Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part V: When to Admit You’re an Old Dude

This blog had its genesis in 2013 when I quit work and went to live in Rio with the sole intention of training and competing in jiu-jitsu full-time.

I had the misfortune of turning thirty prior to my arrival in Brazil, and it didn’t take long to realise that competing in the adult division wasn’t going to yield much in the way of a reward. At the time, I was a blue belt; to win some of the larger tournaments, meant having my hand raised in at least five matches. I would be matched against some of the top aspiring competitors in jiu-jitsu, athletic dudes in their late teens, future world champions who had potentially been training full-time for years.

I was forced to confront this reality – competing against some of the best in the world in my weight category and belt level, just wasn’t feasible if I wanted to win, and I really did want to win. I might be victorious in a couple of matches but invariably beaten by younger and more skilled athletes.

I can absolutely empathise with those who question what is the point in competing if you are not going to compete with the best? But, for me the decision appeared a purely pragmatic one, I wanted to be the best, and that was nigh impossible in the adult division but a realistic possibility at the masters level with the dudes who were also on the wrong side of thirty.

My decision was made; I would do everything that was humanly possible to be the best grappler aged between 30-35. And, for the last three and a half years at blue and purple belt I did just that, competing in over 30 tournaments.

Competing in Brazil there are very few easy matches whatever category you compete in. I won and I lost but, had the most amazing experiences against dudes who were on a similar level as myself. It might have been an ego-driven decision but it wasn’t one that I regretted.

Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part 4: Being ‘Gringoed’

When seeking advice from anyone that has competed in Brazil, the chances are, you will be informed about the likelihood of being ‘gringoed’. For the uninitiated the gist of this concept is, referees unfairly discriminating against non-Brazilian competitors.

Unequal treatment could manifest itself in a litany of ways such as failing to award points or vice versa awarding imaginary points to an opponent; arbitrary distribution of advantages, restarting from a less advantageous position, or cynical disqualifications.

Is this charge of favouritism real or simply a nasty conspiracy propagated by those who have just suffered an ego-damaging defeat? I have written about my own experience with this phenomenon previously, here and here, admittedly, I was bitter about being defeated in both cases.

The short answer is yes it does go on. But, this is not to say that all Brazilian referees are prejudiced and will cut any corner to ensure that the Brazilian competitor always emerges victorious. This simply isn’t the case, I have won a number of matches on the referee’s decision, where, I would have been hard-pressed to decide the victor myself.

What I did come to discover was that refereeing was a lot fairer in the IBJJF / CBJJ competitions, it was in the smaller scale and regional tournaments that I felt I was having to battle not only with my opponent but also the referee.

It is hardly an unfounded assessment to note that Brazilians are highly nationalistic, one has to only pay attention to the reaction for non-Brazilian fighters when the UFC goes to Brazil. This fierce pride combined with the highly subjective nature of the points system in BJJ makes it very easy to justify an extra advantage or two to ensure that the ‘right’ person wins.

Add this to the fact that referees can represent the same team as those they are in charge of, they would have to be at the height of objectivity to call things completely down the middle. This also means it isn’t just gringos that face discrimination, but anyone that has the misfortune of representing a rival team.

There is always the temptation to drop the old adage of not leaving it in the hands of the judges or the referee in our case. But the sport of jiu-jitsu is far too nuanced for this overly simplistic, clichéd bullshit, if two athletes are of equal level (which you would hope otherwise where would the fun be in competing?) there is a good chance it will be exceptionally close and come down to the discretion of the official. Is it too much to ask that they be a completely neutral party?

Unfair treatment does go on, but it is certainly not an inevitability, and does little to outweigh the awe-inspiring feeling of competing on the mats in the birthplace of jiu-jitsu.

If I could offer a piece of advice based on my own experience, don’t use being ‘gringoed’ as a crutch for being beaten by a better competitor, it just makes you sound like a dick.