The day after we met Grandmaster Alvaro, Murgel and I visit Álvaro’s older brother, the great João Alberto Baretto. He was the man who was refereed Royce Gracie’s historic debut match at UFC 1 match in 1993, which introduced the world outside Brazil to Gracie Jiu Jitu. His real legacy, however, is as a fighter, perhaps one of the best ever.
“You cannot believe how good this man was,” Murgel told me. “He fights every Monday for a year and beats every single opponent, all by knock-out or submission.” Murgel told me another story about Joao Alberto’s fighting days. Once at a public exhibition a Japanese fighter refused to fight Joao 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 was still an imposing figure at 72 years old, with long arms and legs, a deep chest, 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 had mentioned that he couldn’t remember an instance of João Alberto ever receiving a journalist into his home and now the old man 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 body builder and student at the military academy. At this time, a fighter named (Landulfo) 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.”
Grandmaster João said the Gracies were so impressed with his 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 started to loosen up and 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 fighter, 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 slapping the palm of his hand and smiling (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 to an arm bar 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 unmarked. He insisted I feel his ear, which was completely brittle and calcified. He told me that 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.” By this time João was 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 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 to the mat 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 Helio’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 because after the draw Carlson challenged him to a Vale Tudo match where Carlson, now familiar with his opponent, destroyed Waldemar. The fights turned Carlson into a star and Hélio’s legacy passed on to him. Champion of the family and ultimatelya legendary trainer of Vale Tudo fighters himself.
“Let me ask you something that I have always wondered about,” Murgel says. “Why did the Gracies choose Carlson to fight Waldemar?” João took his time before 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.” At the time we spoke it was unprecedented for a Grandmaster of João’s generation to even imply that he was a better Jiu-Jitsu fighter than a famous Gracie like Carlson.
A knock at the door interrupted our conversation. It was Joao’s brother Álvaro. He’d brought his gi and the two brothers who hadn’t not been photographed together for many years agree to pose wearing their sparkling white uniforms and the solid red belts that identify them as 9th degree Grandmasters. At the time of the photograph in 2008, the only living person ranked higher in Jiu Jitsu was Hélio Gracie himself.