Shortly after the fi rst UFC in 1993, a college student who called himself Ben signed up for lessons at Nelson Monteiro’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school in Del Mar, California. Ben, a student at the United States International University at San Diego, was a karate practitioner and a fan of combat sports and martial arts that had just seen Royce Gracie use a then little-known martial art, Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu, to submit three larger, stronger men in one night.
Like so many others, Ben was blown away by the quick and easy dominance of Royce Gracie. After watching Royce make quick work of savate fi ghter Gerard Gordeau, submission fi ghter Ken Shamrock, and boxer Art Jimmerson, Ben knew he needed to expand his knowledge by training at the BJJ school.
Also training at this school was Kid Peligro, now a BJJ black belt and a well-known author and writer about all things Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and grappling.
While the people at the school knew Ben was from the Middle East and had come to America for his college education, they knew little else about him. “He’d show up in fl ip-fl ops and a T-shirt, and he had an assistant that we thought was the boss. He was the guy with the money, not Ben,” said Kid. They also thought Ben was just the bodyguard for the assistant, Guy Neivens.
One day Kid decided to get a bit mischievous. He said to Ben, “I’m going to teach you some tricks so you can beat up your boss.” Kid explained, “Ben would just look at me and smile, and just say, ‘Great, great.’ So I took him aside, and he not only got great lessons from Nelson, but then he’d get reinforcements from me.”
Ben trained there for about three years. “He would show up and train with us, and learn Jiu-Jitsu. He just adored the sport from the get-go. But he also had a thirst for knowledge and he liked other arts, and he started learning Judo and Sambo and wrestling,” said Kid.
Kid described Ben as “so humble and unassuming” all the time he was training with him, and soon it was time for Ben to return to his country, the Persian Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Ben was from Abu Dhabi, its capital and one of the seven emirates which make up the UAE.
The next time Ben came to the U.S., he made an unusual request of Nelson Monteiro. He asked him to return to the Persian Gulf with him and train him.
When he returned to the U.S., Nelson told Kid, “Oh my gosh, that Ben is a wealthy guy!” Everything had been paid for on his trip, and Nelson was persuaded to take Ben up on his offer to move to the UAE to develop a BJJ school. Kid and Ben stayed in touch. Ben “started thinking that he needed to do something big to showcase these martial arts to the public,” said Kid. Although he had learned that Ben was actually Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Kid had little idea just what his position in his country was.
Two years after he left the U.S., Sheikh Tahnoon’s dream was realized. A major worldwide championship, the Submission Wrestling World Championship, organized by the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), was scheduled for March 20-22, 1998, in Abu Dhabi. It was there that Kid learned just how important Ben was in his home country. “We’re in the arena and I’m waiting for him. Then everybody stops and stands. The royals are coming in, and leading the pack was Ben. I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’” “And then he came up to me and he gave me a hug, which is unprotocoled, and said, ‘Hey, nice to see you again,’ and he went to his seat. After that, I had about 20 people come up to me and say, ‘Whatever you need!’”
Sheikh Tahnoon, that humble guy in fl ip-fl ops and a T-shirt who had trained with Kid and Nelson Monteiro in California, was part of the ruling royal family of Abu Dhabi and part of the UAE government. He had used his wealth, power, and privilege to create this Submission Wrestling World Championship, which would also come to be known simply as the Abu Dhabi (or ADCC) tournament. “He is a great guy, tremendous, tremendous patron of the sport,” said Kid. “He’s probably the number one guy.”
The central idea behind this tournament, whose matches are held on a mat with no cage or fence, was to create a championship for grappling, based on rules which were more realistic than those used in other existing styles. Striking was prohibited while submissions were legal, but, at the same time, Kid said that Sheikh Tahnoon wanted takedowns to be important.
“He did not like at the time that jiu-jitsu people would pull guard all the time. He did not like that there were limitations on foot-locks and knee-locks. He said that Sambo has a lot of that, and we should give value to that,” said Kid. Thus, a point system was created based on these ideas.
The Olympics of Grappling
At the time, few people in the combat sports world knew much about Abu Dhabi, but the money and prestige of the event attracted many athletes from many disciplines, including MMA. Not surprisingly, BJJ practitioners did very well at it.
Over the years several familiar names in mixed martial arts made their way to participate in ADCC tournaments, including: Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes, Ricco Rodriguez, Ricardo Aroma, Mark Kerr, Dean Lister, Fabric Werdum, Gabriel Gonzo, Diego Sanchez, Jeff Monson, Nathan Marquardt, Matt Lindland, Vitor Belfort, Ricardo Almeida, Kaoru Uno, Mike VanArsdale, and a handful of Gracies (Royler, Renzo, Rodrigo, Roger and Kyra). Several have won their weight class divisions and gone on to win the absolute (open) division championships.
The ADCC tournament was held in Abu Dhabi annually from 1998 through 2001, and began to take on a life of its own. Explains Kid, “You had wrestlers hanging out with jiu-jitsu guys, jiu-jitsu guys hanging out with luta livre guys, you had Sambo players and judo players.” “It was like an Olympics of grappling. That was just a magic time.” In recent years, contractual issues have made it more diffi cult for MMA stars to compete in events. The event, once annual, is now being held semi-annually.
The Future of Abu Dhabi
The next Abu Dhabi tournament, planned for spring 2009, will likely be held in Europe, although that has not been fi nalized. Qualifi ers will be held between now and March 2009. The fi rst ten years of the ADCC tournaments have seen the creation of a new international sport, and have also had a positive effect on other styles of grappling. “Jiu-jitsu fi ghters now fi ght standup a lot better, and they fi ght with most submissions, knee-locks and everything,” noted Kid. Also, “wrestlers are coming in and l earning submissions.”
The next steps for this event include the creation of an international federation, and having a live, free webcast of the tournament. In this humble tradition, Kid modestly describes himself as a “participant, observer, and helper in the progress of this event,” but we also know that he is its greatest advocate and most prolifi c chronicler. That alone is testament to the civilizing effects of grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the world.
For more information on the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship, including complete results, go to the ADCC News at www.adcombat.com