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.”
Later, we accompanied Álvaro to an appointment at the exclusive Marimbás Club, a beachfront club full of wealthy men with cigars and tuxedoed servants standing quietly at attention or circulating with silver trays full of drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Clearly Álvaro, and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters of his generation were from a very different stratum of society than most American fighters.
Grandmaster Álvaro took us to a balcony overlooking Copacabana beach.
“You must understand that Jiu-Jitsu is really four things,” he said. “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 is a tool for creating a better life.”
The next day Murgel and I visited Álvaro’s older brother, the great João Alberto Baretto, the man who was referee for UFC 1 in 1993, but whose real legacy is as a fighter.
“You cannot believe how good this man was,” Murgel told me as we approached the door. “He fights every Monday for a year and beats every single opponent, all by knock-out or submission.” Once, Murgel said, 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 to me earlier that he couldn’t remember an instance of João Alberto ever receiving a journalist into his home and now he here I was, an American reporter sitting in his antique armchair.
João looked at me with a combination of calm and intensity. His brother made you feels at ease, with this man, you felt 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.” João began 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,” Jaoa Alberto 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 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.
“For a survivor of so many fights you look pretty good,” I said motioning with my hand to his unscarred face and an unbroken nose. He broke into a grin and leaned across the couch and insisted I feel his ear, which was brittle and calcified.
He says 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 the 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.” João had by now become 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 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 this time it was the Gracies who challenged Waldemar. He would go up against Hélio’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 believes 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. He became the reigning “champion” of the Gracie family and ultimately, a legendary trainer of Vale Tudo fighters himself.
“Let me ask you something that I have always wondered about,” Murgel piped in. “Why did the Gracies choose Carlson to fight Waldemar?” João took his time before he answered “Waldemar [was asked] to choose between Carlson and me and he chose Carlson.” Murgel’s eyes widen 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.” It is unprecedented for a Grandmaster of João’s generation to even imply that he is a better Jiu-Jitsu fighter than a famous Gracie like Carlson.
There was a knock on the door. Álvaro appeared with his gi and the two brothers who have 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 the only living person ranked higher was Hélio Gracie himself.