ONE Championship’s approach is hurting the future of BJJ

One Championship's spectacle first approach is hurting the future of competitive grappling.

By: William Watts | 2 months ago
ONE Championship’s approach is hurting the future of BJJ
IMAGO | PACIFIC PRESS by Noel Tonido

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ONE major problem with professional grappling

Two years ago FloGrapping put on one of the largest professional grappling events ever in Austin, Texas. 2021’s WNO Championship was a mash-up of five separate eight athlete tournaments spread over two full days. Five men and women took five individual belts and added to their legacy.

Notably, Tye Ruotolo and his brother Kade won the 185 and 155 pound titles. Tye would go on to win WNO’s 170 pound title later, and Kade would take ADCC’s 77 KG title. Those titles quickly shifted the Ruotolos from elite prospects to grappling stars. Couple their grappling wins with a major RVCA sponsorship and the two seemed destined for some degree stardom. They were on the path to fame and fortune.

One week ago FloGrappling captured lightning in a bottle again with what I think is the best event they’ve ever hosted. WNO 20: Night of Champions was headlined with another Gordon Ryan showcase and filled out with two individual tournaments. Eight men split into a 145 and 170-pound division and competed to take home two shiny new belts.

The second place finisher from 2021’s WNO 185 pound tournament, Mica Galvao, took home the 170 pound belt. You might be wondering, why is Galvao competed for a belt held by Tye? Or, you might assume the match sets up a rematch between Tye and Galvao to unify the 170 pound title. The assumption would be incorrect and the answer to the first question would be that Tye no longer held the 170 pound title.

Tye and his brother Kade have not been inactive. They’ve just been legally incapable of defending their titles thanks to another promotion that put on a spectacle this past Friday.

Mikey Muscemici brutalizes Shinya Aoki

This Friday, Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom Mikey Musumeci had a professional grappling match against 40 year old MMA veteran Shinya Aoki for ONE Championship. The match went just about as expected.

I know Aoki is a grappling specialist, but Musumeci will likely go down as an all time Brazilian jiu-jitsu great. We’ve seen time and time again what happens when the specialist takes on the generalist in the specialist’s sport. Anyone with a pulse knew the match-up made no sense.

The counterargument generally goes something like this, “Watching submissions is more entertaining than slow, technical grappling matches. Putting on spectacles is fun for the fans!”

I get that and I generally agree. But the reality is ONE Championship does not have the roster to continue producing spectacles, let alone sustain high level professional grappling.

ONE Championship has created a unique and exciting product. ONE Championship uses different MMA rules than the UFC, they are bringing Muay Thai to a wider audience, and they put on grappling showcases in an MMA cage. That’s really what they are, showcases and spectacles. Sometimes showcases don’t make sense, especially when. you’re trying to legitimize a sport.

Since signing with ONE Championship, Mikey has had six grappling matches and only two of them are with active Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitors. This ratio isn’t unique either.

ONE Championship’s website lists three submission grappling champions; Musumeci, Kade Ruotolo, and Danielle Kelly. Kelly is 3-0-1 and has only faced one other active competitor Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor. It’s worth pointing out that Kelly competed in the 115 pound WNO tournament in 2021 but has not competed outside of ONE since signing with them. Ruotolo’s record is slightly more sensible at 4-0 with two of those matches coming against active Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitors.

ONE’s three submission grappling champions have competed a total of 14 times with about a third of that competition coming from active participants in their sport. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why you can’t build a real sport without active participants in it.

Detractors might say ONE Championship’s spectacle is an isolated incident. They might try to argue that ONE’s policies only create competition between organizations, athletes can choose where they want to compete, and if it’s so bad then ONE will soon not be able to sign athletes and the spectacle will stop. It might eventually, but recent news tells us that ONE Championship’s business practices are creating undue collateral damage.

Musumeci submits Aoki with an Aoki lock

After inverting to attack a leg from K guard, Musumeci is trying to get a bite on Aoki’s heel. Musumeci uses his outside leg to push Aoki away and fix his grip. Musumeci gets the Aoki grip and inserts his leg inside as a hook. Musumeci rotates the heel and extends the leg for the finish.

Will ONE Championship’s contracts kill professional grappling’s momentum?

A recent lawsuit has exposed ONE Championship’s contracts to the world. Contrary to what ONE’s marketing department will try to convince you about their bushido spirit, there ain’t nothing about the contract that stands out as martial artist friendly.

It’s important to point out that the contract in question is an MMA fighter’s contract. That means that it might be different than a grappler’s contract. Considering that organizations use boilerplate contracts I seriously doubt that there are any material differences between this contract and the majority of their roster’s. I encourage everyone to read John S Nash’s coverage of the contract on Bloody Elbow, but I’ll list a few of the lowlights here:

  • ONE contracts can extend in perpetuity
  • ONE Championship owns image rights after death
  • ONE fighters can’t refer to themselves as a current or former “ONE champion” unless they get prior written consent from ONE

The language in ONE’s contracts make it so even if you build a name fighting there you legally can’t use their brand’s value acclaim to promote yourself without asking them first. Imagine not being able to list your former employers on your resume. F—ing insane. Let’s take this back to professional grappling.

Because there is no legal protection for ONE’s champion’s contracts to end, ONE can sign athletes, strap a belt on them after a few wins, and then hold them indefinitely. It looks like that’s what’s happening to Musumeci right now.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for the sake of argument. Let’s pretend ONE is paying everyone well enough that it makes sense to stay in their organization for the duration of their career. I’m not even going to touch on the fact that ONE has straight up unsustainable finances (see below), but the reality is they can’t even give some of their marquee athletes matches.

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ONE takes it upon themselves to make everything a spectacle, including their signings. They’ve done major announcements to announce the signings of IBJJF and ADCC world champions like Diego Oliveira, Tainan Dalpra, and Gordon Ryan, but ONE has yet to get a single match for any of these three athletes.

Right about now is when you’re probably wondering, “Why would anyone sign with ONE?” The answer is really simple.

Silver lining or devil’s advocacy? Mining for gold with ONE Championship

I’m not sure what Mikey Musumeci’s contracted pay with ONE Championship is. I do know that Musumeci has won a $50,000 bonus four times from ONE.

To put it in perspective, the most prestigious submission grappling event in the world, the ADCC World Championships, pays $40,000 to the weight class winner. That event only happens every two years.

Musumeci has generated five times the amount of money in ONE that he could make in ADCC in between ADCC’s events.

Making money in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission grappling is hard. Like really really hard. Unless you’re winning ADCC or an IBJJF event like their recent Absolute Grand Prix, you’re picking up a few thousand at the very most to win grueling tournaments or sporadic super fights. In between that you’re hustling private lessons, seminars, and instructional content.

There just isn’t that much money in the sport, yet, and you have a limited amount of time to get the bag however you can. From that standpoint, signing with ONE is almost a no brainer. Unfortunately that shortsighted view is preventing the sport from growing like it can.

Because ONE is unable to reliably find matches for high level talent, signing with them is a gamble. Maybe you’ll get a good compelling match, maybe you’ll even get a bonus, or maybe you’ll get signed to a draconian contract that forces you to burn years of your athletic career and severely limit your earning potential. ONE Championship might pretend that they’re only interested in promoting martial arts, but I’m sure their prizefighters would like to continue earning their keep.

Competitive grappling is experiencing a lot of growth right now. The IBJJF has a full amateur circuit for athletes to develop, and they’ve started more regular paying events for gi competitors. ADCC recently set up an open event series for amateur athletes to compete in their ruleset so they can gain experience leading up to the trials and world championships. Outside of these pro-am hybrid organizations there is a bit of a vacuum for a regular professional only show. The front runners look like FloGrappling’s WNO, Polaris, Quintet, and ONE Championship.

The problem is that ONE Championship is attracting premier talent with their big stage and even bigger checks, but they’re unable to sustain an active competitive roster. ONE’s athletes get signed, then they get shelved, and then they can’t even compete in smaller shows to stay busy due to the restrictions of ONE’s contracts. ONE’s momentary submission grappling spectacle is helpful now but harming the future of professional submission grappling.

ONE’s submission grappling bubble is going to pop. I just hope athletes are able to find a venue to compete and earn money in once it does.

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About the author
William Watts
William Watts

BJJ black belt coaching in Austin and writing online. Get better at BJJ & MMA faster by reading my work at https://www.opennotegrappling.com/

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