In 2007 I made my first visit to South Africa, in a mission to spread BJJ all over the World. I had no idea what to expect in terms of level and number of practitioners, and to be honest I did not expect much. Then I met some people involved with BJJ, Grappling and MMA in three of the major cities: Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
The numbers were not big, but the level was not different from what I have seen previously in North America and Europe, the problem is that the Africans did not have BJJ comps and so even the best grapplers were not familiar with rules, competition strategies and this was their major gap. Without competing, we cannot develop our best techniques and grow to the highest level. Putting it simply, someone that drives a car on the streets will never have the same reflexes and experience of a Michal Schumacher or Ayrton Senna. If you want to be the best, the only way to prove yourself, fix your mistakes and reach the highest level is by competing. So Africa needed more BJJ competitions to help the sport grow and allow its athletes to perform their games under pressure.
In 2008, Carlos Santos asked me if Africa was ready to receive trials for Abu Dhabi. Fearing that numbers would be very small, I asked him to wait another year to give me time to prepare the ground for this important task. Then last August, with help of my students in Johannesburg, we held a small tournament and saw that conditions were ripe for a bigger comp.
When we confirmed the Trials and its format, we started to try and contact all the countries around, to make the trials an international event. We know that BJJ is growing in Egypt and Morocco, but those countries are closer to Abu Dhabi than to South Africa, so they would not come due to the distances. We managed to find gyms in Angola and Madagascar, but it seems that most countries on Sub Saharan Africa do not have BJJ clubs yet or at least we could not find it. We put a lot of effort to convince people that our competition was for real and that it would qualify 5 people to fight the most important BJJ comp in the World, with huge money prizes. Blogs, Facebook, e-mails and posters sent, but we still did not know if people would come and fight.
We expected between 50 and 70 competitors, but when we closed the entries one week before, we had over 100 people, coming from Angola, Madagascar, all parts of South Africa and even from Congo and Swaziland. This comp would be a mark for the sport in Africa, and it was. For the first time so many fighters had the chance to fight and meet each other, and the excitement could be felt in the air.
The competition run smoothly and after 9 hours of intense battles, we had results in 25 divisions, and 5 people qualified to fly to Abu Dhabi in April, 2010.
Level was higher than expected, numbers were great, people came from all corners of South Africa and beyond, and the competition established a record as the biggest BJJ comp ever to happen in South Africa. Looking for the road works behind schedule in Johannesburg, I am not sure if the country will be ready for the football World Cup, but it is definitely ready to claim a place in the BJJ family, with Johannesburg being the place to be next December for the Second Abu Dhabi African Trials.
When people come to Africa for safaris, most want to see and take pictures of the “Big 5”, the biggest animals to roam the savannas and forests of the continent (Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard). For us involved in the Trials, the Big 5 are the five winners of the Qualifiers, which will go to Abu Dhabi sponsored by FIJJA.
Wiekus Swart, Jessica Hill, Wesley George, Jared Halliday and Derrick Van Kelsen won their respective Absolute Divisions and now must train hard to fight people from around the World next April, with lot bigger chances than the SA football team in the World Cup.