Are Steroids Really Ruining Jiu-Jitsu?

Chris Wojcik

Apr 26, 2022

At this point time, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an emerging professional sport.

The keyword here is “emerging”.

The problem with being an emerging sport and not an established professional sport, say, like basketball, soccer, or even MMA, is that our sport does not have the same rules and regulations as other sports.

To put it bluntly, Jiu-Jitsu is like the wild west of combat sports.

There is no established, widely respected governing body for Jiu-Jitsu and the result is that there are countless different competitive BJJ organizations, each offering its own unique rules, regulations, and philosophies. A few examples of this are ADCC, IBJJF, AJP, and EBI.

Jiu-Jitsu is emerging, meaning that even at the highest levels, we don’t have the same luxuries that you see in other professional sports.

One of the biggest controversies regarding Jiu-Jitsu’s emerging professionalism is the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.

This article aims to take an unbiased look at doping in grappling, the effects of doping on young athletes, and what these effects mean for the future of Jiu-Jitsu as an emerging professional sport.
 
“Major League Jiu-Jitsu”

One thing that people immersed in Jiu-Jitsu forget is that Jiu-Jitsu is not one of the most popular sports in the world.

Sure, you and I love watching grappling and training grappling, but the average person watches soccer, football, baseball, and basketball.

Even MMA is just a fraction as popular as these other spectator sports.

In many countries, cricket and golf are far more popular than mixed martial arts or boxing will likely ever be.

This means that as grapplers, we are starting far behind the 8-ball in terms of the fan base, money, and professionalism. We are working with much smaller sample sizes.

This has its benefits, however. For example, Jiu-Jitsu is one of the only sports where you can actually meet and train with your idols (just a few months ago, I got to roll with 2019 ADCC Finalists Nick Rodriguez and Craig Jones).

However, the problem with having fewer fans is that there is less money in Jiu-Jitsu as opposed to other professional sports. Money that could be used on drug-testing, unification, and bettering the future of the sport.

What happens as a result of this lack of regulation is that the athletes that can afford (and are willing to do whatever it takes) to get a competitive edge will do just that.

Jiu-Jitsu is one of the only sports where choosing to take drugs for performance enhancement is more of an ethical and financial decision than it is a legal one.

Even the IBJJF (the largest governing body in competitive Jiu-Jitsu) is only able to perform drug tests on black belt world champions.

If you want to take “the sauce”, the only things stopping you are financial resources and the ethical dilemma of “cheating”. That’s it.
 
But what types of drugs are common in grappling?

Steroids will give an athlete an advantage on the mat, but they also have a lot of negative side effects.

Research suggests that anabolic steroids will shorten your lifespan.

Taking anabolic steroids might make an athlete stronger (they do this by enhancing the athlete's testosterone levels), but anabolic steroids do not make you better at Jiu-Jitsu. Grappling requires a lot more than just big muscles. Good grappling requires hours on hours of training, impressive cardio, and situational awareness that can only be developed from an insane amount of mat time.

This is why there are other types of performance-enhancing drugs that are commonly seen in high-level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

One type of performance-enhancing drug that athletes are known for taking in an effort to improve athletic performance is called erythropoietin (also known as EPO). EPO is often mentioned in the same sentence as blood doping, which is a process in which an athlete increases the number of red blood cells that they have in their body.

Blood doping is one of the most common types of doping in all of sports.

Blood doping increases an athlete's cardiovascular endurance and rate of recovery. However, this process also has severe health consequences down the road for young athletes.

There are other types of doping that happen in grappling, but anabolic steroids and EPO/blood doping are 2 of the most common that I’ve heard about as an aspiring competitor.
 
What does all this doping mean for young grapplers?

Really, what this means is that when you sign up to compete in a major tournament like an IBJJF major, ADCC Trials, or any other major event, you run the risk of running into a competitor who is taking some sort of substance that would be considered illegal in other sports.

As a young competitor myself, I don’t think about this too much, but it is true.

I’ve had hundreds of grappling matches in my life and they’ve all been in the adult division. Most have been in the IBJJF or other major events. It’s very likely that at least one or 2 of my opponents was taking performance-enhancing drugs at the time that we fought. I’m not accusing anyone and I’m trying to sound whiny, but I am making a statistical hypothesis based on the current state of the culture of our sport.

Some grapplers take performance-enhancing drugs.

Some of them have been caught.

This is common knowledge, and it’s widely accepted in BJJ culture. This is why PED use is jokingly referred to as “the bomba”, the “Jesus Juice”, or “the Acai”.

In other sports, doping could destroy an athlete's legacy (Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and Marion Jones are just 3 athletes that come to mind for me), but in Jiu-Jitsu, doping is just part of the game. You either do it, or you are fighting people who do.

At the same time, while doping is maybe not as dangerous as those commercials I watched when I was a kid made it seem, it is objectively bad for an athlete’s long-term health.

This is the debate that seems to have no end.

Some people seem to think that doping makes Jiu-Jitsu more exciting because it allows for higher-level athletes to compete, but I’m not sure this is the case. In all other professional sports (sports that once did not have drug testing), the introduction of drug testing did not kill their brand or destroy the progression of the sport.

The UFC is a perfect example. At present day, the UFC is more competitive than it’s ever been, and right now, UFC has one of the most intense out-of-competition drug-testing policies in all professional sports. Athletes who violate this policy could face multi-year bans from competition.

If anything, testing for doping makes a sport a more professional sport.

But honestly, I’m not sure the grappling world is ready to have that conversation. I’m not sure we have the money to have that conversation.

However, I’m not sure if we don’t talk about doping now, we may never grow large enough as a sport to be able to afford to crack down on the doping situation.
 
Closing Thoughts

I remember going to my first world championships in 2017 and watching the black belt division finals on Sunday, and I was terrified.

I was an ambitious, 19-year-old blue belt who just wanted to contend in the black belt division.

But the athletes I saw looked like superheroes, and it scared the crap out of me, who, at the time knew next to nothing about athletic performance, sports nutrition, and how to train for grappling.

I just assumed that every black belt world champion was on “the sauce” and that I had no chance to win myself.

It took me a long time before I realized that it’s not the drugs that win the matches. Whether an athlete is taking illegal substances or not, there are still countless things that have to go right for you to pull off a win in a major tournament.

The idea that “every top grappler is on steroids” is ludicrous. Yes, some guys are on steroids, but there’s more to winning than sticking a needle up your butt.

As a competitor, you have to accept this. You can either join in and dope yourself, or you can get back to work and focus on getting better.

The choice to dope or not to dope is yours, and while the world may not know today what you chose, by the time you turn 40, we will probably be able to guess.

For now, all we can do is train, improve, and hope that one day, Jiu-Jitsu will become professional enough for a professional environment to be created that leads to an equal playing field for all athletes - not the just ones that can afford the “Jesus Juice”.