Rafael is right!
After a group of investors offered to sponsor a fight to submission with no time limit between the champions Rafael Mendes and Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles, there was a small and short-lived upheaval in the world of jiu-jitsu. The rivalry between two high-level athletes stirred the younger practitioners, and the possibility of a return to jiu-jitsu’s origins, when the submission was the only thing that mattered, thrilled the older and more experienced.
However, the excitement quickly cooled when Rafael publicly called for a larger purse. Cobrinha, as expected, had already accepted the offer, and not because the opponent would be Rafael – demonstrating the difference I still see separating the two – but simply because of the challenge, the opportunity to once again test his limits. This is the motivation of true champions and great fighters. If he were offered a fight with a distinguished champion like Royler, Feitosa, or Shaolin, among others, I have no doubt what his answer would be.
To triumph as the current champion is a significant feat, but for that champion to then label himself number one is a grave mistake. There is a chasm of difference between reigning as the current champion and becoming number one, the honor of which is only established over a long period of time.
As a professor, I tried to see the issue from the other side, to imagine how I would react. Though of course I may be biased, it wasn’t hard for me to find a similar situation – if not exactly the same – in my own experience. In the last world championship, my student, Bernardo Faria, current European, Brazilian absolute and Pan American absolute champion, beat none other than the four-time world champion Xande Ribeiro. (This makes the circumstances equal, though let’s not forget Xande’s two additional absolute titles). If investors offered us the opportunity of a submission only fight with Xande, our answer would be YES, and we would feel extremely honored. I would never miss the chance to help my athlete develop through such a special challenge, an opportunity of which most can only dream.
The fight between Rafael and Cobrinha will probably never take place, which is, first of all, a huge loss for the entire sport. Can you imagine if this type of fight proved itself commercially viable? It could mean the professionalization of jiu-jitsu, something we all fervently wish for and struggle to bring about. For the sake of the sport, let’s agree that $10,000 is a fine sum for a gi fight of this kind, and that the offer is both fortuitous and timely given the current phase of jiu-jitsu.
However, it seems most likely that true challenge is still less important to the current champion than strategy and gamesmanship. Rafael is already extremely talented and has much development and evolution ahead of him, so maybe in time this attitude will change, his motivations will shift, or maybe not… For now, the world championship title (deserved, let’s say in passing) and a few other victories by advantage points are enough to satisfy him, and from this point of view, he is absolutely right to refuse the fight.