What Is A Competition Mentality?

As a visitor to another academy, I never expect high-level black belts to roll with me. They’ve earned the right to train with whoever they want to. But Fernando Yamasaki had heard that I was competing at a major tournament soon, and he wanted to help me.

“Come after me,” he said. “Really kick my butt.” (Yeah, like that’s going to happen.)

My philosophy on sparring with people who outclass me is simple: I try to be as technical as possible, to try to do correct movements. I try not to use much strength or athleticism — partially because I don’t actually have those things, but mostly because this person is going to beat me anyway. I might as well be cerebral about my beating so I can learn from it, instead of risking hitting them in the nose and really taking a whooping. I rolled as well as I could against Fernando, but I wasn’t trying to go at competition speed and he knew it.

After the round was over, he put my hand on my shoulder and said this:

“You’re a very nice man,” he said, not meaning it as a compliment. “But that doesn’t work for competition.”

(It sure didn’t work here, but this was still a fun match)


If you asked people I train with to describe me, I think that word would come up, nice. I certainly try to be. I also try to be realistic about my own level — I’m 41 and do this as a hobby, often in the 30+ division — and this type of realism creates humility, because realistically, there are a lot of people that are better at jiujitsu than I am. This isn’t something I have to be convinced of: it’s just naturally how I think and who I am.

Which brings up another story about another badass black belt scoffing at me. When I came out for a major tournament, I got pulled out of the bullpen and went to stand by the mat where I’d compete. Jason Culbreth saw me smiling and laughing and waving to people. He tried to give me a lecture about getting into the kick-that-guy’s-ass mindframe. But I just couldn’t stop smiling. This is what I do for fun, I said, and shrugged.

“Well,” he responded with a mix of amusement and disgust, “you’ve got to be who you are, I guess.”

Part of the way I act before the match is rational, and part of it isn’t. The rational part of my mind says that both me and the other guy have prepared as much as we can, and either I’m better than him or I’m not. There isn’t much I can do about it at the point right before the match, so why stress about it?

The irrational part is something that I don’t admit very often, and now I’m going to admit it in public. What I’m about to admit is odd, and it makes me very fortunate.

Once the match begins and we slap hands, I think I’m going to win. Always. No matter what. No matter who the other person is, no matter how badly the match is going. The other person could be a world-class black belt, and I just wouldn’t think about that during the flow of the match. My opponent could be up 25-0, and I’d believe that I was going to catch a neck or a foot and submit him. (This happened to me at the Worlds, when I was down something like 13-2 and I never thought I was going to lose until the timer went off).

Lost this match, too.

Lost this match, too.

This isn’t something I’ve trained: it’s just something that happens, which is lucky for me, because I think the mental aspect of jiujitsu is critical.In order to compete, you have to get rid of doubt.

By itself, this isn’t even very unusual. Most of the successful competitors I know describe something similar, a preternatural confidence.

What makes my experience strange is that, outside of that few intense minutes on the mat, I think I’m very conscious of where I stand. If you were to ask me about certain guys I compete against, I have no problem saying who I think is better than me (which drives my instructor crazy sometimes). During tournaments, I’ll find myself in a situation where I’m in a match with someone who, objectively, should smash me. But that thought won’t even occur to me. A few minutes after his hand gets raised, I’ll think … “wait a second, how did I think I could beat that guy?”

I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t know why it happens. And I don’t feel like this is something I can take credit for, since it’s just happened for me, the way some people are naturally strong, or fast.

This works both ways, of course. We all know someone who is an absolute beast that, for some reason, doesn’t realize that they should be beating up everyone. I know a lot of competitors these days have mental coaches, which makes sense. Mental attributes are just like physical attributes. We all get dealt a hand by nature, and then it’s up to us to maximize what we’ve been given. You might be naturally strong, but you have to do work to maintain and enhance that. A competition mentality is the same: some people are born with it. Some people need to develop it, just like physical strength.

And maybe you’re strong, but don’t have a lot of flexibility: truly training to be the best you can be involves addressing weaknesses as well as strengths. Even top-level competitors admit to competition nerves. It’s unproductive to complain about the guy in the gym with monstrous muscles: it’s more productive to honestly analyze what your own gifts are, as well as the traits you have to improve.

When I compete seriously, I try to visit as many different academies as I can. My own school will always be home, but if we don’t have class or if I’m traveling, it’s valuable to train with people who do techniques differently, who have different strengths than I do, and people who are just plain better.

I’ll keep rolling with whoever will train with me. And I’ll continue to be as nice as I can. Most of all, in terms of competition, I’ll adhere to the advice of Fernando Yamasaki — modified by the maxim of my favorite philosophy graduate from NYU:

For every job, there is a perfect tool. Life is about taking the tools you’re given and applying them as best you can in the correct situations. I’m grateful for the odd little mental switch in me that flips when the match starts, even if I don’t fully understand it.


What Makes a Good Tournament?

Competition is valuable. The experience you get from standing across from another combat athlete who is going to try assiduously to choke you or bend your joints the wrong way is hard to replicate.

A tournament can either be a winning experience or a learning experience, or ideally both. Apart from the matches themselves, though, whether you have a good time at an event really depends heavily on how the tournament is run.

Since I starting training almost five years ago, I’ve been fortunate to compete at a ton of different events run by different organizations. During this time, I’ve developed some fairly firm thoughts on what makes a tournament a good experience for competitors — and by contrast, what undermines a competitor’s experience.

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Follow me through my list, which is organized into “you’ve got to have these things” and “it is nice when tournaments have these things.” Continue reading

Preparing for BJJ Tournaments 101

It’s tournament season, and with both the IBJJF New York Open and US Grappling’s Grapplemania in North Carolina just a few weeks away, I’m sure many of you will be competing — and some of you will be competing for the first time.

Since I did my first competition a little more than four years ago, I’ve learned a great deal. This includes a bunch of material I wish I’d known before my inaugural voyage into choking and being choked for medals. Hence, I wrote several posts designed to help my friends and the other students at the academy get ready.

We’re long overdue for lazy re-packaging of previous content some judicious aggregation and curation of past posts. Here are some of the posts that I think might be interesting if you’re relatively new to tournaments:


Mundial Black Belt Predictions

The brackets are out for the Mundials, and since I’m not competing this year I have a little more time to think about watching as just a fan.

Some years, I try to do a pool where people predict the champion in each weight class. Maybe I’ll do that again this year. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on each division: I’m going to take a stab at picking the winner and then say a little something about the reasoning.


Roosterweight: Bruno Malfacine. Bruno is one of the best competitors ever, so he has to be considered the favorite. I’ll be interested to see Joao Miyao after another year of experience, though, and I hope for a rematch of last year’s final.

Light featherweight: Paulo Miyao. It looks like a Samir Chantre-Miyao final here, and although Samir is one of my favorite people in jiujitsu, this looks like Miyao’s year.

Featherweight: Rafael Mendes. Still the best.

Lightweight: Lucas Lepri. I was tempted to pick JT Torres (another of my favorite guys) here, but Lepri has the experience edge. Plus, he’s in North Carolina now. I will say that I’m very excited for this potential final.

Middleweight: Murilo Santana. This is one of the upsets I’m picking. Murilo Santana is probably the most underrated competitor in jiujitsu: Gracie Mag didn’t even list him among their top 5 likely winners of this division. And it’s true has a tougher road to the final than last year’s champ, Otavio Sousa. But I think Santana vs. Victor Estima, which is the potential quarterfinal matchup, is a great match that Murilo can win. I don’t think there’s anyone in the field Santana can’t beat, and I’m looking forward to watching him compete.

Medium Heavy:  Leandro Lo. No Keenan Cornelius in this division as a last-minute surprise makes Lo the favorite, I think, with Guto Campos a potential opponent for the final.

Heavyweight: Xande Ribeiro. This was an interesting division even before Keenan entered, with veterans (Ribeiro, Lucas Leite) alongside younger competitors like Jackson Sousa and Tim Spriggs. Xande is timeless. I think he’s the favorite.

Super Heavyweight: Bernardo Faria. Faria’s game is tough for anyone to deal with. Even if some people don’t like watching it, I imagine it’s way worse competing against it.

Ultra Heavyweight: Marcus Buchecha Almeida. An ultra heavyweight that moves like a lightweight and doesn’t get tired? And no Rodolfo?

Absolute: Marcus Buchecha Almeida. See above.



Light featherweight: Gezary Matuda. Matuda is a boss, and has no Leticia Ribeiro or Nyjah Easton in a small division this year.

Featherweight: Michelle Nicolini. Nicolini and Mackenzie Dern have awesome matches, and I expect another in the final. To be the women, you gotta beat the woman. And watch for Dern-Tammi Musumeci in earlier rounds!

Lightweight: Beatriz Mesquita. Last year’s absolute champion is still, in my eyes, the pound for pound queen. It’s tough to see anyone beating her in this division.

Middleweight: Luiza Monteiro. It’s an excruciating pick between Monteiro (one of my current favorite athletes) and Luanna Alzuiguir (one of my all-time favorites). Alzuiguir signed my belt when I met her at the worlds in 2011, a year in which she took double gold. But Monteiro has competed more recently, took silver to Mesquita last year, and I think she breaks through here. Assuming this happens, it’ll be an epic final.

Medium Heavy: Ana Laura Cordeiro. Last year’s champ. Another all-time great. Another small division.

Heavyweight: Dominyka Obelenyte. This is a small but very tough division with Gracie Barra’s Tammy Griego and GF Team’s Vanessa Oliveira as well. But Obelenyte, of Marcelo Garcia’s team, was a monster at brown belt and continues to perform at a high level. Watch out for her in absolute as well.

Super Heavyweight: Venla Luukonen. Without Gabi Garcia, last year’s champ remains the favorite. But watch out for Talita Nogueira, a former world champ and current Bellator fighter.

Absolute:  Beatriz Mesquita. The argument against Mesquita repeating as absolute champion is primarily size-based. But remember how she was able to keep matches even against the mighty Gabi close, and don’t bet against her.


Those are my initial impressions: take them as you will. And remember there are always surprises, so I’m looking forward to watching people I’m not as familiar with.

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?


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.


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.



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:


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.


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.

Toro Cup Preview

For the first time, I’m playing an unfamiliar role with a jiujitsu event: matchmaker.

While incredibly fun, it has definitely given me a new appreciation for the people in the jiujitsu and mixed martial arts community who do this all the time. Hence, let me start by saying “thank you” to the local folks who make great cards happen all the time.

As I write this, we’re two weeks out from the Toro Cup, and much of the hard work has been done. During this calm before the storm, I wanted to do a quick preview post explaining where the idea came from and previewing the matches. I’m not going to make predictions, but I would like to say something about why I’m interested in each match.

The idea for the event came during the last Metamoris card. I love watching high-level matches, but I also love gi jiujitsu — and it seemed like too few superfights were happening in the gi. So we at Toro BJJ decided to do a day focused on matches taking place in the kimono. My goal for the event was to make matches that would be exciting for people, would represent a wide array of schools, and would give folks that haven’t had a chance to compete against each other the opportunity to do so. At the core of this event are some huge jiujitsu fans (me and Boomer from Cageside MMA) wanting to see certain great matches happen.

I’m confident we’ve done so — and I hope everyone enjoys the day. 13 different schools are represented among the 11 matches! (Let me also say we got very close to making two black belt matches that would make people say “wow,” and we’ll hopefully do both of those for Toro Cup 2). If you’re interested in checking the event out live or online, here’s all you need to know.

Now, the fun part: the matches.

Unfortunately, one of the matches I was most excited about — Jason Jelen vs. Adam Jetton — isn’t happening. Both competitors unfortunately sustained injuries. I’ve been watching Adam since I was a white belt, and he’s a fierce and mentally tough competitor. Jason Jelen is a black belt instructor at Gracie Raleigh, and he’s tremendous: he’s got a great grasp of both old and new school technique, and I can’t wait to see him compete at black belt. Hopefully they have speedy and successful recoveries: I know I’m not not the only one who really wanted to see this match.

We kick off the event with this one:


Because we wanted to start the show with an exciting match, we’re offering this one. John Telford has been tearing up the competition circuit at purple belt — and with a style that’s entertaining to watch. Joseph Carroll earned his black belt in January, is a regular competitor and has a reputation for exciting matches as well. I acknowledge that it’s unconventional to have a match with this belt discrepancy, but both guys wanted to do it, and neither guy cared about weight. It should be a fun contest.

This is an interesting match in the gi between two brown belts with lots of cage experience. Matt “The Masher” Messer is one of the state’s most popular MMA fighters for good reason: his aggressive style and his ability to always push forward. Adam “Soul Horse” Song of Ring Lords Vale Tudo has been training MMA since 1999. But both of them also love gi technique. Messer just had a brown belt superfight in Charlotte that went to a draw: I know Song has been training hard for this, and I’m looking forward to it.

This is the only no-gi match on the card. I wanted to have a card full of entirely gi matches, but when the opportunity came to see these two compete, we had to make it happen. Both are prominent local instructors, Jake at Triangle Jiu-Jitsu in Goldsboro, Neal at TFTC Academy. Besides his accomplishments in gi and no-gi jiujitsu, Jake is also one of North Carolina’s most successful MMA fighters. These two have never competed against each other, and this is probably the match I get the most messages about from other fans of grappling. Don’t miss it.

A purple belt match, this contest has the makings of a good one. Brad Acosta is an active competitor who performed very well in a recent gi superfight at the Bull City Brawl: Brad McDonald has been a well-respected practitioner for a long time, but hasn’t competed recently. Both of these guys are fun to watch, so it’ll be interesting to see how they stack up against each other.

Coast to coast! Joseph Lee is coming out from Los Angeles for this one, and it should be great. Both Guy and Joseph have excellent transitions. I think there will be a lot of movement, a lot of flow between positions, and a lot of great technique. As someone roughly their size, I feel fortunate to have been able to roll with both of these guys: I’ve learned a lot from each of them, and this is one of the matches I’m anticipating most personally.

This is one of those matchups that worked out perfectly: two purple belts of similar size who have tons of competitive success in different tournament environments. I’ve trained quite a bit with Ashley McClelland, who has an excellent, well-rounded game, and competes regularly with US Grappling. Christy Cherrey does very well at NAGA tournaments and comes from a well-respected school at Team ROC Southern Pines, where she trains with Royce Gracie black belt Larry Hughes. Part of the reason for Toro Cup is to match up solid competitors who haven’t had the chance to compete against each other yet, and this is a good example. (I wanted to have half the card be composed of women’s matches, but it didn’t work out this time: there were some scheduling issues and some injury issues. But I’ve made a lot of contacts for next time, and I think it’s a reasonable goal.)

This purple belt match should be both technical and action-packed. Tim McNamara is a very active competitor and a judo black belt who has great technique. (He also has a blog that is way better than mine). Steven Thigpen is a beast at both gi and no-gi grappling, is tough on top and from guard, and has excellent takedowns to boot. (He’s also one of my favorite training partners, although I don’t get to train with him as much as I’d like and he always beats me).

Among the black belts I’ve talked to, this is a much-anticipated match. From Revolution BJJ in Richmond, Daniel Frank is one of the most dedicated practitioners and competitors out there. I love watching him compete and he was, actually, the very first person I approached to be on the card — so I’m glad we found him a tough and interesting match. Besides his considerable skills, Brian Miller has a unique style and unconventional approach that is somewhat reflected in the promo poster above. Oh, and I have a feeling you shouldn’t be late and miss the introductions.

Of all the matches on the card, this is right at the top of my list to watch. I’ve trained with both Travis and Jay a lot, and both are very good — but what a contrast in styles. That’s what makes this intriguing to me: Jay’s approach features a lot of movement and judicious transitions. Travis’ forte, though, is preventing you from doing what you want to do while he methodically advances his position, trapping you into his game. One of these guys is going to force the other guy into his world, or adapt to what the other guy does best if he’s the one who gets forced.

I’m also looking forward this contest between two very technical brown belts, one of whom (Jason Wingate from Gracie Raleigh) just got his fourth stripe. Since the Pendergrass Academy’s Sean Zorio got his brown belt last year, he’s competed quite a bit: it seemed fitting to match these two friends against each other for the Bumpkin Train’s return to competition.

CJ Murdock doesn’t have boring matches or fights. Roger Carroll doesn’t have boring matches or fights. This match will feature two tough competitors who love jiu-jitsu going at it to cap off the day, and I can’t think of a better way to end the first Toro Cup.

The Top 10 Things To Think About Before Your First Tournament

Some of my training partners are competing for the first time at Toro BJJ Presents US Grappling Greensboro this weekend. This is great, and I’m proud of all of the people who are stepping on the mat to compete. Jiu-jitsu competition has real benefits for your training, as this article by Jake Whitfield shows.

Partially for my friends, and partially for other folks who will dip their toes into tournament waters in the future, I thought I’d put together some advice. When you’re getting ready for your first tournament, here are 10 things I think you should consider.

10. Registration

Seems like it goes without saying, but put some thought into what division you want to enter. Many tournament offer both gi and no-gi divisions, some offer age groups, and most offer “absolute” divisions where you can compete against anyone of any weight class. In general, I advise entering as many divisions as you can: you’re in this to learn jiu-jitsu, and the more matches you get, the more you’ll learn. Besides, you can always drop out if you’re exhausted after one or two divisions, but you can’t enter new divisions the day of the event.

9. Preparation

Not just physical preparation through training, either. That part goes without saying, and your instructor and teammates know what you’ll need to do in training to get ready. For your part, make sure you show up ready to compete. Get a good night’s sleep beforehand. Pack a bag full of healthy food, water and other fluids, and whatever gear you’ll need. You never know what the food options will be at the event, and it’s best to have healthy fruit between matches rather than a greasy piece of pizza.

Your teammates will be proud of you when you compete, but may not have food and water for you to bum. BYO Acai Bowl.

Your teammates will be proud of you when you compete, but may not have food and water for you to bum. BYO Acai Bowl.

8. Goals

Maybe you want to win every match (and good luck with that!). Maybe you have a lot of experience competing in other things and you know you enjoy the challenge. Or maybe this is your first real athletic experience, and you just want to see what it’s like. Your goals for the tournament depend on your own background and training. So be clear with yourself about what you expect from the experience.

7. Survival

If this is your first tournament, you’re probably a white belt, and if you’re a white belt, your focus should be to survive first. From there you can advance to the other aspects of the game. Jiu-jitsu is a defensive art, and surviving is a victory! If we look at success as a pyramid, with survival at the base and submitting your opponent on top, you have to start at the beginning. You can’t achieve success without surviving, so be sure your defensive game is tight.

Medals are awesome! It's tough to get them without good survival skills.

Medals are awesome! It’s tough to get them without good survival skills.


Most of the things I’ve listed so far are things I think that new competitors should think about and consider. The next few are specific techniques that work for me, and that I hope help you as well.

6. Best-Case Strategy

Have a plan for your match. While it’s unlikely that your match goes exactly the way you envision it, the very act of visualization helps. Multiple studies have shown that visualization improves athletic performance, and the practice of thinking through how you want your matches to go only helps remind you of the techniques you want to use.

For example, my first tournament I planned to do this: take my opponent down with a single leg; open and pass his guard with a stack pass; control him in side control; pass to mount using a knee drive; try to collar choke him from mount, and either finish, or force him to give me his back; and finally finish with a rear naked choke.

Exactly zero of my matches went this way, but I firmly believe that the tournament went better because I had a plan in place. What’s your plan in the ideal world? Even if we don’t live in the ideal world, you should be able to answer this question.

At least one match at my first tournament went kind of according to plan. And without a plan, that wouldn't have happened.

At least one match at my first tournament went kind of according to plan. And without a plan, that wouldn’t have happened.

5. Techniques For Each Major Position

Things go wrong. In the middle of life we lose a toe or we discover our girlfriend loves Nickelback. Jiu-jitsu matches are the same. So maybe you take your opponent down as you planned, but then she hip bump sweeps you, and whoops! You’re under mount.

Before my first tournament my goal was to have at least one, ideally two techniques that I knew from each major position. That way, even if I couldn’t escape the mount of a more skilled opponent, at least I wouldn’t feel like a flailing imbecile.

Because I’m proudly a nerd, I make spreadsheets of all the techniques I’ve learned broken down by position. This helps tell me what to drill, what I know fairly well and what I need to work on. For your first tournament, I’d suggest you get at least one or two good back escapes; mount escapes; side control escapes; guard sweeps; guard submissions; guard opens and passes; and submissions from the top. Again, focus on the defensive concepts and build upward.

Nerd alert. (And you should see the whole thing.)

Nerd alert. (And you should see the whole thing.)

4. Perspective

You’re going to be training a long time, and whatever results you get are just a small blip on that larger radar screen. Saulo Ribeiro is a legend, and he never won a tournament until he got his black belt. Don’t plan your UFC career if you win, and relax if you lose. Either way, try to improve next time.

3. Down Time

You should know that many tournaments will have you waiting for a long time before your division. This is especially true of white belts, who usually go last. This isn’t something you really plan for, unless you want to bring an MP3 player or a book, but something to be aware of.

2. Learning

Whatever happens, it’s not a wasted experience if you learn something — and you will. Consider having a friend videotape your matches, or at least take photographs. I’ve had perhaps 100 tournament matches, and was able to reconstruct what happened in most of them based on video and pictures. This will be very helpful to you down the road, so don’t miss that opportunity.

With luck, you will get some medals and not make a stupid face.

With luck, you will get some medals and not make a stupid face.

And the number one thing to think about before your first tournament is …

1. Nothing.

Just go out there and do it. Don’t stress yourself out too much: this is what you do for fun. As a wise man with ties to Durham once said: “Don’t think too much. It’ll only hurt the ball club.”

Good luck, have fun, stay safe, and go train.

Do Not Apologize For Losing

Have you ever apologized after a loss? If so, stop it.

I’m not talking about the extreme situations here where you do something foolish that causes a loss — failing to prepare properly, or making a huge mistake ignoring your coach’s advice during the match. If you do those things, go ahead and say you’re sorry.

That’s not usually what happens, though. Most often we lose because we had a tough matchup, or because we’re learning and growing and ran into a situation where we didn’t know the right thing to do.

Mostly, I’m talking to myself here:  I used to apologize when I got knocked out of tournaments. I used to feel like I’d let my teammates, coach and training partners down if I lost.

There is no "I" in "emo," but there is a "me."

There is no “I” in “emo,” but there is a “me.”

This is very different from my perspective now. I have begun think of tournament competitions as just an extension of training: instead of training with the people I roll with everyday, I’m putting myself in a different situation with an opponent whose techniques are unknown. This is an extremely valuable training experience, since you aren’t going to know if your opponent wrestled, did judo or anything else.

Changing this viewpoint took me a long time. The impulse to say “sorry” is understandable: your instructor and training partners put a ton of energy, sweat and bodily risk into helping you prepare. You want to run strong for them.

But I came to realize that it misses the point: it misses the process, the journey. It misses what makes you proud about your gym and teammates. When I sat down and thought about what makes me proud of my instructor and teammates, competitive success barely made the list.

I’m proud of the way we support each other. I’m proud of the way nobody lets anybody else quit during a hard workout. I’m proud of my friends’ competitive achievements, yes, but I’m just as impressed by the grinders that show up and train every day even though they haven’t had tournament success — maybe even more so. I’m proud that, like any family, we sometimes bicker but we get over it and keep helping each other get better.

What’s a medal compared to that? What’s a great day at a tournament — even the best day — compared to years of that shared experience?

Win, lose, whatever: you get back up.

Win, lose, whatever: you get back up.


A loss might end a tournament for you. It might sting. It should sting: if you’re preparing right, you’ve put a ton of effort into the experience. That tiny part of your jiu-jitsu journey might end in that painful fashion.

But a loss won’t stop your gym, and a loss won’t stop you. The journey goes on. The effort you put into training, the work you put in and the sacrifices you made don’t go away. They’re the ingredients that have made you improve, at jiu-jitsu and at life.

The process is the big picture. Think of a tournament as just part of training, a necessary but impermanent part of your permanent, day-to-day practice.

So go out there and win every match if you can. But if you lose, you don’t owe me, or your teammates — or anyone — an apology. You don’t owe anyone anything but, where applicable: “thanks for helping me out: see you in the gym tomorrow.”

The Thank You Post

I wanted to write this post before the tournament this past weekend.

It’s easy to be grateful when things go well. Besides, good decision-making is about putting a good process into place, not about results: if you make quality choices, quality results follow. If you’ve done all you can to prepare well, that’s really all you can hope for, so it’s appropriate to thank the folks that have helped you prepare no matter how the event itself goes.

The best laid plans go astray, though, especially where travel and making weight and living up to other responsibilities goes. So while I meant to make this post Friday, I’m making it now, and I can gratefully report that the IBJJF New York Spring Open went as well as I had hoped it would.

A longstanding goal, finally realized.

A longstanding goal, finally realized.

I took double gold, both in my light feather weight class and in Absolute. I competed in Master 2 blue belt, and got two really good, tough matches in. I don’t really talk about my goals a lot, for a variety of reasons, but I’d always wanted to win an IBJJF absolute gold. The closest I’d come was bronze at the NoGi pans last year, and I thought that might be as close as I’d ever get.

But I trained so, so hard for this tournament. Really tried to do everything as correctly as I possibly could. It took a lot of discipline, and I’d be proud of the way I trained even if I hadn’t gotten the results I wanted. You can’t control how your matches go, but you can control how you prepare, and I prepared harder and smarter than ever before.

Semis in absolute.

Semis in absolute.

No one does anything like this alone. There are a lot of people that I need to thank, and my Facebook friends have already put up with an enormous amount of jiujitsu, so I’m thanking them all here.

First and foremost I have to thank my coach Seth Shamp, who is black belt under Royce Gracie. Seth’s the best instructor a guy could ask for: technical, a gifted teacher and passionately devoted to his students. Best of all, Seth believes 100% in you. I think I could’ve been facing Cobrinha in finals and Seth would’ve said something like: “OK, Jeff. This guy’s truly great. A legend of the art. But I think you can do some things with him! We can do this! Here’s the plan.” That kind of support you can’t put a price on.

"Jeff, this guy is big. Don't sweat it. Here's the plan." -- Seth Shamp

“Jeff, this guy is big. Don’t sweat it. Here’s the plan.” — Seth Shamp

I also want to especially thank two other Royce Gracie black belts, Jake Whitfield from TJJ Goldsboro and Roy Marsh from Sandhills Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Jake and Roy live and breathe Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and each has taught me so much in the past few years, either directly (through instruction) or indirectly (through beating my ass while training). Along with Seth these guys make up my Holy Trinity of BJJ instruction.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to express my gratitude to every single one of my training partners at Triangle Jiu-Jitsu in Durham and Triangle Jiu-Jitsu in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Every day you guys and ladies work me hard, kick my butt and make me better, and I couldn’t possibly be more grateful to you.

I want to shout out two guys who especially inspire me from Roy Marsh’s school at Sandhills BJJ. One is my friend Brian Freeman, who needs to get out to Durham and train with us soon. The other us Alec Cerruto, who is a great young man with sick jiujitsu and an even better attitude. Alec is donating money for every match he wins this year to help feed underprivileged kids. I’m going to add to my own Charity Challenge this year and donate $10 for every match I win to Alec’s “Submit Hunger” project in addition to my own charities. 1546056_10203210941781386_331295106_n

Alec Cerruto, submitter of hunger.

Alec Cerruto, submitter of hunger.

Broadly, I’m also in the debt of all my brothers and sisters on Team Royce Gracie in North Carolina — Chapel Hill Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Forged Fitness Raleigh and Cary. I appreciate everybody who took the time to help me train for this, including my friends at Gracie Raleigh and Pendergrass Academy of Martial Arts. We have a great jiu-jitsu community in North Carolina and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Just a couple of more important people to thank: I want to be sure to thank Boomer from Cageside MMA and Toro BJJ. Besides making great products and letting me design really fun BJJ gear, Boomer does a lot — behind the scenes and not — to help local fighters, BJJ practitioners and human beings generally. I can’t say enough good things about the gear he produces. I could say even more good things about him personally.

Finally, I’ve thanked Eric Uresk already multiple times, but for the first time I’ve been working with a nutritionist, and let me tell you — it makes an incredible difference. Eric’s a genius, and his WellFit program works. If you’re interested in taking nutrition seriously, let you know and I’ll put you in touch.

I am definitely leaving some people out that deserve thanking, but this is already long. I’ll have to leave it here and thank the rest of you in person. Rest assured, though, even if this is a one-time post, I’m grateful to all of you, all the time. So thanks.

You all make me make this face ...

You all make me make this face …

And do this when I walk through airport metal detectors.

And do this when I walk through airport metal detectors.


Charity Challenge 2014

Last year, I decided to donate $10 for every match I won to a couple of great charities. Some generous donors offered to match me, and together we raised $720 for the Women’s Debate Institute and the George Pendergrass Foundation.

We even made a giant novelty check!

We even made a giant novelty check!

I had so much fun doing it, it’s time to run that back. My first tournament of the year is going to be the US Grappling NC State Championships on April 5, and shortly thereafter the New York Open on April 12. My tournament schedule isn’t going to be as ambitious as I initially believed — life got in the way — but there will still be plenty of competitions. I plan to do all the local US Grappling tournaments, the Atlanta Open, the No-Gi Pans and the Montreal Open. I’m also going to the Mundials again, and I might try to sneak in one more big tournament as well.

What does this mean for you, the charitable-minded blog reader? It means you can help in one of two ways!

Pledge your support by donating based on the matches I win: Fill out this Google Form and you can pledge to donate either on a per-match basis, or just to drop a flat donation to the wonderful Women’s Debate Institute or the George Pendergrass Foundation.

* Share this post on Facebook and Twitter: The more people that see this, the more potential supporters. Tell your friends! The more donors we get, the more we can raise.

Last year, we did some very cool donor rewards. I plan to do something like that again, something probably BJJ gear-related. I’ll keep that a surprise this year. Like Indiana Jones said, it isn’t about the fortune and glory.

There you have it. Wish me luck, and please give generously.