Whenever I mentioned I was having a hard time getting Matt Staudt to commit to a phone interview about his cannabis-infused jiu jitsu tournament, people laughed in my face. I tried to book a specific time slot, but Staudt said his life just doesn’t work that way. Many thought I was a fool for ever thinking I’d be able to arrange something with a stoner. “Well, what did you expect?,” they’d say.
High Rollerz was Howard’s idea. He loves cannabis, he’s not shy about it and he doesn’t think anyone should be. The initial idea for the tournament came to him while he was stoned: “We’re in training one day, I had smoked a crazy amount, and I went in there and had the best open mat ever,” Howard tells Playboy. “I was like, ‘Matt, I want to hold a tournament where you smoke weed, but the grand prize is you win a pound of weed.’”
Howard didn’t realize it at the time, but Staudt was perfectly positioned as the powerhouse to bring that dream to life. He had started his own marketing and advertising agency in 2013, specifically supporting cannabis companies in navigating the extremely messy laws and regulations around cannabis-related advertising. When Staudt started working with mixed martial artists (and fight world cannabis activists) Nick and Nate Diaz in 2016, his business expanded to include martial arts clients and before he knew it, the two worlds had collided for him in a big way. He started training jiu jitsu in Las Vegas in 2017, and says he trains as often as he can.
I’ve found cannabis to be a performance enhancing drug. It’s such a positive tool when used and understood correctly.
While High Rollerz success came quick, the road to Staudt and Howard’s love of the leafy green drug was a long time coming. Staudt and Howard each overcame their own histories with alcohol and harder drugs before finding their way to cannabis. Staudt says he fell into drinking and other hard drugs when he was put on probation: “Life got really shitty for a while.” After getting totally sober and joining Alcoholics Anonymous in an attempt to get his life back on track, Staudt felt inexplicably drawn to cannabis. His business was already servicing cannabis clients at this point, and new streams of positive information about the benefits of cannabis may have had something to do with the sudden appeal. But first, he had to get over the guilt.
Staudt says he resents the negative preconceptions that had been drilled into him as a young person growing up in the United States. “That’s what makes me so indignant now,” Staudt says. “I don’t take any pharmaceuticals, I don’t drink alcohol, I eat really healthy. I’m a clear-headed, functional, healthy person.” And none of that is separate from his lifestyle as an avid marijuana smoker and prominent activist. “I’ve found cannabis to be a performance enhancing drug. It’s such a positive tool when used and understood correctly.”
The first time Howard smoked, he ate a family size bag of Funyuns and laid down on the floor in the middle of the his employer’s recording studio (Fun Fact: Howard is Wiz Khalifa’s personal bodyguard). But after he built up a tolerance and learned how cannabis affected him, he says smoking cannabis changed his life. He started smoking cannabis three years ago at age 29, and that only came after resolving to turn away from alcohol. “I used to drink like hell,” he says. “It wasn’t working out for me.” Cannabis helped Howard focus on working out, getting in shape and staying healthy. “Smoking weed was actually the best thing I’ve done to this day,” he says.
At High Rollerz 1 this past June, competitors smoked marijuana openly before their matches, sharing joints with their opponents while stretching out on the warm-up mats. The fact that it’s a submission-only tournament increases both the thrill and the risk in every match when compared to a match played for points. Like many fight sports, the goal of BJJ is to do more damage to your opponent than he does to you (and get out in one piece). But damage in a submission-only BJJ match means moves that result in broken limbs, dislocated joints, cutting off blood flow and suffocating air supply. It’s dangerous, and, by definition, deadly. You keep going until your opponent taps out.
There’s an incredible amount of trust required for two fighters to intentionally decrease their inhibitions and then go at it in a full-contact sport. On top of the risks unique to BJJ, professional fighters put their bodies through the ringer as a function of the job. When they’re not breaking down their bodies in training, they’re getting broken in the ring, on the mat or in the octagon. Injuries are par for the course, and a few months later, they’re right back at it in another match. “I don’t know any other sport that requires so much of a person,” Staudt suggests.
With popularity booming around CBD as a panacea for every ache and pain under the sun, and the availability of hemp-derived CBD products that are legal even where recreational cannabis is not, the drug is already making a big difference for athletes competing in high-risk and injury-prone sports. Fighters use cannabis in its various forms (from smoking and edibles to creams, salves, and gels) as a post-training medicine for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
I look like a nervous Frankenstein if I do jiu jitsu without smoking. I’m stiff and overthinking. So I started smoking, and every time I smoked I won silver or gold.
In Howard’s non-medical opinion, getting high before training BJJ decreases stress and anxiety, increases focus and awareness, and boosts creativity and memory recall. He credits marijuana for the safety that comes from willingness to tap out or give up a submission, instead of fighting past the point of comfort and putting one’s body at risk because of a big ego. Howard also says he can remember his go-to moves better when he smokes, probably in large part because his anxiety is quelled enough to allow his mind to slow down and sink into a groove.
Even though the international medical community is slowly coming around, there are still purists in the jiu jitsu community who don’t see the High Rollerz mission as a good move for fight sports. The High Rollerz 1 superfight—a featured match in which two professional fighters compete as a main event showcase—was between Jeff Glover and Georgi Karakhanyan with Eddie Bravo as a guest referee. They’re all widely recognized players in the fight world and also cannabis activists in their own right, but despite all the prestige, word travelled fast that black belts were smoking at a jiu jitsu tournament. Those who disagree with High Rollerz believe that smoking at a BJJ event is disrespectful to the mat, to the gi and to the art as a whole. “I was getting a lot of messages from people, mostly Brazilians, sending me messages calling me a bad role model and a scumbag, a pothead, a druggie,” Glover says. Staudt says that higher ups in the world of BJJ were threatening to take away Glover’s and Karakhanyan’s black belts, but no real consequences ever materialized.
The negative feedback was tough to swallow for Glover, who has been a black belt for over 10 years and is a champion many times over. He calls himself “The Stoner King”, and believes that jiu jitsu and cannabis fit together well: “I smoke before and after every jiu jitsu session. It’s just something I’ve always done. But I’m not going to say that it’s my secret to success, or on the other hand, that it’s inhibited my success.” For Glover, jiu jitsu and cannabis are two distinct passions that overlap often and well. “For every hate message I was getting, I got ten messages from people thanking me for leading the cause and taking away the stigma around marijuana,” Glover says. “I don’t think smoking marijuana makes you a bad person.” The High Rollerz superfight was Glover’s last fight before retiring from competition.
Howard and Staudt are adamant that disrespect was never their intention. They love the sport and want to create something positive for their communities. High Rollerz 2 will take place in Los Angeles this September, and it’s expected to be a very different game if only because it’s a no gi event. “All those little leg lockers, Imanari rollers, those 10th Planet guys, they’re licking their lips. I’m excited to see how the jiu jitsu’s going to play out,” Howard says. They’re also adding a women’s division to High Rollerz 2.
After our back and forth about scheduling, Staudt answered the phone right away when I called him at our loosely identified time. He put to bed whatever stoner stereotypes I had clearly internalized, speaking eloquently and passionately about legalization and the cannabis community, about jiu jitsu and martial arts, and about the empire he’s hard at work building. When there was a sudden pause in the flow of our dialogue, I wondered what Staudt was up to. “I’ve been smoking a bowl of kief over this conversation,” he mentions with his lungs full. “It fills me with energy, creativity. It gives me focus. It’s different than what I was told.”