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Metamoris 3 (Part 2)

Author's Note: The following is the second half of a two-part piece on my experience at Metamoris 3, on March 29, 2014. To read Part 1, click here.

 

Intermission

See the rising crowds; the brightly lit tent. See the reception area, brimming with shifting, jovial bodies; people drinking; people laughing. A cool breeze threads the strings of lights above the patio; the city of L.A. twinkles in the dusk. Look, there’s Joe Rogan, joking with Bryan Callen; and there’s Chael Sonnen, deep in conversation with Robert Duval. Was that UFC referee Mike Beltran? I believe that’s Royce Gracie in a white polo, posing for pictures (he’s taller in person than he seems on TV).  And now the drums are beating, beating; their rhythmic throb concludes our respite, and the peoples of the crowd, perhaps a little drunk, amble back to their seats, noisier than before. 

           And the second act begins.

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

 

The Rematch 

The two fights before the main event consisted of a no-gi contest between Keenan Cornelius and Kevin Casey (Casey was a last minute replacement of Vinny Magalhaes, who was medically disqualified for severe staph infection), and Clark Gracie and Rafael Mendes (Cornelius won his fight via heel hook submission; Gracie and Mendes fought to a draw—a closely-contested match in which every limb, and every inch of gi, was accounted for; a masterpiece of double guard attack and defense, Mendes rolling a berimbolo, Gracie an Omoplata, almost unreal to behold—truly two of the best at their art, striving their absolute most to unravel one another, like living knots, across the mats).

           Gracie and Mendes made their exits and the lights dimmed. A hot oil energy bubbled and spread throughout the air. People stood in their seats, a sea of flesh and exhilaration, straining for a better view of the canvas... Every inch of the darkly heated arena was occupied... The moment had come: Eddie Bravo and Royler Gracie were going to fight again. I stood at the beginning of the lane the fighters walked to reach the canvas. Bravo was there already, wearing white gi pants and a 10th Planet rash-guard designed to look like a skeleton. We made eye contact and he gave me a tiny nod. His focus was as palpable as the elation of the crowds, his hazel eyes sparking in the vociferous gloom.

            The drums sounded, his name was called, and he strode onto the mats.

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           Gracie wore black spandex shorts and a white shirt. Like Bravo, you could feel his intensity as he journeyed down the aisle, people cheering either side. They faced each other atop the canvas like inverse images: so dissimilar they are in style and philosophy. Bravo, aged 43, is known for his innovation; Gracie, 48, for his sublime mastery of the basics. 

           They bowed. Nobody was seated. The silence of earlier was absent—the venue had become a roaring vortex of noise. Not a single person could contain their excitement. A booming signaled the fight’s start—“Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s happening,” I heard someone say—and they came together.

 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           Bravo assumed a low stance and quickly engaged, dragging Gracie to the mat and seizing him in a tight quarter-guard. He then advanced to half-guard, and from there obtained the Lockdown—a modification of the half-guard, in which the defending player’s legs are further intertwined, a position Bravo would maintain, more or less, throughout the remainder of the fight; from it would come his most stunning sweeps, reversals, and submission attempts. Bravo’s fingers, callused and taped, clung to Gracie—who postured up in an effort to create space and pressed down on Bravo’s chest. 

           Gracie snuck an arm under Bravo’s head; Bravo cupped the back of Gracie’s knee. Chest to chest, Gracie clasped his hands, moving, wrenching, inching, laboring to free his leg from Bravo’s guard. He pressed his open hand against Bravo’s trachea; Bravo’s face reddened and veins leapt across his neck; Bravo swept, they rolled, they reset in half-guard. Back and forth, they went, and Bravo reversed Gracie, landing on top. Gracie rolled, his leg still trapped in Bravo’s thighs, and the crowd heaved. “He’s setting up a twister!” someone yelled, and cries of “Bravo!” and “Royler!” rang out in alternating waves. 

           Gracie escaped at the ten minute mark and transitioned back into Bravo’s half-guard. Bravo swept again, twisting Gracie into a position he calls the Electric Chair. Gracie’s legs spread, a full split—he defended; he breathed; he transitioned, somehow, back into the half-guard, and the game started anew. 

           4 minutes and 30 seconds remained and Bravo was on top, Gracie’s fingers clamped firmly in the fabric of his pant-leg. Bravo dipped, swept, rolled; he caught Gracie’s leg in a Vaporizer—a painful, knee-popping technique, blending a heel hook and a calf-slicer, that places near unbearable pressure on the joints of the knee, the shin, and ankle). Pulling, pulling, and Gracie’s knee popped. But his face remained a mask, and he did not tap. They lay together on the mats, side by side, defending and attacking, as though their legs were entangled ropes. 1 minute, now, and they seemed to have reached a kind of stalemate. 50 seconds. Bravo switched his attack to the ankle and cranked with all his might, the struggle on his adrenaline-swollen face an echo of that he’d shown in 2003, when pulling down on Gracie’s skull to secure a life-changing triangle choke. 

           Gracie shook his head. The booming came again—exploding over the unending din of the crowd—and the fight was over.

           A draw.

  

In the Aftermath 

Twenty minutes of non-stop jiu-jitsu had concluded and the crowd erupted into wild jubilation. No one cared that it had ended in a draw; though everybody present would have preferred a submission, the lack of one did nothing to dim the grandeur of what we’d witnessed. It felt like a privilege merely to have watched these two men grapple.

           Said Bravo, in the aftermath: “For me, the most important thing was to not let the people down… I’ve always thought that he [Gracie] was a legendary figure. I still think that…. I’ve always had the utmost respect for him. If it wasn’t for the Gracies I wouldn’t be here.”

           Said Gracie, “I think we both came very prepared for the fight… We did a really good job. I’m happy just to be in the match one more time… I don’t have to prove nothing. To be in the match with Ed again, it’s a pleasure.”

           It was an excellent night of martial artistry, one that harkened to and celebrated the submission-only roots of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, while providing its greatest practitioners the best venue available today. There was a purity to the manner in which the fights were conducted, and the audience, composed solely of people who love the sport, reacted. 

           Kenny Florian summed it up perfectly when he said, “Man I tell you what: This was exactly what jiu-jitsu needed. You look at the turnout—it was completely sold out. We had some phenomenal matches. And we had two legends go at it for the main event, and they more than delivered… It’s rare that you get a rematch that delivers, and Eddie Bravo and Royler Gracie with the skill, the heart, and the technique they showed out here today proves that jiu-jitsu is very much alive and well… These are the kinds of events that are gonna push the sport forward and take it to that next level.” 

           Gradually, the crowd meandered its way outside and the clean-up crew went to work. Two men shod their shoes and leapt onto the mats and wrestled until admonished by a security guard and they got down. The arena emptied. Among the last to leave was a small boy, standing on the mats and gazing at the Metamoris logo—eyes distant and dreamy, a gap-toothed smile spread between his lips. 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           The chairs were folded and stacked and a smell of stale beer arose and hovered over the canvas and I too went outside. The sky above Los Angeles was dark, pale blue at the western edges. A hazy diadem of smog-light lifted over the glittering nightscape and, like the onset of a new era, washed away the stars.

Metamoris 3 (Part 1)

There were five fights leading up to the main event—the long awaited rematch of Eddie Bravo and Royler Gracie. The fighters were of varying height and weight; they hailed from numerous countries and represented a diverse array of styles and lineage; and, invariably, each was an elite jiu-jitsu player of world renown. The format of the fights was simple: one 20 minute round, submission only. No judges. You could fight with or without the gi. There were no points, no advantages. If, at the end of the round, there had been no submissions, the fight was declared a draw. In the days and weeks before the match, the Bravo/Royler fight was being billed as perhaps the most anticipated in jiu-jitsu history. 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

In the Ginásio do Ibirapuera; São Paulo, Brazil, 2003

The headline contest of Metamoris’s third event—as well as its import to the jiu-jitsu community—has its origins in the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) Submission Wrestling World Championship, over a decade prior. Created by Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nayan, Abu Dhabi—as it’s commonly referred—is regarded as the pre-eminent submission grappling tournament in the world, one of the few places pure grapplers can make real money. 

           It was 2003, and the quarterfinals of the 66-kilo weight division (145 pounds). Eddie Bravo, a young, unknown American and a brown belt under Jean Jacques Machado (who is a 7th degree red-and-black belt under the legendary Rickson Gracie, and one of the greatest players of all time) was facing off against Royler Gracie, the fifth son of Helio Gracie and the heavy favorite—and indeed the favorite to win his entire bracket.  

           For eight minutes Gracie smothered the defending Bravo. And then Bravo attempted an Omoplata shoulder lock; Gracie defended, and, as he was defending, Bravo cinched a triangle choke. With lightning speed his legs ensnared the neck and arm of Gracie, he pulled the crown of Gracie’s head towards his chest, gritting his teeth, and the elder Gracie, unbelievably, was forced to tap.  

           It was the first time Royler Gracie had been submitted—in his weight class—in a grappling contest. 

           Though Bravo would lose his semifinal contest against Leo Vieira, the Gracie bout skyrocketed his name into BJJ stardom. Since then he has gone on to pioneer his own style of jiu-jitsu—10th Planet, a controversial variant of no-gi grappling, invented, states Bravo, in order to improve BJJ for mixed martial arts, which in turn, he believes, will advance the sport on the whole (he currently boasts 45 schools worldwide). Talk of a rematch began almost immediately following the first fight, though for a variety of reasons it went unrealized.

           “Many have tried to make this fight before and it has always fallen through,” writes BloodyElbow.com.  

           “I’ve wanted a rematch for 10 years,” said Bravo, at the press conference for Metamoris 2, in 2013.  

           Finally in January of 2014 Ralek Gracie, the promoter, founder and matchmaker of the Metamoris Pro Jiu-Jitsu Invitational, announced that the fight had been booked, and would be featured as the main event of Metamoris 3 in March.  

           When I read the news—and learned it would be taking place in Los Angeles—I resolved to attend. 700 others made the same resolution; the show sold out in five hours.

 

The Drums of War

Saturday. March 29, 2014.  I stood outside the Petersen Automobile Museum, where Metamoris 3 was being held, gazing at my reflection in the black glass walls, rising overhead in lustrous tiers. I could see the bustle of Wilshire streaming behind me, and, further down, the shops and eateries of Little Ethiopia. I arrived at the venue at 1:30 P.M., an hour and a half before the doors would open to the public. Inside, the Metamoris production team was scrambling here and there and the lobby was crowded; though early, you could feel the energy of an impending fight—it seemed to glint from the polished fenders of the vintage cars—the brown rims of a 1917 Harley Davidson, or the red hood of a 1953 Bosley. 

           I had a cup of coffee at the Johnny Rocket’s on the first floor and talked fight with one of the event’s photographers and then, at 2, went upstairs and obtained my press pass. The arena, a vast rectangular tent with a biangular ceiling, had been erected on an outdoor patio on the second floor. To reach it, you took the stairs, an elevator or an escalator, passing galleries of classic cars on the way—Jaguars, hot rods—glowing in the darkened corridors like the beacons of some soda pop world. I walked outside, down a canopied corridor. A reception area had been set up to my right; urban murals paced me on my left. I could hear the sound of drums, beating from the doors as I made my entrance. 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           It was warm inside and murky and the drums—played by live drummers on a stage along the eastern wall—surrounded me like a clenching fist. The mat reared before me—a 32’ by 32’ square expanse of white canvas. The stands extended from all sides. The Petersen had been chosen for its size, or lack thereof, and the intimacy it would provide the audience with the fighters. I saw commentators Kenny Florian and Jeff Glover, rehearsing beside the mats, and promo videos played on two big screens hanging either end of the room, and—on the mats themselves—the fighters were loosening up.   

 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           I sat in the front row and watched the warm-ups, the swishing of fabric like a kind of breath. I could see the Mendes brothers—Rafael and Gui, considered two of the best pound-for-pound BJJ practitioners alive—rolling back and forth, and next to them Royler Gracie, stretching, and, across the way, Eddie Bravo, rolling with Keenan Cornelius (another of the evening’s fighters, a black belt, multi-world champion, and Pan American gold medalist). 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           At 3 a fog machine kicked up, sending a twilight haze throughout the arena, and the audience began to filter in. They arrived in tee-shirts of past fights they’d been to, with eager smiles and cauliflowered ears. All were fighters or jiu-jitsu enthusiasts; all were happy, and the mood was one of excited speculation as the stands filled. There was none of the testosterone-laced anger, the violent posturing, you often encounter at a fight. Everybody was simply keen on witnessing a good match, and sharing in this moment of martial arts history. All around me, as more and more people filed in, I heard the same conversation, repeated again and again, fluctuating only in semantics—who’s gonna win, and how, and man this is crazy/huge/awesome, I can’t believe we’re here.

           I asked Jean Jacques Machado, Bravo’s coach, what he thought. 

           “This is definitely one people have been waiting for,” he said. “I think it’s the right time. Ten years ago people say that he [Bravo] shocked the world…” He smiled. “Ten years later, he’s gon’ do it again.” 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           At 4 P.M. the ring announcer, Rakka Taylor, bedecked in a black Fedora and dark jeans, took his place in the center of the mats and the square of lights above flared. 

          “Let’s get it started!” declared Kenny Florian, and the drummers struck a primal, savage beat; the drumfire boomed between the walls, the crowds rose screaming to their feet, and the fighters, in time with the drums, raced out of the waiting area and ran up onto the mats, jogging in circles as the drums played and played.

          And then they left, and the fights were underway.

 

The Opening Frame
 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

Metamoris was founded in October of 2012, with the goal of providing viewers the highest quality jiu-jitsu events possible and ingratiating the sport into mainstream consciousness. It has no rankings, belts or titles, which means victory is more for bragging rights than accolades. Fighters are hand-selected by Ralek Gracie and are the very best jiu-jitsu players on the planet.

           Says Bravo, on Metamoris, “It’s amazing that every single jiu-jitsu fan isn’t a hundred percent for these events. Metamoris is the UFC of jiu-jitsu... It’s submission only, it’s twenty minutes, it’s gangster… How could you not like this?” 

           The first three fights featured Sean Roberts and Zak Maxwell (celebrated black belts under Ralph and Royler Gracie, respectively), Samir Chantre and Gui Mendes (Chantre is a black belt under Alan Moraes, of the Carlson Gracie Team, and Mendes is a three-time world IBJJF champion), and Dean Lister and Renato “Babalu” Sobral (both accomplished mixed martial artists; each has competed in the UFC, both are black belts, and each has won numerous grappling tournaments (Lister placed first, for example, in the Absolute division at the Abu Dhabi Bravo first submitted Gracie)). 

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

           Each fight—and this can be said of every pairing on the card—put on display some of the most technical, superlative grappling I’ve ever seen. Roberts and Maxwell, in the gi, fought to a draw—each attacking and defending ceaselessly, rolling back and forth, white and blue, atop the mats like bobs on a lake. The crowds watched in utter silence, applauding only when a particular technique was pulled off, or a sweep, pass or transition, or when a submission attempt was underway (an Omoplata from Roberts, or an arm-bar from Maxwell). Mendes earned the first submission of the night when he tapped Chantre via baseball choke from side control. The air was warm and thick as the fights unfolded; sweat dripped from the fighters and pattered the canvas. The only lights were those above the mat, and it reflected the falling heat across the stands like a mirror. 

           Because most of my journalism experience stems from mixed martial arts, my eyes were unaccustomed to the level of jiu-jitsu they were witnessing; and so for the Lister/Sobral fight, not wanting to miss anything, I enlisted the help of Zak Maxwell, still in his gi and red-faced from his match, who commentated for me while we watched.

           The no-gi contest opened slowly, Lister trying to grab hold of Sobral and Sobral parrying the clinch. “They’re both good wrestlers,” said Maxwell. “And they’re both big guys, so neither one wants to be on his back.” As we watched, Lister, frustrated, sat down on the canvas and beckoned Sobral forward (to the snickering approval of the crowd). During the next fifteen minutes the heavyweights struggled against each other, playing a careful and methodical game; each trying to wrench the other out of position, at times Sobral hunting the choke, at others Lister gator-rolling into a heel hook attempt. “A small mistake can be the difference between a spectacular sub and nothing,” said Maxwell, as Lister, climbing up Sobral’s side while holding him in half-guard, lessened his pressure for a split second and Babalu escaped.

           The fight ended in a draw, and both fighters were completely exhausted.  They cleared the stage, and it was announced there would be a thirty minute intermission before the fighting resumed. I thanked Maxwell, and we parted ways.

original image: Michael Strayer

original image: Michael Strayer

Author's note: This is the first of two pieces covering my experience at Metamoris 3. To read Part 2, click here.

Bronze, Silver, and Gold

In 2004, a judoka named Ronda Rousey, aged 17, qualified for the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, becoming the youngest competitor in the tournament (she did not medal at this Olympiad; that triumph, for her, wouldn’t occur for another four years, when she took bronze in Beijing). At the same time, Sara McMann was wrestling her way towards a silver medal, the first American woman in history to attain this prestigious feat. Nearly a decade later, these two paradigm-setting athletes would meet again, though under different circumstances, with a different prize in mind.

            It was February 22, 2014. Las Vegas, Nevada. UFC 170. The winter games in Sochi were drawing to a close, and the fights leading to the main event had been even and well fought, featuring victorious performances by welterweights Stephen Thompson (who won his bout against Robert Whittaker via slide-and-counter TKO in the first round), Rory MacDonald (who emerged at the end of a three-round, back and forth affair against Demian Maia with his hands raised), and Mike Pyle (who cinched a finish against T.J. Waldburger in the third), and the co-main event saw Daniel Cormier, in his light-heavyweight debut—a two-time Olympian—dismantle UFC newcomer Patrick Cummins in one minute and 19 seconds of the first round.

            Cormier and Cummins cleared the stage. The lights dimmed; UFC bantamweight Sara McMann made her entrance, and the main event was primed to begin.

            McMann strode from her tunnel, into the raucous noise of the Mandalay Bay Events Center, face expressionless and flat and walking fast. Brown hair braided across her skull, her bright brown eyes saw only the cage before her—not the cheering stands towering either side, not the dancing lights above. Her thick, v-shaped torso was stiff and unyielding in appearance as a Spartan shield and she stripped her outer layer of clothes, flashed her mouth-guard and moved quickly into the cage, where she began to pace. Perhaps the physically strongest of the champion’s opponents to date, her heavy muscles flexed as she moved back and forth and veins stood atop her arms like thinly-covered fingers. She looked imposing—thick of neck and with a face seemingly chiseled from marble—and she awaited the entrance of her foe.

            Ronda Rousey, the UFC women’s bantamweight champion, also walked fast: appearing at the head of the concrete aisle with a smooth scowl upon her tan, wrinkleless face, green eyes glittering with intensity, and moving forwards—her footfalls imbued with purpose and anger. She wore only black and her menace spread before her like a shadow as she too shod her outer garments and stepped—slowly and purposefully—into the cage.

            Both women, at the onset of the fight, boasted undefeated records (7-0 for McMann; 8-0 for Rousey). Both had a grappling-oriented skillset, forged in the crucible of Olympic competition. For each, this was the moment of her mixed martial arts career: one seeking to preserve a perfect legacy, the other to usurp an untested champion.

            Referee Herb Dean called them together and explained the rules. McMann, stationary, did not make eye contact; Rousey bobbed on her toes with fiendish zeal.

            They retreated to their corners.

            The horn bayed.

            They engaged immediately, throwing crosses and hooks with rhythmic violence. The space between them closed. They clinched; Rousey pressed McMann against the diamond-latticed wall, the rungs bulged. They separated. Rousey bridged the gap once more, this time with a knee to the gut. McMann winced, seized her opponent, countered. An elbow landed for Rousey, a glancing uppercut for McMann. They clinched: two puzzle pieces unwilling to fit. And then Rousey landed another knee that compressed McMann’s solar plexus and the challenger went down. Rousey swarmed—hammer-fists and hooks—and, as McMann was recovering her breath, rising to her feet, Herb Dean dove between them and declared the fight over.

            Ronda Rousey retained the belt, advancing her record to 9-0, at 1:06 of the first round, her second title defense in eight weeks, and the first of her fights to not end via arm-bar submission.

            It was, in this writer’s eyes, a questionable stoppage. It is true that McMann, for an instant, appeared hurt. She turtled, as is natural with a well-placed body shot. But she was also in the process of standing, and her hands yet protected her face, and the attacks Rousey unleashed—while landing—were not of the typical, fight-ending sort: more of an inaccurate flurry, brought on by a surge of adrenaline. It was also curious because, in the aforementioned Pyle/Waldburger contest, Herb Dean had allowed the punishment to continue considerably longer, despite the fact that Waldburger, bloody and tired, had visibly given up.

            Regardless, Rousey still scored the telling blow. McMann still went down, and she was, however briefly, in trouble. There is no eight-count in MMA, and Herb Dean protected an injured charge.

            Said McMann in the aftermath: “I thought it was a good fight. I got hit…. I would like to get a rematch; it was my own fault.”  

            UFC President Dana White grinned, the Vegas winds undulating in low wolf howls throughout the arena, and wrapped the golden championship belt round Rousey’s waist. The lights overhead shimmered atop its gleaming facets like a dream, and Rousey smiled—her entire face breaking like an egg into fight-swollen happiness—and her fists thrust into the air.