Professional Grappling Best of 2018
2018 was the biggest and busiest year in professional grappling to date. We witnessed the growth of established organizations such as Polaris and Fight to Win, the rise of Kasai, and the introduction of some quirky formats in EBI Combat Jiu Jitsu and Quintet. These organizations, as well as several smaller events along with their sponsors and partners, have produced excellent results for fans and provided platforms for athletes to display their skills to a larger audience than ever before.
Looking back at the year in professional grappling, I have come up with lists highlighting some of the matches, moments, and athletes I liked the most in 2018. I limited the scope of the lists to the larger professional organizations (i.e. organizations that pay athletes to compete) out there; Polaris, EBI, Kasai, Fight2Win, and Figure 4. This gave me a manageable population of results from which to choose.
The categories I chose to examine are as follows:
- Submission of the year
- Performance of the year
- Athlete of the year
- Match of the year
- Event of the year
I will break down some of the criteria that went towards selecting finalists for each category to provide my rationale, but ultimately this exercise was subjective with no real mathematic or scientific backing.
In addition to reflecting on the awesome year in professional grappling that was 2018, the goal of this exercise is to bring some recognition to the athletes and organizations that help drive this sport forward by constantly raising the bar with their efforts to deliver exciting displays of the best grappling in the world.
Without further ado; your Just the Tap 2018 Awards.
Submission of the year:
There were several criteria that went towards my selections here; rarity of submission, weight of the moment or stakes (i.e. for a championship belt or tournament win, a big upset, etc.), style/flashiness, caliber of the athletes involved, display of technical superiority, or just “holy crap I can’t believe he pulled it off”.
- Matt Leighton vs Dante Leon - lasso sweep to arm bar - F2W Pro 84
This one scored high on the style/flashiness, and charted moderately as an upset, with Dante Leon being a bit more of a household name on the competitive scene than Leighton. This was the main event of F2W 84 in Chicago and Leighton gave the hometown fans something to cheer about with a slick lasso guard sweep immediately into an armbar late in the match. Replay available on FloGrappling.
- Lovato vs Tim Spriggs - RNC - F2W Pro64 – No Gi Heavyweight Belt
This one checks all the same boxes as the previous finalist but scores a little higher in each criteria. Bigger athletes, bigger names, great technical display of dominance by Lovato as he chokes out Spriggs (standing!) to get the F2W heavyweight strap. Replay available on Flo.
- Vagner Rocha vs Alex Marin – Smother Choke - XFN 21 Combat Jiu Jitsu
This submission won a special exemption to be included on this list. Vagner raised some eyebrows with this one by eliciting a tap in a combat jiu jitsu match by securing back mount, locking down both of his opponents’ limbs, and using his free hand to smother his opponents’ airways. Subsequently, the “python challenge” has made its way around the internet and into gyms everywhere. Huge points for rarity and technical dominance here.
- Hideo Tokoro vs Kyung Ju Kim – Armbar – Quinet 1
Calling this an armbar does not seem to do this submission justice. This was an armbar set up by an Imanari roll 13 seconds into the match. This was the flashiest, most beautiful submission of the year, if you have not watched it please stop reading this and search the internet for it immediately.
- Geo Martinez vs Haisam Rida - Guillotine - Quintet 2
JTT’s submission of the year goes to Geo Martinez for overcoming a huge size disparity and tapping out Haisam Rida at Quintet 2. Rida had been on a tear that night, submitting 4 black belts prior to stepping on the mat with Geo. Freakazoid was able to overcome a significant size disparity and slap on a vicious guillotine choke that eventually got the tap from Rida. This one had it all, but most importantly it scores highest in the “holy crap I can’t believe he pulled that off” category. The replay for this is available on YouTube.
Performance of the year
This category is to recognize instances where athletes had breakout performances, displayed extreme fortitude, or asserted technical dominance in such a way that bears recognition.
- Gordon Ryan Reigns Supreme at Quintet 3
Uriah Faber recruited Gordon to be his ringer for the Quintet 3 tournament, and he did exactly what he was brought in to do; dominate. The King submitted Craig Jones, Josh Barnett (yup!), and Marcos Souza to lead team Alpha Male to victory.
- Craig Jones Makes Quick Work of Jake Shields at Polaris 6
People were excited about this matchup, but there were some questions going into it. Would Craig Jones be able to withstand the pressure and physicality of Jake Shields? Would Shields’ training with the DDS allow him to survive the leg attacks of Jones? One of those questions was answered emphatically. Jones made quick work of the former MMA star, submitting him with a heel hook in under a minute.
- Late Replacement Jon Calestine Takes Legs, Unseats Champ at EBI 15
A last-minute substitution for the injured Eddie Cummings, Jon Calestine burst into the spotlight at EBI15 by submitting his first three opponents quickly in regulation via heel hook. He then took on reigning champ, Geo Martinez, and was able to eek out a win by fastest escape time, not bad for a debut performance on the big stage.
- Bia Mesquita Submits Everybody at EBI 16
EBI held their first all-female professional invitational this past June, and the ladies delivered in a big way. None more so than the eventual winner, Bia Mesquita, who on the way to becoming the inaugural champ, submitted everybody they put in front of her.
- Jon Blank Crowned Slap Fighting Champ at EBI 17 – Combat Jiu Jitsu
Jon Blank, a Brown Belt out of 10th Planet Bethlehem, PA, pulled off an incredible dark horse run in the inaugural Combat Jiu Jitsu Tournament. Blank, who is an active competitor on the regional circuit, was able to garner some attention on the professional scene by submitting every opponent en-route to capturing the 185 lb. CJJ belt.
Athlete of the year
This category is to recognize an athlete for their body of work over the year. Considerations for this category were; submission rate, activity, excitement of matches, willingness to take risks (matchups, going after submissions in matches), and anything they may have done to drive the sport forward through their performances.
- Baret Yoshida
Baret flew a little under the radar this year but was active on the F2W scene, winning 5 matches by submission, including an anaconda choke that won him the F2W no gi 135lb. belt. He capped off the year with gold at No Gi worlds (all by submission) as a final exclamation point on 2018.
- Nicky Ryan
The young phenom had some high-profile victories this year. He started off by winning a tight decision over Geo Martinez, submitted Hideo Tokoro at Quintet 3, and capped off his year winning the Polaris Pro Featherweight Tournament in December. Not bad for a teenaged purple belt.
- Keith Krikorian
Another standout 10th Planet brown belt, Krikorian was probably the most active competitor this year. He doesn’t have a BJJ Heroes page (can somebody please get on that?), but I believe he amassed something along the lines of a 75-1 record this year, with his lone loss coming in the finals at ADCC trials.
- Craig Jones
Craig came into the year as the hottest name in sub-only grappling. He started his 2018 campaign by submitting Jake Shields in under 2 minutes to win the Polaris Middleweight title. Since then he has had several standout performances as a member of team Polaris under the Quintet banner. He has also faced some of the stiffest competition this year, being matched up with other high-level grapplers across several events, however many of those matches turned out to be somewhat lackluster (at least he apologized for Palhares).
- Vagner Rocha
2018 was Vagner’s year. He was one of the most active participants on the professional circuit and a combatant in some of the best matches of the year. He established himself as the messiah of violent jiu jitsu through his Combat Jiu Jitsu wins at EBI. He won (and defended) a championship belt at F2W Pro. He mercy wristlocked a grown man at Kasai. He pulled off a smother choke in professional competition, giving rise to the python challenge movement. He nearly put Ben Henderson to sleep by squeezing his face. He blew our minds and he stole our hearts. Vagner Rocha is our favorite grappler of 2018.
Match of the year
These are the matches that we found to be the most exciting and entertaining. Keep these matches handy to show to your friends or family members when you want to demonstrate what jiu jitsu/grappling is, as they represent the most viewer friendly aspects of the sport. A match didn’t have to result in a submission to end up here, but the competitors had to display willingness to take risks and put on a show for the fans.
- Mike Padilla vs Wilson Reis F2W Pro 81
Great back and forth battle here as late replacement Mike Padilla steps in to face UFC vet Wilson Reis. F2W has already dubbed this their fight of the year and it’s hard to argue with that as Padilla took a close fought split decision victory.
- PJ Barch vs Krysiek Suchorabski - Quintet 2
This match flew under the radar, but I suggest re-watching on UFC Fightpass, it will be time well spent. This was another back and forth match with great exchanges, literally going to the bell both with athletes having submission attempts locked on one another.
- Benson Henderson vs AJ Agazarm - Polaris 6
Who doesn’t enjoy one of the most polarizing personalities in the sport get blast doubled off the stage? Nobody. Nobody doesn’t want to see that. This match was Benson taking it to AJ and never letting off the gas. To AJ’s credit, he took everything that was thrown at him and even threw a few sub attempts back at Henderson, but ‘Smooth’ was playing a little too rough for the Florida Boy. Henderson got the W via decision.
- Renato Canuto vs Jason Rau – Kasai Pro 3
Three words: BACK. FLIP. PASS. Go find it on the internet, show your friends, show your parents, show your cats. Renato Canuto has had some exciting performances under the Kasai banner, his loose, explosive, and scrambley style from the standing position usually make for some decent fireworks. Props to Rau for maintaining composure; he was quick with his re-guards and counterattacks into leg entanglements, but just a little too passive to deal with Canuto’s style.
- Polaris vs 10th Planet
Technically this was 8 matches. 8 matches of blissful, chaotic, beautiful submission grappling in rapid fire succession. This was easily the best 45 minutes of grappling of the year, it runs like a highlight reel. There was a narrative, there was drama, there was suspense, excitement, heartbreak, upsets, more excitement, and there was Craig Jones. Below is a rundown of the matches in succession:
- PJ Barch Defeats Victor Shaolin via rolling armbar (!)
- Gregor Gracie Defeats PJ Barch with an amazing double knee bar (!!)
- Gregor Gracie Defeats Amir Allam by Kimura (!!!)
- Geo Martinez Defeats Gregor Gracie by Kimura (!!!!)
- Marcin Held Defeats Geo Martinez by Kneebar (!!!!!)
- Richie Martinez avenges his brother and defeats held with an omoplata variation (!!!!!!)
- Craig Jones Defeats Richie Martinez by a straight ankle lock (!?!?!?!?!?!)
- Craig Jones Defeats Adam Sachnoff by RNC (!#@#%!$%!$%#!#$$)
I think I need a cigarette after that rewatch.
Event of the year
These were the top professional events of 2018 as a whole. The criteria for selection in this category was based generally on excitement of the matches that took place, significance within the sport of grappling, production quality, and rewatchability.
- F2WPro 95
F2W has the hardest working team in professional grappling. These guys and gals do so much for the sport of professional grappling in the United States, providing a venue for local athletes to perform in front of their friends and family, while also bringing in some of the biggest names in the sport. Their end of the year event featured a marquis matchup between 2 stalwarts of the young-old guard; Josh Hinger and Rafael Lovato, supported by a card stacked with local San Diego talent and competitive scene regulars. Lovato ended up winning a clear-cut decision after an exciting night of action.
- EBI CJJ
Eddie Bravo has always been a visionary. He has also always been a mad genius; you would have to be to dream up a 16 man wrestling tournament that allows slaps to the face. But you know what? IT WORKED. The event was a big success and featured a great storyline with a dark horse brown belt stealing the show and submitting his way to victory. Just like that, a new sport was born.
- Polaris 6
Polaris started the year off well by bringing some big names to the O2 Arena in London, and they put on a show. This card featured a match of the year contender in Henderson vs Agazarm and fed the Craig Jones hype train, as he made quick work of Jake Shields in the main event. And of course, having Josh Palmer doing play by play is always a notch in the win column.
- EBI 16
This event was already a win for the sport before it even happened. The first all-female professional tournament to be streamed on a major platform. Again, props to Eddie Bravo the visionary for putting this together. Then the ladies came out and absolutely GOT AFTER IT. These matches were quick, exciting, and decisive. Outside of the Polaris vs. 10P match at Quintet, Bia Mesquita’s run to EBI gold was one of the most enjoyable grappling moments of the year.
- Quintet 3
Quintet burst onto the scene in 2018 in a big way. Introducing a wacky team survivor format, and denying the use of heel hooks, definitely raised some eyebrows and caused some cynical eyes to roll. Then they released their fight card, and the grappling community took notice. After the first event; I was a believer, and the rest of the grappling community was on board. They delivered again for Quintet 2 and their ‘Fight Night’ event, albeit with less of a splash. After that, they released the matchups planned for Quintet 3, which included multiple UFC/Pride Hall of Famers and veterans (Uriah Faber, Josh Barnett, Sakuraba), the Martinez Brothers and PJ Barch anchoring the 10th Planet Team, and a Polaris team led by Craig Jones. That got everybody’s attention in a big way. AND THEN, Uriah Faber added GORDON FREAKIN RYAN to his team and everyone began to salivate over the potential matchups. First and foremost on everyone’s mind was Gordon vs Josh Barnett; which we were treated to early in the final round (SPOILER ALERT: Gordon by Triangle). After it was all said and done, Gordon Ryan and Alpha Male won the night, Team Polaris won the Match of the year, and Quintet won our hearts. But please, for the love of God, get rid of Miesha Tate.
That wraps up my favorite moments from 2018. 2019 is already shaping up to be a great year with all the major organizations planning their events, new stars on the rise, and we have the return of ADCC to look forward to.
Thanks for reading!