Master Ricardo Murgel

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On a plane high above the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2008, the man who sat next to me regaled me with an encyclopedic survey of  mixed martial arts that spanned three thousand years and four continents. He explained how the Filipino marital art of Kino mutai has classified 36 different ways to bite your opponent. He expanded on the genius of Jigoro Kano, who created Judo in the late 1800s and how, in essence, Judo can be reduced to momentum applied to a series of circular motions.  He elaborated how the effectiveness of Bruce Lee’s mythic six-inch lead punch was due to its speed and how the extreme utility of Jack Dempsey’s famous Shovel Punch was based on principles of deception and weight transference.  He told me that Kali practitioners have the quickest reflexes of any martial artists because they train by dodging and deflecting the lightning fast tips of pointed weapons so that a punch or a kick is slow by comparison.  When I’d first met him he’d said that if I really wanted to understand mixed martial arts I needed to go to Brazil so that’s where we’re headed. 

 His name was Master Ricardo Murgel, a highly ranked master in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well as a Judo Black Belt. He’d coached mixed martial artists at the championship level at top events all over the world.  I ‘d met him a few months after I began working as the editor of FIGHT! Magazine in 2007.  At the time I was learning as much as I could about mixed martial arts to help me in my new role. I’d seen the early UFC fights in college and while I was aware that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the martial art that Murgel had taught for 40 years, was fundamental to the new combat sport, I didn’t know much else about it. He told me that in order to really understand mixed martial arts I needed to meet the people who invented it sixty years ago in South America he offered to be my guide and translator. Considering his lifetime’s worth of expertise and connections in the combative arts I jumped at the chance.

On the long flight to Brazil he told me about his life: he’d fought the Communists during the civil war in the 60s; he taught combat shooting to police in his home province Porte Alegre; he was once shot himself and nearly died.  At one time he’d  been a lawyer and a prominent businessman and was one of the first to bring Jiu-Jitsu to the south of Brazil.

One of the turning points of his life was when he was running a big exercise equipment import company and was on his way to considerable financial success. He began uncovering irregularities in the company books.  He called his accountant into his office. Murgel confronted the man who he had trusted as a friend,  and found that  had companies books had been cooked by the accountant and the firm and Murgel were wiped out. 

 “I was 15 seconds from shooting him,” said Murgel, who was always 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 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 had come to ruining his life Murgel rededicated his life to the study of martial arts.

He closed by offhandedly mentioning that the crooked accountant didn’t ultimately escape justice because his body was discovered some years later riddled with bullets, though no one was ever caught.  Sensing where my thoughts were headed he say “ Oh! I did not kill him,” he turned his palms up and shook his head. “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 chatted at 30,000 feet Murgel was in the middle of another frustrating business situation.  He’d recently 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 would provide the facility and financing and Murgel would provide the knowledge and name.  Murgel uprooted his life and moved to the U.S., but the promises never materialized. Too dignified to fail, he cobbled together a small class comprised of a fireplug of an ex-marine-turned-bodyguard to rap moguls, a high school wrestler getting ready for college tryouts, and me.  Every class included a brutal conditioning session which had students slumped and gasping on the floor. 63-year-old Murgel always led by example and did all the exercises and often more to prove a point. He’d  shout like a drill instructor all the time.  

The gap between Murgel and his students was equivalent to an MIT Physics professor teaching long division to 4thgraders, but he was committed to making the best of the situation through diligence and hard work.   I instinctively like him.  It was refreshing to meet a man who was confident enough in himself to eschew the baser machinations of business and the ignoble cunning of the marketplace.  

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