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How I chose BJJ, or “what’s Brazilian Jew Jesus?”

December 12, 2011

About ten years ago, when I was volunteering with an after school program helping eighth graders make short radio pieces, I had a student who had the most amazingly creative hearing.  Let’s call him Carlos.  Let’s call him that because that was his name – Carlos.  He had a wonderfully playful way of perceiving and describing the world that was sometimes in conflict with his fervent belief that most of us were going to hell.  Carlos was, like the rest of his family, a devout baptist who took his bible quite literally and was prone to mishearing statements in the most inventive ways that often reflected his fascination with both spirituality and apparent contradictions – things that shouldn’t mix, but mixed nonetheless.

One day I was talking to another student as Carlos sat in the background, working on his piece.  The older student, let’s call him John, as his name was John, mentioned he had started “doing BJJ.”  When I asked him what that was, he looked at me like I’d asked what “walking” was.  “You know, Brazilian jiu jitsu?” he said incredulously.  “Like in the UFC?”  Now, as my mother is Brazilian, it happens I was vaguely familiar with jiu jitsu from an early age, but BJJ?  UFC?  I had no clue.  Apparently, neither did Carlos, who after a long pause, asked me in a tentative voice, “Mister, what’s Brazilian Jew Jesus?”  I laughed almost until tears came to my eyes, in spite of trying very hard not to, then explained that Brazilian jiu jitsu was a martial art, a derivative of judo, that focused on ground fighting.  When I was done, he seemed mildly disappointed.  So I mentioned that there actually was a group called Jews for Jesus, a casual comment which apparently led to an ongoing fascination on his part for which I believe his family never quite forgave me.

Fast forward ten years.  The same alphabet soup of acronyms – BJJ, UFC, MMA –   are mainstream in a way almost no one could have imagined.   Especially the UFC, now a billion dollar a year operation whose growth is outpacing that of every other sports promotion on earth.  The UFC, for those who have somehow still managed to avoid the exploding pop-cultural phenomenon, stands for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s premiere cage fighting promotion (though the term “cage fighting” has now been replaced with the more TV friendly “mixed martial arts” or MMA.)   The meteoric rise of the UFC and MMA are inseparable from the rapid transition of jiu jitsu from a relatively obscure specialty to a mainstream fighting system with gyms in virtually every city on the planet.  More on that later.  The point is, events of the last two decades have brought about a profound evolution in the understanding and efficacy of fighting systems, via the open lab of professional MMA competition.  These are not your father’s martial arts.  In other words, these are not…well…and it pains me to say this…my martial arts.

The martial arts I grew up with was a very different beast. This was the seventies, the age of Bruce Lee, of Enter the Dragon, and, most importantly, of old men who, through some semi-devine ninja training, could supposedly remove your liver with their eyebrows.  Such was the mystique we were willing to grant the storefront Senseis coming out of the woodwork in strip malls and converted laundromats across the country- guys with back stories as ridiculous as comic book origins.  They’d lived in a cave in China. They’d trained against tigers.  They could shatter bamboo with a high-pitched sound too dangerous to emit in public.  And we bought it all.  Given the steady diet of kung-fu entertainment we were consuming, how could we not.   Every Saturday, the kids in my neighborhood would head to the Majestic matinee to watch titles like Fists of Fury, Five Deadly Fingers and Ninja Assasin.  Everybody’d yell at the screen and imitate the sound effects as various Asian actors with taut abs and twitchy faces threw down in a ballet of violence.  And when we came out, we were so worked up from bad dubbing and sudden rack zooms that we’d hit up mom or grandma or anybody with two bucks for a lesson at the local Dojo, where some poser with nun-chucks was ready to pocket our testosterone-driven cash.  In my neighborhood, that dojo was Iron Dragon Kung-Fu.

Nestled in between Harold’s chicken shack and the Deltone Lounge, Iron Dragon was the closest thing to a school of martial arts that existed in our world, which meant that every Tuesday a group of sycophantic hangers-on let a supposed ex-ranger named Dale alternately beat them up and school them on fighting, manhood and the true meaning of life.  The true meaning of life, it turned out, usually involved assaulting someone’s genitals.  If Dale had a motto, it was that every self-defense scenario had its own appropriate technique.  And that technique…was the groin attack.  I could describe Dale and Iron Tiger to you in horrific detail, but I don’t really need to.  Instead I’ll just offer up this video, crafted by Albuquerque writer/director Matt Page and crew.  His webisodic series, Enter the Dojo, captures the absurdity and mildly abusive undertone of  martial arts at that time better than I ever could.  By the way, someone needs to pick this show up and put it on TV.  It’s that good.  If you agree, check out their indiegogo campaign and help ’em out.

There were two main problems with the version of martial arts offered up by the Master Kens of the world.  First, it was clearly more concerned with maintaining the ego and various delusions of the “master” than it was with teaching students, and, second, the majority of the techniques it had to offer simply didn’t work.  A combination of overly devoted students and the absence of any actual full contact fighting had reduced once viable fighting systems into the rote practice of rigid forms and questionable beliefs in semi-mystical powers.  The absurdity of these insulated and delusional fighting systems is brutally demonstrated by the following two clips.  A Japanese master of Daitouryu-aikido named Yanagiryuken was well known for his supposed Kiai powers – the projection of “chi energy” capable of incapacitating opponents while barely touching them.  Here he is showing his “techniques” in action. (The demo starts at 0:20 sec)

I’m sure most observers will recognize such antics as a form of theater, not self-defense.  Unfortunately, Yanagiryuken amassed enough gullible students to surround him that he actually began to believe his own hype.  So much so that he offered a 1,000,000 yen prize for anyone who could defeat him, if they offered up 500,000 yen of their own if they lost.  Eventually, an amateur MMA fighter with about a year and a half of formal training came up with the cash took Yanagiryuken up on his challenge.  The results are below.  Warning, this video does contain actual punching and kicking – the real thing.

Although, thankfully, Yanagiryuken was not seriously injured, this footage is difficult to watch.  No one wants to see an old man get kicked in the head.  Well, no one normal, at least.   But it demonstrates how some self-defense “techniques” can actually cause you significant harm, if you mistakenly buy in to the deluded belief that you will be able to employ them effectively in a fight.  A lot of us kids at Iron Dragon Kung-Fu found that out the hard way the first time we tried to confront a bully with the tiger claw stance (otherwise known as the “please kick my ass” stance.)

So how do we know what fighting techniques actually work?  Well, by fighting, of course.  And that’s the rub.  If you, like me, want to learn real martial arts as a means of actually avoiding fighting, you have a real catch-22 on your hands.  If you don’t fight, you can’t learn skills that lead to the kind of confidence and calm that help you avoid fights.  But if you resort to fighting in order to gain those techniques, you’re not really avoiding fighting, are you? What ever is a self-defense minded pacifist to do?

Enter the UFC.  As mentioned earlier, the UFC is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest and most prestigious league of no-holds-barred fighting and one of the fastest growing sports leagues in the world.  The UFC was originally conceived as a means of answering the question that had burned in the minds of many a twelve-year old;  namely, which style of martial art is really the strongest?  Who would win if a kung-fu master fought a sumo wrestler? How about a Karate black belt verses a champion boxer?  Those early UFC contests were often brutal affairs, barely regulated, with no weight classes and virtually no rules.  The “martial artists” were sometimes simply barroom brawlers or street fighters, but the crowds were clearly there to see blood and broken bones anyway, not technique or physical artistry.

But twenty years and thousands of fights later, the UFC is a completely different animal, largely due to CEO Dana White’s ability to reinvent full-contact fighting as a legitimate sport.  More rules were adopted that protected fighter safety.  Weight classes helped prevent gross mismatches and state athletic commissions provided oversight and medical exams before and after fights.  Most importantly, the ever increasing money and prestige for top fighters drew crossover athletes from other sports: olympic wrestling, soccer, football.  Top level Mixed martial artists now looked and acted like professional athletes; educated, articulate and highly trained, wearing suits at pre-fight pressers and mouthing all the standard cliches we’ve come to expect as fans.  Even Senator John McCain, who had called MMA “human cockfighting” and tried to ban it on the floor of congress, eventually conceded that it had a legitimate place at the sports table.

And along the way, that twelve year-old’s question regarding which styles talked and which styles walked was largely answered.  The UFC was like a Mayo Clinic of violence – effectively acting as a kind of research facility for fighters and trainers.  So many fighters trying so many different techniques in actual fights eventually revealed what worked and what didn’t.  The result? It is now generally accepted within MMA circles that to be competitive, a fighter must have a reasonable command of four styles:  jiu jitsu, muay thai, boxing and wrestling. No professional fighter is able to have much success without being good at these four forms and great at at least one of them.  Please, no hate mail from karate or tae kwan do folks – I am not demeaning those arts in the least, nor implying that they have nothing to offer to mixed martial artists.  I am only stating that the current consensus amongst professional fighters is clear.  Besides the aforementioned four systems, other martial arts are simply not trained extensively, except for the occasional borrowed and adapted technique. So now, in MMA gyms across the country, students can often take classes in all four arts, though many gyms specialize in one in particular, and each technique has been thoroughly vetted via the crucible of actual full-contact fighting.

But what if you had to choose one?  Say, for example, you were a forty-nine year-old dad with a full-time job and bad knees, for whom six hours a day of multidisciplinary training sounded as delusional as fighting live tigers? Is one discipline in anyway more crucial or essential than the others?  Well, that question, while hotly debated, has also, in my opinion, been answered.  In the early days of the UFC, back when groin strikes were legal, the fists were bare and one fighter might outweigh the other by a hundred pounds or more, one particular fighter dominated against all comers from all other disciplines, winning three of the first four UFC tournaments with a perfect record.  That fighter was normal looking 170 pound man who wouldn’t inspire the least fear in a dark alley.  His opponents, however, were often huge mounds of dangerous-looking muscle.  Looking at the two combatants across the cage at the start of the fight, you’d almost wince at the lopsided ass-whupping that was surely about to unfold.  Yet a few minutes later he would be on his opponents back, choking them unconscious like some cross between an anaconda and a crazed monkey on PCP.  That man was Royce Gracie and his art was Brazilian jiu jitsu.  He confounded other fighters and even more the spectators by almost immediately taking the fight to the ground, where his techniques could shine.  This is Royce in action against the infamous Japanese sumo champion, Akebono, a man who was nearly a foot taller and outweighed him by over three hundred pounds.  After intentionally letting Akebono take him down, he forces him to “tap out” using a shoulder lock.

One could argue, however, that Gracie’s success was not his alone.  In a sense, his entire family was fighting in the ring with him.  Royce Gracie was the youngest son of Helio Gracie, the frail young man who with his brother Carlos had inherited and adapted the teachings of Japanese Judo master Mitsuyo Maeda.  That’s the brothers on the right, circa 1935.  Both Carlos an Helio lacked the size and power to pull off many of Maedas moves so they began, in secret, to revise the system, utilizing leverage and position instead of strength and size and Brazilian jiu jitsu was born.  Helio and Carlos made the development of Jiu Jitsu – not just as a fighting system, but also as a philosophy and a lifestyle  – their singular mission in life.  Helio had seven sons, Rorian, Relson, Rickson, Rolkson, Royler Robin and Royce.  (Seriously.  This is especially hysterical if you’ve ever heard Brazilians pronounce the letter R.)   Carlos outdid his brother, fathering a mind-boggling twenty one children all of whom trainied jiu jitsu, thirteen of whom became black belt instructors.  By the nineties, with the addition of over two hundred grandchildren and great grandchildren, the vast majority of whom followed in their father’s (and mother’s) BJJ footsteps, they had become the largest family dynasty the martial arts world had ever seen.

But unlike the Master Kens of the world, the Gracies actually fought.  Constantly.  Early on, Carlos and Helio issued the Gracie challenge, stating they would face any and all challengers from any style in bare-knuckled no holds barred fights.  The challenge was accepted often and the fights became quite popular with the public, eventually growing into the “vale tudo” (everything counts) competition that was a Brazilian precursor to modern MMA.  So when the Gracies decided to expand their reach to the United States in the early nineties, they were looking for a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of jiu jitsu to the American public and the nascent UFC was made to order.  Royce was chosen to represent the family because he was relatively small and did not look overly athletic.  They wanted to make sure that the technique itself took center stage.  And did it ever.

Royce won his first eleven fights, most within the first couple of minutes, utilizing a variety of chokes and joint locks on the ground.  American audiences were dumbstruck.  Often, the announcers could not even describe what was happening, so unfamiliar were the techniques he was employing to most Americans at time.  It would appear that the two fighters were rolling around like animated pretzels – a mass of writhing limbs – when suddenly the other fighter was tapping and the ref was pulling Royce off him.   And that has been perhaps the only drawback to jiu jitsu’s popularity from an uninformed public’s perspective; it has none of the cowboy-style fisticuffs nor Bruce Lee acrobatics they had come to expect from a martial art.  Fighting on the ground was almost unseemly to Americans raised on John Wayne and Bruce Lee. (I have some thoughts on what that reveals about the construct of American masculinity, but that’s for another post.)   The fact is, police studies of street fights have shown the majority of fights wind up on the ground, confirming what anyone who has seen enough real fights already knew.  So whether we like it or not, being on the ground seems to be an integral part of human combat.

All that rolling chaos can mask the huge amount of technique used in jiu jitsu.  There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of prescribed moves, each with their own counter-moves and counter-counter-moves, like a decision tree for breaking bones.  That’s a big part of what drew me to jiu jitsu, its three parts combat tumbling and one part chess-match.  At the higher levels, so they  say, its all chess-match.  But even when two high level players are rolling, it can feel to the uninitiated more like they’re watching a two-headed octopus trying to eat itself.  The Gracies, aware that their art form is less than transparent, have created “Gracie University”, a jiu jitsu education site meant to demystify the jumble of limbs fans were seeing during the ground phase of fights.  Here’s a sample – third generation Gracies Ryron and Rener (they must be about to run out of R names) breakdown Royce’s victory over Frank Shamrock at the very first UFC tournament in 1993.  Their childlike enthusiasm and excitement is infectious and shows the family obsession is alive and well.

So there you have it.  My quest for the best martial art for me is over.  After countless introductory classes, gym visits, youtube videos and garage workouts, I finally put my money where mouth-guard was and plunked down for six months of classes at Gracie-Barra New Mexico.  I’m seven lessons in, sore, humbled and one hundred percent hooked.  It’s not without its costs – I’m already nursing some injuries, but its worth it.  I guess you could say jiu jitsu has got me in a mind-lock, and I don’t think I’m getting out anytime soon.


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One Comment
  1. Two great posts so far. Keep it up and stay in touch.

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