Keeping the Tradition Alive

Martial artists are a funny breed. They come in all shapes and sizes, each one espousing the virtues of their own given art form, their particular style over another’s. This can cause friction and politics: one man’s honey is another man’s poison.  The debate is seemingly endless.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the Gracie family changed the way combat sport was perceived by society in general. It could be described as a revolution, but that might imply chaos and disorder. Instead, this was a change that took generations to achieve, and with very little blood spilt. Not a revolution then, but more a belief in a highly efficient martial art form - well developed, tested in real combat situations, and relatively young in comparison to other forms of martial combat.

Brazil is where our great art was born, the spiritual home of Brazilian jiu-jitsu since the turn of the century. It was ruthlessly clinical and practical, conceived by a group of visionary pioneers in Rio de Janeiro.

In 1996, I was fortunate enough to be in Rio. At this point, I was already studying and playing capoeira. I remember seeing the tough-looking brutes in the streets of Rio, all cauliflower ears and serious faces. Jiu-jitsu in 1996 was just beginning to flourish, but it was still early days. I asked one of my Brazilian hosts at the time about these tough looking guys, and he replied in a hushed tone, ‘caras do jiu jitsu’ (guys from jiu jitsu). This was all new to me, but it stuck in my mind.

So, some four years later I discovered that Mauricio Gomes was teaching here in the UK and to me, that was a blessing.  Now I would have the opportunity to meet and train with one the first BJJ Masters to set up an academy in the UK.

Little did I realize then that this encounter would shape the next ten years of my life. As a film-maker, photographer and a martial artist, I followed the fortunes of Mauricio Gomes and his son Roger Gracie for over a decade, on four continents and across thousands of miles. During this period I have been fortunate enough to have witnessed and recorded some of the thoughts of this father and son team.

In 2003 Mauricio talked about his earliest memories of the jiu-jitsu in Rio de Janeiro, and the subsequent years of his development.

‘My father was my first contact with jiu-jitsu; he was already training with Helio Gracie in the 1950's, so I was introduced to the sport from an early age. But, like most youngsters, I had not given myself to the sport at that point. In 1961 my family moved to New York and jiu-jitsu was a very rare thing back then outside of Brazil. My father would make me train with him sporadically so I kept some contact with the Art.

In 1966 we returned to Rio and my father commenced training with one of Helio Gracie's black belts, Joao Alberto - a huge, very tough athlete who had gained his black belt in a very short time from Helio. He was an imposing fighter that had worked with and fought for the family when the sport was still in its infancy. I trained there at his Copacabana Academy.

As a youngster in Copacabana during the early 1970s, there was an emerging surfing culture. This was a time when jiu-jitsu was very small, even in Rio. So this is where I first encountered Rolls Gracie. I had friends who spoke of him, but the first time I laid eyes on Rolls was at Arpoador, a spot where many surfers gathered to enjoy the waves. 

I remember a VW pulling up and 5 burly surfers emerged wanting to resolve a problem that had arisen sometime earlier in the water. Catching waves is a pretty mercenary activity and can lead to conflicts among surfers, so I remember watching Rolls in action dealing with everything that the surfers threw his way, ably supported by Reyson Gracie. This was my first time seeing Rolls in action, and it was impressive.

So now I wanted to train with Rolls Gracie and I got the opportunity in September 1977. I entered the academy of Rolls as a white belt on a Friday. On the following Tuesday, he awarded me my blue belt and told me that I would be fighting at the weekend in the Rio State Championship, which I won.

This set the tone for the next five years, BJJ competitions at every available opportunity. If not we would enter Greco Roman wrestling championships, anything that was on offer really…learn the rules and compete.’ 

Mauricio has a strong connection with the whole Gracie clan and is generally accepted as one of the family. In May 1979 he married Reila Gracie. This union cemented Mauricio firmly at the heart of the family and primarily with Rolls Gracie, the man who awarded Mauricio all his belts. Mauricio was finally awarded the coveted black belt in November 1981 after winning the Rio State Championships.

This is what Mauricio refers to as the "Golden Era" with Rolls, 1977 to 1982. Talking with Mauricio over the years about Rolls, I have always noticed the sense of gravity and emotion when Mauricio speaks about his time with one of jiu jitsu's modern technical pioneers, and widely seen as the best Gracie of his generation.

‘Rolls died so early. His hand-gliding accident on the 6th June 1982 sent a massive shockwave through the world of jiu-jitsu in Rio. Many students stopped training. I was in the academy on the very next Monday, determined that this was a way of preserving contact with what had been so cruelly taken from us.

We were only a small group, the ones who he gave black belts, six in all, not many. I am very proud of being one of his black belts, and I can honestly say it was the best thing that ever happened in my life, apart from the birth of my children.

Rolls would structure his lessons in a very classic jiu-jitsu class format, incorporating self-defence, takedowns, specific sparring and of course, these things are very vivid in my mind.

I have always taught exactly the same way, exactly the same in fact for all these years. This is what I have tried to pass on here with my work in the UK. For me, it is important that the lineage remains and the knowledge is maintained.’

In 1997 Mauricio was given the honour of opening the first Gracie school in Tokyo and was the first Brazilian jiu-jitsu master to be invited to Japan to teach the Art.

He stayed there for one year, cultivating a high level of knowledge and a base for others to continue his work. Next stop for the Master was the UK, where, in his own words he would ‘travel up and down the country showing the Art to all who wanted to learn.’

And learn we did. There is something we British have in abundance and that is fighting spirit. So when a Brazilian jiu-jitsu master showed up there were plenty of inexperienced, but very tough students just waiting to have a shot with the new teacher. As Mauricio explains, ‘I would arrive at some venues to give a seminar and it would be nothing more than a back room of a pub with a piece of canvas tarpaulin for a mat.’ 

This was obviously less than ideal, but never one to disappoint, Mauricio would give the seminar and oblige anyone who wanted to spar with him. There were some big, strong lads according to Mauricio, bearing in mind he was already into his forties. However, with so much experience and great technique under his belt, people witnessed first-hand the very essence of what Brazilian jiu-jitsu is all about and the seed was sown for the growth of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the UK.

If we consider this to be part one of Mauricio’s story, part two evolved in spectacular fashion with the addition of an exciting and significant factor; Roger Gracie.  Roger is the fruit of Mauricio’s marriage to Reila Gracie, daughter of Carlos Gracie Snr. Roger opted to use the Gracie name from his mother’s side when he started competitive jiu-jitsu.

Roger Gracie:  "When I was 14 years old I made the decision to train very hard and be the best fighter I could be, I was in the south of Brazil training with Rellion and my cousin Rolles, it was from that moment on I decided to dedicate myself to the art of Jiu-jitsu, and I have never stopped."

Mauricio brought his 17-year-old son over to the UK. Roger was a tall blue belt, fresh from the Gracie Barra Academy in Rio. He was showing some promise, but it was still early days for the youngster.

Roger Gracie:   "Gracie Barra is the academy where I grew up, were I became a good fighter, you could get on the mat and there a 100 guys to train with,  a 100 great guys that want to compete, so everyone was training hard, dedicating a lot of time, it was never easy to fight any of them, so to train there daily, twice a day the speed with which you get better is very quick, I think because I had such a good quality of training partners, I became who I am today."

Roger’s frequent visits here to the UK which established in him a strong affinity with the small but growing group of fighters that had chosen to study with his father and this helped create a very fertile environment, one which would lead to a whole new incredible chapter in the development jiu-jitsu in the UK.

Roger Gracie & his father Mauricio Gomes were instrumental in bringing jiu jitsu to Europe

Roger Gracie and his father Mauricio Gomes were instrumental in bringing jiu jitsu to Europe

But there was still a lot of work to be done and many miles to cover. Roger accompanied his father traveling far and wide, spreading the Art and showing the value of high-level technical jiu jitsu.

Roger Gracie:  "My Father "first started teaching when he went to Japan it was there that he found himself as a teacher, he loved the teaching environment, he found his space, then he left and came to England and opened a school, the first brazilian to open a school in the UK, back then nobody knew what Jiu-Jitsu was, so he had a tough time, inciting interest by showing them on the mat, he had to fight everyone to show what Jiu-Jitsu is, (Laughs) so now everybody knows."

Roger travelled back and forth to London from Brazil. Each time he was maturing, and with him came news on the grapevine of his exciting exploits in the world of BJJ. He started to dominate at every competition, and was soon catching the eye of all the experts. Roger’s clean, methodical jiu jitsu left his opponents with little or no chance of victory.

There has been a lot of speculation as to why he’s such a dominant force within competition BJJ. Roger believes his competition success is down to his constant pursuit to improve himself as a fighter, so a great work ethic and dedication are obviously major factors. But, perhaps it’s Roger’s very calm nature too. He allows his mind complete focus in all he does, and this pays dividends. This highly professional approach to a martial arts career is what is required when coming from a family with such strong fighting pedigree.

Roger reflects,‘in the family, in every generation you have a great fighter. But, you cannot just mention that fighter alone; he did not get there on his own. You have everyone involved in your training, so if you’re getting ready for a fight or competition they will dedicate their time to help you become a better fighter, that’s what makes us so strong.’

In 2004 Roger fought in the World Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships. Although making the open weight division final against a very tough fighter, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Roger lost in what is seen as the most controversial title fight in the World Championship's history.

Roger started a little slowly, and Jacare seized his opportunity, pushed the fight and took Roger’s back, clocking up 4 points. Roger recovered from what seemed like an impossible situation, then with breathtaking textbook technique he applied an arm bar; a tight arm bar, one which Jacare refused to submit to. Jacare’s stubborn determination saw his arm completely hyper-extended.  However, Souza managed to free himself eventually, and the fight was restarted standing.

Tucking his broken left arm into his belt, Jacare had no other recourse than to avoid Roger’s attempts at re-engaging to finish the fight, so he backed off the mat several times. This went unpunished by the referee, and when the full ten minutes was finally called he remained 4 points the better and was awarded a very controversial victory.

I asked Roger after the fight for his thoughts, to which he replied ‘next time no arm bars, only chokes. Next time he taps or sleeps.’

These words would ring true when the pair met next in the 2005 ADCC open weight final. Roger pushed the fight all the way to its conclusion, finishing Jacare with a rear naked choke from standing. This dominance illustrated Roger’s versatility and complete self-belief. Roger had convincingly punished all opponents in both the weight and absolute divisions.

Here are a some of the comments I recorded directly after Rogers final Fight:

‘He showed he is a true champion. He pushed himself all the way to the end, and won all his matches, and won decisively. I have no other feeling than to feel proud to be a cousin of such a good boy, such a good fighter.’  - RenzoGracie

‘I can’t believe this, there’s no words as a father, as a fighter, who can achieve these things?’ - Mauricio Gomes

‘To fight with the Gracie name for me is a pleasure, something that makes me feel great. I have a whole family behind me. I am not fighting for myself, but I am fighting for my family.’ - Roger Gracie

In 2010 at the World Championships, Roger gained the Nickname 'O COBERTOR’, translating into english as ‘the blanket’, on his way to a third Absolute title. He submitted every one of his opponents with the same collar choke from the mount. This is impressive indeed, but when you consider nearly all his opponents were world class BJJ practitioners it makes this show of dominance one unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Roger explains why he was so dominant at this Championship.

‘What makes a champion? It’s the person’s mind; the person with the stronger mind will get there. First you have to believe, know that it’s possible, if you have any doubt then it won’t happen.

Of course there is pressure. That happens with every Gracie. The better they start doing, the more pressure will come onto their shoulders. It's all a matter of can you deal with that? That will determine how far you go.’

Roger carries traits of a truly great champion, a fighter versatile in attack and defense.  One who can turn a fight with great technique and show amazing mental strength under pressure.  He uses the same techniques a beginner will learn in the first year of their BJJ career. These smooth, precise skills have made Roger Gracie the world’s most decorated BJJ fighter.

Surely the highest accolade for a martial artist must lie in having fellow quality fighters seek to train at your academy? I have seen this over the years at the Roger Gracie Academy, with Braulio and Victor Estima being regular visitors as well as various members of the Gracie family all passing through.

Top MMA fighters seeking out the very best of what’s available in Europe make their way to visit Roger, traveling thousands of miles to work with the most gifted ground fighter of the millennium. When I see fighters of the calibre of George St Pierre on the Roger Gracie Academy mat, I realise that jiu jitsu in the UK is growing in a way never before imagined.

‘Roger Gracie is the best grappler on the planet right now, but Roger is not just a grappler, he has become a great striker also.’  This was a comment from George Saint Pierre, after a gruelling training session at the West London academy where he regularly comes to train with Roger, and perhaps shows the value of the work being maintained at the Roger Gracie Academy, attracting world-class fighters to train and develop in a genuine jiu jitsu environment.

RGA is all about quality Brazilian jiu jitsu, administered by two of the sports greats: Mauricio, a legendary teacher and master in every sense of the word, with countless Pan American and Rio State BJJ Championships.  Then Mauricio’s pride and joy, Roger Gracie, now the most highly decorated black belt fighter of all time, with seven weight division world titles, three world Absolutes titles and ADCC Absolute Champion. If that wasn’t enough, Roger has started to excel in the realm of mixed martial arts.

Roger Gracie: ‘I always knew once I achieved my black belt I would start to fight MMA, and a couple years later that’s exactly what happened. My technique is much stronger; I am physically better, now I am a strong adult and a good black belt. I am ready to go fight MMA; it's the natural course for the Gracies.’

So how can we quantify UK jiu jitsu at the Roger Gracie Academy after over a decade in the hands of this father and son duo?  There are now under Mauricio and Roger 21 black belts, 12 of them awarded in 2011. Back in 2000, blue belts were a rare breed, so 21 black belts is serious progress. Close behind there are well over 50 brown belts, and a vast amount of purple, blue and white belt practitioners. The numbers keep increasing, which can lead to only one conclusion - there is depth at RGA, a centre for the preservation of a fighting culture. This has been their clear aim while developing the academy.

Mauricio Gomes:  "It's been a long hard road, but extremely rewarding, Joy and happiness to see your son develop the art in the UK, It could not have been done any better, the feedback is the students."

Roger Gracie:  'My grandfather Carlos Gracie – what was his contribution to the world? He planted a seed,We are just continuing the work my grandfather started 100 years ago.’ 

In 2010 Mauricio was awarded his coral belt (red and black belt) by Carlos Gracie jr at the BJJ world championships. This belt is awarded to someone who has held a black belt for 31 years. In itself this is a huge achievement, but Mauricio is far more than just an accomplished teacher/ master, he is a true pioneer in bringing Jiu-Jitsu to the UK, and of course his son Roger followed his path here, and so now Jiu jitsu has been popularised and democratised now. Anyone can be good; everyone can have technique if you show spirit, intelligence and dedication.But what is sometimes difficult to obtain within the martial arts world and is a real key ingredient, it is a model of what can be achieved through the correct path of Martial arts.

In this respect the UK has been fortunate. Both Mauricio and Roger exemplify all the benefits that a well-structured martial arts career can bestow upon the willing student. Not just in the ability to execute great techniques on the mat and gain success in the field of competition, but also to display the benefits of discipline and control in normal society. Showing genuine concern for others, interacting more meaningfully with those we meet, displaying a courteous and well-mannered demeanour at all times – all traits of a martial artist.

These are not rich guys, but what they have in abundance is symbolic capital, something that money cannot buy; only a lifetime’s dedication to the Art can secure.  The American travel writer (Tim Cahill) once said

the journey is best measured in friends not miles” and this father and son team has been on a long journey together – with the friends to prove it.

In today’s somewhat vacuous society, those of us lucky enough to have become involved with the jiu jitsu world can thank these two great martial artists for helping to elevate the sport and spread some constructive culture. And so as student and a friend, from white belt to black, I have witnessed the lives and work of this father and son team, world class martial artists, two of the best and most demanding of their kind.

For anyone who has trained at the Roger Gracie Academy, as you pass through the door you enter a space that is engaging to the both the fighter and the uninformed spectator alike. There is leadership with expression, veneration, preservation, a study, a mastery of an ART.


This is a guest post by Daren Bartlett, a black belt under Mauricio and director of the documentary 'Tradition 'The Rise of a Gracie Fighter'




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