For many fans the golden era of mixed martial arts (MMA) was that of Pride Fc. A time when we could always hope for incredible match-ups between athletes of all weight classes, styles and affiliations, from K1 GP champions fighting MMA legends, to fights between judo and wrestling olympians, or even UFC kings vs the very best in Pride.
The torch of creative matchmaking once held by the Japanese promotion lost its spark a long time ago, but seems to have found new life in one grappling organization – Polaris Jiu Jitsu Invitational. The United Kingdom based event has raised the profile of professional jiu jitsu consistently for almost two years, while placing legends from different backgrounds and career environments against each other in a very unique way for our sport.
Anyone who follows jiu jitsu knows of Polaris, but the people behind the promotion have stayed away from the limelight of the big show. A show forged by two of the most important brands in grappling today: Scramble and Tatami, both based in the UK (England and Wales, respectively).
One of the masterminds behind Polaris and Scramble is Matthew Benyon, a Bournemouth born entrepreneur, who started his grappling journey 10,000 miles away from home, in Sydney – Australia. Matt remembers those days well: “I had quit university and was in Australia, training kung fu in Sydney’s Chinatown. Kind of bumming around. A friend leant me some K1 videos, which I loved. When they ran out, she gave me some Pride VHS tapes. I watched that and saw the beauty of high level grappling, which led me to seek out a BJJ school. After Australia I moved to Japan which is where I did the majority of my training, receiving blue and purple belts under Kenshi Tomari at Paraestra Hakata.”
Upon his return to the United Kingdom in 09 Benyon settled back in his hometown, a coastal resort in the south of England, where Matthew started coaching a small group of people due to the lack of higher belts in the city. Still very connected with Japanese culture and their grappling tradition, Matt picked up the habit of importing Japanese-made jiu jitsu products for his own enjoyment, while also selling them to others. This enterprise caught on like wildfire and seeing the potential in his idea Matt started his own brand, making his first line of t-shirts soon after: “There was a massive gap in the market for tastefully designed martial arts wear so I had high hopes of it being a success.” The strong nipponic presence helped raise his brand’s profile and soon Matt brought in his good friend Ben Tong on board. A bond that holds strong to this day.
One aspect of Scramble over the years, has been the brand’s work on the backstages of the sport, supporting smaller enterprises and helping raise other labels off the ground. This, according to Matt, has a lot to do with the help he had from others: “Early on, we were helped by Michal and Kuba at Manto brand. I think maybe that gave us such a good impression that we are happy to continue the same tradition” said Benyon – a chain of positivity similar to Evan Tanner’s ‘Power of One‘ belief system. This way of thinking was also at the core of Polaris Invitational.
Having plans to start a promotion with the intent of raising the level of jiu jitsu to a professional standard, Matt and his Scramble peers struggled to raise their project from the ground, due to financial and time management reasons. Their open mindedness led them to join forces with Gareth Dummer and the Tatami Fightwear team, who were also planning on launching an event, but were running into the same setbacks.
Much like Scramble had hit the ground running, Polaris Invitational grew exponentially with every passing event, proving there was a big market for ‘submission only’ events. The intent in stepping away from the point based system was clear “there is just too much playing for advantage or last minute sweeps in the traditional points tournaments” said Matt. The lack of a clear winner when two athletes cannot reach a finish called for a change, which will happen in the next event “We have moved away from the term ‘submission only’ and prefer to think of the show as Professional Jiu Jitsu. We’ve set up a judging system to determine a winner in the event the fight does not end in submission, which will allow us to set up a proper ranking system, W/L record, etc.”
The growth of the sport certainly seems to be heading towards this same “no points” format, particularly outside Brazil for the past 2-3 years. Matt believes there is plenty of room for the professional movement to grow: “It is definitely in its infancy at the moment, and a lot of people don’t yet understand how it is going to work or what is going to be the best way. Long term you would need a few core promotions that share a similar ruleset and prize money structure, and a few smaller promotions where people can cut their teeth.”
This proposition of a professional league emerging at some point in this sport is an idea that has grown as of late, and Benyon is psyched about the prospect of collaborating and helping move this forward “I would absolutely love that to happen. The problem is everyone is still currently trying to find their foothold in this growing industry, so we don’t have the confidence yet to reach out to the other promotions. I definitely believe cooperation is the way forward though.”
While other professional level promotions have struggled to lure the best in jiu jitsu to their events, Polaris Invitational has consistently raised the bar of their epic superfights, by bringing the very best in the sport to their mats. The recipe for their success is simple: Money. “It’s definitely a deciding factor, especially with the really top level, well established guys. If they have a choice between making a set amount of money from a week of fairly easy going seminars, compared to flying the UK to put their reputation on the line, many will choose the seminars”. The subject of pay is often overlooked, but Benyon’s vision of how to reach the intended high standard is clear, “I believe that to define something as professional jiu jitsu, every competitor needs to be paid. I am a huge fan of EBI but for a person to potentially come second (or win the entire card) and not receive a cent is not the best way to do things.”
The success of Polaris has not only relayed on big names, but also on top notch matchmaking – “You just can’t predict. But one thing we are finding is that matching top guys from the IBJJF circuit is often going to end in a stalemate. Choosing the right person for the right matchup is key.” in learning from past mistakes, the level of matchmaking has grown tremendously. The last event put forward by Benyon, Drummer and company was one of the most talked about grappling invitationals of all time. Matches such as Garry Tonon vs Rousimar Palhares, AJ Agazarm vs Jake Shields, Augusto Tanquinho vs Eddie Cummings, will be forever remembered. And with another event around the corner, expect nothing but the best.
Matt on Social Media