If you were a jiu-jitsu spectator in 2019, you couldn’t escape Fight 2 Win. The promotion had its biggest year since its inception, hosting more than thirty shows (most of them finishing off with a big-name main event match) and helping to make ADCC the most spectacular it’s ever been. On the surface, things couldn’t have gone better. F2W was at its peak, and there were no signs of it slowing down.
But of course, since when is the surface ever an accurate reflection of what’s really happening?
Making it big as a promotor in any sport is tough, and even though F2W CEO Seth Daniels has been a leader in the sub-only promotion scene for years now, his small team has felt the effects of taking on so many huge challenges throughout the year. Daniels, a BJJ and judo black belt, started the year off by having neck surgery (and competing on his own stage just a week later). The issues with his neck would plague him throughout the year, making big challenges even harder for a team that knows that every minute of planning and preparation counts. “I have major nerve problems. I’m on medication and it’s really hard to stay awake. But still, we pushed through almost all of our events when we probably should’ve canceled them,” Daniels told the Jiu-Jitsu Times.
A large portion of that stress and time consumption came from ADCC: the biggest grappling event in the world. The F2W crew was originally brought on to help with production, but it didn’t take long before Daniels and Team No Sleep realized they’d taken on a lot more than they’d planned for.
“ADCC was fun and horrible,” says Daniels. “It was supposed to be the most fun of the year, and for a lot of people it was, but for a few of us on the team, it was brutal. It was supposed to be all production, and then I wind up having to be in charge of security. That’s not me, running around and yelling at people. I stay behind my computer and give high fives. But the athletes and coaches and media abused the pass system, the fire marshall was up my as* about the floor being full, and the security was old people that don’t do anything. The floor got so over-full, and then all the coaches are out there screaming to coach their athletes right in the ears of all the Flo[Grappling] people. I had to kick out over 100 people for recording. My job went from making sure everything was okay to kicking people out because they wouldn’t listen.”
The F2W team is accustomed to pushing through obstacles and just making stuff happen, but ADCC created issues in their regularly scheduled programming that even they weren’t expecting. “It was an all-encompassing role when I was a partner [for ADCC], and it became so much more than I ever imagined. I wasn’t ready to deal with that, plus all the other events. I thought I could handle it, but I’ve been behind since June,” says Daniels.
Internal struggles on the production team also made an already difficult 2019 that much harder, and Daniels found himself working with a very different team — and a very different team dynamic — than he began with when the promotion was founded a few years ago. “For a long time, I had the same people with me since day. This year, I lost a ton of people. It’s gone from being me and my homies to a real business. It’s a tough transition. Losing Troy [Everett] hurt,” he says.
Whatever each individual staff member’s reasons were for leaving, Daniels doesn’t hesitate to take responsibility for 2019’s relatively high turnover rate as well as the “image problems” he says Fight 2 Win has suffered from over the past year. “It all bleeds from the top down. I’ve talked a lot of sh*t online and said some things I maybe shouldn’t have and it’s reflected poorly on us. My goal moving forward is to be less savage online and more savage in real life. It’s become a challenge, keeping staff happy. I have to fix what made it not fun for them.”
‘Fun,’ of course, will always come with an asterisk when doing a physically and mentally demanding job, and building a stage and running an event for a martial arts promotion certainly fits that description. The fact that ‘fun’ came with its own set of terms and conditions was never more apparent for the team than when they put on shows in Hawaii. From the outside, again, it seemed like the perfect gig: put on an exciting jiu-jitsu event in paradise, spend your free time on the beach. Behind the scenes, though, the team is putting on what Daniels describes as “the hardest show we have in the country.” It’s a two-day build, with the second workday lasting 24 hours. Rather using than the equipment that Daniels owns, the team has to rent out the equipment for the Hawaii shows, which also must be brought up to the fifth floor and then back down again when the show is over.
Like any Fight 2 Win show, though, the fans and athletes don’t see all of that. Team No Sleep are experts in the art of smoke and mirrors (and lights and sound and video), ensuring that whatever struggles ensue backstage, the show always delivers the quality that the promotion is known for. Every match, every moment is custom-made in real-time. “There’s so much more to it than just pressing a button and sitting back while it all happens automatically,” says Daniels. “It’s like a live concert and show. Everything’s custom. The lights are custom to videos, the way the beats drop. We have 40-80 songs per show that we program to give that feel. There are so many little intricacies that make the show successful, and we’re always trying to improve.”
When Daniels talks about improvement, though, he’s not just referring to the final product of his shows. As he and the F2W team approach their first show of 2020, he’s taking a hard look not only at what went right in 2019, but also what he sees as the cracks in the foundation of his promotion. Having had the rare and precious opportunity of taking a few consecutive weeks off at the end of the year, he and the team will be able to once again start booking shows four weeks in advance instead of having to scramble to put shows together and feeling like they’ll never catch up.
“This year we’re down revenue coming in by at least $200k, but I think a lot of it has to do with my health issues and getting behind. I have to get back on top of things. Luckily I’m self-funded, so I’ll always survive, but people don’t see that stuff. They see ‘I sold 15 tickets.’ They don’t see the $50-70k spent on every event. In the beginning, we were doing shows for $20k per event, but then the costs per show increased as we grew. Now we have to figure out the next moves and figure out how to stay on top.”
Those “next moves,” while still in the works, aren’t likely to involve any discipline crossover matches such as what we’ve seen in other promotions with wrestlers facing off against submission grapplers; Daniels says that he’s happy sticking with judo and gi and no-gi jiu-jitsu matches.
Daniels is leading the Fight 2 Win crew into what is sure to be another action-packed year, and although 2019 had more than its fair share of struggles, he’s not afraid to take responsibility for his part in them. “You can put all of this in there,” he says periodically throughout our interview, well aware that it isn’t the feel-good recap that promotors want to be able to deliver as they head into a new year. That, however, is extremely on-brand for a promotor who has always lacked a filter, for better or for worse. Daniels will probably always be a polarizing figure in jiu-jitsu for being so unapologetically him, but whether you love him or hate him, he’s not going to stop doing what he does best.
“The way I look at it is, I was never in this for the money,” he says. “I started it because I had an idea of growing and making jiu-jitsu exciting. I feel like we’ve done a good job of that. I know what needs to be fixed, so it’s a matter of fixing it and doing it instead of talking about it. I’m optimistic. My goal is to keep it going.”