If you’re living in the jiu-jitsu world post-ADCC 2017, the only way you’ve managed to avoid hearing the name “Craig Jones” is if you’ve quite literally been living under a rock. The Adelaide, Australian-born BJJ black belt came into this year’s championships a relatively unknown underdog after winning the Asian and Oceania ADCC Trials for the second time in his jiu-jitsu career. But after choking out Leandro Lo and then submitting Murilo Santana, even a loss in the semifinals to Keenan Cornelius couldn’t dampen the effect that he had on both old and newfound fans — Jones stepped off the mats a hero, and now that he’s caught the collective eye of the jiu-jitsu community, he’s not going away.
Even before ADCC, though, Jones was hardly a nobody. He was a bronze medalist at the UAEJJF Abu Dhabi Pro in 2016, and just this past March, he made it to the semifinals of EBI 11. But Jones’ favorite accomplishment came back in 2015 when he won the purple belt division of No-Gi Worlds. The victory came shortly after Jones joined his current academy, Absolute MMA. “I felt a lot of pressure to do well,” says Jones. “I was left training in my friend’s living room on 3×3 mats. It was just me, Lachlan Warne, Simon Cho, and Tom Everett. It was the smallest camp I’ve ever done and also the most dominant performance I’ve ever had.” Jones went on to submit all five of his opponents in a combined ten minutes, earning him the title of world champion.
Since then, though, Jones has not only made leaps and bounds in his jiu-jitsu, but also developed his mental game as an athlete. Although he claims he was “nervous” facing Lo, he also was able to see that “everyone is human” and he had nothing to lose going up against such a decorated grappler. It’s a stark contrast to when he was an 80-kg purple belt competing in the 88-kg division at ADCC 2015 and had to go against Romulo Barral. “I was star struck in that match,” says Jones. “But at that point in my jiu-jitsu, he would have smashed me on my best day.” These days, Jones tries to heed the advice he gives to any other jiu-jitsu athlete who’s getting ready to face a superstar grappler: “Forget about who you’re matched up against and take it to them like any other person. That’s much easier to say than do, though.”
Since his victories at ADCC — and a heel hook win against Ben Egli at Submission Underground 5 not long afterward — many people have treated Jones as a hidden gem from a country half a world away. To an extent, he understands why: he claims that the BJJ scene in Australia is much smaller, and competitors don’t have the same superfight and sponsorship opportunities that jiu-jitsu athletes enjoy in the United States. But as Jones and fellow Aussie superstar Kit Dale have proven, just because it’s difficult to rise to international success doesn’t mean it’s impossible. “Kit is one of the most recognizable people in jiu-jitsu and has paved the way for us Australian grapplers,” says Jones.
Jones and Dale might be the first grapplers that come to mind when Australian jiu-jitsu is brought up in conversation, but Jones cautions against sleeping on the rest of the country’s talent as well. He brings up Levi Jones Leary (“Last time I rolled with him, he kicked my ass.”) and Queensland’s young Coco Izzy (“I’ll be hiding from him when he hits the adult division.”) as two of the country’s athletes the rest of the world should keep an eye out for.
Many people would have been satisfied after accomplishing what Jones has achieved in this past year alone, but he’s just getting warmed up. Although he’s not looking to compete against anyone in particular, he says he’d “love” a rematch with anyone that had bested him, especially in previous ADCCs. “I want to take on everyone I can whilst I’m still young,” he says. He’ll certainly be getting a few opportunities before 2018 is upon us — November 5 will see him compete against Kit Dale at Grappling Industries, and then he’ll be making his way to Austin, Texas in November for another shot at an EBI title.
After becoming a household name in the international jiu-jitsu scene in such a short amount of time, there’s no telling what kind of an impact Craig Jones will have on the sport even a year from now. He says that he prefers to be the underdog, but now that he’s proven himself against some of the greatest athletes in the world, it’s safe to say that no one will ever underestimate him again.