Raf Esparza, one of the hosts of Verbal Tap Cast, reached out to me the other day with a question. He said, “You’re a BJJ Historian (of sorts).” That sort of half-compliment is on par with our usual banter, but I digress. He continued, “Have you ever seen s*** talking like this?”
Esparza was referring to the apparent increase in trash talk between jiu-jitsu athletes. We have Gordon Ryan doing the jiu-jitsu equivalent of a “send all” email for issuing challenge matches. We had AJ Agazarm takeover the Metamoris Instagram account earlier this year. We had Saulo Ribeiro replying to one of John Danaher’s Instagram novels, questioning his authority on BJJ competition. And of course Garry Tonon jumped in the fray as well.
There is more of course, but you get the idea. A lot of jiu-jitsu athletes use social media, and it seems as though more and more of them are willing to court controversy to get attention, sell matches, and win fans.
To Esparza’s point, is this new?
Well, no. Beef and rivalries have been a part of jiu-jitsu since the beginning. In the past, these rivalries and beefs took place mostly in-person and more often involved actual fights rather than Instagram comments. As Drake says, “trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers.” To be perfectly clear, I am not an advocate of either forms of this behavior, but let’s look at some historical data points:
Trash talk is not new. Political opponents wrote out their trash talk before pistol duels in the early days of America. Muhammed Ali built half of his notoriety on the back of his wit. Tito Ortiz was engaging in questionable pre, mid, and post-fight antics long before Connor McGregor ever thought about throwing a water bottle.
Challenge matches are not new either. The Gracie family forged a legacy through challenge matches and VHS tapes, which perhaps played a critical role in the expansion of jiu-jitsu as an art. We might remember the kind and respectful edits where jiu-jitsu is described as the merciful art, but we shouldn’t forget that Rickson Gracie once said, “If we fight for money, I'll stop hitting you when you ask me to. If we fight for honor, I'll stop hitting you when I feel like it.”
- Street fights and brawls are in our roots. Videos of Gracie family members street fighting are not hard to find, and even locker room fights or post-match brawls aren’t off the table for jiu-jitsu athletes. Who can forget Krazy Horse picking a fight with one of Wanderlei Silva’s training partners back stage at Pride?
Anecdotally—with absolutely no hard data whatsoever to back up my claim—I would argue that we are actually seeing less unsavory behavior today than we did even five or six years ago. What we do see is more visible because of the potential reach that social media gives to any jiu-jitsu athlete. That reach is then amplified by jiu-jitsu news sites following in the footsteps of E! News by treating tweets and Instagram posts as news (and here I am doing the same thing).
The tools might be different, but the sport doesn’t seem to have changed all that much from my perspective. Whether that’s good or bad is another discussion entirely.