches won’t sell,” that’s the only argument I’m going to be addressing in this post. Simply put, I think that putting at least one women’s match (and ideally more) on each card makes economic sense.

Let’s start with the most prominent source of this fiscal claim, Ralek Gracie:

Gracie admits the bout between Dern and Nicolini was successful enough in terms of box office drawing power and even match complexion, but suggests the dynamic between the two isn’t replicable at scale.

“We had that one match and it was cool, but that was more of, ‘That’s cool and that was interesting and I want to see that again if the girls are cute.’

Leaving aside Ralek Gracie’s offensive ‘if the girls are cute’ comment (and leaving aside what he must therefore think of Jeff Monson’s looks), this is an argument that is on its face absurd. So, the Nicolini-Dern matchup drew well at the box office and everybody liked the match — but that can’t be repeated? Really? We tried it, and it worked, and so we can’t try it again?

It is also an argument we hear with every iteration of women’s sports. Sometimes it winds up looking like a true argument, and sometimes (as with women’s tennis, which is more popular and a better game than men’s tennis) it looks silly. And Ralek’s comments just show the double-bind that this attitude causes: if you try it and it fails, you were right. If you try it and it works, well, clearly, you can’t replicate that success.

My capsule summary: every sporting event must be sold, and every sales pitch starts with a story. Generally speaking, the sports that have succeeded have taken the time to tell the stories of their athletes to give the audience some investment in the final product.

Who wouldn't buy this card? I would buy this.

Who wouldn’t buy this card? I would buy this.

This should actually be easier with jiujitsu than with many other sports, because the core audience — grapplers — already has an investment in the product, and they know good jiujitsu when they see it.Every new product faces this challenge, but the barrier to entry here is much smaller.

Explain who people like Michelle Nicolini and Leticia Ribeiro are, for example, and you’ve got a ready-made marketing strategy. Let me explain why this makes economic sense in both the short- and long-term.

 

WHY IT MAKES SENSE IN THE SHORT TERM

There are three reasons putting at least one women’s match on each Metamoris card makes economic sense: match quality, targeted audience marketing, and opportunity cost. Let’s start with the first because it’s the simplest.

The Metamoris audience is composed of people who want to watch exciting submission grappling, and women’s matches deliver. Plus, many of the best women in the world have expressed interest in competing. Do we really think the average fan would rather see Jeff Monson, Chael Sonnen (who gets two matches) and Babalu than the some of the greatest women ever?

If you see matches with one of these women and don't like it, you might not actually like jiujitsu.

If you see matches with one of these women and don’t like it, you might not actually like jiujitsu.

Even if you buy that, though, consider that there are 6 matches on each card, and people buy cards for different reasons. As I’ll discuss in a moment, Metamoris has UFC fighters on the card to try to draw fans from mixed martial arts.

Having a variety of matches enables you to tell a variety of stories — and women’s matches are particular stories that would appeal to particular demographics. Think of a blue and a purple belt sitting 10 rows up for Nicolini-Musumeci: even if those people aren’t interested in, say, Chael-Babalu, having a match featuring one or both of those women draws them in even if you wouldn’t otherwise get them to buy the event.

Finally, consider return on investment. When the Metamoris Needs Women images started circulating widely, I honestly thought there was a good chance Metamoris would add a women’s match to the card. This would have been a way to signal that they heard fans’ concerns, and given that a lot of the top competitors train in California anyway, would have been a relatively small economic investment.

Now more than ever.

Now more than ever.

Instead, the Metamoris brass chose not just to forego a women’s match, but to give an interview saying they might get to it eventually if the women were deemed sufficiently attractive.

Which would have been a wiser economic strategy: to invest a few thousand dollars into adding a women’s match to the card, or to alienate a healthy portion of your core audience?

I’ll leave you to decide, but I think you can guess my opinion. After all, I went from “I love Metamoris and have bought every event, but wish they’d do this” to “I am most likely never going to support Metamoris ever again” in the space of a few weeks. And I’m not alone.

Let’s say I’m wrong about this economic calculus, though. Let’s say it would have increased Metamoris’ costs in the short term. It still would have been a wiser economic decision in the long run. Here’s why:

WHY IT MAKES SENSE IN THE LONG TERM

I don’t buy that women’s matches wouldn’t draw, and Metamoris’ lone experience with a women’s match supports my thoughts. But even if they wouldn’t draw now, adding some matches would be a great chance for Metamoris to retain core fans and to expand its audience.

The primary audience for Metamoris is always going to be people who enjoy grappling — and that audience is composed largely of grapplers. It’s smart to both recognize that this is the core audience and to attempt to expand that audience.

This, I believe, is what Metamoris is trying to do by bringing in prominent MMA fighters: people who have seen Brendan Schaub, Joe Lauzon and Chael Sonnen in the UFC may check out a Metamoris PPV even if they aren’t fans of submission grappling per se.

That’s the theory, anyway. If this is the perspective we’re adopting, however, this is just another reason why it makes more economic sense to have women’s matches at Metamoris: fan retention.

Who is more likely to stick around and buy multiple events, the MMA fan who likes Brendan Schaub or the fan of women’s jiujitsu who likes Michelle Nicolini? Chances are that without MMA guys on the card, the fight fan is just going to go back and watch the UFC. Unless every Metamoris card contains the likes of Schaub — a move which risks alienating the core audience — the people who are only fans of mixed martial arts are likely to be one-and-done buyers.

Conversely, if you’re a fan of great jiujitsu, you’re probably going to love watching Nicolini, Mesquita, Ana Laura Cordeiro, etc. Some of the most exciting matches these days are women’s matches, and if you’re reading this post, you probably saw the Brendan Schaub match. Enough said there.

A tournament is a story. A career is a story.

A tournament is a story. A career is a story.

Again, I dispute the notion that putting on women’s matches would cost Metamoris money. If so, though, one match on each card could function as a “loss leader” — to get new fans in the door and create further demand.

Every great new product in the market transforms that market. If you’re a guy grappler who has never seen a women’s match, watching a terrific contest of this nature is likely to leave you wanting more. That’s one reason it’s a long-term winner to have women’s matches at Metamoris.

But there is another, broader reason. Currently, fewer women train jiujitsu than men. This is sometimes used as a reason not to put women’s matches on PPVs. First, that’s based on the faulty assumption that men will not watch women’s sports.

Additionally, though, Metamoris should think about this as an untapped market: the more women who train, the more potential grappling fans there are. And how do we get more women to train and keep training without showcasing the best women athletes?

With more visible women’s matches, more women train and get the benefits of jiujitsu. That means more people training, and more people watching. That makes us all better.

IN CONCLUSION

Here’s the sad part: with Ralek’s most recent comments, it might honestly be too late for Metamoris.

There’s a window of opportunity for everything, and the last few days may have slammed that window shut. An opportunity to tell fans “yeah, we heard you” turned into a monumental blunder that sent the message “yeah, we don’t care about you.” It will take considerable effort and will to come back from that.

I’m an optimist by nature, so I’ll finish by noting two things: first, that Metamoris competitor Polaris has pledged to have at least one women’s match on each card; and second, that the fundamental principles I’ve written about above remain in place.
There is still a market out there, ready to be served and expanded. Some company, maybe Polaris, is going to take advantage.
At the end of the day, I want everyone to train. I want everyone who trains to feel like there is a place for them in jiujitsu. And I want to see more matches like Nicolini-Musumeci.
Making sure that more great women get the chance to compete on pay per view cards would serve all three goals. Let’s make this happen.