On a cold November night in 1993, at the Thomas and Mack Center in Denver Colorado, Hélio Gracie watched from the crowd. Royce, the youngest of his seven sons, jogged past on the way to an 8-sided steel cage at the head of a long line of family members. Royce was going to face a professional boxer in the first round of an 8-man, no holds barred fighting tournament, the likes of which had never been seen before in the United States. With no gloves, rounds or time limit, and few other rules, the tournament was designed to settle the question of which martial arts style would win in a real fight.
The other men competing that night practiced the most feared fighting styles in the world; Boxing, Karate, Kung Fu, Shoot Fighting, and Kickboxing. There was even a monstrous Sumo Wrestler who weighed over 400 pounds. It seemed like Royce, who was dwarfed by the other competitors, and who couldn’t really punch or kick, stood little chance of escaping the night in one piece.
As they passed, Hélio met his son’s eyes. The old man’s leonine gaze steeled the younger one’s courage. If Hélio had an ounce of concern, he didn’t show it. A man who left nothing to chance, he knew that all the conditions favored for his son to be victorious.
Royce’s older brother Rickson, who was regarded by Helio the best fighter in the family, was in his brother’s corner. Many thought that Rickson should have been representing the Gracie Family in the tournament, but Hélio knew the value of spectacle. He’d built Gracie Jiu-Jitsu on the principle that through technique the weak can defeat the strong. What better way to prove this point than to fight against larger, stronger opponents, and defeat them decisively? Helio wanted to prove that any man, as long as he learned the closely guarded secrets of his system, could attain invincibility. To show this to the Americans, to put the focus on the art and not the individual, it had to be the slight and unassuming Royce, not the fierce-looking Rickson, in the cage that night.
The referee for the match was a trusted family friend, and one of Hélio’s first and greatest students, João Alberto Barreto. João was a veteran of many such style vs style competitions and was therefore one of the few people in the world qualified to referee such a no-holds-barred match.
Despite the seemingly long odds against his son, Helio knew the tournament results should be an afterthought. If Royce made no mistakes he would win. The Jiu-Jitsu Hélio armed his son with was flawless. The only way for Royce to lose was if he veered from the path; if human frailty polluted the mathematical perfection of Hélio’s precise system of leverage, position, and form. Since the other fighters were unfamiliar with Gracie Jiu Jitsu, they were all walking into a trap. For the uninitiated, Helio’s system was an endless maze, an imponderable series of puzzles, a bottomless pit, and by the night’s end, it would start a revolution.
Fifteen years after the night Royce Gracie won the first Ultimate Fighting Championship with ease, breezing through all three opponents in less than five minutes of total time in the cage, I was on a plane traveling to Brazil, sitting next to a man who had studied Jiu-Jitsu his entire life. Against the hum of the engines, he unfurled an encyclopedic survey of martial arts that spanned three thousand years and four continents.
He explained how the Filipino martial art of Kino Mutai classified 36 different ways to bite your opponent. He told me about the genius of Jigoro Kano, who created Judo in the late 1800s, and how, in essence, Judo was based on using your opponent’s momentum against them in a series of circular motions. He elaborated on how the effectiveness of Bruce Lee’s mythic six-inch punch was due to its speed and how the devastating effects of Jack Dempsey’s famous Shovel Punch were based on principles of deception and weight transference. He told me that Kali practitioners have the best reflexes because they train by evading the lightning-fast tips of pointed weapons so that a punch or a kick is slow by comparison. He also told me if I really wanted to understand mixed martial arts I needed to go to Brazil, the home of the style with which Royce Gracie had so shocked the world.
His name was Ricardo Murgel. He was a highly ranked Master in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is what Gracie Jiu Jitsu came to be called as it started to take over. He was also a Black Belt in Judo and had coached mixed martial artists in top events all over the world.
I’d met him a few months after I’d started working as the editor of a new martial arts magazine in 2007. At the time, my knowledge of combat sports came from my lifelong love of Boxing. It was Murgel who began my education about the wider world of martial arts.
I’d seen the early UFCs, and while I was aware of how dominant Jiu-Jitsu had been in those competitions, I didn’t know much else about it. Murgel told me that to really understand mixed martial arts I needed to meet the people who invented Gracie Jiu Jitsu sixty years ago in South America. He offered to be my guide. Considering his lifetime’s worth of expertise, global connections, and the fact that he spoke both English and Portuguese, I jumped at the chance.
On the flight over he told me about his life. He’d fought the Communists in the 60’s during the civil war in Brazil, he’d taught combat shooting to police in his home province Porte Alegre; he once got shot and nearly died. He’d been a lawyer and businessman and was one of the first to bring Jiu-Jitsu to the south of Brazil. One of the turning points of his life happened when he was running a big exercise equipment import company and was on his way to considerable financial success. One day, after uncovering irregularities in the company books, he called the accountant into his office. He confronted the man who, being caught red-handed, admitted to embezzling. Murgel was shocked to find that the books were a fraud. The company’s financial condition was a house of cards that was about to topple over.
“I was 15 seconds from shooting him,” said Murgel, who was usually armed. “My hand was moving towards the gun in my belt, and then, the fire alarm went off in the building! That had never happened before and has never happened since.” He shook his head. “Now, I am not a religious man, but there was something acting in this which is beyond my understanding.” Seeing how close he’d come to ruining his life, from then on, Murgel dedicated himself to the study of martial arts.
He finished the story by offhandedly mentioning that the accountant didn’t escape justice. His body was discovered years later, riddled with bullets. No one was ever caught for the crime. Sensing where my thoughts were headed, he exclaimed innocently “Oh! I didn’t kill him. Someone did, but it wasn’t me.” He paused before adding, “I thought very seriously about it, but thank God, I didn’t.”
As we talked, Murgel was in the middle of another frustrating business situation. He’d relocated from Brazil to Atlanta on a friend’s promise to open a big Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling academy with plans for growth and franchising. The partner was going to provide the financial backing and Murgel would provide the knowledge and name. Murgel uprooted his life and moved to the U.S., but the promised support never materialized.
Too dignified to fail, he cobbled together a small class comprised of a fireplug of an ex-marine-turned-bodyguard, a high school wrestler getting ready for college tryouts, and me, a middle-aged journalist starting from scratch. Every class began with a brutal conditioning session that left us slumped and gasping on the floor. 63-year-old Murgel always led by example, exercising right along with everybody else, and often even doing more, all the while shouting like a drill instructor, and never getting tired himself.
The gap between Murgel and his students in that first class was like an MIT Physics professor teaching long division to 4th graders, but he was committed to making it a success, and I liked him from the moment we first met.
Our first stop in Brazil was Murgel’s hometown of Porte Alegre in the South of the country. He was returning to teach a seminar. When we landed, two of his students, Guillermo and Paulo, met us at the airport and treated the old man like a returning patriarch, carrying our bags and driving us around the town. Guillermo confided to me that there were over 150 people scheduled to attend the event. He and a few other students had been putting the event together for months. It would be the biggest seminar ever held in the area.
When we got to the gymnasium, my heart sank. There were no cars, and the building was quiet. It looked to me like no one had shown up, and I gritted my teeth in dread of Murgel’s disappointment. However, when we came through the door, the large room was teeming with several generations of his students. They were all standing silently, arranged in order of seniority and rank: the Black belts lined up in front, followed by the Brown and Purple belts on down to the Blues and Whites.
When they caught sight of Murgel, the group thundered the name of the team he founded in Porte Alegre: “Union, Union, Union!” pumping their fists in the air. It was a powerful moment, like witnessing Leonidas review his Spartans at Thermopylae. Murgel narrowed his eyes and sternly surveyed the scene. After the seminar, he was hounded for autographs and pictures, like a movie star. People even wanted to get their picture taken with me just because I knew him.
The legend of the Gracie family goes like this: In 1917 a Japanese Judo expert named Mitsuyo Mayeada, a man who claimed to be the victor in over 2000 fights and who billed himself as the toughest man in the world, was traveling through Brazil. He was performing demonstrations of his fighting style under the colorful alias of Count Koma. He fought using a combination of Judo, catch wrestling, and tricks he’d picked up in his many matches around the world. While performing his fighting techniques in a circus, he befriended the owner, a prominent Brazilian businessman named Gastão Gracie, who offered to help him get established in Belém.
When Count Koma noticed that Gastão’s oldest son Carlos was fascinated with his exotic exhibitions of fighting prowess, he offered to teach the boy and his brothers the art of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. Carlos Gracie, who was 15 years old, soaked up what the Count taught him. After four years he opened his own school to teach Koma’s style to Brazilians in the wild North Country where the Gracie’s lived.
The youngest of the Gracie brothers was thirteen-year-old Hélio, a fiery and determined boy, but burdened with a sickly body. He was scrawny, weak and subject to embarrassing fainting spells. His older brothers deemed Koma’s strenuous Jiu-Jitsu too dangerous for Hélio and only allowed him to observe classes. Perhaps, they thought, his interest would fade, and he would leave the training to his older, tougher brothers.
Undeterred, Hélio sat in the same place watching the classes all day for two years. He absorbed everything he saw and came to a profound intuitive conclusion that would change his life and alter the course of martial arts.
Much of what Count Koma taught his brothers, Hélio deduced, required speed and athleticism. He knew he’d never have either. Certain moves, however, relied on timing and technique. These were the ones he knew he could master with enough practice. He secretly began honing and refining these techniques and over the next year, he created his own, more technical version of Count Koma’s Jiu-Jitsu.
One day, when Carlos was late arriving at the school, Hélio saw his chance. He jumped in and started teaching the class. When Carlos finally arrived, he was surprised to find that a coup had taken place in his dojo. All his students now said they wanted Hélio as a teacher. Not one to fight a rising tide, Carlos agreed and moved into a more business-oriented position within the school, while Hélio became the new head instructor. Not long after, Carlos ran the following ad in a Rio newspaper:
“IF YOU WANT TO GET YOUR FACE BEATEN AND WELL SMASHED, YOUR ASS KICKED, AND YOUR ARMS BROKEN, CONTACT CARLOS GRACIE AT THIS ADDRESS . . . “
Carlos thought that the Jiu-Jitsu taught by the Gracie family was the most effective fighting system in the world. If people doubted the claim, the best way to prove it, he reasoned, would be to let anyone who dared to come to fight it out with the Gracies. Over the next 30 years, the Gracie Challenge would become famous in Brazil.
It was Hélio who competed in the highest-profile matches. Fighting in gymnasiums, dojos, or packed auditoriums he would defend the honor of Gracie Jiu Jitsu against men like Sato, Kimura, Zybysko, and Santana. He became a Brazilian sports icon, and the myth of the family name steadily grew. Over time both Hélio and Carlos’ passed down Gracie Jiu Jitsu to their sons, with the new generation expanding and refining the art. Over time as the two branches of the Gracie clan diverged, each side would say that it was their ancestor who was, in fact, the true inventor of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
After the seminar, Murgel and I flew to Rio. When we landed, we headed to a gym right off Copacabana Avenue. The equipment was antique but pristine, the place, well-used but immaculate. “This is amazing,” Murgel, said, “I trained here 40 years ago.”
The Grandmaster was a tall man with dark hair, regal bearing, and a soothing voice. He moved deliberately, with the small, sure gestures of high culture. He was, in fact, an accomplished professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
He and Murgel laughed and reminisced in Portuguese as we toured the historic dojo. Álvaro Barreto and his brother João were among the very first group of Gracie students. He talked about how in the early days the Gracies only taught the elite of Brazilian society—CEOs, government ministers, etc. The 2nd Gracie Academy, which opened in 1951, was a highly polished operation with exclusive classes and huge industrial washers and dryers that ensured the students always had clean, pressed GIs ready for training.
“And it was as expensive as Hell!” Murgel exclaimed, mentioning that when he was a boy he had asked his father if he could attend the Gracie Academy. His father, a successful Rio Dentist, refused, explaining that the dues would be equivalent to 17% of his monthly income.
Álvaro looked back on the early days with fondness. He lamented that the dissemination of Jiu-Jitsu had led to declining standards. He said that many new students lacked the proper respect for their teachers and the art itself. “It is a failure on the part of the Grandmasters who control the sport,” he said. “They haven’t been selective enough about who gets black belts and who gets to become instructors. People are getting black belts just because they participate in a couple of MMA fights and then open schools.”
Later we accompanied Álvaro to an appointment at the exclusive Marimbás Club, a beachfront club full of wealthy men with cigars and tuxedoed servants who stood quietly at attention or circulated with silver trays full of drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Clearly, Álvaro and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters of his generation were from a very different stratum of society than most American fighters I knew about.
Grandmaster Álvaro took us to a balcony overlooking Copacabana beach. “You must understand that Jiu-Jitsu is really four things,” he began. “One: it is a philosophy that can be summed up by the statement ‘give to win’. For example, if you make strength with your arms then you give a point of leverage for your opponent to use against you. If you stay loose, then you deprive your opponent of that. So, by appearing to be weak you gain strength.”
“Sun Tzu,” Murgel nodded.
“Exactly,” said Grandmaster Álvaro. “Second, it is a system of teaching. It gives access to proper rules of human behavior, self-respect, honor, discipline, courage, and so on. Third, it is therapy. If a man is too aggressive, it will calm him. Is he too weak or passive? It will make him stronger. And finally, it is a fighting system. Today in MMA people only concentrate on the last and ignore the first three.” He looked to Murgel who nodded in agreement. “Jiu-Jitsu is not an end,” Álvaro said, “It is a tool for creating a better life.”
The next day Murgel and I visited Álvaro’s older brother, the great João Alberto Barreto, the man who was the referee for Royce’s UFC 1 match in 1993, but whose real legacy was as a fighter, perhaps one of the best ever.
“You cannot believe how good this man was,” Murgel said. “He fought every Monday for a year and beat every single opponent, all by knock-out or submission.” Once at a public exhibition a Japanese fighter refused to fight João saying that the Japanese karate he practiced was too fatal for a sporting competition. So, João offered to fight him to the death right then and there. The Japanese fighter wisely declined the offer.
Grandmaster João still cut an imposing figure at 72 years old, with long arms and legs, a deep chest, a large head, and hands the size of sirloin steaks. He broodingly ushered us into his apartment, which was appointed with excellent old-world taste. The furnishings were expensive but not ostentatious. His body language was stiff as we took our seats in his den. Murgel mentioned that he couldn’t remember an instance of João Alberto ever receiving a journalist into his home and now he had an American reporter sitting in his antique armchair.
João looked at me with calm intensity. His brother made you feel at ease, this man made you feel his power. He began to speak in a deep stentorian voice.
“In 1950, when I was 15, I was a bodybuilder and student at the military academy. At this time, a fighter named (Landolfo) Caribe challenged Hélio Gracie. My father was the head of the Deaf and Dumb Academy and the Gracies wanted to use the facility’s gym. My father allowed them to do this and after Hélio easily defeated Caribe, my father presented me to Hélio and his brother Carlos. When they saw me, they said, ‘Wow this boy is big!’ and they invited me the next Monday to the Gracie Academy. They tested me by having me fight another boy who had more experience and I beat him.”
The Gracies were so impressed with young João’s size and athleticism that they soon put an ad in the newspaper that said, “In three months we challenge any amateur fighter in Rio to fight our students because we are manufacturing champions at the Gracie Academy.”
Reminiscing about the early days, João loosened up. Murgel repeated the term with a nostalgic smile, “Manufacturing champions at the Gracie Academy.”
“I always had a talent for fighting but I wasn’t a pit bull. I was a very technical fighter. I was like a skyrocket,” he mused, clapping his hands together and slicing the air upwards for effect.
“Every Monday,” he said, referring to the Brazilian television show Heróis Do Ringue, “Jiu-Jitsu fighters were matched against fighters from other martial arts styles. The rules were very simple. You could not gouge the eyes, fish hook, or hit in the groin.” These matches were an early version of MMA, though in those days it was called Vale Tudo, meaning, “anything goes.”
“Every Monday I would fight and every Tuesday they would pay me,” again, he slapped the palm of his hand and smiled broadly (it was during this period that he had his amazing 40-0 run.) In one of João’s last fights on television, his opponent refused to give up, so João broke his arm. The compound fracture on live television was so shocking that it likely played a role in the cancellation of the program soon thereafter.
I pointed out that for a survivor of so many fights he was surprisingly unmarked, at which point he insisted I feel his ear, now completely brittle and calcified.
He said in those days no one made enough money in the Vale Tudo matches to fight exclusively for a living. Instead, the fights were meant to promote the Gracie family business, which was teaching Jiu-Jitsu at Gracie Academy. It was a successful marketing strategy: at one point they taught 600 classes a week to the best and brightest of Brazilian society. Then there was the infamous Waldemar Santana.
“Waldemar Santana was an employee of the Gracie Academy and a student. He used to take care of the restrooms,” João sneered with a patrician disdain for menial labor. “I taught him many times.” João had by now become one of the lead instructors at Gracie Academy. “He had a problem with Hélio and Hélio kicked him out for fighting without [his] permission.”
In retaliation Waldemar, a Gracie Black Belt challenged Hélio. They had one of the longest fights in history at 3 hours and 40 minutes without any breaks or rounds. Finally, an exhausted Hélio was beaten by Waldemar, who outweighed Hélio by 60 pounds and was 23 years his junior.
At the conclusion of the match the vicious Waldemar did the unthinkable. He dishonored the Gracie family by throwing Hélio down and kicking him in the face, knocking him out.”
The loss had to be avenged, so the Gracies challenged Waldemar. This time he would go up against Hélio’s nephew and Carlos’ eldest son, Carlson Gracie.
Waldemar and Carlson fought two matches. The first was a Jiu-Jitsu match that went to a time-limit draw. João believed this was a tactic on the part of the Gracies to scope out Waldemar’s strengths and weaknesses. After the draw, Carlson challenged Waldemar to a Vale Tudo match where Carlson, now familiar with his opponent, destroyed him.
The fights turned Carlson into a star and Hélio’s legacy was passed on to him. He became the reigning “champion” of the Gracie family, and ultimately, went on to be a legendary trainer of Vale Tudo fighters himself.
“Let me ask you something that I have always wondered about,” Murgel said. “Why did the Gracies choose Carlson to fight Waldemar?”
João took his time before slowly answering, “Waldemar [was asked] to choose between Carlson and me and he chose Carlson.” Murgel’s eyes widened in amazement. “This is the first time in 53 years that I have ever heard this.”
João clammed up for a moment, before continuing. “When I used to train with Waldemar, I had an easier time of it than when Carlson trained with him.” It was unprecedented for a Grandmaster of João’s generation to imply that he was a better Jiu-Jitsu fighter than a famous Gracie like Carlson.
There was a knock on the door. It was João’s brother Álvaro. He’d brought his gi and the two brothers who had not been photographed together for many years agreed to pose wearing their sparkling white uniforms and the solid red belts that identified them as 9th-degree Grandmasters. In 2008, the only living person ranked higher was Hélio Gracie himself.
You had to be on your guard in Rio. In 2008 there were 4,631 murders in the city, compared to the 523 murders in New York City that same year). The city had one of the highest crime rates in the world, with affluent neighborhoods and dangerous areas butting up against each other. You could go from admiring a multi-million-dollar beachfront high-rise to getting jacked in five minutes if you didn’t know your way around. Then there was the traffic which, unless there was a big soccer game on television, was chaotic, fast, and unrelenting.
Our driver Cido not only navigated Rio’s streets and safely gets us to where we needed to be over the week but offered to be our go-to guy for just about anything else as well. If we needed anything, whether it was to set up an interview or a if photo shoot that requires a location, Cido would take out his cell phone and in a flash, it was taken care of. Not only was he a man who got things done, he was also a ladies’ magnet: if there was a good-looking woman within a hundred yards, she would find a reason to come strike up a conversation with him.
Cido’s good friend Levy was our photographer. “Don’t be surprised when you meet Levy,” Denis Martins had emailed when he referred Levy to me as the best MMA photographer in Rio. “He’s short.”
At a little over 4 feet tall Levy was indeed “short”, and fearless, and willing to do just about anything to get the shot. The more I got to know Levy the more I like him. He was a rare combination of intrepidness and diligence. He was energetic in his work but also thoughtful and careful about it.
His stature made him perfect for photographing in the cramped quarters of the Rio gyms because he could dart and dodge in between the fighters on the mats, often clicking away until the last possible second before deftly sidestepping as a 200-pound man comes crashing down. His pictures, shot from a low angle, made the fighters seem large and heroic. He was an institution in the gyms and dojos of Rio and all the fighters and trainers loved him, waving and calling out to him when he walks in the door.
On the street it was different: people gawked, pointed, and sometimes openly snickered at Levy. None of it ever seemed to faze him. As I watched him from day to day, plodding doggedly ahead, camera around his neck, I reflected that in the taxonomy of courage, the grand gestures and famous victories of the Gracies and João Albertos of the world are classed right beside the quieter tests of strength of a man like Levy.
Back at my hotel the concierge handed me a small slip of paper that reads “Snr R. Gracie – Please call back.”
“Rickson Gracie,” I concluded. Rickson was the most famous Gracie and perhaps the only one more mythic than Hélio. He was the current “champion” of the family, taking up the mantle laid down by his father Hélio, and then his uncle Carlson. However, unlike both, Rickson had never been defeated. His record stood at 11 and 0 in sanctioned MMA matches, but legend had it that he’d been in over 400 street fights, Jiu-Jitsu, and Vale Tudo matches without ever tasting defeat.
In the early 90s, while his brother Royce was fighting in the UFC, Rickson was busy running roughshod over all the fighters in Japan. He’d parlayed his success into everything from a movie career to a successful school with private classes that cost thousands an hour. His two legendary victories over a fearsome looking fighter named Zulu helped resurrect Vale Tudo in Brazil after the outcry caused by João breaking the guy’s arm on live national television.
When I meet him later that day, he looked older than I expected but there was definitely aura about him.
Many people doubted Rickson’s self-proclaimed 400 and 0 record, but sitting across from him I thought, “It could be true.”
“In Brazil, people are not inclined to accept something until you prove it,” he said. “Here people are more concerned with demonstrating power than respecting tradition. We’ve always had the Gracie challenge, not to be bullies or the toughest guys in town, but because in order to sell our beliefs we had to be willing to confront anyone who disbelieved what we had to sell.” He leaned across the table and told me “And what we sell is effectiveness. Effectiveness in fighting.” He lets the point sink in before continuing. “The Gracie challenge was made to prove the point that we were willing to confront other styles and, over the last 50 years or so, in 95 % of the cases we have been successful.”
“In the beginning, the UFC was just a platform to show the dominance of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu against other styles.” It had been many years since Gracie scored a high-profile win in the sport they helped create. I asked him if he thought, at least as far as the UFC was concerned, that Jiu-Jitsu was a victim of its own success. Since, it was so effective that everybody adopted it, thereby negating its advantages. He didn’t answer the question directly but instead mentioned how the rules were changed by the owners of the UFC to make the fights more competitive and, he believed, to hamper the natural advantages of Jiu-Jitsu. “Standing the fighters up, gloves, reducing the time limits, all these little aspects make style a secondary component to the individual. How fast you are, how aggressive, how explosive…it is very hard for a fight to be decided in the first 3 or 5 minutes and a major aspect of Jiu-Jitsu is defense, defense, defense, and then capitalizing on a mistake your opponent makes. When my dad fought, he was only 130 pounds. He would survive until he caught the guy in a mistake. How can you do this if there isn’t enough time?” He brought up his brother Royce in his fight against Dan Severn at UFC 4 in 1994, “Up until the moment Severn tapped out everybody thought he was beating Royce.”
Even though Royce won the match with Severn, it previewed the problems Jiu-Jitsu fighters would have with solid wrestlers from then on. A year earlier American wrestler Matt Hughes defeated Royce in devastating fashion at UFC 60. Hughes embarrassingly manhandled Royce before beating him into submission in the first round.
“I was surprised because I didn’t recognize my brother.” Said Rickson. “I don’t know if it was his training or mental stress or whatever, but he didn’t look like himself. He made some very basic mistakes.”
Many people saw that fight not only as a defeat for Royce but one for his family’s fighting style as well. I asked Rickson if he worried that were he ever to be defeated it would devastate the credibility of the discipline. He disagreed vehemently.
“I am basically at the end of my fighting career,” he said. “If I am lucky and they pay me what I want then I might have one more fight or I may just retire… But every time I compete, I put everything at risk. If I were to lose, it would be because I made a human mistake, or maybe got too old. But it would be me being defeated, not Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu has already been proven. Today, to a certain degree, everybody fighting in MMA is a Jiu-Jitsu fighter.”
“Boxing is a fighting art, Karate is a fighting art. Jiu-Jitsu is a guide, a philosophy, a social movement,” he said, echoing what Grandmaster Álvaro had told me only a few days before.
Rickson and I discussed how fighting was a powerful metaphor, something that the boxing media has been on to for years, but nobody had really picked up on yet in MMA.
“Fear, anxiety, hesitation—things that weaken a fighter in a fight—are the same things that can hold people back in life. It’s an interesting idea to explore,” I offered.
“Exactly,” said Rickson. “If you could translate that to people then it would affect the audience in a much more profound way.”
“Well, how do you do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know exactly,” he admitted. “But today MMA is growing very fast. It is a huge sensational sport but what is the message?”
He said that he had little interest in mixed martial arts anymore, other than for a potential big payday for one last fight—“bagging the elephant,” he called it. “I am in the business of building character, not making fighters,” he said. “I pay the same attention to the shy guy getting bullied as I do to the guy who wants to be a fighter. I will make that guy more confident and help him regain his self-esteem. This is the priceless aspect of Jiu-Jitsu; this is the treasure. If someone says that I am just a great fighter I feel like my legs have been cut off. What I want to be is a great master.”
As I say goodbye to Rickson I realized that he was much more than just a fighter, undefeated or not. In fact, he was more of a teacher and, to some extent, a salesman. João, Álvaro, and now Rickson were all selling the idea of the complete man. They were billboards for what Jiu-Jitsu could create: intelligent, striking, successful individuals who were also deadly in combat. The inference was quintessentially Brazilian: if Jiu-Jitsu could make you invincible in a fight it could also make you invincible in life; the victorious fighter was a metaphor for the victorious man. This insight, and what Rickson said about “selling effectiveness” would shape the course of my work covering MMA and direct my interest in martial arts from then on.
Next: Old Wounds