Photography by James Law for Metamoris
This is an actual word I’m telling a smiling parking lot attendant. I’ve never said it before. I don’t see a reason to say it again. But here I am.
I’m pulling up to the historic Pauley Pavilion on the University of California-Los Angeles campus for Metamoris II. In order to enter the media parking area, I need to show my pass and say the delicious sounding secret password like I’m swinging by a 1920s speakeasy to wet my whistle. I’ve attended hundreds of MMA fights, wrestling tournaments, and jiu-jitsu competitions from Manila to Tijuana, and this is the only time I’ve needed a code word.
The first time I heard of Metamoris, I Googled “Metamorphosis,” by mistake. Then I tried “Morphius,” but ending up wasting a couple hours watching The Matrix clips on YouTube. The strange name actually derives from its founder’s favorite book, The Song of Metamoris, a historical novel based on the unification of Native American tribes.
Metamoris is actually a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu showcase promoted by Ralek Gracie, son of Rorion Gracie, the renowned co-founder of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Apparently, creating unorthodox combat leagues from scratch runs in the family.
Here’s how we got here. Brazilian Helio Gracie was too small for judo, so he adapted the art to focus on leverage and submissions in the early 20th century. He taught his kids, they taught their kids, and so on and so forth until Helio’s son Royce won the first UFC tournament in 1993. Royce was undersized and wore a gi, but he was able to submit all three opponents, opening up a lot of eyes to a different style of fighting.
Royce became a legend and jiu-jitsu caught on. Schools popped up all over the world with tournaments held in nearly every state in the country. In Southern California specifically, where many of the Gracies, including Rorion, Ralek, and Royce made their mark, the martial art is very popular. Even I caught the bug. I stumbled into a school 10 years ago and recently earned the rank of brown belt, an achievement that tides your over until you earn your black belt.
Unhappy with the direction modern day sport jiu-jitsu was heading, Ralek looked to change the sport dominated by competitors who were more interested in scoring points than earning a submission win. Hence, Metamoris is formed.
So here I am on a sunny Sunday afternoon, walking on UCLA’s beautiful campus with FIGHT! video producer Rick Lee to Metamoris II. I wanted his naked eye to experience the competition objectively since my eyes were diluted with a decade of training. My objectivity would be blinded by my unique thrills in lapel grips and spider guards.
The crowd gathering outside the entrance is bustling and enormous. The lines to get in are long and winding around the building. It’s an assorted mixture of muscled-up, cauliflower-eared guys sporting their home gym’s t-shirt along with the usual L.A. crowd.
I find my way into the venue and get my credential, accompanied by the fanciest press packet I have ever seen, complete with a hardcover book on Metamoris. Seriously, this thing looks like it was printed for a group of investors interested in buying General Electric.
The 13,800-person capacity home of UCLA Bruins basketball is curtained off in half, providing a more intimate viewing experience. A band with a dozen or so instruments bellows Brazilian music throughout the arena. An array of cameras and lighting encircle the Metamoris platform.
The platform is an imposing sight at 32 feet by 32 feet of canvas, with the Metamoris logo stamped in the center. It’s raised off the floor about four feet, with no cage walls or ring ropes to keep the grapplers from falling off the platform. I immediately hoped that was going to happen. Watching someone get tossed off a raised platform would turn more people into jiu-jitsu fans than a 100 collar chokes.
Unlike jiu-jitsu tournaments, this is a showcase of individuals invited for a one-off match, similar to an MMA or boxing fight. The bout is comprised of one 20-minute round, no points. If there isn’t a submission during regulation, three judges determine a winner by criteria that are about as vague as you can get.
The rules aren’t unlike the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts in a lot of ways, including no biting, no eye gouging, no fish hooking, and all the usual suspects. The obvious and glaring difference is no striking of any kind. The rules specifically point to groin striking as a foul. Why a strike to the groin isn’t encompassed in the “no striking” rule is beyond me.
I nestle into my seat to get ready for action. Scanning the arena, you couldn’t look at any part of the floor without spotting some kind of celebrity. Aside from a who’s who in BJJ, MMA regulars strolling around included UFC commentator Joe Rogan, UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson, and heavyweight Matt Mitrione. Celebrities were abundant, including black belt Ed O’Neil, who worked the commentary with Rener Gracie, James and Scott Caan, and the cast from FX’s Sons of Anarchy.” The cast members dressed exactly like their characters from the show. I felt like a biker gang fight was going to break out at any minute.
After a video intro and the competitors’ group walkout, the first match was underway between Victor Estima and JT Torres. As soon as the referee signaled it was go time, the crowd fell completely silent—eerily silent. As the BJJ players exchanged grips and subtle positions, you could hear a pin drop. This experience was the polar opposite of a regional MMA show where you can’t go two minutes without hearing applause, booing, or intoxicated wise-guys yelling with minimal coherency. This environment was more conducive to thousands of medical students watching their professor perform open-heart surgery during class.
After 20 minutes passed, the bell rang. I say “bell,” but it sounded more like a 300-pound sumo wrestler had struck a gong with a comically oversized mallet. The match went to the judges’ decision, a reoccurring theme that night. Only the main event ended in a submission, meaning I saw 107 consecutive submission-less minutes. The bright side being the fans that bought a ticket or paid the $19.95 online pay-per-view REALLY got some bonus footage. I mean, that’s only 19 cents a minute for high level jiu-jitsu.
The matches continued one after the other. Sandwiched between the bouts was a special announcement that Eddie Bravo and Royler Gracie would rematch a decade after their first match at Abu Dhabi in 2003. The bout is set for Metamoris III—day and location pending.
Two bouts stuck out in my mind the most, the high and low of the event. Active UFC fighter Brendan Schaub turned his bout against Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu into a track meet, refusing to engage the no-gi world champion. Remember those absent boos and loud comments? Schaub turned a polite, BJJ-appreciating crowd into a raucous mob that voiced their disgust for what they viewed as inaction.
At the press conference, Schaub, who’d never competed in something like this before, made it sound like he out-game planned the Brazilian. Props go to Abreu, who was clearly annoyed with the inaction, but kept his cool and ended up shaking Schaub’s hand at the end of the presser. It was the most contact the two made all night.
The main event featured another MMA fighter in ONE FC Lightweight Champion Shinya Aoki versus Kron Gracie, son of the legendary Rickson Gracie. This bout ended with Gracie sinking in a guillotine choke while the two nearly tumbled off the platform. My heart skipped a beat when I realized I might finally see the platform nosedive I’d been waiting for all afternoon. In a strange twist, a bystander supported the two grapplers at the edge of the mat with his back, allowing Gracie the time to finish his submission and win the match.
I walked away impressed with the overall experience. My buddy Rick hoped for more action, which I think echoes most opinions of those who haven’t spent the better part of a decade rolling around on mats. It takes time to appreciate the subtle nuances of such a complex grappling art.
Metamoris was an education process. Ralek appeared on my SiriusXM Fight Club show saying he wanted his promotion to be the perfect example of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, “If Barack Obama only went to one jiu-jitsu competition and formed his opinion on just that experience, I’d want him to come to mine and walk away holding my sport in the highest regard.”
Mission accomplished. The production was exquisite, the competitors performed (mostly), and BJJ had an event it could be proud of. I think the President would’ve dug it—if he knew the password to get in.
Kron Gracie defeats Shinya Aoki by guillotine choke
Rodolfo Vieira defeats Braulio Estima by decision
Andre Galvao defeats Rafael Lovato Jr. by decision
Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu defeats Brendan Schaub by decision
Michelle Nicolini vs. Mackenzie Dern ends in a draw
Victor Estima vs. JT Torres ends in a draw