Watching First EBI is Like Watching Favorite Band Before They Hit It Big

The sixth edition of The Eddie Bravo Invitational, which takes place on Sunday, April 24th, will be the first major grappling competition live-streamed on UFC Fight Pass. The 16-man, single elimination, submission only tournament will be held in the 2,000 Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and boasts a grand prize of up to $50,000. While EBI has grown into one of the most popular and exciting professional grappling events in the world, it had fairly humbling beginnings just two years ago.

The first EBI was held at the Florentine Gardens, a night club in the east end of Hollywood ,on Sunday, June 1, 2014, the same day as the black belt divisions at the IBJJF World Championships in Long Beach. I am not sure why Bravo and his team decided to schedule the event on the same day as Worlds, but the contrast between the two events couldn’t have been greater and that is a good thing. While the IBJJF was the conventional and straight-forward form of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu we were accustomed to watching, EBI felt like the counterculture movement of the gentle art. Watching the first event in person was on par with popping a pill and having your mind opened to the possibilities of what professional grappling can evolve into as a watchable, casual-fan friendly product.

I attended the Saturday edition of Worlds in Long Beach to watch my coach compete, then talked a few training partners to attend EBI on Sunday. The presentation, culture, and styles of the two events couldn’t be more different. The Worlds was held in the Madison Square Garden of BJJ, the Walter Pyramid on the campus of Cal State Long Beach. The 5,000 seat pyramid has a very cavernous, arena setting. The venue was well lit, the corporate signage neatly aligned around the edges of the mats, and the referees were all well dressed in ties, dress shirts, slackers and blazers. The bullpen had flat screen televisions listing the order of the fights in real-time, computerized scales, and staff to examine your kimono and make sure it was the proper cut and length.

On the flip side, The Florentine Gardens was a dingy night club on the wrong side of Hollywood. Most night clubs aren’t known for being bright and well-lit and this venue was no different with its dark and smokey ambiance. Around an hour into the event, the smell of marijuana seeped into the seating area since the door on the west end of the night club that led to outdoor smoking area was left wide open. While the Pyramid had bleachers, EBI had six rows of folding chairs surrounding the elevated platform with mats laid on top of it. There couldn’t have been more than 300 folding chairs set up around the venue and only a third of the seats were occupied by the middle of the event. Eddie Bravo, who decided to referee the matches, wasn’t wearing  a fancy suit. Instead he was the man in black with an untucked polo shirt and black slacks. Most IBJJF referees were stoned faced while they reffed. Eddie might have just been stoned and giddy as he made priceless facial expressions as he watched and reffed the matches from the best seat in the house.

The primary reason my training partners and I attended EBI was to see Garry Tonon. At that point in his career, he already had his epic match against Kron Gracie at ADCC, but he still wasn’t a high-profile grappler who could headline Polaris or would be pursued for an exclusive contract. He was known in the BJJ community, but he wasn’t the guy just yet. In the marketing and build up to the event, he wasn’t event the odds-on favorite since Bill “The Grill” Cooper was entered and Eddie had been heavily promoting his two proteges, Nathan Orchard and Richie Martinez as contenders for the 170 lbs crown.

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While we knew he was good, my friends and I just knew him from the two weeks he spent training at our academy the previous Spring to prepare for Worlds and the Jiu-Jitsu Battle tournament. While he had already won two World NoGi championships at the Brown Belt level, he was just another guy on the mats when he attended our competition team workouts. He was just friendly and respectful to everybody from the black belts to white belts at the gym, which made him an easy guy to support.

Now, when he travels to events, Tonon is often accompanied by training partners and friends, but he showed up at the first EBI alone. The day before the event, my coach and I bumped into him at the acai bowl stand at Worlds and he asked me where EBI was being held, which kind of puzzled me. I am sure he had it written down or in an email, but he wasn’t going to look it up until he absolutely had to look it up. On the day of the event, he didn’t even have a corner man secured. I was sitting in the front row of the event, talking to one of his former training partners from Ocean County BJJ who drove down from Northern California to watch Tonon compete. Tonon came out and mentioned he didn’t know his training partner would be there and asked him to corner him around 20 minutes before the event started.

Up until that point, I never really cared to watch professional or high-level grappling. I would attend events like the Worlds to watch friends, coaches, and training partners compete. On the Saturday of Worlds, I watched the opening rounds of the black belt open weight division. With the points system, the game is to score first and then play very conservatively and defensively. Even at the highest level it is a very tight game and risks are usually only taken by the competitor with a major deficit. Thus, there was lots of slow, calculated Jiu-Jitsu with lots of pulling, friction, stalling, and boredom. I don’t hate the player, I hate the game that they were forced to play based on the rules. Watching two competitors slow play from 50/50 just isn’t very entertaining or watchable.

This is where EBI zagged while the IBJJF zigged. From the first to last match at EBI, there was no feeling out process, just attacks from the get go. There were basically no ***** or caution given by the competitors. At this point, EBI and its 10-minute submission only with a shootout style overtime was still in its infancy. None of the competitors knew how to game the system or to play for overtime yet, so they just went for the kill from the get go. There was constantly movement and transitions, all with the intent of setting up or going for the submission. The first round of matches for both the 145 and 170 lbs divisions flew by very quickly with submission finish after submission finish. This could also be due to purple and even a few blue belts entered into the tournament to compete with black belts.

There was one major upset in the first round. Bill “The Grill” Cooper, who was one of the 170 lbs favorites, got subbed in the first round by Jake Swinney, a purple belt from Xtreme Couture. After Cooper was dispatched, there was a feeling anybody could win and anybody could lose, which only added to the excitement of the event.

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As the tournament moved forward, you saw story lines and potential stars emerge. In the 145 lbs division, the ADCC and Grapplers Quest veteran Jeff Glover cruised into through the first two rounds while dressed liked Wolverine, while 10th Planet’s Geo Martinez and Ben Eddy stood out as potential threats to the crown. On the 170 lbs side, Richie Martinez lived up to his Boogieman persona with his scary domination in the early rounds. Tonon had the highlight reel move of the night as he hit a scissor leg take down to heel hook on Lance Glynn in the second round. That is my buddy Marshall screaming “Oh My God” as Tonon hits the technique.

The true differentiation between EBI and other submission only events, it that there are no draws. The unique EBI overtime rules where the combatants alternate dominant positions (spider web or back control) while going for the submission and accumulating riding time for the overtime tie-breaker. The 20-minute classic in the finals between Glover and Martinez showed their determination and fight spirit in the overtime round as both men refused to give an inch despite being visibility sweaty and exhausted.

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In the 170 lbs division, Martinex and Tonon both proved to be monsters in their division as they submitted their way to the finals. While the final match last less than four minutes, both men went for the early kill and pressed the action against one another. Martinez attacked from Tonon early going for chokes from Tonon’s half guard and attempted a wrist lock before Tonon transitioned to finish with a heel hook for the win.

For an event that debuted on the same day as the biggest BJJ event of the year, EBI was the superior event in terms of producing an entertaining products. Going from the Worlds to EBI for me was like going from what I knew of reality and then taking a hit of acid and riding a talking dragon to the far corners of the universe. The event was ground breaking in terms of showing what professional grappling can be with the right format, rules set, and competitors. From its humbling beginnings to now being streamed live on the largest online martial arts platform in the world from a 2,000 seat venue is a huge step for both Eddie Bravo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

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