David ‘Silverfox’ Karchmer
How can we improve BJJ tournaments?
It’s been rather bizarre to observe grappling tournaments the past twenty years and realize they have not improved very much at all. Some well known tournaments have been running for decades now, and still resemble the first tournaments they ever ran. So even if American grappling decided to start fresh with tournaments like Grapplers Quest and NAGA, why haven’t lessons been learned that make modern tournaments infinitely better? How can the wonders of the information age not have eliminated or at least alleviated some of the same pitfalls from decades ago?
While clearly tournament grappling had a learning curve, and America had to create its own jiu jitsu tournaments to accommodate growth of the sport, it’s not like it had to reinvent the wheel. Wrestling, Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Judo have been running tournaments for decades in the US, yet there did not seem to be much shared learning with submission
grappling. All the same things that made those tournaments lousy – overcrowding, never running on time, not enough venue amenities, poor officiating – seemed to easily cross over
to grappling tournaments.
The irony is that no longer are there just a few tournament
brands to choose from. While some have come and gone, there are literally dozens and dozens of different tournaments to choose from around the country. Some travel and run
tournaments around North America all year, and some run only a couple regional or local tournaments annually. Unfortunately, with little deviation, they all seem to consistently fail in the same areas.
I can recall the first tournaments I went to in the late 1990s in high school gyms on borrowed wrestling mats. There were no scoreboards, referee’s qualifications were based on rank, and
handwritten bracketing was done in pencil on sheets of paper as competitors arrived that day. The venues were usually too small, the bathrooms became disgusting within the first hour, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone selling food or even water, especially late into the day. There were no set borders on each ring, the rules meeting just before the tournament was how and when you learned the rules, and competitors literally
had no idea when or where their divisions were, so you’d have to remain vigilant all day to make sure you didn’t miss your opportunity.
So fast forward to 2021. Granted, the Covid pandemic of 2020 put most competitions on hold, so 2021 saw the reemergence of grappling tournaments, including additional restrictions like masks, distancing, limited spectator sizes, etc. I spectated two tournaments myself this year, and heard feedback on a few others. My own observations and feedback from others for multiple, established tournaments were roughly the same – undersized venue, tournament started late and ran hours and hours into the evening, competitors remained uncertain about when and where their divisions were, there were little or no
opportunity to find food or water especially later in the day, officiating was horrible, and the bathrooms became unusable.
So despite the power of the Internet and the advancement of the online user experience, the nuts and bolts of average tournaments all comes down to the same ingredients – the venue, planning and organizational skills, and personnel. A mobile app or fancy bracketing software is simply not enough to ensure a smooth operation. Again, it’s amazing to me that a more successful grappling tournament template has not proliferated in 20 years.
The solution? With so many tournament options currently available, competitors, spectators, and coaches should be more selective about how they allot their tournament dollars, and start rewarding those tournaments that get it consistently right and simply do it better. Tournament focus should be about the user experience’, and not just about making a buck. Those tournaments that focus on their competitors and spectators will ultimately be rewarded with future growth, and will help grow the sport. For those tournaments still stuck in the 90s mindset, they should wither on the vine.
Author David ‘Silverfox’ Karchmer was awarded his black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in
June 2012 and has been training for more than 20 years. In addition to training and
instructing, David has focused the last twelve years on officiating grappling competitions
and has officiated more than 4000 gi and no-gi matches at over 85 events for multiple
organizations. He was a previous head referee at Grapplers Quest, Tap Cancer Out,
FIVE Grappling, UAEJJF New York Open, Copa NoVA, and Rollmore SuperComp
tournaments, and routinely officiates events in North America. For more about David, go