Grand Master Joao Alberto Baretto

“You cannot believe how good this man was,” Murgel told me. “He fights every Monday for a year and beats every single opponent, all by knock-out or submission.” Murgel told me another story about Joao Alberto’s fighting days. Once 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 day after we met Grandmaster Alvaro, Murgel and I visit Álvaro’s older brother, the great João Alberto Baretto. He was the man who was refereed Royce Gracie’s historic debut match at UFC 1 match in 1993, which introduced the world outside Brazil to Gracie Jiu Jitu.  His real legacy, however, is as a fighter, perhaps one of the best ever.

“You cannot believe how good this man was,” Murgel told me. “He fights every Monday for a year and beats every single opponent, all by knock-out or submission.” Murgel told me another story about Joao Alberto’s fighting days. Once 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. 

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GrandMaster Alvaro Barreto

Álvaro looked back on the early days with fondness and lamented that the dissemination of Jiu-Jitsu led to declining standards. He commented how many of the students who’d come into his gym now lacked the proper respect for their teachers and the art itself. “It’s 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 participate in a couple of MMA fights and then opening schools.”

After we landed in Rio, we headed to a gym right off Copacabana Avenue. The equipment was antique but pristine; the place well-used but immaculate. “This is amazing,” Murgel, said, “I trained here 40 years ago.” The Grandmaster Alvaro Barreto was a tall man with dark hair, a regal bearing and soothing voice. He moved deliberately with the small, sure gestures of high culture and was 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 that the dissemination of Jiu-Jitsu led to declining standards. He commented how many of the students who’d come into his gym now lacked the proper respect for their teachers and the art itself.   “It’s 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 participate in a couple of MMA fights and then opening schools.”    

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The Legend of the Gracie Family

Carlos believed that the Jiu-Jitsu being taught by the Gracie Family was the most effective fighting system in the world and if people doubted the claim the best way to prove it, he reasoned, was be to let anyone who dared to come fight it out with the Gracies.

The legend of the Gracie family goes like this: In 1917 a Japanese Judo expert named Mitsuyo Mayeada, or Count Koma, who claimed to be the victor in over 2000 fights and who 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 his fighting techniques in a circus, he befriended the owner, a prominent Brazilian businessman named Gastão Gracie who offered to help him get established in the city of 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 the art of 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.

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America Meets Jiu Jitsu

His Jiu-Jitsu was founded on the principle that the weak can defeat the strong and what better way to prove this than fight against a larger, stronger opponent. He wanted to prove that any man, as long as he learned the closely guarded secrets of the Gracie system, could attain invincibility.

On November 12, 1993 Hélio Gracie watched from the crowd as Royce, the youngest of his seven sons, jogged to a steel cage at the head of a long line of family members. As they passed, Hélio met his son’s eyes, his leonine gaze steeling the young man’s courage. If Hélio, had an ounce of concern he didn’t show it. The old man’s aura of confidence was the fulcrum of a giant machine that, after this night, would get much bigger.

A man who left nothing to chance, Hélio ensured that all the variables were set for his son to be victorious. Royce’s first match was against a boxer, the most vulnerable of all the fighters in the tournament.  His older brother Rickson, who had much more experience and was known by the family to be the better fighter, was in his brother’s corner.  Most in the family thought Rickson should represent the Gracies in the tournament but Hélio was a man who knew the value of spectacle.

His Jiu-Jitsu was founded on the principle that the weak can defeat the strong and what better way to prove this than fight against a larger, stronger opponent.  He wanted to prove that any man, as long as he learned the closely guarded secrets of his system, could attain invincibility.  

To prove this to the Americans, to put the focus on the art and not the individual, Helio knew it had the slight and unassuming Royce and not the fierce-looking Rickson who made the point. The referee for the match was a trusted family friend and one of Hélio’s first and greatest students, João Alberto Baretto. João was a veteran of many such cage wars and was therefore one of the few people in the world qualified to referee such a no-holds-barred match.

 The fight itself should be an afterthought, knew Helio.  If Royce made no mistakes he’d win.  The Jiu-Jitsu Hélio armed his sons with over the course of their lives is flawless. The only way for Royce to lose is if he veered from the path; if human frailty somehow polluted the mathematical perfection of Hélio’s precise system of leverage, position, and form.  To those unfamiliar with it, his Jiu-Jitsu was an endless maze, an imponderable series of puzzles, a bottomless pit, and by the night’s end it would be a revelation.

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