#262 Metamoris Promoter Robert Zeps and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Belt Promotion Research

Metamoris organizers Robert Zeps and Ralek Gracie
Roger Gracie (white gi) fends off his aggressor Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida in the October 14 debut of Metamoris. Image courtesy Metamoris.

On Sunday the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world experienced the first-ever Metamoris jiu-jitsu event. Judging by feedback on social media and in the blogosphere, the event was a success. The format of pitting specially-invited renowned BJJ athletes against each other in submission only matches consisting of one twenty minute round was proven to entertain and fans are wondering when the next event will be. As The FightWorks Podcast spoke with Metamoris organizer Ralek Gracie prior to the event, we felt it only fitting to invite the event’s other promoter Robert Zeps to join us and talk about their evaluation of the evening and learn what’s next.

Metamoris organizers Robert Zeps and Ralek Gracie
Metamoris organizers Robert Zeps (left) and Ralek Gracie. Image courtesy Metamoris.

Also in this episode we continue the FightWorks Podcast tradition of encouraging academic inquiry into Brazilian jiu-jitsu, our beloved addiction. We’ll round out the episode with a conversation with Chris Kavanagh, an Oxford University researcher and BJJ blue belt. Kavanagh needs our help, Mighty 600,000 in gathering data about BJJ belt ceremonies (also known as belt grading, also known as belt promotions, also known as graduação in Brazilian Portuguese). Please help further knowledge about BJJ by participating in his survey, which is found at BJJSurveys.com.

brazilian jiu-jitsu belt ceremony
Are there any rituals that take place at your BJJ school when new belts are awarded? Image courtesy scottonthenet.

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The FightWorks Podcast: Alright family, we are on the line with Robert Zeps, one of the promoters of Metamoris Pro which took place last Sunday. I don’t think too many people need an introduction to what Metamoris is but it was an invite only event with 12 competitors. There were six matches of submission only grappling – most of which were in the gi – and twenty minute time limits. I think most of us know that and have seen the results online. But suffice to say it was a big event in the jiu-jitsu community, and we’re very excited to speak with Robert about it. How are you Robert?

Robert Zeps: I’m very well Caleb, thank you for having me on.

The FightWorks Podcast: It’s out pleasure. I thought we have an obligation to introduce you a little bit more formally to the world out there of Brazilian jiu-jitsu because based on what we’ve seen so far you may have an impact on things and it’d be nice go get to know you a little bit. What I thought we would do is give you a chance to reintroduce yourself to our audience here so tell us about Robert Zeps.

Robert Zeps: Yeah no problem Caleb. Like I said at the press conference (I think it was placed online), I’m English and I came to America in 1995 and I started training jiu-jitsu just about 5 years ago. It was something that came to me later, and I wish it was something I’d started earlier like most people at my age. I started training with Nelson Monteiro in San Diego. As I was training with him I reached out to the Gracie Academy which is in Torrance, and not too far from my house, and I started meeting a lot of fun people and talking a lot about jiu-jitsu. And it became a real hobby of mine. It started taking up a lot of my time. And as I was doing that I started thinking about what [jiu-jitsu matches] I’d like to see. I managed to sit down with Ralek Gracie a few times and we discussed, “what is it that people really want to see in jiu-jitsu? Do we want to just go to high schools and watch some of the top professionals wander around looking for bottles of water, or do we want to do something that would treat these athletes like the stars that they are, and also treat the fans to something a little more exciting and interesting?” And with not a lot else more interesting on our plates to be honest with you Caleb I decided this could be a real fun event we could put together and if enough people got excited, we’d keep doing it. So that’s what happened.

The FightWorks Podcast: You mentioned that you’ve been a martial artist for a long time. What got you into martial arts way back in the day?

Robert Zeps: [laughs] It’s a funny story. I think I was about fifteen years old and the fourteen year old sister of a friend of mine at school wanted to go and start some full contact karate in the area, in England. She wouldn’t do it without somebody going with her. I was the guy who decided I’d be the good guy and go along with her. I kept on doing it, and she quit after about two weeks. I kept going and I think I got my first black belt in 1986, if that doesn’t age me too much! That was in full contact karate. It started out there. I met some other people training and I got involved in aikido, Japanese jiu-jitsu, some goju-ryu karate, and I was doing that in England. I continued to do [martial arts] when I came to America. I continued training aikido, goju-ryu karate. Of course like everybody else, I watched the UFC in 1993 and was blown away. It just took me far too long to get involved in jiu-jitsu. I was still teaching in the U.S. some aikido as well just for fun and training down there in San Diego with real top level guys. It was just a joy. But the jiu-jitsu really grabbed me. And it grabbed me for one reason and I’ll tell you while we’re talking about it briefly. What took me with jiu-jitsu was how cerebral the whole thing was. It wasn’t just about force. It wasn’t just about who is the toughest guy. It really was something you could think on, in tough, tough situations. I think most people, particularly guys like me over forty, know what that feels like. You know what it feels like to be in a fight and you can actually genuinely think through what you’re going to do and who’s next. That honestly doesn’t happen too often in a lot of the older Japanese-style martial arts.

The FightWorks Podcast: I think a lot of our audience would agree with you on that. There are a bunch of great reasons to be in jiu-jitsu but that is one of them. Some of us have this superiority complex about Brazilian jiu-jitsu sometimes, myself included. It’s not necessarily legitimate, but we have this, I have this conception that a lot of people who did other martial arts when they come to Brazilian jiu-jitsu they stop doing the others. Is that what happened with you? Talk about that.

Robert Zeps: Yes I think the funny part for me was there’s generally a misunderstanding about the traditional martial arts, particularly arts like aikido and judo even, and traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu. I think people understood the history and where these things came from. I’m not talking about Brazilian jiu-jitsu guys. I’m talking about guys who were actually studying Japanese martial arts. A lot of these arts were formed around training with weapons, training with armor, and I think a lot of that is lost on people training today. There are instructors like Kazuo Chiba in San Diego, who was my aikido instructor who taught a very realistic form of aikido that was taken directly from training under Jigoro Kano. These guys were animals in all sorts of Japanese martial arts. They weren’t practicing them for the self-defense in any way, shape, or form. They really were just moving meditation. And too many people training in it because it was physical that somehow they were doing something that was self-defense oriented. We all convinced ourselves up until UFC 1 that somehow these arts were actually legitimate. I think what happened in UFC 1 was that we demonstrated that frankly in a modern era a lot of the things that were practiced and done were simply not practical. I don’t know if it’s just a personal feeling of mine but I really do believe that Brazilian jiu-jitsu had to come from somewhere like Brazil, a place where there is significantly less attention paid to the respect that goes on between elders and juniors in the Japanese culture. And the idea that somebody walking on the beach and kicking sand in someone’s face in a speedo and ended up rolling around the beach is not something that happens, or could conceivable happen in a Japanese culture. I think it’s interesting to note that though the Japanese have clearly their training and continue to train, it really takes a cultural difference to modify martial arts sometimes and I think that’s what happened with Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The FightWorks Podcast: So you’re saying it’s an American phenomenon – not North American, but a “new world” phenomenon where some of those vestiges of the past were not present and allowed people to just make something new up along the way.

Robert Zeps: Absolutely, I think you evolve your martial arts to the context and the culture that you’re in. If you’re fighting and rolling around in speedos, that’s quite distinct from rolling around in full samurai garb. Clearly you can’t fight both ways the same. Equally you couldn’t do well in the dark ages using Brazilian jiu-jitsu against a guy on a horse with a mace. It simply wouldn’t have been practical. So it had to be modified, you have to evolve. I think Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a modern evolution of martial arts.

The FightWorks Podcast: Let’s come back to the present a little bit. Tell us a little bit more about yourself then I want to jump into Metamoris. You said you’ve been training with Nelson Monteiro and Ralek. Three rapid fire questions for you: what belt are you, what’s your favorite submission, and do you prefer gi or no-gi?

Robert Zeps: [laughs] This may get confusing. I have a purple belt with three stripes from Nelson. I have a blue belt with one stripe from the Gracie Academy. But I think that guys understand that they have a very different program up there right now where their stripes are now being tested on an entirely different curriculum. I think that’s something people should explore at the Gracie University if you have an interest. I actually enjoy gi and no-gi. I train a couple of times a week with a friend of mine Steve Gable. He’s a professional MMA fighter and a Gracie Barra black belt. We go through some basic no-gi training with punches just for fun and I enjoy it very much. But I can’t say I have a preference. I do enjoy them both. What was the third question?

The FightWorks Podcast: Which is your favorite submission?

Robert Zeps: [laughs] My favorite submission? You know I don’t know if I even have one right now. I think one of my favorite submission right now and only because it gets done to me: Nelson has this way of submitting me without choking me or arm-barring me where he just squeezes me tight from the top mount, and I tap.

The FightWorks Podcast: [laughs]

Robert Zeps: And I say it’s my favorite because it’s so unbelievably tight, and it’s not painful, it genuinely squeezes the life out of you and you want to give in. I find that very few people can do that, I’m sure. Nelson is amazing at that. I can’t do that to anybody. But I say it’s my favorite submission because when he does it to me I’m laughing aloud.

The FightWorks Podcast: While we’re on the topic of Nelson Monteiro, we’ve talked with him before on our show. He’s proven to be a character who appears once in a while in the big, big, big stage of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He had a relationship with Sheikh Tahnoon, who brought us the ADCCs, and now he’s connected with you, who are an integral part in bringing us Metamoris. What’s the likelihood of that happening twice? It’s pretty unlikely.

Robert Zeps: It is unlikely and Nelson’s told me the full story of Sheikh Tahnoon and that story is quite unbelievable, every step of it. It’s an amazing story. I don’t think people have respect for or understand where ADCC came from and some of the sacrifices that Nelson had to make to make that happen. You know, taking his wife and his daughter to Abu Dhabi without really understanding what on earth it was this guy wanted. So he really did build something quite amazing out of that. The chances of that happening twice? He is quite an individual. I think he’s one of the early architects of American jiu-jitsu. He’s one of the first people out here, way back, pre-Gracie Barra.

The FightWorks Podcast: Let’s talk about Metamoris. I know you’ve been very busy since the event on Sunday. What is the most common question you’ve been asked by the media since the event ended?

Robert Zeps: It has to be, “is there going to be another one?” And the answer is yes, there’s absolutely going to be another one. No question about it. We obviously want to do our homework and make sure we learn from everything on that last event and make sure that we can improve it in every way possible. We understood that some people had issues with the live stream. We’re trying to figure out whether that was [due to] local issues or something on our end. We had people in Afghanistan who were streaming it no problem, people in Australia with no problem, and people in London with no problem. And then again we had people in Southern California who had issues. I don’t know what technical issues they were having, We would love to make sure that those issues go away and never happen again. As for the event itself, I couldn’t have been happier. The fights went off every which way I wanted them to. I was absolutely ecstatic after every single fight. I enjoyed every single one. I didn’t see one that bothered me in any shape or form. It really couldn’t have gone better for me. I was over the moon with what happened that evening with regard to the fights. And indeed I thought the camera work was terrific. I thought Rener Gracie and Sean Peake were amazing on the commentary. I thought that really added to it. I went home that night Caleb and I watched the entire stream. I think I started at about 1 o’clock in the morning and I watched the whole thing. I was really pleased with what happened. So yes, I want to do another one.

The FightWorks Podcast: I do remember during the event after each match I would look over from the press gallery where we were and see your reaction and you had a very big smile on your face every time. I noticed you looking over at Ralek and you looked very pleased.

Robert Zeps: Very much so. My wife hasn’t seen me that happy in a long, long time. She really enjoyed watching how much fun I was getting out of it too. It was a real enjoyable night for me.

The FightWorks Podcast: What was your favorite match of the night? I know it’s hard to chose but I’m going to ask you to try.

Robert Zeps: [laughs] I have thought about that because somebody’s asked me that before. I really enjoyed what Caio [Terra] and Jeff [Glover] did. I thought what they put on was a display of jiu-jitsu. Not just technical jiu-jitsu but the playfulness they had. Showing people that you could get playful but at the same time when it got real, it was very real. I thought that match was absolutely beautiful to watch. It really was. I can’t say enough about Rafael Lovato [Jr.] too. I thought his submission was the purest, most absolutely beautiful jiu-jitsu I’ve ever seen. In an environment like this I thought that was incredible. Dean [Lister] and Xande [Ribeiro] had my heart pumping from the moment they walked on the stage. I did not know where that was going to go. To see Dean with his arm fully extended was out of control. And of course Roger [Gracie] versus Buchecha was amazing to me. I understand that a few weeks before the fight that Roger was suffering a bit. The week before he showed me he had a real bad infection and he really shouldn’t have probably taken the fight to be quite honest with you. But that’s the kind of guy that he is. He took it. And taking nothing away from Buchecha, he really put on the performance of the night. So if I had to say who I enjoyed the most, it was probably Buchecha because I really think he’s amazing. He really is. To come up and fight someone like Roger Gracie, who is your hero as a child, and do as well as he did, I was delighted to watch him.

The FightWorks Podcast: A lot of the attention after the event has been focused on the match between Ryron [Gracie] and Andre Galvao. Do you have any thoughts on that? It sounds like if there was controversy that night, it was in that match.

Robert Zeps: That’s a funny thing. I did read all the blogs about it, and obviously I was present during the comments both on the mat and at the press conference. I would definitely say that neither of them when they were speaking about what happened were particularly articulate about what their position really was. My opinion was, and I knew this going into the fight, and it was why we picked this fight, that we really wanted to take two very distinct styles of jiu-jitsu. Andre Galvao, everybody knows what he’s like. He’s aggressive, attack attack attack individual, and I knew going in that Ryron was very much the opposite style. And we discussed the idea of “let’s create a blank canvas for the fighters and let them express themselves however they want, and maybe one will come out on top and one won’t come out on top”. In many ways, it’s like comparing different types of art. You can try and compare cubism and impressionism and you can’t come up with a conclusion about which one is better. Nobody would ever suggest that one’s better than the other, and I think that night we demonstrated that Andre was very much on the attack, and Ryron was very much on the defensive but I think that was his choice. That was his style. I enjoyed every minute of it and actually Saulo [Ribeiro] came up to me after the fight and said that was his favorite fight of the night. I think people need to take a step back from the comments being made and say, “look, you watched some really good jiu-jitsu between both Ryron and Andre, who obviously we all have the utmost respect for. I thought it was a terrific fight and I thought we learned a lot from it. Obviously everybody would love to see a submission and we didn’t see a submission but you know what? Sometimes there are no submissions in jiu-jitsu. And that’s okay! I think people need to learn that that’s okay.

The FightWorks Podcast: Looking forward… I’m not sure Metamoris has a physical office anywhere, and not that it needs to, but let’s imagine that you guys were around the desk in the conference room Monday morning with some coffee and stuff, what conversation took place, if any after the dust had settled [from the event the day before]? What was that conversation like?

Robert Zeps: It’s funny because Ralek and I just met not three or four hours ago at the Gracie Academy on one of the mats in one of the private rooms. So we would roll for twenty minutes not full on, just on and off, practicing some things, we’d go after each other then we’d stop to chat about the event, then we’d fight again. So a little fun along the way. We talked about a lot of different things. We talked about all the different possibilities. Obviously we are still going to want to do a masters event. We need to get Nelson [Monteiro] and Jean Jacques [Machado] together. We were really disappointed that Nelson got injured but we’d love to see them get together and they want to. We’d love to see fights between two ladies too. I think everyone would like to see someone like a Rhonda Rousey come in and fight someone of her weight in the jiu-jitsu community, whether it’s Kyra Gracie or someone equally matched up with her. I think that could be a terrific fight. We talked about some of the other competitors that called and said they’d love to do the event. Obviously we have people like Marcelo Garcia, Rodolfo Vieira, Leo Nogueira. This list of top, top level jiu-jitsu is pretty good still. The question is “how do you put those guys together?” I think that for the fights we had in ours, the fights were well-matched and in the next event we’d like to get a lot of well-matched fights again that people would take an interest in and want to see, to step back and view them on the canvas to express their jiu-jitsu in an unconfined manner in the way that we saw it on Sunday. We sat and talked about those things and we’re going to go out tonight and we’re going to talk some more.

The FightWorks Podcast: There are a couple of things that I think would be good to express to the audience because not everybody was in the press conference or may have heard in the meantime but in terms of things you might do differently next time, I noticed in the press conference that you made an explicit point of saying “we did not intentionally schedule this event on the same day as the Abu Dhabi [submission grappling] qualifiers in San Diego”. I just wanted to make that explicit for you.

Robert Zeps: Yeah, and I think Caleb that that’s a problem we’re going to have no matter what. Whenever we try and put an event together I can almost guarantee there’s going to be another event on the same day or the same weekend. There’s so many jiu-jitsu events going on these days. When we originally picked the day, I think we originally had picked the week before that, and there was some scheduling issue that week so we moved it to the following Sunday and we weren’t even aware of the ADCC trials at that time. It’s not that we didn’t know they were happening, but we didn’t know they were on that date. Once [our] date was picked, once we’d signed with the university to get the San Diego State Arena it’s very difficult to start messing around with venues and production company availability. So we weren’t overjoyed about having it on the same day as ADCC but sometimes that’s just going to happen.

The FightWorks Podcast: I think there are those in the community who are guardedly ecstatic about Metamoris. I think there are folks who have been around a while and are familiar with things like Rickson Gracie’s Budo Challenge back in 2005, and the Professional Submission League put on an event or two in 2007 I believe. And they have a lot in common with Metamoris. The problem with those is that we don’t hear from them anymore. I think the concern is, “how excited should we get?” Are we going to be disappointed if in the end [Metamoris] was just a one or two time thing? I think people are concerned about sustainability. I guess that’s you guys’ challenge right, is to make sure that it works.

Robert Zeps: That’s absolutely right. We’re challenged to make sure there’s sponsors to support the event and to make sure that the fans support the event. They did a great job on the live stream. We had a lot of support there, which was terrific. Obviously I look to expand that. I think we’re in a slightly different time as well, Caleb. I really do believe that jiu-jitsu has evolved a fair amount and I think the world has evolved in terms of access to content. I think the availability to live stream is becoming easier, and simpler, and cheaper. I think that makes it more likely that people will put events on. I think that the television companies like the Fuels and MTV2s are looking for this kind of content too, which I don’t think they were five years ago. So I’m hoping that we can convert some of the excitement that we have in Metamors into legitimate commercial excitement as well and I actually do have some signals that that is indeed the case. It’s my job to make sure that I can manage that strategically and I will commit to the fans that that is what I will be doing in the next year and two years: making sure that we can really make this happen. I really want to see this happen. It’s not just about financials for me. This is something that I’m enjoying doing. It makes me feel really good to know that people are excited about it. I would implore the fans to look at the fights and say, “Enjoy it, educate yourselves on the fights, educate yourselves about jiu-jitsu”. The more education you have about jiu-jitsu the more you’re going to enjoy the fights, quite frankly. Move away from trying to look at the fights as trying to see a winner and a loser. At the end of the day for me it was all about, “can we see a beautiful exhibition of jiu-jitsu?”, and I think we did. I’m not too worried about who submitted who. I think we all enjoy that but that’s less of a consequence to me than making sure that we’re putting on a great show. As a promoter I want to make sure that people enjoy it. We want to expand the demographic to people who maybe don’t understand what’s going on in a jiu-jitsu match. [We’ll] hopefully educate them and expand this great, great sport in America.

The FightWorks Podcast: Any last words before we let you go?

Robert Zeps: No, but thank you Caleb for your support. It’s been terrific. I can honestly tell you, this is not all about money for me. This is about jiu-jitsu. I know people hear that from a lot of promoters, but I can promise you from the bath I took on the first event that this is about jiu-jitsu, not about money. So there will be a second one for sure.

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