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.”
I told him that I had once had the honor of sparring a few rounds with legendary boxing champion Roy Jones. This impressed Murgel and he wanted to know what it was like.
“ He’s a different animal,” I said, “His jab was so fast I only saw it after he’d hit me and was pulling it back and his punches were so sharp it felt like I was getting shocked with an electric current every time he landed a punch.”
We talked about some of the old boxing legends like Jim Corbett, who had been underrated as pioneers of martial arts. We had both read Jack Dempsey’s rare treatise on how to punch called Principals of Power Punching and Explosive Defense and we agreed that Dempsey’s wild looping punches, which looked amateurish on the grainy old films compared to the tightly refined technique of modern boxing, were well suited for small gloved fighting were its hard block a punch with your glove. I mentioned how I had read somewhere that John L. Sullivan’s favorite knockout punch wasn’t to the chin but to the side of the neck disrupting the blood flow of his opponent’s carotid artery, a technique that many Asian Martial Arts had utilized for centuries.
The conversation at times would turn philosophical and we talked about how in every order and division of life; from algae to animals up to human beings everything fights and competes for survival. I took the idea a step further and pointed out that in a way even lifeless things fight, from the bumping and pushing of subatomic particles competing to secure their tiny orbits to galaxies colliding and the more massive ones devouring the lesser over eons. Fighting we agreed was ingrained somehow in the order of the Universe and I offered that competitive fighting was the only sporting event that was existentially important in and of itself.
Murgel had an extensive background in the world of competitive combat sports and martial arts. He was a highly ranked master in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well as a Judo Black Belt and has coached mixed martial artists at the championship level at top events all over the world. I’d first met him a few months after I began working as the editor of FIGHT! Magazine in 2007.
I was learning as much as I could about mixed martial arts to help me in my new job. I’d first encountered MMA when I saw the first UFC’s in college and even then I knew that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the martial art that Murgel had been teaching for 40 years, was fundamental to the sport. 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 and he offered to be my guide. Considering his lifetime’s worth of expertise and connections in the combative arts I took him up on the offer.
On the long flight he told me about his life: he’d fought the Communists during the civil war in Brazil in the 60s; he taught combat shooting to police in his home province Porte Alegre; he was once shot himself and nearly died. He had at one time 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. When confronted, the man revealed that the company was ruined. The man, who Murgel had trusted as a friend, had embezzled a great deal of money from Murgel’s company and wiped him out.
“I was 15 seconds from shooting him,” said Murgel, who is, as a trained shootist, usually 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 has 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 himself to the study of martial arts, which he had begun as a boy.
He closed the story as the stewardess rolled the meal cart by casually mentioning that his rogue of and ex accountant didn’t ultimately escape justice since his body was discovered some years later riddled with bullets, though no one was ever caught. Sensing where my thoughts were headed he said “ Oh! I did not kill him,” turning his palms up and shaking 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.”
Back in Atlanta, he 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. On the basis of the grand scheme his business partner had laid out 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 conditioning session which had students slumped and gasping on the floor. 63-year-old Murgel always led the class by example, doing all the exercises and often more to prove a point, shouting like a drill instructor all the time.
The gap between Murgel and his first students in Atlanta was the equivalent of an MIT Physics professor teaching long division to 4th graders, but he was committed to making it work through diligence and will and I instinctively liked him. It was refreshing to meet a man who was still confident enough in his own abilities to eschew the baser machinations of business and the ignoble cunning of the marketplace.
We headed first to Murgel’s old hometown of Porte Alegre in Southern Brazil. He was returning to teach a seminar. When we landed, two of his students, Guillermo and Paulo, met us at the airport and treated the old man like a returning patriarch, carrying our bags and driving us around. Guillermo told to me that they expected over 150 people to attend the event. He and a few other students had been putting it together for months and it was supposed to be the biggest seminar ever held in the area.
When we got to the gymnasium, my heart sank. There were no cars and the building was silent. It looked like no one had shown up. But when we came through the door, we found the large room teeming with several generations of Murgel’s students as well as students from other schools, all standing silently, arranged in order of seniority and rank: the black belts lining up in front followed by the brown and purple belts on down to the blues and whites. When they caught sight of Murgel the group thundered the name of the team he founded in Porte Alegre: “Union, Union, Union!” pumping their fists in the air. It was a powerful moment, like witnessing Leonidas review his Spartans at Thermopylae. Murgel narrowed his eyes and became very serious as he surveyed the group. Later, he was hounded for autographs and pictures, like a movie star. People even wanted to get their picture taken with me just because I knew him.