Great Masters: Cido and Levy

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). Rio had one of the highest crime rates in the world, with affluent areas and dangerous neighborhoods butting up against each other. You could go from admiring a multi-million dollar beachfront high rise to getting jacked in 10 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 got us where we needed to be over the week we were there, but offered to be our go-to guy for just about anything else as well.  If we needed anything, whether it was an interview that needed to be set up or a photo-shoot that required a location, Cido would take out his cell phone and ten minutes later it’d been taken care of.  Not only did he get things done, he was also a ladies magnet: if there was a good-looking woman within a hundred yards she’d find a reason to come strike up a conversation with him.

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Great Masters: Rickson

Back at my hotel the concierge handed me a small slip of paper that read “Snr R. Gracie – Please call back.”

“Rickson Gracie,” I concluded.  Rickson was the most famous of the Gracie descendants 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 his uncle Carlson. However, unlike both, Rickson had never been defeated. His record was 11 and 0 in sanctioned MMA matches but legend had it that he has participated 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 first UFCs, Rickson was busy becoming a sports idol in Japan.

He had parlayed his success into everything from a movie career to a successful school and private classes that cost thousands an hour.   His two victories over a fighter named Zulu helped resurrect Vale Tudo in Brazil after the outcry caused by João breaking his opponent’s arm on live national television.

When I met him later that day he looked older than I expected but there was still an aura about him. Many people doubted Rickson’s self-proclaimed 400 and 0 record but as I sat across from him I thought,  “It could be true.”

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Great Masters: Carlson

In Rio the custom is to eat dinner late and it was a good thing because Murgel and I often didn’t finish working until well into the evening. After Levy and Cido headed home a little before 10 p.m., Murgel and I get a bite to eat at one of the many cafes surrounding our hotel. One night over dinner Murgel and I continued to discuss the Gracies.

“Carlson was the best coach of fighters I ever saw,” he said.  “It was Carlson who really opened up Jiu-Jitsu and would teach anything to anybody as long as he thought they could be a good Vale Tudo Fighter.” Before him the Gracies were doing very well teaching their “secrets” to the rich and powerful and didn’t want their system to become too widespread.

Like the craftsman guilds of long ago which closely guarded the techniques of everything from shoemaking to cathedral building in order to control the wealth those activities created, the more inaccessible the information the Gracies imparted to their students, the more valuable it was.  Expressing a kind of manufactured scarcity.   When Carlson loosened his criteria to accept anyone, he upset the apple cart.

It was another valuable observation by Master Murgel and was the main reason the trip was turning out to be such a success. His connections within Brazil, his expertise, and his insights were proving to be invaluable.  While translating, he caught on to my habit of always probing for a little more detail and would often jump in and volunteer a more pointed or better question if he thought I was missing something.

Murgel agreed with what Master Álvaro had said about the degradation in the quality of Jiu-Jitsu instruction in the United States.  He found it particularly galling when skeptical new students strained and resisted the techniques being demonstrated, thinking that this displayed their toughness or disproved the art.

“For example,” he said, “Hélio Gracie invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but if he’s demonstrating an arm bar and you are 250 pounds and full of muscle and power out of it, come on; Hélio is 95 years old and 120 pounds so if you resist the arm bar when the master applies, does it mean the arm bar doesn’t work? No!  It means you’re an asshole.”

Murgel could be a little rough around the edges but was also fiercely intelligent and wise in his own way. Imagine a cursing version of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid or a Yoda who likes to drink beer; that was Master Murgel.