Mixed Martial Arts is the most highly sought-after combat sports spectacle today, second only to the age-old sport of boxing. It’s an industry that thrives on public appeal. You’d expect the cage to be designed for fighting systems that show off dynamic, jaw-dropping strikes worthy of the highlight reel, however, fighters in recent history have deviated from the flashy striking systems and into the visually tamer style of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Frankly, compared to the striking arts, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (or BJJ) can seem boring. There’s no blood. No gore. No high-intensity exchange of blows. In fact, there are no blows at all.
The striking arts are comparatively simpler—it’s plain to see who’s winning and who’s losing. On the other hand, understanding what’s happening in a BJJ match demands far more from the spectator. A person who has little to no BJJ knowledge would be hard-pressed to find a BJJ match exciting, and who can blame them?
And yet, BJJ has become an indispensable component of the game.
BJJ entered the MMA scene soon after wrestling did. Wrestlers dominated the sport at the time, and BJJ offered a solution to fighters who were constantly getting put on their backs.1 Fast forward a few decades later, it has become one of the core fighting systems in MMA.
With MMA as fresh grounds for new opportunities, top BJJ stars have taken the step to expand their skills beyond the mats, thriving inside the cage. In this article, we’ll go over TFC–Brisbane’s top five picks on the most memorable Brazilian Jiu Jitsu stars who dominated in the sport of MMA.
1. Gilbert Burns
It’s hard to find anyone who dislikes Gilbert “Durinho” Burns. With a boyish smile and respectfully amiable disposition, Burns captured the heart of many fans, announcers, and even fellow competitors.
Coming into the UFC with a strong BJJ background, you’d expect the likes of Gilbert Burns to be heavily dependent on his grappling background. Make no mistake though. Contrary to misguided first impressions, he displayed no need to take opponents down before taking them out, even early in his MMA career. He may well be a second-degree black belt, but he’s just as likely to submit his opponent as he to knock them out.
If there’s anything to know about Durinho, it’s that he’d rather end a fight quickly than to be in the cage longer than necessary. In fact, 14 out of his 19 wins ended quickly, with eight submissions and six knockouts.2
Burns’ entry into the world of martial arts came as a tradeoff between the Burns patriarch and one of his customers. Gilbert’s father offered to repair a customers car in exchange for three months of BJJ training for Gilbert and his two brothers. Several years of hard work later and Durinho was winning competitions left and right. In 2011, he won gold at the 2011 World Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships. After that, he shifted his focus and made his professional MMA debut in 2012.
2. Demian Maia
Demian Maia is perhaps the most unorthodox MMA fighter out there. Most fighters work to round out their MMA game by improving their weaknesses. Maia chooses to be a single-style combatant focusing on refining his strength. “The Man Who Doesn’t Throw Punches” has been labeled a one-dimensional fighter, criticized for having one of the most lackluster stand-up performances in UFC history.
Maia had always belonged on the ground, earning a black belt in as short as four years and seven months by training thrice daily. 3 But while he is an extremely accomplished grappler, but he rarely ever threw a punch. And even when he did, it is… subpar, to say the least.
Some people best stick to what they’re good at, and this seems to be the case for Maia. In fact, when he tried to expand his game and worked on adding more striking power to his MMA toolbox, it unfortunately didn’t turn out well. 4 It took seven years for his reputation to recover from one of the worst title matches in UFC history.5
And so he decided to ditch the striking altogether and went back into grappling with a single-minded focus. But while this singularity had been his weakness early on in his career, he’d reached a point where he polished it enough to turn it into the deadliest weapon in his arsenal. It has since evolved to become the defining feature of his MMA career.
When you’re up against Demian Maia, you know he wants you on the ground. And yet, even when you know what he’s trying to do, you’re powerless to do anything to stop it. That’s just how good he is.
3. Rafael Lovato Jr.
If we’re talking about BJJ stars who made MMA history, it would be mandatory to include Rafael Lovato Jr. He writes BJJ history with an unmatched list of accomplishments. And as the youngest American to receive a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Lovato took the BJJ world by storm. Victory after victory, he built his legacy and just about became the most prominent BJJ star in the modern era.
After winning the Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship twice, he figured that it was time to take on another challenge.
Lovato set his sights on the MMA world, and to nobody’s surprise, the tenacity he displayed on the mats translated really well inside the cage. Lovato has always been an achiever, and that wasn’t changing anytime soon. With his terrifyingly sharpened ground game, he won every single match and became the Bellator Middleweight World Champion in his third year.
It seemed like Rafael Lovato Jr. had it all going for him. Unfortunately, though, some situations in life just aren’t ideal.
In the same year he became an MMA World Champion, he also received some life-changing news. He had a malformation in the brain’s blood vessels, making them more likely to hemorrhage. He had to make the difficult decision to relinquish his middleweight title soon after.
It’s not the end for him yet, though. He’s merely lying low until he exhausts all resources to try and get himself cleared for more MMA matches. Lovato is merely taking a break from MMA and going back to rule over the BJJ world in the meantime.
4. BJ Penn
B.J. Penn is the MMA world’s quintessential case of what if?, the could have been that just didn’t. You can’t really call it wasted potential, especially since his accomplishments are nothing to scoff at. It’s not that he’s unmotivated either, since no unmotivated person can win two UFC Championships on top of a BJJ Championship. But, as Darren Wong so aptly put it, he never fulfilled the kind of legacy that his talent showed was clearly possible.
His martial arts career had a very explosive start, growing at a breakneck speed that could leave you reeling. B.J. Penn as “The Prodigy” came to be when he was promoted to black belt in only three years and four months—one of the fastest black belt promotions in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu history. He won the black belt division of the World Jiu Jitsu Championship only three weeks after that.
From his achievements in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu alone, he caught the attention of the UFC—a feat that is unheard of (and until today, unreplicated) in MMA. With the opportunity presented right at his feet, he decided to jump into the world of cage fighting, where fans were understandably skeptical. Sure, he can grapple, but can he fight?
B.J. Penn’s first win could have been a fluke, but by the third fight, he had built his reputation as a serious contender. By the end of his fifth ever MMA match, he’d bagged the UFC’s Lightweight Championship belt. He would later move up to take the Welterweight belt as well, becoming one of seven people in UFC history to win multiple championship belts.
While Penn has since fallen out of the spotlight, no one can deny that he made an indelible mark in the history of martial arts.
5. Paul Craig
And finally, at the end of this list is the recently black belt promoted Paul “Bearjew” Craig, whose performance at the UFC 263 caused quite the stir in the world of martial arts. While Craig was the superior grappler, it should be noted that his opponent Jamahal Hill is no slouch either being undefeated until he faced off against Bearjew. The night ended with Craig earning a $50K Performance of the Night bonus for popping out Hill’s elbow in the first round.
It was this phenomenal performance that earned him a black belt promotion over a few post-fight beers in a bar. Ironically, Jamahal Hill himself was the first person to congratulate him for it—a truly inspiring demonstration of sportsmanship.
Prior to his professional MMA career, Paul Craig was a teacher and a football coach. It was only due to a friend’s invitation that he stepped into an MMA gym at all—and even then, he had no idea what it was. Once he got into it, though, he discovered a particular inclination to take the fight to the ground. He would later take to the mats and roll his way to a first-place win at the purple belt division of the 2015 British Pro Jiu Jitsu Championship.
Rather than trying to embrace the all-rounder strategy, Craig took inspiration from Demian Maia and decided it was best to lean into his strengths. What would normally be a disastrous path to others turned out to play to his advantage. Paul Craig always goes in to end a fight quickly, and he rarely ever fails. In fact, 12 out of his 15 wins were all by submission.
On a final note…
These athletes have either built or are building their legacies. But just as big waves begin small, even the most unreachable of stars began at the very bottom as beginners.
Success isn’t about winning tournaments or becoming world champions, it’s about going on your own journey and meeting your own goals, whether that means earning a promotion or simply just by showing up.
If you’re looking to go on an MMA journey of your own, our advice is to find a positive, supportive community that will help push you towards your goals.
If you’re in the local Logan area, why not try a free trial class with us an The Fight Centre–Brisbane? We take pride in helping our members reach their goals, which we’d love for you to experience for yourself.