The grappling game, like most athletic sports, tends to be a young person’s game, just how young/old is the question we look to address in this segment.
The ADCC World Championship is arguably the biggest and most prestigious tournament in no-gi grappling, with a ruleset capable of attracting competitors from all walks of the submission-wrestling game, be that from jiu-jitsu, catch-wrestling, sub-only and other grappling systems. Out of all these systems at play in this tournament, BJJ has come out as the most effective over the years, with the vast majority of the event’s champions deriving – in one way or another, from this combat style. But if style-wise we have a clearer path into what works best, the optimal age to conquer the pinnacle of the sport is often obscure.
When combining the ages of all former champions and dividing that number between them we get a clue as to what the average age should be for a grappling competitor to make it in the biggest stage in this sport. That number, if you are wondering, is 27 years and 8 months.
Many consider the ADCC open weight class to be stacked even higher in odds against the older athlete, but the data shows that the average age continues to display similar trends to that of the standard weight limit classes. Here, in the absolute division, the youngest champion ever was 22-year-old Ricardo Arona (2001), and the oldest Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu at 32YO (2013).
But there is certainly room for variables in this “optimal age” assessment, athletes who blossom earlier or later in life. This is what we will address below, starting with the oldest competitors to have made it in the ADCC.
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#5 ORLANDO SANCHEZ (33 years 6 months)
Orlando is not an active competitor, having only competed in a handful of events as a black belt, but when he does compete, he is one of the toughest in his division, guaranteed.
Orlando conquered his first (and only thus far) ADCC title back in 2015, after a failed attempt in 2013. Sanchez is known for being a massive human, close to 300 lbs and around about 5’10 in height, a height-weight ratio that makes him very hard to takedown, and nearly “unsweapable”. When competing Sanchez makes the most of his frame to bully other competitors on the mats and is the king of decisions, with 5 out of his 8 wins in the tournament being decided by the judges.
#4 JEFF MONSON (34 years, 2 months)
The Snowman – a nickname given to Monson when competing in Brazil at the 2003 ADCC tournament by the Brazilian press due to Jeff’s pale complexion, is one of the historic figures of the event. A legend of mixed martial arts, Monson was not exactly the most exciting champ the ADCC has ever seen. His style revolved around a powerful takedown game and being incredibly hard to score on from a passing position, an approach that granted him 2 ADCC titles, the latter in 2005 at the age of 34.
#3 ROYLER GRACIE (35 years 4 months)
One of the legends of the early ADCC World Championships was Royler Gracie, the second most accomplished Gracie family member, in the sport of jiu-jitsu – only behind Roger Gracie.
Without the gi, Royler made a name for himself as one of the most complete featherweights in the game. Great butterfly guard, good takedown skills and a flawless knee-cut guard pass were among his favorite tools for victory.
Royler’s last gold medal at the ADCC was back in 2001, at 35 years of age. He returned to the event in 2003 (37YO), losing the famous ¼ finals match against the young prospect Eddie Bravo, in a tournament that was the last of his competitive career.
#2 DEAN LISTER (35 years 7 months)
The legendary American was the first to really bring attention to the leg-game in the ADCC, a skillset he used to take out big names of the sport including Saulo Ribeiro, Rodolfo Vieira, João Gabriel Rocha and plenty more.
Lister made his ADCC debut in 2003, taking home the open-weight gold medal, a stunning upset at the time. He continued being jiu-jitsu’s unaffiliated Maverik for a few more years, landing another big win in 2011, at the age of 35 in the 99-kilogram division. A nearly flawless run that year, as he submitted 3 out of 4 (all by footlock).
#1 RUBENS CHARLES (37 years 9 months)
Another one of the featherweight GOATs on this list is “Cobrinha”. When we referenced in an earlier paragraph that people develop at different rates, Rubens is the perfect example of what we meant.
Rubens did not discover jiu-jitsu until his 21st birthday, but was still able to put together one of the most impressive careers our sport has ever seen. So impressive that he could have taken the “Oldest ADCC Champ Of All Time” #2 and #5 positions, considering he also conquered the event as a 35YO and 33YO.
Truly one of the most technical athletes even seen on the mats, Cobrinha had the full package. Takedowns, piercing guard passes and an offensive and detailed guard. Charles is currently the reigning champion of the ADCC (2017 winner) but has forfeited his place in the tournament this year, giving room for his son – Kennedy Maciel to shine in his place.
#5 RICARDO ARONA (21 years 4 months)
The Brazilian Tiger is another one of the greatest ADCC competitors of all time, many see him as the best ever. Arona brought a very muscular grappling style with which he remained undefeated during his 3 tournament runs. More impressively, he was never scored against in the ADCC proving ground.
Very fast, durable, strong as an ox and with an incredible double-leg takedown, Arona gained a legion of fans and went on to become one of the best mixed martial arts fighters of his generation, with many memorable matches on the Pride FC ring, including his victories over Kazushi Sakuraba, Alistair Overeem and Murilo “Ninja” Rua.
#4 RICCO RODRIGUEZ (20 years 8 months)
The first ADCC ultra-heavyweight champion was also the youngest ever in the division, with the only one to come close to his age being Marcus Almeida in 2013, who was 3 years older than Rodriguez. In fact, Ricco’s 1998 run broke plenty of records, him being also the first American to conquer the ADCC strap.
Young Rodriguez was a sight to behold in the grappling world. He was a very large man, with fantastic athleticism, skill and a ton of drive. In the ADCC he beat some of the best of his time, including Murilo Bustamante and Rodrigo Minotauro before moving on to MMA where he would become one of the youngest UFC champs of all time.
#3 MARCELO GARCIA (20 years 4 months)
Many have Marcelo Garcia as the number one “Greatest Of All Time” when it comes to jiu-jitsu, and most definitely he is among the top 5 in anyone’s ranking. ADCC was Marcelinho’s “breakthrough tournament”, a time when he came in as an alternate after earning a second place at the ADCC trials in Brazil. Garcia would take the division by storm, taking out a world champion (Vitor Shaoling) and an ADCC legend in Renzo Gracie, going on to submit in the final. One of the best debut performances of all time.
For the sport, Marcelo Garcia was not only one of our most accomplished competitors, but he would also lead the way in adding several positions to jiu-jitsu’s game, including the arm-drag, X-Guard, Single-X and seat-belt controls. Positions that re-shaped the grappling landscape.
#2 RAFAEL MENDES (20 years 3 months)
Rafael Mendes’ 2009 ADCC run will go out in history as one of the best ever. Already regarded as the biggest rising star in the sport, at the time, Mendes was somewhat disliked by the jiu-jitsu community at the time for his “overuse” of the 50/50 guard, a position he championed at the time.
For the main show, however, Mendes played next to zero 50/50, instead, he used a flawless defensive wrestling game, going on to beat two legends of the ADCC (Cobrinha and Leozinho Vieira) as well as the highly praised Justin Rader and Justin Patino, submitting 3 out of these 4. A beautiful display of jiu-jitsu and a memorable debut.
#1 KYRA GRACIE (19 years 11 months)
The youngest ADCC champion of all time was none other than Kyra Gracie, the most famous female member of the Gracie Family and a unique figure for women’s jiu-jitsu.
A highly skilled athlete and a serious competitor, Kyra brought not only technique and medals to her credit, but also added charisma in the mix, all incredibly valuable tools that helped raise awareness for female grappling.
We could certainly say there was an era “before Kyra” and one “after Kyra”, she revolutionized the sport and made grappling promotions finally believe in the female division. One of those promotions was the ADCC, who included 2 female weight classes in 2005 for the first time, one of which was conquered by Gracie at only 19 years of age – one day short of her 20th birthday.