Will prize money at the 2019 Worlds change the game? Stars weigh in

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Rodolfo and Buchecha in one of their epic battles. Ivan Trindade/GRACIEMAG

The IBJJF has decided to take another step in the direction of professionalizing the sport, announcing cash prizes for the World Championship it will hold in late May in California. Weeks prior, the federation had already said that April’s Brazilian Nationals would award champions up to R$ 10,000.

Meanwhile, at the Worlds, each absolute champion will be paid USD 10,000, and top prizes for the weight divisions will range from four to seven thousand bucks, depending on the number of athletes signed up.

Checkmat fighter Marcus Buchecha, who recently passed Roger Gracie as the greatest winner in Worlds history, told us, “I’m very happy, and I’m certain it’s not just me, but all athletes, especially the black-belts. I admire this initiative by the IBJJF — it was about time. It’s a first step, but the sport still has a lot of room to grow and improve.”

We also reached out to Roger. “A shame it wasn’t in my day — I could have a fuller pocket these days,” said the retired star, with a laugh, before adding: “In relation to the podiums, I think it won’t make a big difference in terms of results. Those who signed up for the absolute did it because they had a chance to win. Nobody’s gonna start doing it for the prize. The money won’t mean that more people will sign up. But it’s very good news for those who were already fighting in the tournament and now have the chance to cover all their training expenses with the prize. Great for the athletes. Great for the sport.”

Rodolfo Vieira, the GFTeam bulldozer who became absolute champion in 2011, is feeling tempted. “I hope the CBJJ and IBJJF maintain the prizes and they go nowhere but up,” he said. “Now we’re indeed starting to professionalize the sport. Whether I’ll compete again? Now there’s a bit more of a chance!”

But not everyone is thrilled. “I hope the intent is to start with this amount and go up, but I think they should have already started from a bigger amount,” said Alliance’s Lucas Lepri. “I’ve always fought shooting for the IBJJF title, and that’s my main focus, regardless of money. There are other smaller tournaments that pay more or less the same, so if they have decided to give cash prizes at the Worlds, it should be a higher amount, I think.”

Tayane Porfírio, the reigning women’s absolute champion. Beatriz Lina

Sitting absolute world champion Tayane Porfírio, also from Alliance, said how the cash can be helpful in practical terms: “We struggle a lot daily in training to win the black belt at a competitive level. In the past, we used to fight just for the weight of the title. Now we will be able to compete and make money for it, and thus cover our expenses with training and other things.”

The significance of the fact that the prizes are the same for men and women isn’t lost on Talita Treta, a champion hailing from São Paulo. “The girls were even happier,” she said. “This is going to generate more activity on the whole scene. Those who don’t have points will start fighting more at the Opens to be able to fight at the Worlds, adding even more value to the title.”

Talita added: “It’s all an endeavor to improve, and many people find something to criticize, but certainly soon there will be prize money for the masters, for the colored belts, for third-place finishers. The intention is to always evolve. It’s always good for there to be money — a ton of people fought for this — but we must also continue to fight for the prestige of becoming world champions. The world title has never been worth any money and yet the greatest were always present, while other tourneys were worth money but not always had the best.”

Mahamed Aly, a gold medalist from 2018, agrees. “It was the coolest thing to make the prizes equal, because the women work hard too, you know? A shame it wasn’t sooner, because men and women who did a lot for jiu-jitsu won’t have this benefit, but I’m glad it has started now. It had to start at some point, and I hope to be in this first batch of champions who get paid.”

Claudinha do Val and Isaque Bahiense think the new deal is bound to attract more athletes in the future. “The IBJJF is showing that it is valuing its athletes more, and this step will bring more evolution, more enrolled athletes, more sponsors,” said Isaque, adding: “We will have even more strength in BJJ. We needed this in order for our sport to move forward.” To Claudinha, “soon it would be nice to see third-place finishers get prizes too, but it all has to start somewhere.”

The original absolute female world champion, Michelle Nicolini, said she would not resume competing for the money, although it is great news. “Sensational. It was about time, right? I never fought for the money and I wouldn’t start now. I like to focus on superfights these days. But it’s the turn of the girls of the current generation. I’m happy to have friends with chances to win at the Worlds and win prizes to boot.”

To Atos’s Gustavo Batista, the move by the IBJJF proves that BJJ fighters can win any kind of fight. “This appreciation, which is well deserved, is also a fruit of the work and dedication by all of the older athletes, who made jiu-jitsu history even without having cash prizes for all those years. I believe we are all truly kick-starting the professionalization of BJJ at this 2019 Worlds.”

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