Updated: Oct 1
By Kevin Koenig June 24, 2023 Could two of tech’s most famous CEOs really face off in a cage match? If there was ever a time, it’s now.
A-list celebrities and titans of industry are putting the muscles they showed off on yachts and beaches last year to use, entering Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments after intensive training. Tom Hardy, Ashton Kutcher, Mario Lopez and Mark Zuckerberg are among the combat sport’s best-known amateurs. Jason Momoa dabbles in it, and Elon Musk was recently photographed wearing a jiu-jitsu white belt. Just last week, he challenged Zuckerberg to a fight, writing on Twitter: “I’m up for a cage match if he is lol.” On Instagram, the Meta chief executive replied: “Send me location,” a phrase Dagestani UFC great Khabib Nurmagomedov once used to taunt Conor McGregor.
‘It was fun. I’m a pretty competitive person,’ said Mark Zuckerberg. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is focused on ground fighting, with the end goal being controlling and submitting an opponent. Winning moves include limb-shattering joint locks and consciousness-suspending chokes. Practitioners typically tap out when a submission is in place, rather than suffer the imminent consequences. Though such a rough sport might seem like a surprising pursuit for movie stars and Silicon Valley billionaires, Zuckerberg’s coach Dave Camarillo said it’s just the opposite. “Jiu-jitsu is user-friendly enough for people in their 40s and 50s to start, and you get a lot of what I call tier-one personalities attracted to it—very successful actors and athletes. They like the high-level intellectual problem solving aspect.”
Zuckerberg, who didn’t return requests for comment, recently spoke about his participation in the sport on the “Lex Fridman Podcast.” The host, a jiu-jitsu black belt, asked his guest what it was like to compete. “It was fun. I’m a pretty competitive person,” Zuckerberg said. “Doing sports that basically require your full attention I think is really important to my mental health and the way I stay focused on doing everything I’m doing.” For the 49-year-old Lopez, who had his breakout role at age 15 playing star wrestler A.C. Slater on “Saved by the Bell,” the jiu-jitsu gym also offers a kind of sanctuary. “Everyone is equal on the mat. When you’re there, it doesn’t matter who you are, the background you came from, or how much money you have. Life would be better if it was more like a jiu-jitsu academy.” Brazilian jiu-jitsu is often likened to physical chess, with endless iterations of moves and counters, culminating in the tap, which mimics a checkmate. The sport heavily focuses on leverage and technique, as opposed to raw athletic ability. It has often been presented as the one martial art that can help the 98-pound-weakling beat up the all-American jock. Does that mean Zuckerberg could conceivably beat someone like the 6-foot-4 Momoa? “Mark’s a beast,” Camarillo said of his 149-pound student. “And jiu-jitsu is leverage-based and with enough leverage you can cover a big spread in terms of size difference, so he’s got a shot. But man, Jason Momoa, that’s a big boy.”
Actor Jason Momoa would make a formidable opponent. Rigan Machado is a jiu-jitsu legend who has coached many Hollywood stars, including Momoa. “He is one of the strongest guys I have ever seen. He is huge, and just a super athlete.” And what does Machado think would happen if Zuckerberg and Momoa got into a scrap? “I’d put all my money on Momoa,” he said.
As for reports that Zuckerberg was choked unconscious in a recent match, Camarillo is quick to dispel the rumor. “The ref stopped the match because he thought Mark was struggling,” he said. “But Mark wasn’t going unconscious, he actually had his opponent in a choke, and what the ref heard was Mark grunting trying to finish it. The ref ended up apologizing to us. I think he was trying to protect Mark. All we want is for Mark to be treated by the same standard as everyone else.”
One opponent caught a similar vibe from Zuckerberg. “Before our match he went up to me and just said ‘let’s have fun’ and then we went out there and just got after it,” recalls Vijay Hanumantha Raju, a 33-year-old Uber software engineer whom Zuckerberg defeated to win his gold medal at a tournament in May. “He even got a nosebleed in the middle of the match. And he had all his jiu-jitsu basics right. He eventually got on top of me and I couldn’t escape, and that’s how he won.”
On his podcast, Fridman asked Zuckerberg if he was worried about being embarrassed in front of people at the tournament. He replied that he’d already had his share of embarrassment in life. “I think maybe to some degree your ability to keep doing interesting things is your willingness to be embarrassed again and go back to step one and start as a beginner and get your ass kicked and look stupid doing things,” the Meta CEO said.
Jiu-jitsu caught on early in Hollywood. Mel Gibson used a technique known as a triangle—choking an opponent with one’s legs—to defeat Gary Busey at the end of 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.” One of the spearheads of jiu-jitsu in Southern California was Machado. Machado’s gym, The Academy Beverly Hills, still attracts hordes of A-listers, and can be considered the mecca of celebrity jiu-jitsu.
Tom Hardy took gold in a 2022 martial arts competition. “Tom Hardy came in a few weeks ago,” said Machado. “Ashton Kutcher is one of my most consistent students. Wagner Moura is here often, and Charlie Hunnam is a maniac. I keep an eye on the sparring going on at my gym to make sure everything is done as safely as possible, but Charlie invites his friends over to his house and they go at it.”
Training at the Academy runs the gamut in terms of intensity, from full-contact sparring to lighter sessions focused on drilling. “I have insurance people coming to my gym all the time,” Machado said. “They worry about the face, they worry about the body.” His focus, he said, is his clients’ safety: “I had Scarlett Johansson come to my academy. I’m not going to let her get roughed up.”
Lopez, a longtime boxer, said he sees jiu-jitsu as “a thinking man’s sport, rather than one that relies on brute force. “In boxing you’re getting hit in the head,” he said. “With jiu-jitsu you can always tap out.” And opposed to other combat sports that involve striking, athletes can train and compete in jiu-jitsu at a high intensity without incurring visible injuries, meaning no black eyes at the board meeting. Dana White, the president of UFC, has spoken to both Zuckerberg and Musk about a faceoff. “They are both dead serious,” he said.
White ran through their qualifications. “Zuckerberg is in phenomenal shape,” he said, “He does jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling. He surfs, he foilboards. That guy is an athlete.” Meanwhile, Musk “is like, yeah I grew up in South Africa, I’ve been in fights,” White said. “He is big, and I assume he is strong,” he continued. “He can probably punch and he can probably kick. He can do the things you need to do in a fight, and also with that size comes power.”
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