Japanese Jujitsu dates back to 15th century Japan. Japanese Judo dates back to the 19th century. Meanwhile, modern-day Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is barely 100 years old. It wasn’t until 25 years ago, when Royce Gracie introduced his family’s martial art to the world by winning the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship, that BJJ started gaining international prominence.
After UFC 1, the sport started to grow, but not nearly as rapidly as mixed martial arts. Until recently, there were no real major platforms for jiu-jitsu players to make a decent living outside of sponsorships. With the recent birth of different rule sets and promotions, such as Eddie Bravo Invitational, Polaris and Fight To Win, the world of both gi and no-gi jiu-jitsu finally started gaining steam. Last year, another new player entered the game: KASAI Elite Grappling Championships. With all of these promotions, a new wave of talent has emerged into the limelight.
In addition to the KASAI amateur tournaments, the organization also hosts professional events consisting of one-on-one superfights and a round-robin tournament where eight elite competitors vie for a shot at the KASAI Pro title belt. The vision of KASAI’s founders is to put on exciting events with the top talent in the sport.
The first two KASAI Pro events were a big hit. The winner of the inaugural lightweight tournament at KASAI Pro 1 was Brazil native Renato Canuto. Canuto was not necessarily the most well-known name on a card that also featured Garry Tonon, Celso Vinicius and Gianni Grippo, but he came out with the belt.
“The first KASAI, for me, was my first big accomplishment as a black belt,” Canuto told Combat Press. “It gave me good exposure to tournaments. On that card, I was probably like the underdog — not really one of the favorites. It felt good. The stage was super nice, and the organization of the tournament was really nice. Getting gold was a great experience.”
Canuto has been practiced BJJ since he was a child, when his father, Valdir “Tio Chico” Canuto, first introduced him to the sport. At age 20, his father came to the United States to award him his black belt. Now 22 years old, he is training primarily at UFC veteran Evan Dunham’s gym in Las Vegas, and he fights under the Checkmat affiliation. Canuto and his wife, fellow BJJ black belt and pro MMA fighter Raquel Canuto (nee’ Pa’aluhi), live the life of professional athletes. While Dunham Jiu-Jitsu is their home gym, their training is not under any specific affiliation.
“Right now, we have our own crew,” Canuto explained. “Nobody is really from one gym. We all kind of get together and train together. There’s really no politics. It’s just a bunch of talent training together. I train with Roberto Jimenez, who just won double gold at the [IBJJF World Championships] and had some nice submissions. I train with Mikey Musumeci, who is a world champion. So, we have a good group here. People don’t really know, because we don’t try to expose that. I’ve learned so much here from people who are passionate about competing and passionate about getting better and learning.”
Canuto has made big strides in the sport. Since becoming a black belt, he has gone 37-13 with nine submission wins and only one submission loss. After his KASAI win, he won the IBJJF World No-Gi Championships. He has also picked up a couple other championships and a handful of second- and third-place finishes. That’s not bad, considering he’s been at this level for just over a year and a half. Canuto’s next stop is KASAI Pro 3, which takes place on Saturday night and airs live on flograppling.com. He moves up to welterweight for this tournament. This is closer to his normal weight than his last KASAI event.
“I’m walking around at, like 170 or 172 [pounds], so I had to go down to 155, but my weight goes down really easy with dieting and stuff,” Canuto said. “I just had to do a little bit of a water cut the day before. This time, it would have been harder to hit 155, because I’ve been working on building up my weight with a little more muscle. I compete at lightweight for IBJJF, which is 168 with the gi, so I have to be around 164 the day of the tournament.
“I always try to be not super far from weight, but I’m still lean enough and strong enough. I’m training in the morning. I’m training jiu-jitsu every day. I’m training wrestling, judo, lifting a lot, and feeling really good for the competition.”
At KASAI Pro 1, the lightweight tournament had many familiar faces. The welterweight tournament has an entirely different cast of characters. In addition to Canuto, fans will see Vagner Rocha, Marcin Held, P.J. Barch, Matheus Lutes, Masahiro Iwasaki, Victor Silverio and Jason Rau. While this one may not have quite the same plethora of mainstream names, the fighters are still at the highest level of the sport.
“It will be hard to find another card like [the first one],” Canuto admitted. “That one was the best card with a really good group. I remember that, at the end of the event, Rich [Byrne, KASAI CEO] told me that he switched me. I was supposed to be on the other side, but at the last minute, he switched me, because he wanted to see me fighting Garry and the other guys. That one was a really hard one for every match against known guys, but this one is going to be tough too.
“For this one, I feel like I needed to study more about the guys. I know a couple of them are tough opponents. They are a little bit stronger. Vagner Rocha is a guy I really like to watch. I think this one is going to be even better, and there is more pressure in my mind.”
With the KASAI lightweight title in hand, Canuto has the spotlight on him more so than it was in the first event. He has a newfound legacy to uphold, and he is now one of the bigger names in the field, instead of the underdog.
“As much as I can, I’m bringing everything,” Canuto said. “I’m bringing the best version of Renato Canuto, and I won’t stop until the fight’s done. I feel like they should be a little more aware of me, and, at the same time, I feel more confident. I never wanted to be the guy at the top of the card that people see doing the same thing all the time. I’m always changing my game. I finally got to the point that I can wrestle, I can do judo throws, I can do guard, I can pass, I can do flying submissions. The more I study, the more I learn, and they are going to realize that I am not going to be an easy one. I feel like there may be a target on my back, but that makes me feel good, actually.”
KASAI Pro has provided a great platform to showcase the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it’s only fitting that a talented Brazilian athlete took home the inaugural strap. Two belts in two divisions in less than a year would be a huge accomplishment for Canuto. On Saturday night, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, Canuto will attempt to put gold around his waist again.