Grappler's Heart gives disabled fighters a rare chance to compete

Photo Credit: Kerri Matuszak

For the third time in as many years, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners with disabilities proved what those who train in the martial art have heard, but may never have witnessed: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone.

They could see it live in front of them. It happened Sunday, April 23, at Vitor Shaolin’s BJJ Academy in Manhattan, New York. It’s called The Grappler’s Heart Tournament and it’s the brainchild of Dr. Jonathan Gelber, an orthopedic surgeon and founder of FightMedicine.net — a health and wellness resource for competitive fighters and martial artists. He witnessed first-hand the physical and mental improvements Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can offer people with disabilities and wondered why there wasn’t a competition that catered to them. So, he created one.

As a BJJ martial artist with cerebral palsy and, full disclosure, a member of Grappler’s Heart’s board of directors, I can attest Grappler’s Heart is one of the few BJJ tournaments allowing disabled BJJ athletes level competition. In a world where disabled fighters are usually babied, it’s nice to know that should you taste victory, it’s genuinely earned.

I’m fortunate to have another teammate with cerebral palsy to train with at Toronto BJJ, but for many athletes, Grappler’s Heart is also the only opportunity to connect and learn from other disabled fighters in person. However. many athletes won’t experience that because they can’t afford to travel.

Limited Employment, large expenses

According to Statistics Canada, unemployment among people with disabilities is 11 per cent, compared to six per cent for those not reporting a disability. Plus, more people with disabilities are underemployed. Add to that, BJJ is a niche sport. Most fight fans experience BJJ as one aspect of mixed martial arts. When a UFC fight goes to the ground, and fighters try to submit each other using chokes, locks and the hyperextensions, that’s BJJ.

Sure, there’s prize money for some larger competitions, but BJJ is an amateur sport. No one is paid, everyone is paying to compete. From registration fees to flights and hotels, everything costs money. When you’re a fighter with a disability, the competitor pool gets even smaller and the financial challenges, even bigger.

“Travel is the hardest part for me. If I don’t get sponsorship to compete, I just can’t go,” says Mike Fink, a 33-year-old with spina bifida from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina who started BJJ for self-defense and as a way to push past his own limitations.

But, for everything BJJ has given him, Fink still relies on disability income support for the bulk of his income. He also works part-time at a retail sales job, but his ability to work is limited because of his disability. He needs to stay under a certain financial limit to qualify for disability income and the cheque alone doesn’t equal the cost of living. This leaves him in a catch-22 of needing and wanting to work, but not making enough to get off disability.  

“The real problem is that disability doesn’t provide enough funding to live, but they don’t allow you to work that much, either,” he said. “So it’s a struggle to do other things aside from pay my bills, eat and put gas in my car.”

A word from the sponsors

Those “other things” include traveling to BJJ tournaments. For the Grappler’s Heart Tournament 2016 in Tustin, California, he was fortunate enough to split the costs with another competitor and receive $700 from sponsors. One of those sponsors, Deus Fight Co., a Christian fight gear and clothing company, understands the extra financial struggles these fighters have, but faces the same challenge the athletes do as a smaller fish in an already small pond.

“Unfortunately, the barriers are the same or similar to other athlete sponsorships. Since we are a niche brand that is smaller, we only have so many dollars available to help our athletes with. We also sponsor a number of projects and all these have a financial impact on us,” says Geoffrey Van Haren, the owner of Deus Fight Co.

Jorge Britto, at Toronto BJJ, says it’s rare for a sponsor like Deus Fight Co. to give money to athletes.

“As a sponsored athlete, you’re lucky if you receive money and when you do, it’s not very much,” Britto said. “What sponsors usually give you is free access to their products. Everyone is willing to give you equipment, but convincing them to pay you is much harder.”

Breaking the establishment

The NextGen Invitational tournament series Britto founded tours major cities across Canada and includes a division for grapplers with disabilities.

“If our sport is going to grow and innovate in a positive direction, we have to showcase its possibilities. By showcasing competitors with disabilities, not only is NextGen giving a platform to a segment of competitors that doesn’t get many opportunities, but we’re educating the larger BJJ community about how the art can be adapted. It doesn’t matter who you are – anyone can do this,” says Britto.

Knowing money is an issue for disabled grapplers, Britto wanted to lend a hand with their travel expenses, but he immediately found getting help from Ontario’s Jiu-Jitsu establishment was harder than he assumed.

The Ontario Grappling Association says it’s dedicated to facilitating the growth of the sport through participation and competition, but they’re focused on many combat sports, like wrestling, pankration and MMA. What we need is an organization dedicated to only growing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Like it or not, it’s the Olympic sports that get the money and legitimacy and having no true governing body is only part of BJJ’s very complicated Olympic history,” he says.

Donor Fatigue

Donor fatigue was exactly the wall that prevented Gina Hopkins from competing in her third straight Grappler’s Heart Tournament. The adaptive martial artist with dystonia is from Bristol, England. For two years, she held fundraisers, crowdfunded, used media attention and did everything she could to raise money to travel to the U.S. However, there was only so much goodwill to go around.

“The time and effort I’d of had to have to put into this – I just couldn’t do it, I’m fatigued by fundraising. I think the feel-good novelty wears off and people become complacent, they think if it’s now running annually, the competition is safe and will continue to run, but this will be far from the truth if people don’t turn up.”

“Its business, not personal”

So what can be done? There are grants out there, you just have to know where to find them. Toronto has its Community Recreation Funding Program, which helps non-profit organizations looking to address the recreational needs of underserved and vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities.

Hopkins’ advice for athletes is to be persistent.  

“You have to approach everyone and understand that with money comes politics, so detachment is important – realize it’s business, not personal.”

For example, many potential sponsors are uncomfortable with the idea of people with disabilities fighting and don’t want the negative perception of potentially supporting a sideshow. As one TV journalist put it to Hopkins, “Disabled fighter is a double negative.”

“Legitimacy is an uphill battle,” she says. “There are moments you want to show a sponsor what you can do and instead of seeing it as a PR opportunity with an athlete, it’s seen as charitable giving and corporate responsibility .”