In the summer of 2008 I traveled to Brazil with a man named Ricardo Murgel. I’d met him through my work with a mixed martial arts magazine I was editing called FIGHT! On the way there, high above the Atlantic Ocean, we discussed the 3,000-year history of martial arts. He told me were that the Filipino marital art of Kino Mutai has classified 36 different ways to bite your opponent and that Kali, another obscure fighting system, develops the quickest reflexes by training how to dodge and deflect the lightning fast tips of pointed weapons so that a punch or a kick is slow by comparison. We talked about Jigoro Kano, who created Judo. All Judo, Murgel said was based on the principal of maximum efficiency of effort and most of its techniques could be reduced, in concept, to utilizing your opponent’s momentum against him. We talked about Bruce Lee and how he had been way ahead of his time and how much Murgel admired Helio Gracie who started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The thing that impressed him most the time he’d met Helio, Murgel said, was that he had the “eyes of a lion.”
After landing in Rio, we headed to a gym right off Copacabana Avenue. The gym’s equipment was antique but pristine; the place well used but immaculate. “This is amazing,” Murgel, said, “I trained here 40 years ago.” The Grandmaster, Álvaro Baretto, was a tall man with dark hair, regal bearing and a soothing voice. He moved deliberately with the small, sure gestures of high culture and 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 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 to Murgel and I that the wide dissemination of Jiu-Jitsu had led to declining standards. He commented on how many of the students who come into the gyms today lack 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 have a couple of MMA fights and then opening schools.”
The legend of the Gracie family goes like this: In 1917 a Japanese Judo expert named Mitsuyo Mayeada, or Count Koma, a man who claimed to be the victor in over 2000 fights and billed himself as the toughest man in the world, was traveling through Brazil, performing demonstrations of his fighting style, which was a combination of Judo, catch wrestling and tricks he’d picked up in his many fights all over the world. While performing 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 had become fascinated with his exotic exhibitions of fighting prowess he offered to teach the boy and his brothers Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. Carlos soaked up what the Count taught him and after four years he opened his own school to teach Jiu-Jitsu to Brazilians in the wild North Country where the Gracie’s lived.