Bravo's combat jiu-jitsu finding its niche

Erik Cruz, bottom, demonstrated what combat jiu-jitsu is all about by submitting Kristopher Gonzalez. Laura Baker/U of MMA

LOS ANGELES -- When Turi Altavilla booked Club Nokia at L.A. Live for his amateur mixed martial arts series, the only sports event scheduled across the street at Staples Center that weekend featured the WNBA Sparks' home opener.

Soon after, three of the city's teams went playoff crazy.

In a span of 80 hours, two hockey and four basketball games, plus a major international cycling road race, brought over a quarter million people to the buzzing metropolis' sports and entertainment complex. Sunday night, May 20, as things wound down and the Los Angeles Clippers were on their way to being swept by the San Antonio Spurs, roughly 900 people waded into the throng to watch a night of fights between local Southern California prospects.

As an added bonus, they witnessed the debut of combat jiu-jitsu.

Depending on one's perspective, combat jiu-jitsu comes off like MMA Lite or highly charged, no-gi grappling. Striking is prohibited unless something other than the soles of a contestant’s feet touch the canvas. But once action hits the floor, combat jiu-jitsu is identical to amateur MMA in California, meaning three-minute rounds and more restrictive rules preventing some strikes and submissions.

Though the setup isn’t precisely what he wants, "this is to fill that hole between MMA and grappling," explained Eddie Bravo, the rubber guard pioneer who took his grappling-with-strikes concept to Altavilla, a former Pride executive, and saw it realized when Erik Cruz submitted Kristopher Gonzalez via rear-naked choke late in Round 1.

When the bell rang for Cruz's match, the omnipresent edge that accompanies an MMA bout couldn’t be found in the building. Rather, Cruz and Gonzalez, hands down or extended to grab, circled without fear of being struck. There was no energy exuded by fans until Gonzalez scored a takedown and the actual combat part of combat jiu-jitsu kicked in.

"A fight's a fight; it's still going to be dangerous," said Cruz, a brown belt under Bravo at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu, about an hour before he stepped in the cage. "If I'm on the ground and he's punching me in the head, I could get cut or knocked out.

"You get hit two or three times really good and all of a sudden you get knocked down a belt rank. You can get demoted with strikes very easily. Brown turns into a purple turns into a blue. And if he's tired and getting beat up, he's a white belt. What going to happen? He'll get caught with simple stuff."

Bravo pitches combat jiu-jitsu as the logical incarnation for a “professional league of grappling,” a place where wrestlers hone their top-game and ground-and-pound skills while jiu-jitsu stylists test skills in a more real-world environment without having to concern themselves with boxing or kickboxing.

"It gets you ready for MMA better than grappling, that's for sure," Bravo said. "And also there's a lot of jiu-jitsu guys out there who are awesome that will never do MMA, they don't want to learn Muay Thai, and this could be their professional sport. This could be the final frontier. I would think 90 percent of jiu-jitsu fans out there would rather see Marcelo Garcia and Xande Ribiero going at it with punches than just straight grappling."

"There are gyms that are pure BJJ gyms, not MMA gyms, and this opens up the door for them to participate on a different type of platform,” Altavilla said. “It's not a jiu-jitsu tournament. This is not in a high school gym. This is something a little bit sexier and it's going to help their jiu-jitsu. They're going to get better and I think it's going to catch on."

Promoters would need to put up purses to draw out jiu-jitsu’s big names. Bravo said he’s not in a position to make that happen yet, but with exposure and support from the jiu-jitsu community, which he expects will come, the instructor envisions a day when the most prestigious grappling tournament includes strikes. He has approached Sheikh Tahnoon, founder of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club which operates grappling’s top competition, ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship, with the idea. It would take a Tahnoon-like figure to get Bravo's idea off the ground.

For now, Bravo has agreed to promote an all combat jiu-jitsu event with the Gracie family. He also said a promoter on the East Coast showed serious interest in hosting an event. Combat jiu-jitsu will continue to function as an amateur sport. CAMO, the body assigned to oversee amateur MMA in California, signed off on combat jiu-jitsu after meetings with Altavilla and Bravo. The pair have stayed away from petitioning the California State Athletic Commission because of its tedious rule-making process.

“We wanted to get it off the ground quick, show that it was safe and useable and made sense within the context of MMA,” Altavilla said. “I think doing it this way will be easier, and we can go to the pro commission and say ‘hey, it's working.’"