After we landed in Rio, 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 Alvaro Barreto was a tall man with dark hair, a regal bearing and soothing voice. He moved deliberately with the small, sure gestures of high culture and was an accomplished professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
He and Murgel laughed and reminisced in Portuguese as we toured his 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, 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 and lamented that the dissemination of Jiu-Jitsu led to declining standards. He commented how many of the students who’d come into his gym now lacked the proper respect for their teachers and the art itself. “It’s 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 opening schools.”
We accompany Álvaro to an appointment at the exclusive Marimbás Club, a beachfront club full of wealthy men with cigars and tuxedoed servants who stand quietly at attention or circulate with silver trays full of drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Clearly Álvaro, and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters of his generation are from a very different stratum of society than most American fighters of today.
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 a therapy. If man is too aggressive, it will calm him. Is he is 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 continued, “It’s a tool for creating a better life.”