In previous articles, I discussed the prevalence of works (fights with pre-determined outcomes) in the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It is a taboo subject.
In the modern era, people view fixed fights and the people that perform them to be dishonorable and deceitful. The fact that some fighters performed at least one work, then casts doubt on their other accomplishments and their validity as a fighter or teacher. People often do not want to be associated or affiliated with people they feel have cheated. We need to however, apply a historical lens to this behavior.
It must be stated that not all the pioneers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu performed works. Helio Gracie, for example, was extremely against faked fights and does not appear to ever have been associated with them. However, others such as Mitsuyo Maeda, Geo Omori, Takeo Yano and even George Gracie had no issue working matches to earn a living. For men who wanted to be professional fighters for prolonged periods of time, it was really just a matter of economics.
Think of it this way. Let’s say Fighter A books a professional vale tudo fight with Fighter B. Fighter A wins and collects a larger purse than Fighter B. They then have a rematch with the same result. Fighters A and B want to fight again, but now the public has lost interest as it has been proven A is consistently better than B. What are A and B to do? Of course, they could go try and find Fighter C, but the pool of fighters at this time was small and there was an easier, quicker, less risky and less painful option.
A and B would collude. If A let B win, then people would be interested in paying for yet another rematch. If they threw in a few draws, a few controversial stoppages, fights under varying rulesets, disqualifications or no contests, even more fights could be booked. Why try and hurt each other at all? If A or B got hurt it would impact how many “fights” they could both put on per year. Fights of that era did not yield mega-paydays. Fighters would need to accumulate as many fights per year as possible to ensure a viable income stream. These fighters would have a vested interest in ensuring their partner was happy and healthy. So, agreements were made to cooperate, conspire and coordinate matches. The two men would even travel together, going from city to city, so that the matches and the rivalry seemed new and fresh. This was not a Brazilian invention. Not only were works extremely common in Catch wrestling in the US and Europe at the time, but works were a common occurrence in professional fighting going all the way back to the Roman Colosseum.
You ever wonder why someone would sign up to be a Roman gladiator if they would be executed after the first loss or poor showing? Not a career with a great outlook. The reality was many of the gladiatorial contests were works and very few ended in either fighters’ death. Showbiz has been alive and well for thousands of years.
So, while works did occur in the early days of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (1910’s through 1930’s), it can be difficult to tell exactly what was real and what was fake. While the fighters may have embraced working matches, the spectators and the media surely did not. There were often accusations of faked fights by newspaper commentators, fighting commissions and paying spectators, but it can be difficult for us to determine the validity of their claims. Many of these people were not Jiu-Jitsu experts and they have been misinterpreting the fights or merely been displeased by their outcomes. Many fighters of the time had long careers full of wins and losses. It is impossible to tell if a particular fighter won the legitimate ones and agreed to lose the other ones? Was it vice versa? A combination of both?
Criticism of works was not limited to local commentary. Disdain by some for what was viewed as a moral corruption was felt worldwide. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, was very much against these matches and his Kodokan academy appears to have punished Judoka who participated heavily in worked matches. Mitsuyo Maeda, for example, fought in possibly hundreds of worked matches. Regardless of his contributions to spreading Judo throughout the world and his impact on Brazil in particular, the Kodokan withheld his rank promotions from 1929 to a day before his death in 1941.
The issue is further complicated by Kayfabe and the many varieties of worked matches. While the Brazilians would not have been familiar with the American term, Kayfabe, they would have definitely been practitioners of it. Kayfabe is the pro wrestling term for the performers to insist the events the spectators are seeing are real. In short, Kayfabe means lying. Going back to our previous example, if Fighters A and B acknowledged that their fights were choreographed, spectators would refuse to attend and fighting commissions would sanction the fighters. Kayfabe was born and allegations of working matches, whether valid or not would be fiercely denied by all that were involved.
Further confusion is added as there are actually several types of works. Just a few relevant examples are listed below:
There are also issues with post-match face saving. Perhaps a match was a shoot, but a fighter may claim it was a work to justify why he lost.
As you can see it can become incredibly difficult to determine what was actually a real or fake fight from a newspaper article from a 100 years ago. These issues continue to today. A simple YouTube search will reveal several allegations or even admissions of worked matches in modern day MMA promotions.
So, while it is now hopefully understandable that professional fighters of the era sometimes engaged in works, we need to not immediately dismiss their accomplishments. Many had quite legitimate fighting backgrounds and engaged in numerous shoot matches. We should not view their decision to work fights as an admission that they were poor fighters, but rather merely an economic reality of the environment.
George Gracie, an incredible and legitimate fighter who also participated in "worked" matches.
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