The history of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) becomes largely oral the further back you go. Long before the multi-cam production archived every match on FloGrappling (or Budo Videos before that) it was filmed only by those who happened to bring a video camera. Footage from the early 2000’s is sporadic at best. For information prior to that, you kinda have to ask people who were there.
People like Mo Jassim.
While it may seem like Jassim burst onto the scene out of nowhere after organizing the last ADCC season, in reality he has been living and breathing ADCC his entire life. Jassim first attended an ADCC event in the year 2000 as just a spectator, and began working the events soon after. He began as a “wristband boy” and was eventually planning brackets. He became a sort of oral historian along the way, witnessing some of the unheralded stories like George St. Pierre competing in ADCC, or Marcelo Garcia actually losing the trials only to be called in as a replacement for an injured fighter.
ADCC has stood the test of time, being one of the oldest promotions in the world, and still thriving. It’s an organization that values tradition and precedent. Even the ADCC logo has changed just once in twenty two years. But when Jassim was finally tapped to organize the North American Trials, he brought something new to the show: an eye for presentation. That meant no more high school gyms, but proper arenas, a professional camera crew, and even walkouts for the athletes.
Jassim says that the year he ran the North American Trials, he spend $250,000 on fighter purses alone, and appalling sum for what was then seen as a mere qualifier, historically held with zero production or spectators.
While Jassim didn’t want to set a precedent of losing money, he also wanted to show that the trials could be special, pointing out that the world may not have learned about Tom DeBlass or Nick Rodriguez without them. They create the Cinderella story lines that fuel sports. Jassim says he won’t cap trial registration unless absolutely nessesary, which it won’t be for awhile. The largest trials by far are in Brazil, which draw upwards of 500 competitors.
After a successful trials run, showcasing how ADCC could benefit from some extra juice in it’s production, Jassim was given the reigns for the big show in 2019. He moved to make some big changes. He booked a larger venue in California, partnered with Seth Daniels from the Fight2Win organization to help with operations, and upped the production value with his streaming partners, FloGrappling. Everyone agrees, ADCC 2019 just felt different. Thousands of the most hardcore fans in attendance, shouting at the most minute movements and losing their mind at submissions. ADCC had finally delivered on it’s potential, without losing money this time. The matches didn’t disappoint either, from the legendary run of Lachlan Giles in the absolute division, to the instant classic of Garry Tonon vs. Renato Canuto.
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Now Mo Jassim is poised to do it again, this time given more resources and discretion than ever before. He will hold the distinction of being the first man to organize the ADCC Championships two years running, something he says isn’t a tradition so much as no one could hold the job before him. I ask him for his take on the question of grappling going mainstream. Some say it’s just not possible, that it’s fine and even better if the sport remains niche. Jassim shuts down the notion entirely.
“I don’t think we should be content. We need to push the envelope. We’re at the tip of the iceberg. With the right champions, with the right representatives, we can do that.”
The natural follow up is to ask what the holdup is. Why hasn’t the sport broken through yet? Mo says a problem that must be solved is too may rulesets and formats. Often jiu-jitsu practitioners can’t even follow the action, let alone lay people. But when I probe deeper into what Mo means by “the right representatives” he explains that athletes tend to think more about what’s good for them, than what’s good for the sport.
“They look out for themselves. [They want] a camera crew for just them, or they want to film a documentary. They need a certain sponsor. It’s not that their selfish, it’s an individual sport. But we need to work together to move the sport forward. Everyone is going to have to sacrifice a little, but in the end it will pay huge dividends.”
Abu Dhabi in Sin City
Mo Jassim says that now, his number one goal is crowd size. For 2019, the championships had a sellout of 4,000, a record for the promotion. But to Jassim, it was nothing to brag about.
“You want to sell out, you don’t want to sell out months in advance. Maybe I could have sold 6,000, who knows?”
Next year, Jassim is hoping to more than double the attendance to 10,000, and it all starts with the venue. Breaking from an ADCC tradition, he will hold the championship in the United States for the second time in a row, going to the event capital of the world: Las Vegas, Nevada. He has secured the Thomas Mack Arena, which has hosted UFC events in the past and is home to the UNLV Basketball team. Jassim says that holding the championship in a different country each time was never a mandate, it just sort of turned out that way. And while the international feel of ADCC is important, the reality is that at the moment a large portion of talent lives in the US, and Vegas has the facilities to host them easily. Jassim says his dream is to see ADCC billboards on the Las Vegas strip.
Fighting against Jassim is the epic train wreck that has been 2020, which has effectively frozen professional sports. The global promotion is now fighting a global pandemic, already causing ADCC to postpone it’s European, Middle East, and African trials. Jassim says that he is confident they will all happen when it’s safe to do so. But he stresses that everyone who wants to compete should be able to, not wanting an entire country locked out due to travel restrictions. That could mean holding lots of trials in a short period of time next year. Jassim is all too aware of the fact that too many delays in the trials could cause a delay in the championships. While Jassim is optimistic, he also admits that it’s possible.
“If we have to delay the trials and do all of them in 2021, that’s gonna be a challenge to get it all done before the worlds. So, it is possible. Personally I think it’s gonna be ok by then. My biggest concern is trying to cram eight trials in by then. But we’ll manage.”
As we continue to talk about the sport and what that elusive “next level” is, we talk about how the athletes are special because of their amazing stories and authenticity. But that comes with a price. We talk about the wave of “cancel culture” and political activism that has taken over professional sports. Without sayings names, we agree that some of the career ending tweets of professional ball players are tame compared the feeds of a few BJJ stars. I ask Jassim what he feels the role of the promoter is when it comes to athlete conduct of the mats.
“I get a lot of questions about it. This is a sporting event. We want to have the best fights possible . . . at the end of the day, these are grown men and women. I’m not here to babysit them. I’ve never seen anything that was so over the top that I felt like I needed to get involved. Generally ADCC doesn’t do that.”
Closing Out the Show
Jassim goes on to say that he’s too busy to herd cats anyway. People ask him everyday for tickets for an event more than one year away. Press passes, sponsors, venue tours, and production meetings. He even stops the interview to take an important phone call. Jassim has been working on the show for months already, which is why this will be the last time he serves as event organizer.
“The 2019 one, I worked on for five months before the event. I’m already working on this one. I’m the only person to run the show twice in a row. It’s a very serious commitment. I’ve said publicly this will be my last one.”
But Jassim is committed to ADCC, in whatever role that takes. He says that although he’ll be stepping back from event coordinator, the move will allow him to work on more big picture jobs within ADCC and pass the on-the-ground operations to someone else. But right now, he is laser focused on the present, building what will likely be the greatest grappling live event in history.