By Josh Stein on Feb 09, 2008
This is my first post on the site, and I’m glad to be here. Looks like a great group of guys and a solid think-tank. Given my background in the sport, and some of the results from the recent UFC cards, I thought this would be a good way to start this off.
There was a time when many a sherdog columnist wrote that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was done, and that the new fighter was a hybrid of wrestling and muay thai, with a little jiu-jitsu and some submission defense. There was a time when there was not a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter could be found in the UFC.
That time wasn’t too long ago, but you’d never guess it by looking at the current status of the UFC, and objective assessment will show that those predictions, that BJJ would become an obsolete style when people figured out how to defend the armbar and utilize the groundnpound form guard, are clearly wrong.
Four of the UFC’s five champions are Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelts. Anderson Silva, Matt Serra, BJ Penn and recently crowned heavyweight king Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (who gave Silva his blackbelt) all hold the honor, but they’re not the only one, and it’s clear that the knowledge of the ground game is something that can’t just be learned from wrestling and transitioning to grappling, as we’ve seen time and time again.
It’s not going to stop, though, because even though the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu warriors dominate the top of the division, just as they did in the sports beginning, when the style was just called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
While the UFC now boasts the four title-holders, it’s not as though their the only men in the division to put on a gi. Here’s the look, weight class for weight class.
The lightweight division boasts a half dozen BJJ blackbelts, almost all of whom are at the top of the division. Kenny Florian, Kurt Pellegrino and Jorge, Gurgel are all considered in the top of that division, and even Hermes Franca, who is still serving his suspension after testing positive for steroids, holds a black belt. While Sean Sherk dominated the division with his powerful wrestling and ground control, it’s clear that Sherk is the exception, not the rule, and all four of those guys, including BJJ world champion Alberto Crane (also a blackbelt) and the division is riddled with lower ranking BJJ students.
Welterweight champion Matt Serra is a ground wizard, of that there is no doubt, but it’s also become apparent that top contender and former champion Georges St. Pierre takes the ground work seriously, and has worked his way up to the rank of brown belt. St. Pierre’s submission game, like his wrestling, has never really gotten the respect it deserves, but it is certainly a force to be reckoned with.
The middleweight division is the only real anomaly, and even it isn’t too severe. The division does hold Silva, a well respected grappler, though the UFC commentators love to talk about his striking. It also holds Dean Lister, a world champion in submission grappling and a second degree blackbelt. While the middleweight division seems packed with powerful strikers, we’ve seen from Martin Kampmann that knowing how to handle yourself once the fight hits the floor is important, as he finished Drew McFedries with a submission.
The light heavyweight division is alone in that it does not have a blackbelt at its helm, but it does have its share of blackbelts. Besides the obvious ones of Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and long time veteran Elvis Sinosic (who, while not on the roster right now, appears periodically as a gatekeeper) are there, but they are not the serious grappling forces that call for respecting in the division. It’s also important to respect the ground prowess of top contenders Thiago Silva and Lyoto Machida (Silva is a blackbelt, Machida is still working towards his), as one of them will almost certainly be fighting for a title in the near future.
The heavyweights seem to have even the greatest depth of talent in the jiu-jitsu department, which is a little bit strange given that they’re more or less the worst at everything else. The division contains the ranks of the champion Noguiera, Fabricio Werdum, Gabriel Gonzaga, Marcio Cruz and Fabiano Scherner. The last four not only hold blackbelts, but are also world champions in the sport. The division also boasts Frank Mir (who showed that any wrestler who neglects jiu-jitsu is going to get hurt) and Brandon Vera, both students of the style and brown belts.
The black belt isn’t just something that Joe Rogan mentions to make a fighter sound tough. While there is certainly a lot of stigma placed on the traditional martial arts for not being as brutal as MMA, it’s important to remember, not just where this sport came from, but what it is about. The sport began with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but even beyond the history, the gi is still important, and still relevant, not just something that we can pleasantly reminisce about when we watch tapes of Royce and Rickson.
A brief prediction: 2008 is going to be the year of the BJJ masters. We’ve already seen them take some level of control and continue to establish their dominance, but this year we are going to see them really control the upper echelon of their divisions and dominate opponents.
I’ve got some specific examples in mind, for upcoming fights, and I’ll mention them as the fights approach, but believe me when I say that, without a BJJ blackbelt, no one is going to take a title in the 155, 185 and 265 pound divisions. While St. Pierre may upset Serra, he will not neglect the ground game, and no one should.
If you do, you’ll end up like Brock Lesnar.
About the Author: Joshua Stein is a writer and editor for MMA Opinion. He has worked as a photographer and journalist and has a number of print journalism credits. He also works as a moderator for MMAForum.com and a grappling columnist (covering judo, collegiate wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling) for profighting-fans.com.