OPINION: Erberth Santos Is What Happens When You Reward Problematic Behavior In Jiu-Jitsu

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When Erberth Santos basically gave up against Nicholas Meregali at the Spyder Invitational over the weekend, the only people who were surprised were those who didn’t know who Erberth Santos was. The moment Santos started complaining — presumably about an accidental kick from Meregali while escaping Santos’ toehold attempt — viewers knew that something was going to happen (or rather, not happen), and they knew that everyone else knew it, too. For a brief moment in time, a relatively small group of people in the world set aside politics, religion, and whatever other differences they may have to agree on one thing: Santos was about to disappoint everyone again.

At this point, booking Santos for an event is like tossing a die in the air and hoping it lands with the “Actually Does Jiu-Jitsu & That’s All” side up. Instead, promotors and spectators have been subjected to sides like “Gives Up Mid-Match,” “Runs Into the Crowd & Physically Assaults People,” or “Makes Ever-Increasing Demands Until He’s Pulled From a Match He Doesn’t Seem To Want To Do Anyway.” No one was surprised when Santos did something ridiculous at Spyder because seeing him just stick to jiu-jitsu throughout an entire high-level event would be the abnormality.

This, of course, is only the Santos we’ve seen in competition as well. Three years ago, he was accused of recording himself having sex with a woman and sending the video to a dozen people, then allegedly sending death threats to a different woman who allegedly sent the video to even more people. He reportedly has also had to change teams multiple times due to his behavior. The guy has enough red flags attached to his name to make a quilt, and yet, he keeps getting booked.

I understand that part of Santos’ appeal from a promotor’s perspective is the controversy attached to him. BJJ Stars was launched into mainstream-media-level fame (if only for a moment) after Santos’ violent detour from his match with Felipe Pena, and Fight 2 Win received both praise and heavy criticism when they booked him for his promotional debut against Gutemberg Pereira at F2W 111. In an industry and age where people are constantly craving more drama and promotors are tirelessly experimenting with how to make a niche martial art more of a spectator sport, rolling the dice on Santos makes sense, but only to an extent.

The idea that martial artists (and jiu-jitsu black belts, in particular) should conduct themselves with honor and dignity has always been more of wishful thinking than truth. BJJ has strong roots in dojo storming and “talk sh*t, get hit” philosophy. And of course, there are endless stories of BJJ instructors taking advantage of their positions of power, some of which are out in the open, and many others that will only ever be discussed between trusted friends. It’s not a great shock that Santos’ actions at BJJ Stars were met with outrage and quickly became shrug-worthy, especially when gyms that are rife with scandalous accusations can still find success in the sport. It’s just disappointing.

Jiu-jitsu promotors may look at Santos with the same “boys will be boys” lens that other athletes have received in the past, but he is a grown man. If literal teenagers like the Ruotolo twins and Nicky Ryan can make their way into the spotlight and not disgrace themselves, then we need to hold adult competitors to the same standard. In fact, we saw this example of irony play out in front of our eyes at the BJJ Fanatics Sub-Only Grand Prix when Tex Johnson (who was accused of sexual assault earlier this year, but never formally charged) punched 17-year-old William Tackett in the face. (BJJ Fanatics responded to the incident after the event.) If we don’t draw the line at reports of bad behavior off the mats, and we don’t draw the line at bad behavior that happens on the mats in front of a worldwide audience on a live stream, does a line even exist? Or is it just a dotted line that allows you through if you’re good enough at sports?

I have unending respect for the promotors and event organizers who have put forth the work to make jiu-jitsu a viable way to earn money for dedicated athletes. I understand that when they book even problematic athletes, they’re just trying to make their business successful while attempting to help grow the sport.

But. I would like to see that dotted line become a bit more solid.

We promote jiu-jitsu as a self-defense tool for women and an anti-bullying tool for kids. It’s not a good look when this rhetoric is used as an easy marketing strategy while violent and bully-like behavior is rewarded at the highest levels of competition. I’m utterly unconvinced that there isn’t enough talent in the jiu-jitsu world that we have to keep putting red-flag-covered competitors on these cards. The BJJ Fanatics event also offered proof for this as well — numerous rising stars without any out-in-the-open controversy surrounding them were placed among big-name competitors, and one of them (10th Planet’s Kyle Boehm) ended up winning the whole thing after defeating Lucas Barbosa.

Maybe I’m a sucker for a good story, but I’m a fan of events that give up-and-comers the chance to make it big rather than events that give famous athletes chance after chance to disappoint us in new ways. It is a privilege to be able to compete for big prize money in a growing sport like ours, and it’s past time to start asking how giving athletes that privilege despite their poor behavior serves as a reward for their undesirable actions.

As much as I’d like to, I don’t believe that anyone alive today will live to see a time when every “bad apple” is banished from the sport forever. I do, however, think we owe it to ourselves and the larger jiu-jitsu community to give competitive opportunities (and money) to athletes who improve the jiu-jitsu’s reputation rather than tarnishing it. If we don’t, then we, too, are just giving up mid-match.


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