Through the Storm
The house sits at the end of a poorly kept dirt road in a neighborhood with no visible street signs. The gate is locked and I can hear several dogs barking behind it. It’s growing dark and I start to wonder if I am even in the right place. As the dusk turns to outright darkness, a black sedan comes roaring up, music blaring. Paulo Filho pops out of the passenger side. His crew of fi ve friends piles out with him. He smiles, fumbles for his keys, and opens the gate.
He invites me into the courtyard and a cloud of noise and chaos follows us in.
Once inside the gate, I meet the dogs. One of them, a mammoth white English bulldog sounding like a locomotive, huffs and snorts his way out to meet us. He leaps up on me, slobbering. “Kron, no!” Paulo admonishes and pushes him off. I ask Paulo if he named the dog after Kron Gracie, son of the great Rickson Gracie. “No, just coincidence,” Paulo says, giving me a wide-eyed shrug. One of Paulo’s crew says, “Ask him about the horse.”
“Hey Paulo, what about the horse?” I parrot, having no idea what I’m talking about in the swirl of activity. Paulo again shrugs, but lets his friend know that it is all right to tell me. “Yesterday he picked up a horse,” the guy tells me. “What?” I exclaim incredulously. “A real one? A horse or a pony?” “A horse,” the guy says. Paulo proudly mimes squatting down and picking up a horse on his shoulders like a squatting with a barbell.
“Why?” I ask. Paulo smiles, shrugs and looks at me like it’s the dumbest question anyone had ever asked him. It seems impossible that a man could pick up a horse. But Filho is known for his eccentric training methods. Once, he allowed four full-grown men to climb his shoulders piggyback style as he trotted across a fi eld. The uncanny display of strength, available on YouTube, has to be seen to be believed.
As we go upstairs, we pass the garage that Paulo has turned into a makeshift gym. Ten feet by ten feet and lined with wrestling mats, the fl oor is strewn with several sets of boxing gloves. There is a phrase in Portuguese inscribed high on the back wall in blood red. He calls the small cubby his laboratory, and it’s used to research moves that he wants to keep secret until he springs them on an unsuspecting opponent. When I ask him about the writing on the wall, he tells me it means, “God guides you through the storm.”
A large, beat-up entertainment center dominates the small den inside Paulo’s house. Unkempt, chaotic but comfortable, it reminds me of my dorm room in college, only bigger with cooler stuff. A blanket and several pillows indicate that someone slept on the couch the night before. All of Paulo’s trophies from PRIDE Fighting Championship sit on top of the entertainment center. It is surprising how small they are. They could’ve been given out at Little League or for winning a school spelling bee. Paulo infl icted a lot of doom, blues, and agony on his opponents in Japan to win those little things. One of his friends pulls open a drawer crammed with medals Paulo has won competing in Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, and MMA. He has been a champion since he was a boy. He can’t remember the last time anyone got the better of him.
From a room off the kitchen, I hear the sound of puppies whining. Paulo goes in and reveals a female pit-bull, nursing a litter. He tenderly pets the mother and then scoops the puppies up in his arms. He handles them with the calculated roughness of someone who is used to breeding dogs. He tells me that pit bulls are his favorites because of their loyalty and fi ghting spirit. I ask him about a rumor I heard, that he once lived in a three-bedroom apartment in Rio with eighteen full-grown pit bulls. He says it’s true.
“Paulo, how in hell do you feed eighteen pit bulls?” I ask. He breaks out into a rapid-fi re giggle.
“I had to fi ght to feed them.” Giggling sheepishly, he could be a six-year-old cutting up in the back of the class at school. It’s easy to forget that he is one of the most dangerous mixed martial artists on the planet.
We take our seats at a small dining room table, and I ask him why he chooses to stay in Brazil. He says as long as his father and mother are there he cannot leave. “It’s actually a very personal question.” He says, “My father was a successful engineer for Petrobras. My mother was from a very poor family, practically starving. She came to Rio when she was twenty and met my father who was thirtyfi ve and had a daughter by a previous marriage. They fell in love at fi rst sight, but my father’s family was very against the marriage. He loved her, so they got married anyway. After that, my father’s family had nothing to do with us.”
Paulo wears his heart on his sleeve, and as he tells this story, the hurt and rejection from those days is written on his face. He says that as a kid he never met anyone from his father’s side of the family. “They even tried to get my mother to abort me.” He says. I am a little shocked that he would be so forthcoming. “How do you know that?“ I ask. “I found out,” he replies cryptically.
Because of being ostracized by the rest of the family, he and his parents are extremely close. “It was always us three against the world,” he says. He also admits that it may have caused his parents to spoil him. “Being an only child, I have always been the darling.” Hardheaded, hyperactive, and often incorrigible, Filho admits that he was a “terrible kid”. In an attempt to channel his energy, his parents enrolled him in a Judo class at the age of fi ve. On his fi rst day in the class, he spit on the mats. “Just because you were mean?” I ask. “No. It was to say, ‘if I want to spit, I’ll spit.’”
Noticing the hint of defi ance in his voice as he tells the story, I wonder how much of the precocious and headstrong child is left in the man. Despite his cantankerous fi rst day, he soon realized that Judo was the one and only thing in his life that required discipline and commitment, and he liked that. The daily challenge of training motivated him. I am amused by the thought of a fi ve-year-old Paulo in his little gi being psyched up to and ready to train. But hearing him tell it, it makes sense.
When he was eight, his family moved to Copacabana, and Paulo had a chance encounter that changed his life. He was looking for a Judo gym in his new town, and by sheer luck he wandered into the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy of Carlson Gracie. “I saw people inside with gis and I thought they were doing Judo.”
Carlson was at the front desk with his brother Robson Gracie. Carlson intuitively sensed something in the stocky eightyear- old. Paulo imitates Carlson jumping up from behind the desk and saying in his famously brusque style, “Look at the size of this boy’s hands!” A good trainer, and Carlson Gracie was one of the best, can see physical potential in a kid immediately, the way a horse trainer can judge a thoroughbred by watching it walk across a fi eld,
“I came back at fi ve like Carlson asked me to, and I never stopped coming back,” Paulo continues. I ask what it was like to know the legendary Carlson, a man who is second only to the demigod Helio in the affection of the average Brazilian. Filho starts to beam as he recollects his old coach.
“Carlson’s main virtue is that had no idea who he was. He was very humble and down to earth. He was an extremely simple and authentic person,” recalls Filho. “Carlson was VERY direct. He would show a move three times, and if you hadn’t gotten it he would ask, ‘Hey boy! Are you blind or are you stupid? Which is it?’”
Uncompromising honesty was an important part of what made Carlson such a phenomenal coach. “If he saw something wrong in your training, he would be the fi rst to tell you, ‘If you don’t fi x this you are going to get destroyed.’ But when he told you that you would win it gave you incredible confi dence.”
I ask him if the notoriously short-tempered Vale Tudo legend ever got mad at him. “Thousands of times.” He says. He gets a devilishly gleeful look on his face as he tells a favorite Carlson story. “One time Carlson had scheduled training at ten o’clock in the morning. This was when Walid Ismail was going to fi ght a guy from Luta Livre. At the time, I was fi fteen or sixteen years old, and had stayed out partying until about six in the morning.“ Paulo says he came home and crashed and forgot about the training.
Carlson came to Paulo’s house to pick him up. Panicked at his coach’s unexpected arrival, Paulo hid himself under the bed, hoping Carlson would go away if he thought he wasn’t at home. He heard Carlson enter his house looking for him, and asking his mother, “Where is Paulo, where is the poor little baby who can’t train?” So Paulo, still hiding, cracked up at the commotion Carlson was making and got busted. “Look at the poor little baby who doesn’t want to come training today. Isn’t that sad? Did the baby get a little bit last night? Aww, is he tired, does he want to sleep? Well, now he can get his ass to training!” As Paulo tells the story, the gleam in his eyes reveals how much he loved the old man who passed away in 2006. “Carlson was an institution… he was unique.”
I fi nally ask him about checking himself into rehab and his reported struggles with depression. He seems genuinely perplexed as he answers. “I don’t know what happened, but it happened suddenly. Things started to occur that I couldn’t explain. I didn’t want to train and I’ve loved training my whole life. I would sleep all of the time, lose my temper. I would just eat, eat, and eat.”
“I was very unbalanced. One minute I was great, the next I was extremely upset, crying. I couldn’t stand the light and always wanted to be in the dark.” Paulo is describing the classic symptoms of clinical depression, but he says that in Brazil they didn’t really have the facilities or expertise to deal with this sort of problem.
“I don’t know why I had this problem, but I do know that because of it I lost my wife, my friends, my professional credibility, and even my health.” He was unwisely self-medicating with antidepressants, but he says it hurts him to see people accuse him of other types of drug abuse. Elsewhere, he has admitted that the drug he used to combat his depression was Rohypnol, which is not typically prescribed for depression, as it is a powerful narcotic.
I ask him straight out: “Paulo, have you ever used steroids or other illegal drugs?” He answers immediately and emphatically, shaking his head. “No, never. NEVER, EVER!”
He says it was not until he checked himself into a facility that he fi nally received proper medical treatment for his condition. “I am much better, but it is a continual thing. I am going day by day.” He realizes this will be a challenge for the rest of his life. “Before, I didn’t understand what was happening to me, so I didn’t know how to react. But now that I know the nature of the challenge, I will face it. I’m a fi ghter.”
He tells me he knows now that many people have this sort of problem, even if they don’t realize it. “I am sure that there will be someone who will read this article and is in the same position that I was and will recognize what I’m talking about. They should know that there are people who understand them and that there is a way out.”
Paulo says the three things that pulled him through were his faith in God, the love of his true friends and family, and recognizing that he needed to get proper treatment. He says that as awful as the experience was, if he had to go through everything again to learn what he did about himself, he would. “Nothing in life is by chance.” He says, “Everything has meaning.”
As we wrap up and are about to leave, Paulo catches me. Taking me by the arm he says, “I feel like now the rain has dried up a little bit more.” He might have been hesitant about talking to me, but now I think he is glad that he got everything off his chest. I tell him that the way he is facing his demons is actually a much greater display of courage than anything he will ever do in the ring.
“No comparison,” he agrees, suddenly turning solemn. Whereas a moment before he had been boyish and gleeful, now he’s extremely somber with a faraway, steely look in his eyes. He walks with me downstairs and outside as far as the gate. As I head to my car, I turn to thank for him for his time and hospitality, but I am a too slow. The gate is closed and I can hear him locking it on the other side.