Lights, Camera, Armbars: How One Event Is Giving Jiu-Jitsu The Star Treatment It Deserves

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Photo source: ©James Snyder/Hoodlum Photography

As much as many of us would one day like to take the stage with some of the world’s top jiu-jitsu competitors for an event like Metamoris or Polaris, such hyped-up events are usually far out of reach unless you’re a big deal.

But one man is changing all that.

Seth Daniels is the founder of the Fight to Win Pro series: an event that gives the celebrity treatment to jiu-jitsu and the people who have dedicated their lives to it. Utilizing state-of-the-art light, sound, and video systems, Daniels and his tiny, but dedicaed team are working tirelessly to create a competition atmosphere that thrills audiences and gives jiu-jitsu competitors the attention they deserve. And the best part is that it’s all for a down-to-Earth cause that you’d never expect from all the flashing lights and fancy promotion posters.

What is now one of the biggest events in the BJJ world started out as a job that Daniels couldn’t stand. He started working as an MMA promoter in 2007, then combined it with promoting rock shows in 2013. He describes the experience as “financially, emotionally, and mentally crippling,” mostly due to the bad interactions he had with many of the rockstars and cage fighters. “There are a lot of great people in that industry, don’t get me wrong, but so many of them were just so entitled and had huge egos,” he says.

It would have been worth it if Daniels had loved the things he was promoting, but instead, he found himself wanting to work with what he was truly passionate about: jiu-jitsu. Daniels and his wife put their heads together and brainstormed what they could do to create something that could utilize the $500k his company had spent on equipment while helping to grow the jiu-jitsu community from coast to coast. Just like that, Fight to Win Pro was born.

Since its inception, “F2W” has grown exponentially and featured competitors that include Mackenzie Dern and Joao Miyao. The upcoming event on July 15 will see Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu and Rafael Lovato Jr. on the main card. But despite how big these shows have gotten, Daniels has never raised ticket prices for spectators. Not even once.

You see, Daniels didn’t create F2W to get rich. In fact, he says, he and his crew usually only make enough money out of the event to cover expenses, pay their workers, and survive. The big cash goes towards the fighters, who can earn thousands of dollars off a single fight.

While you might see some overlap between the competitors who take the stage at Fight to Win and those who appear at EBI or Metamoris, what makes F2W stand out is that it also showcases jiujiteiros who are excelling at the local level.

“We’re jiu-jitsu nerds,” says Daniels. “Sure, we love seeing the ‘one percent’ competing in the sport. Everyone knows they’re the best in the world, so it’s awesome to watch them fight. But shows like Metamoris and Polaris aren’t geared towards getting new people involved in jiu-jitsu.”

“So what we’re doing is something different,” he continues. “Our next event has Cyborg and Lovato. Of course everyone’s going to watch that. But I’m also building up the 25 other fights that are happening. So those guys and girls who aren’t part of the ‘one percent’ are getting to fight in the same event as these major players in jiu-jitsu.”

The result is that family and friends of the other “99 percent” who are competing in F2W come out to support their loved ones . . . and that’s where the magic happens.

“These people are used to coming to all-day local tournaments with lousy food just to support their friends,” says Daniels. “But when they come to a Fight to Win Pro event, it’s different. Now they’re seeing it showcased almost like a UFC event. With MMA, you don’t really see people coming home and being like, ‘I wanna do that. I wanna get punched in the face.’ But these people who have never done jiu-jitsu see it on my stage, and they think, ‘I can do that.'”

Part of the reason F2W plants the appeal of jiu-jitsu into people who have never done it before is because it features competitors of all ages and genders. Applications are open to kids who are least yellow belts, teens who are at least orange belts, and adults who are at least purple belts. And Daniels makes a point to show off all the female talent in the sport.

“I grew up respecting female martial artists. When I was four, my dad brought out [judoka and mother of Ronda Rousey] AnnMaria De Mars for a seminar. I’ve gotten by *** beat by women like Hilary Wolf and Ellen Wilson. I was raised to respect people for their skill set, so I push hard to get more women on our cards.”

The problem, however, is that not many women apply to be on F2W. “If I have 120 applicants, only four of them will be women,” says Daniels. He suspects that part of the reason is that there simply aren’t many female jiu-jitsu practitioners at the purple belt level or above. But he says if he can get them, he won’t hesitate to give them a spot in an event.

Even though F2W is seriously huge, with fifty competitors and thousands of spectators at each event, the incredible amount of work that goes into making each fight a reality is done by about ten people. Between 200 and 400 jiu-jitsu players apply to fight at each event, and out of those, only fifty will make it onto the final card. After the selection process is complete, about 25 hours are spent analyzing the fighters’ styles and abilities to create the best matchups possible. The event photographers, James Snyder and Mike Calimbas, get to work promoting the fights, and everyone else starts booking hotels and renting what needs to be rented.

Throughout it all, Daniels has to be prepared to replace a fighter on a moment’s notice.

“If your opponent gets hurt or drops out, I will find you a new one. If I say you have a fight, you have a fight. I’ve never had to break that promise.”

The real chaos comes once the crew arrives at the venue. If they’re not lucky enough to be allowed to set up early, it can mean 48 straight hours of ten people setting up a stage, lights, sound systems, ticketing areas, and video systems.

“We call ourselves the ‘no-sleep crew.’ If we’re lucky, we might get a two-hour nap in. We’re trying to get better about being healthier, but for now, we’re fine living off energy drinks and the demons inside us,” Daniels says, only half joking.

While he could hire more people to set everything up, he feels better working with people he knows and trusts to handle thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and set it up correctly.

By the time they’ve driven across the country, unloaded thousands of pounds of equipment, and worked hundreds of hours, the “no-sleep crew” will have made about a dollar an hour for their work.

“It takes a special group of people to do what we do,” says Daniels. “A lot of people try to do what we do, but I call them ‘Spice Girls’ because they’re wannabes. They try to do what we do for cheap, without the insane amount of effort and energy that we give. The ‘Spice Girls’ are in it to make money, but we’re in it for the love. You go to an MMA event and you’re going to see a ‘Dana White’ type there in a suit shaking hands with the VIPs. That doesn’t happen with me. I’m not the guy in the suit; I’m busy running the event. We don’t have time to BS. Your soul has to be in this; it’s not about fattening up your wallet.”

If you’re interested in showing off your skills on one of the greatest jiu-jitsu stages in the country, the first thing you have to do is earn your rank. Daniels wants to showcase competitors who have “paid their dues” in the sport, which is why he’s set the belt minimums for applicants. Once you’re there, all you have to do is apply on the Fight to Win Pro website. It helps if you have videos of your previous competitions on social media, but Daniels also looks at the personalities of the people he considers for his events.

“I don’t care how good you are at jiu-jitsu; if you’re a douche, I won’t pick you. I’ll happily take a purple belt who pays his gym fees by mopping floors over a black belt who thinks he’s too good to sell tickets.”

Should you get selected, the payoff is huge… and not just financially speaking. The environment is “as close as you’ll get to fighting at Bellator without getting punched in the face,” according to Daniels.

“I don’t have a billion dollars at my disposal, but I own all the equipment I use, so you get the star treatment anyway. It gets you excited. You’ll be backstage and you’ll hear your song on this ridiculous sound system, and your blood just starts pumping. But beyond that, you also get a professional environment. You get paid what we promised to pay you, and you get a fair matchup. We’re determined to make this one of the best experiences of your life.”

Spectators at Fight to Win Pro events will also be getting their money’s worth. For $30, they get to see jiu-jitsu the way it was meant to be seen and watch their friends and family do what they do best in an environment that’s normally reserved for professional MMA fighters. And if all goes well, they might even seek out a BJJ gym and sign themselves up.

With upcoming events taking place in Denver, CO (July 15); Oceanside, CA (July 23); and Albuquerque, NM (July 30), Fight to Win Pro goes all over the place in an attempt to help support local fighters and promote jiu-jitsu across the nation. You’re likely to have the opportunity to attend an event close by at some point, but until then, you can also watch the events on the FloGrappling website. Daniels is doing everything he can to make jiu-jitsu something that people can fall in love with no matter where they are.

“I’m not doing this for my ego. I just want to grow the damn sport. I want new guys to do jiu-jitsu, and I want the people who are already doing it to go out there and support local tournaments, too. Don’t just wait around for something like this or IBJJF or EBI. I don’t look at those other big events as a threat. I’m just doing what I love and trying to help other people do the same.”

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