On June 7th 1494, at the Treaty of Tordesillas, in an act of monumental hubris the nations of Spain and Portugal divided up the known world outside of Europe. Spain got everything west of the Cape Verde Islands and Portugal got everything that lay east, including what would become the nation of Brazil. This is why, although Spanish is spoken in the rest of Central and South America in Brazil they speak Portuguese.
Brazil’s population is composed of the descendants of European settlers, African slaves, and the indigenous Amerindians. With a land mass as large as the continental US, abundant natural resources and a population of almost 200 million, Brazil has always been a nation brimming with unmet potential and possibility. However in the minds of MMA fans the country will forever be linked with the fi ghting style known as BJJ or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The style came out of nowhere in the early 1990’s when Royce Gracie used it to smother, trip and choke his way into history during the fi rst 3 UFC’s.
My own introduction to BJJ came from a great master of the art, Ricardo Murgel. I met him over a year ago after he relocated to Atlanta and I was lucky enough to be able to train with him. Murgel’s resume reveals that he is a 7th level master of BJJ as well as a Judo Black Belt with over 50 years of experience in martial arts. He has coached fi ghters to championship levels at events such as the Abu Dhabi Championships and in the UFC and Pride. His understanding of fi ghting and fi ghters is encyclopedic and he knows everyone in the business. He is an invaluable resource to me as well as a close friend. Murgel can be a little rough around the edges but is also incredibly intelligent and wise. Imagine a Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid who curses or a Yoda who likes to drink beer; that is Master Murgel. He has often told me that if I really wanted to understand MMA I needed to go to Brazil, the source. I needed to meet the people who invented it, not in 1993 or with the UFC but sixty years ago in South America.
Murgel is treated like a returning monarch. His students carry our bags, drive us around and see to our every need. We have arrived in Porto Alegre, Murgel’s hometown. He is holding a seminar on Jiu Jitsu. Several newspapers are covering it and well over 120 people are attending. Before he left Brazil, Murgel would review his students in formation, the black belts lining up in front followed by the brown and purple belts on down to the blues and whites. When we enter the room they are waiting in formation to greet him, just like old times. As they catch sight of him they start shouting, “Union, Union, Union!” pumping their fi sts in the air. It is a powerful moment, like watching Leonidas review his 300 Spartans. This is my fi rst hint of the incredible veneration a master of BJJ receives in his home country. As soon as the seminar ends Murgel is hounded for autographs and pictures, like a movie star. People even want to get their picture taken with me, because I know him.
“If anyone can tell you the true story of Vale Tudo it will be Grandmaster Joao Alberto Barreto and his brother Alvaro. They were there since the beginning,” Master Murgel tells me as we arrive in Rio. The Brothers are Grandmasters in the 9th level of BJJ. The 10th level is reserved for the founders of the art; Carlos and Helio Gracie and their brothers. Helio is the only one still living and he is 95 years old. When he’s gone there will never be another 10th level. Remembering with what reverence Murgel, a 7th level, had been treated in Porto Alegre I realize that meeting the Barretos one on one is a rare honor.
We arrive at a gym right off Copacabana Avenue. The equipment looks old but pristine. The place is well used but immaculate. “This is amazing,” Murgel tells me, “I trained here 40 years ago.” Soon Grandmaster Alvaro arrives. He is a tall man with dark hair and a regal bearing. He moves slowly with the small, sure gestures of a man of high culture and his voice is soothing. He has a cerebral, academic air about him and is in fact, like his brother Joao Alberto, an accomplished university professor. Here is a man who is highly educated, wealthy, professionally accomplished and who could kill me in about three seconds if the urge took him. But only peace and kindness fl ow from Grandmaster Alvaro.
He and Murgel laugh and reminisce about old times in Portuguese and soon he takes us into a mat room where we sit in a circle on the fl oor. As I sit next to him I realize that his limbs are long for his height. Although he speaks a little English we fi nd that it is easiest to use Murgel as an interpreter. I ask him about the early days of BJJ and he mentions how back then the Gracies taught only the elite of Brazilian society, CEOs, government ministers etc. When they opened the 2nd Gracie Academy it was a highly polished operation with only private classes and huge industrial washers and dryers which ensured that the students always had a clean, pressed Gi ready for training.
“And it was as expensive as Hell!” Murgel exclaims, saying that when he was a boy he had asked to attend the Gracie Academy and his father, a successful Rio Dentist, had refused, explaining that the dues would be equivalent to 17% of his monthly income. In those days BJJ was for the richest members of the society, the most elite.
Later, Alvaro offers to walk with us part of the way home. On the way we stop by an exclusive club on the beach full of rich men with cigars and servants in tuxedos, reinforcing in my mind how the BJJ practitioners of Barreto’s generation were from a very different strata of society than most US fi ghters. Murgel is impressed. “I’ve never been in here,” he says wide-eyed. Alvaro has been a member for many years. He takes us to a balcony overlooking the sea. As the waves beat against the sand in the moonlight I discover that Alvaro can speak English well when he chooses to.
“You must understand that Jiu Jitsu is really four things. 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 points out. “Exactly. Secondly 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.”
I ask him how this is so and he says, “If man is too aggressive, it will calm him. Is he is too weak or passive? It will make him stronger. And fi nally it is a fi ghting system. Today in MMA people only concentrate on the last and ignore the fi rst three.” As we walk out of the club I ask him one last question, “What is the essence of Jiu Jitsu?”
He thinks for a moment, “Jiu Jitsu is not an end. It is a tool for creating a better life.” He pauses again and then says thoughtfully “ It is like my North.” As Murgel and I walk back to the hotel I feel lucky have been able to speak on a personal level with such a man.
“You can’t believe how good this man was,” Murgel confi des to me as we ring the bell at the apartment of the great Joao Alberto Barreto. “He fi ghts every Monday for a year and beats every opponent, all by knock-out or submission.” In one of Joao’s last fi ghts his opponent refused to tap so he broke his arm. The compound fracture on live Brazilian TV was so shocking that it very likely played a role in the cancellation of the program soon after. “He was like the Fedor of his day,” Murgel says, “even better.”
Grandmaster Joao answers the door. Although 72 he stil
l is an imposing fi gure, with even longer arms and legs than his brother, a deep chest and a large head. He ushers us into his apartment. He has excellent old world taste, lots of antiques, oil paintings and sculpture. The furnishings are expensive but not ostentatious. As we all take our seats in the den his body language is stiff and I can tell he is a little uncomfortable with me being here. Murgel had mentioned that he couldn’t remember an instance of Joao Alberto ever receiving a journalist into his home and now he has an American reporter in his antique armchair! I begin to sweat under his serene but intense glare. His brother makes you feel at ease, this man makes you feel his power. He begins to speak in a deep stentorian voice.
“When I was 15 I was a body builder and student at the military academy. At this time Helio Gracie was challenged by a fi ghter named Caribe. 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 Helio defeated the guy very easily and I was presented by my father to Helio and his brother Carlos they said, ‘Wow this boy is big!’ They invited me the next Monday to the Gracie Academy… They tested me by having me fi ght another boy who had more experience and I beat him.”
The Gracies were so impressed with the athletic gifts of the young Joao that they soon put an add in the newspaper that said, “In three months we challenge any amateur fi ghter in Rio to fi ght this boy because we are manufacturing champions at the Gracie Academy.” I notice that he’s beginning to loosen up.
“I always had a talent for fi ghting but I wasn’t a pit bull fi ghter I was a very technical fi ghter. I was like a skyrocket,” he reminisces fondly. He begins telling us about his amazing run on the Vale Tudo TV show; Heroes of the Ring.
“Every Monday, Jiu Jitsu fi ghters were matched against fi ghters from other martial arts styles. The rules were very simple. You could not gouge the eyes, fi sh hook or hit in the groin.” I remark that this seems like an early version of MMA and he agrees. Though in those days it was called Vale Tudo meaning anything goes.
“Every Monday I would fi ght and every Tuesday they would pay me,” he says slapping the palm of his hand and smiling. It was during this period that he had his amazing 40-0 run. I tell him that for a survivor of so many fi ghts he is remarkably unmarked, at which point he insists I feel his ear, now completely brittle and calcifi ed.
I ask him about the famous feud between the Gracie family and the villainously named Waldemar Santana:
“Waldemar Santana was an employee of the Gracie Academy and a student. He used to take care of the rest rooms,” Joao Alberto sneered. “I taught him many times. He had a problem with Helio and Helio kicked him out of the Academy for fi ghting without [his] permission.”
In retaliation Waldemar, a black belt, challenged Helio. They had one of the longest fi ghts in history at 3 hours and 40 minutes. Finally an exhausted Helio was beaten by the much younger and larger Santana who dishonored the Gracie family by throwing Helio to the mat and kicking him in the face, knocking him out. As Alberto tells the story, Murgel is on the edge of his seat the drama of the moment still fresh in his memory after 50 years.
The loss had to be avenged so the Gracies challenged Santana again. This time he would go up against Helio’s nephew Carlson Gracie.
Waldemar and Carlson fought two matches. The fi rst was a Jiu Jitsu match which went to a time limit draw. Joao Alberto believes that this was a tactic on the part of the Gracies to scout Santana because after that match Carlson challenged him to a Vale Tudo match where Carlson, now being familiar with his opponent, destroyed Waldemar,
“Let me ask you something that I have always wondered about,” Murgel says. “Why did the Gracies choose Carlson to fi ght [the rematch] instead of you who was the bigger fi ghter with more experience and the better one in my opinion?” “Waldemar [was asked] to choose between Carlson and I and he chose Carlson.” Murgel’s eyes widen in amazement. “This is the fi rst time in 53 years that I have ever heard this.”
Joao Alberto clams up for a moment (the Gracies and their students are famously tight lipped about their inner workings.) “When I used to train with Waldemar I had an easier time of it than when Carlson trained with him.”
“I would have done the same thing Waldemar did,” Murgel exclaims.
There is a knock on the door and Joao’s brother Alvaro, who we met yesterday, walks in. He has brought his Gi and the two men who have not been photographed together for many years agree to pose wearing the solid red belts that identify them as 9th level Grandmasters. Looking at the belts I realize that there are less than 10 of these in the world.
When I returned to the hotel the Concierge hands me a message. It reads, “Sr. R. Gracie. Pl. Call Back.”
“Wow, Rickson Gracie!” I think. Rickson, the most famous of all of the Gracies is the current champion of the family, taking up the mantle laid down by his father and Carlson Gracie, his uncle. Unlike them both, Rickson has never been defeated. His record is 11 and 0 in MMA matches. Legend has it that he has been in over 400 street fi ghts, Jiu Jitsu and Vale Tudo matches in his life without ever tasting defeat. Rickson is notoriously reclusive and I am surprised when he agrees to meet me the next day at a small café in my hotel.
He looks a little older than I expect but he is still very handsome and there’s an unmistakable aura about him. A lot of people doubt the credibility of Rickson’s self proclaimed 400 and 0 record but sitting across from him I think, “It could be true.” We start by talking about the famous Gracie challenge.
“In Brazil people are not inclined to accept something until you prove it,” he says.
“We have always had the Gracie challenge, not to be bullies or the toughest guys in town but because, to sell our beliefs we had to be willing to confront anyone who disbelieved what we had to sell. And what we sell is effectiveness, effectiveness in fi ghting. The challenge was made to prove the point that we were willing to confront other styles and over the last 50 years or so in 95 percent of the cases we have been successful.”
When I mention that after talking to the Barreto brothers I realize that the early UFC’s were the offshoots of his father’s Vale Tudo in the 1950’s he agrees saying, “In the beginning the UFC was just a platform to show the dominance of Gracie Jiu Jitsu against other styles.”
I ask him if he thinks, at least as far as the UFC is concerned, that Jiu Jitsu has been a victim its own success (i.e. so effective that everybody went out and learned it thereby negating its advantages). He doesn’t answer the question directly, but instead he mentions that the rules were changed by the UFC to make the fi ghts more competitive, he believes at the expense of Jiu Jitsu.
“Standing the fi ghters up, gloves, reducing the time limits, all these little aspects make style a secondary component to the individual. How fast you are, how aggressive, how explosive… It is very hard for a fi ght to be decided in the fi rst 3 or 5 minutes, a major aspect of Jiu Jitsu is defense, defense, defense and then capitalizing on a mistake your opponent makes… When my dad fought he was 130 pounds. He would survive until he caught the guy in a mistake. How can you do this if there isn’t enough time?” He brings up his brother Royce in his fi ght against Dan Severn at UFC III, “Up until the moment Severn tappe
d out everybody thought he was beating Royce.”
I ask him if he was surprised when Royce was recently defeated in devastating fashion by American wrestler Matt Hughes.
“I was surprised because I didn’t recognize my brother. I don’t know if it was his training or mental stress or whatever but he didn’t look like himself. He made some very basic mistakes.” He leaves it at that.
Many people saw that fi ght as a defeat for Jiu Jitsu. I ask him if he worries that were he ever to be defeated it would be seen as discrediting the discipline. He strongly disagrees, “I am basically at the end of my fi ghting career. If I am lucky and they pay me what I want then I might have one more fi ght or I may just retire… But every time I compete I put everything at risk and if I were to lose, it would be because I made a human mistake or maybe got too old… It would be me being defeated not Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu has already been proved. Today on a certain level everybody fi ghting in MMA is a Jiu Jitsu fi ghter”
What really motivates him now is promoting Jiu Jitsu as a sport and as a way to improve people’s lives. “Boxing is a fi ghting art, Karate is a fi ghting art. Jiu Jitsu is a guide, a philosophy, a social movement.” Rickson’s speech becomes passionate. “I am in the business of building character not of making fi ghters. I pay the same attention to the shy guy who is getting bullied as I do to the guy who wants to be a fi ghter. I will make that guy more confi dent and help him regain his self esteem. This is the priceless aspect of Jiu Jitsu, this is the treasure… If someone says that I am just a great fi ghter I feel like my legs have been cut off,” he tells me, “What I want to be is a great Master.”
As I say goodbye to Rickson I realize that while I have always thought of him as a famous fi ghter he is really a teacher, and a salesman. Joao Alberto, Alvaro and now Rickson are all selling the idea of the complete man. They are walking billboards for what Jiu Jitsu can do: Impressive and complete individuals; intelligent, striking, successful and deadly in combat. The Gracie Challenge, Heroes of the ring and Vale Tudo, Rickson’s matches and even the original UFC are advertisements for a worldview, infomercials for a mindset.
For these three impressive men it is the promulgation of the art of Jiu Jitsu as a fi ghting system and as a way to live your life that is most important. What Royce and Rorion Gracie did in the fi rst UFC’s was just an extension of what Helio and Joao Alberto had done in the 50’s and 60’s, to conclusively demonstrate Jiu Jitsu as a fi ghting art. The inference being a quintessentially Brazilian one; If Jiu Jitsu makes you invincible in a fi ght it can also make you invincible in life, the victorious fi ghter as metaphor for the victorious man. If I hadn’t met them in person I would be skeptical. But there’s something about being in this fi erce and beautiful country that makes it easier to believe in supermen.