Tournament Review Tuesday: 2009 Pan Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi Championship

by Rich Harris

On October 3rd, I participated in the 2009 IBJJF Pan Jiu-Jitsu No Gi Championships at City College in New York City. It was only my third tournament as a participant and fifth tournament overall. So be warned: this review is being made by a novice.

The Good:

Having to travel two and a half hours, and with my first match not scheduled until 1:50 pm, I arrived at City College at 11 am. The check in system, for both competitors and spectators, seemed a little smoother than the IBJJF event I participated in at the same site back in April. The construction that surrounded the area was complete and it seemed like they had more staff and a quicker process for checking names, collecting money from spectators and for security in checking bags and IDs.

As a competitor, the day ran fairly smooth, with most published starting times being kept throughout the day. I did overhear one competitor complain they had been waiting an hour for their bracket to advance to the next level. I think this was an aberration, however, as my own starting times and that of most of my teammates seemed to fall within the “reasonableness” category.

Also, everyone in attendance, from the athletes, to the referees, to the staff, were friendly, helpful and understanding of the stresses involved in competitions like this. On more than one occasion, when someone bumped into someone accidentally, or someone asked someone else to take a picture, people were apologetic and helpful. This is something I have found universal at BJJ events, which, to the common person, might think would not hold true at such a competitive sporting event.

The highlights of the day, based upon crowd attention and camera activity, were the finals of the men’s Black Belt lightweight and absolutes. The lightweight finals saw Lucas Lepri defeat Jonathan Torres, while the absolutes saw Rafael “Sapo” Franca defeat Jason Hayes. Much like when Renzo Gracie appears at one of these events or some other BJJ or MMA/UFC “rock star”, the crowd pressed like a can of sardines up against the perimeter of the mat and cameras were flashing. (However, for my 16 year-old niece, the highlights of the day were the leopard print haircut of Mike Fowler and the yellow and black chessboard haircut of another competitor!)

The Bad:

Now for the bad…which really aren’t too bad, or too unusual for BJJ competitions.

Climate: Temperature and accompanying odor that results from having several hundred athletes, spectators and staff crammed into a windowless subterranean concrete holding cell can be tough on family. When you descend the stairs of the Nat Hollman Gym, you would swear you were entering a greenhouse, located on the sandy shores of a tropical isle, at high noon, surrounded by the post-game laundry of the Dallas Cowboys. The good side: if you were five pounds overweight when you descended the stairs, you were two pounds under by the time you made it to the weigh-in scale across the gym. As a competitor, such things get quickly overlooked, but for the family members who aren’t preoccupied with the stresses of game day, it can make for an uncomfortable and long day.

Price for Spectators: Unfortunately, the price for spectators at this same venue and by the same sponsors increased from $10 (in April) in April to $15, which seemed like a hefty raise in six months. Personally, as a BJJ aficionado, it’s a fair price for the caliber of event and quality of competition. However, for my family members, who were attending their first BJJ event, didn’t know any of the names of the top athletes, nor the rules and minutiae of BJJ, it was pricey. Maybe they should have two pricing categories: one for those who care and love BJJ and a cheaper price for the friends and family we drag to watch us, take our pictures and grab our Gatorade between matches! Overall, the IBJJF puts on a quality show, with quality athletes, but the ticket price borders on driving away some friends and family that wish to come solely to watch their family member compete in one, two or three matches.

Public Address/Announcements: For anyone who traveled on a NYC subway back in the 70s or 80s, the sound quality in the Nat Hollman Gym was notch above the clarity of the old subway PA systems, which to the uneducated, was something like the voice of the teachers and parents on the Charlie Brown holiday specials. It may have been a combination of the nature of construction of a below-grade gym, along with the shouts, jeers and cheers of the crowd and the yelling of the staff attempting to corral the athletes. Whatever the problem is, it needs to be fixed, because a few athletes – myself included – only heard their name being called when the announcer made his “last call or you will be DQ’d” speech. This happened to me despite the fact that I was in the holding pen and asked several staff members if they had called my weight class for about a half hour prior to the PA warning. Competitors shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of only hearing their name called when they are on the verge of being DQ’d.

Despite the issues raised, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the event and realize it is difficult to run this type of competition with up to eight matches occurring at the same time, stick to a time schedule and make sure no one gets overlooked, accidentally disqualified, or forgotten. Everyone I spoke to with more competition experience than myself said that this event, like most IBJJF events, ran more smoothly than many other organizations, and some shared some truly horrible experiences.

Also, where else and in what other sport, can a 40 year old Blue Belt and BJJ “weekend warrior”, compete in the same arena and rub elbows with the top athletes of a sport? For me, competing in these events feel like my own, personal BJJ “Fantasy Camp”.

Rich Harris is a senior 1 blue belt and trains Bruno Tostes BJJ, a Team Renzo Gracie academy in Latham, New York. He earned the silver medal in his heavyweight division and the bronze in the absolute division.

This is an installment in our Tournament Review Tuesdays column, where FightWorks Podcast listeners submit reports about Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling competitions that happened the weekend prior. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of The FightWorks Podcast. Through the rest of 2009, if you submit a Tournament Review Tuesday piece, you might win an Isami gi!

– Caleb

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