Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Competition-Style: What Happens at a Grappling Tournament

Curious about competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Want to try it yourself or just go watch? Get the low-down on what happens at a BJJ tournament!

On Saturday, October 22, competitors of every age, size, and skill/experience level participated in the Copa Nova Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling tournament held at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, VA. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a ground fighting martial art somewhat akin to wrestling. Participants square off in pairs and attempt to gain advantageous position on one another. Ultimately, they attempt to apply submission holds, which are joint manipulations or chokes that can do physical harm to the recipient unless the recipient taps or concedes defeat. BJJ is executed in a kimono, or gi. Submission grappling is executed “no-gi”, usually in board shorts and a rash guard or stretchy shirt.

A tournament like the Copa Nova can be a fun experience for the initiated, and an alternately fascinating and befuddling one for the novice, who may just see two people grabbing each other and then rolling around on the ground very earnestly. But as the initiated know, high-level, high-quality jiu-jitsu competition is as graceful, technical, and sophisticated as dancing. It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re watching.

At this tournament, there were eight sections of mat space for eight simultaneous matches overseen by eight black-clad referees. Referees are usually high-level BJJ practitioners themselves, typically purple belt and above (where the belt progression goes: white, blue, purple, brown, black.). Bleacher seating accommodates family members, friends, other spectators, and athletes who are resting between matches or waiting for their divisions to start. Athletes clinch with one another in out of the way places, engaging in “pummeling” or takedown drills to warm up and loosen their muscles. Volunteers weigh in competitors (who compete against others of their similar weight and skill level), sell tickets and concessions to spectators, and keep score for individual matches on flip charts.

competition, BJJ, grappling, submission grappling, tournament, Brazilian Jiu-JitAn actual match goes something like this: Two competitors step to the center of the mat. They are directed by the referee as to the rules for their division; for instance, certain moves are not allowed at lower levels for safety reasons, and lower level competitor matches are shorter than those of more experienced competitors. Competitors are then directed to shake hands and square off. Matches begin from a standing position. The competitors engage with each other, sometimes hand fighting to get a good grip on the gi, sometimes wrestling to execute a takedown. The action usually eventually goes to the ground, where the competitors vie for position on one another. Different positions earn different numbers of points, which the referee awards at his or her discretion. Matches can be won either by submission, by points, or by overtime or referee’s decision in the case of an even score. At the end, the referee raises the winner’s hand and the opponents hug and shake hands.

It may sound a bit dry in writing, but matches are exciting and full of heart, and also full of action! If you find yourself near a tournament in the near future, check it out!