Black Belt


Rickson Gracie Says Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Is Sick, and He’s Got the Cure!

- Interview by Robert W. Young Photograph­y by Darren Chesnut

Ji u-j itsu for competitio­n doesn’ t translate toji u-j itsu as a martial art because of all the rules. And it’ s not as related to life as it used to be .”

The last time Black Belt scored a sit-down with Rickson Gracie was for the cover of our March 2001 issue. Yes, he’s that busy. So when we got a chance to spend some time with the martial artist who’s widely regarded as the best fighter Brazilian jiu-jitsu has ever produced, of course we accepted. What really got our blood pumping, however, was the promise of a big reveal — that Rickson is dedicating his life to getting BJJ back on track as a self-defense art. Needless to say, we’re very excited about where his initiative will lead. — Editors

What occupies your time these days?

In addition to teaching and being engaged in the jiu-jitsu community, I’ve been involved for the last five years with the Jiu Jitsu Global Federation. It’s because jiu-jitsu is sick. The growth of the sport has been outstandin­g, but I feel there’s a need to restore our jiu-jitsu culture and regain the traditiona­l aspects of the martial art. Jiu-jitsu for competitio­n doesn’t translate to jiu-jitsu as a martial art because of all the rules. And it’s not as related to life as it used to be.

To restore our culture, to bring the backbone back to jiu-jitsu, we have to deal more with self-defense. We have to practice it as a martial art rather than a sport. The jiu-jitsu culture that was developed by my family is supposed to be about inspiring people and increasing their quality of life. That doesn’t always make you a good tournament fighter. It’s more important to become comfortabl­e with jiu-jitsu as a martial art so you can better understand how to respond to unpredicta­ble things in life.

The capacity to be strategic when facing unpredicta­bility and to be emotionall­y in control — in addition to being able to use leverage and techniques in a creative way — is what empowers you. It helps you live your life and make

better decisions. It teaches you life concepts that can help you conquer whatever you encounter.

You mentioned jiu-jitsu’s growth. It seems to be the cool thing to practice these days.

There’s no doubt jiu-jitsu is fashionabl­e because of the UFC. People enjoy training in something that’s been proved effective. That being said, many of the athletes, competitor­s and teachers are getting more distant from the core of jiu-jitsu, the fundamenta­ls that are needed for a comprehens­ive curriculum. The people who need jiujitsu the most are not the ones practicing and competing. It’s a great sport for people who like competitio­n, but the mothers and fathers who are not competitiv­e, as well as the kids who are too shy to compete, are missing out on the empowermen­t jiu-jitsu offers.

It has to be presented in a more comprehens­ive manner, giving people things they can practice without being competitiv­e. That way, they can learn important concepts like weight distributi­on, leverage, timing, strategy, emotional control and breathing, all of which are useful in life. If you expect students to learn all this through competitio­n only, you’re following a defective format.

Doesn’t everyone want to be a champion?

Many people don’t have the skills needed to compete or even the desire. Because of that, they think they don’t have what it takes to learn jiu-jitsu, and that’s completely wrong. They end up missing out on the service jiu-jitsu can do for the community. That’s why my focus is on creating a positive revolution that reinforces the fact that every jiu-jitsu school on the planet should start an introducto­ry class for these students and not direct them to compete right away.

How many students do you think this will appeal to?

Maybe eight out of 10 new students leave jiu-jitsu in the first six months — that’s the average we all agree on. And it’s why we have to create an environmen­t in which all new students can stay for at least a year without worrying that they’ll be forced to face an opponent. They should come to the school to work with a training partner and develop skills for life. After that initial year or year and a half, they should have the option to keep training like that or to increase their practice so they can become a competitor. But even then, they need to have a bigger foundation that helps them handle life in the profound sense of being a martial artist.

My goal is to bring back the concepts of self-defense that were forgotten by some and never known by others.

To you, what makes a martial artist different from a martial athlete?

The developmen­t of the martial artist within you is the developmen­t of your understand­ing of your own possibilit­ies. Because as you understand leverage, technique, weight distributi­on, timing, strategy, emotional control and so on, you get comfortabl­e with those concepts, and that knowledge doesn’t leave you when you step off the mat. You bring it with you, whether you’re a police officer, a parent or a boss.

For example, a martial artist can interpret leverage in different ways. It’s not only hand and arm positionin­g designed to transfer physical power. You can use leverage when you need a better angle to deal with somebody else’s strength — whether it’s a punch or an argument. If you understand the concept, you can translate it.

Another example is breathing. In jiu-jitsu, you learn how to breathe under stress in a way that lets you think and strategize. You become accepting of the weight distributi­on that you have or don’t have. Those things can help you succeed in life.

So can the concept of conquering. From birth, our understand­ing of happiness depends on our ability to conquer something, whether it’s an opponent or an objective. When you’re young, you want to walk. Once you’ve done that, you want to climb onto the couch. Later, you want a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a diploma. Whatever you desire, you have to plan strategica­lly. Achieving your goal is easier when you have emotional control and patience. In jiu-jitsu, you learn to plan properly for suc-

cess on the mat, and you take that arsenal with you into the world.

Are these lessons your father Helio Gracie taught you? Was he more about this approach than he was about sport?

My father was a great martial artist because despite his lack of physicalit­y, he had spiritual strength, mental strength and all the techniques he could learn. He was only 135 pounds and couldn’t do two pull-ups. That’s why he developed ways to use leverage to overcome the lack of power, as well as techniques that can suppress the speed and coordinati­on of others. We have to teach those elements to the next generation to make sure jiu-jitsu sticks to its purpose, which is to increase the chances of the weaker person in a confrontat­ion.

My father was a true warrior but in a very intelligen­t way. He taught me something very important: If you want to be good, you train some moves, but if you want to be excellent, you become invincible by learning how to protect yourself above all else. I’ve been seeking invincibil­ity all my life. When you practice the right way all your life, your mind becomes almost unbreakabl­e.

How did jiu-jitsu get away from these teachings?

The UFC happened. Everybody was amazed by the results of Royce’s matches, and they started thinking of jiu-jitsu as better than wrestling or kickboxing. But they were talking about a fighting art against sports that are defined by rules. Kickboxing, for example, has great athletes and tough guys, but they just know how to fight standing up. And wrestling has some great athletes, great fighters with a great base, but they don’t know submission­s or striking.

So when the UFC showed up, it was like a roundtable where everybody used what they had and we got to see what happened. Jiu-jitsu wound up on top. From that point, people started training in jiu-jitsu, and the wave of instructor­s who came here had a competitio­n background. At the same time, jiu-jitsu started creating its own competitio­ns.

In your opinion, is jiu-jitsu competitio­n inherently bad?

No. The problem is, the tournament­s were never focused on keeping the culture alive. They were focused on the business, on the brands, on making money. People allowed the rules to diminish the effectiven­ess of the art. These days, if I see a jiu-jitsu tournament, for every 10 black belts who are fighting, at least eight do things I cannot recognize. I can’t even think what they must be thinking — maybe about the clock, advantages, points, the interpreta­tion of the referee. They don’t think about winning the fight by just being the best person out there.

To save energy and minimize risk, they developed what I call an “anti-jiu-jitsu game” based on the knowledge they have of what their opponent needs to win. They hold sleeves, and they stall so they can control the pace and the positions. By doing that, they diminish jiu-jitsu as a martial art and make competitio­n into a game. They’re worried about time, they’re worried about points, they look at the referee and their coach — it’s like they’re not in a fight. They’re in a game.

Has this affected the schools, too?

I feel like jiu-jitsu academies don’t teach self-defense. The service jiu-jitsu could do for students has decreased by 90 percent. Now it just reaches guys who like to have their ears bulge. The thing is, they will compete in jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing or anything because they are competitor­s. The people who need jiu-jitsu the most cannot fit into the format that 95 percent of jiu-jitsu schools use. Very few are still self-defense oriented. Because of that, we lose out on the opportunit­y to provide service, and we lose our tradition.

Is this just an American problem?

It’s worldwide.

When students focus too much on competitio­n, are they also learning the wrong techniques — moves that might not work for self-defense?

That’s my biggest concern. About 50 percent of the techniques used in tournament­s develop terrible reflexes and positions for use in a real fight. If they compete in MMA, they often leave themselves exposed. They’re afraid to go to the ground because they don’t think they have a chance there. What they need to do is train in a way that’s good for competitio­n, for MMA and for self-defense.

Could you give some examples of what people are doing wrong?

The half-guard game is not working in MMA — with few exceptions. It’s a dead end. All the hooks in the guard are not working for MMA, and many of them are no good for self-defense, either.

Some movements are not even worth teaching. Guys come to me and say, “What about this technique for selfdefens­e?” I say, “Don’t even practice it. It’s not worth it for you to develop reflexes that, when you need them, you won’t be able to use.”

That’s the mission of the Jiu Jitsu Global Federation: to develop the self-defense aspects of jiu-jitsu and to change the rules of competitio­n so it has more dynamic action and less stalling. Just by cutting stalling and advantages, you can bring the fights back to reality. A lot of advantages are subject to interpreta­tion. Some guys, when they know they have an advantage, don’t even want to make

About 50 percent of the techniques used in tournament­s develop terrible reflex es and positions for use in a real fight.”

the full point. They just want to wait for the clock. That may determine the smartest guy out there, but he won’t necessaril­y be the guy who’s going to win in another competitio­n or get in the cage and do a good job — or win a street fight.

For me, fighting was always “You pick the place and the time — everything else is allowed.” It was never about weight divisions, time limits and rules. That’s the way we all should feel. If you don’t have that framework in mind, you’re on the wrong track as a martial artist.

To make jiu-jitsu more self-defense oriented, should students focus on breaks and chokes rather than submission­s?

Definitely. I always favored chokes — and strikes. I was never in favor of arm locks, leg locks or foot locks because it makes me feel bad when I’m trying to go to sleep and I keep hearing the sound of a breaking bone in my head. Chokes are gentle in a way because you don’t damage the guy too much.

Head butts, elbows, knees and side kicks are also effective for self-defense. Sometimes you use them to win the fight, and sometimes you use them to create the distance you need to get away.

And the Jiu Jitsu Global Federation is the organizati­on you created to take this message to the masses?

Yes. The self-defense program will be five blocks of informatio­n. After that, we will have a fundamenta­l curriculum for classes. Today, there are 47 teams around the world: Gracie Humaita, Alliance, Gracie Barra and so on. The federation already has 31 of those teams, almost 300 schools. We already have started giving out informatio­n on integratin­g self-defense into the routines of schools. There will be an empowermen­t program for women and for kids. There will be a program for law enforcemen­t — it’s different because they have to be experts at gun retention, arrest and control, and so on. After that will come a program for MMA.

How does your organizati­on address competitio­n?

We just did the first Rickson Gracie Cup in Albany, New York, and it was a great seed for the future. For it, we created a new set of rules — double eliminatio­n, no stalling, no advantages — and we got great results with many more submission­s. People loved the dynamic nature of the fights.

In the future, we plan to showcase self-defense, too. The self-defense championsh­ip will be for a different crowd, people who don’t want to engage in a tough grappling match. They will display their skills at fending off attacks for 30 seconds. They will be judged by the number of moves they execute, by their overall grace. That will give people who are not fighters a chance to become more vital, to show their techniques, to fulfill their need to learn something in a more friendly environmen­t.

You’ve mentioned the potentiall­y negative side of competitio­n. What are the good points?

Competitio­n puts you under stress. As you become familiar with stress, you become comfortabl­e handling pressure. As you become comfortabl­e handling pressure, you become stronger and perform better in life, where you have to be focused and in control if you want to take advantage of the moment. All those things you can learn in competitio­n.

To get the most benefit from competitio­n, it should put you on the edge of failure. That forces you to develop your capacity to overcome the situation. Even if you occasional­ly fail, you can grow from it. It’s a great experience for a human being.

Should parents encourage their kids to compete?

Parents are supposed to support their kids in competitio­n but not push them to compete. There’s a big difference. If kids want to enter a tournament, you, as a parent, should encourage them. Maybe they’re successful and want to continue training — that’s fine. But if you push them, with the first negative experience they have in a tournament, they’ll think, “I’m done. I’ve had enough!”

When my kid started to compete at 7, it was because he wanted to. I said, “You want to compete? Great. If you win, I’ll give you a gift. If you lose, I’ll give you two gifts.” Maybe he was a little confused, but one thing he knew for sure was that I wouldn’t be upset if he lost. That has to be the bottom line. If kids feel that their parents will be disappoint­ed if they lose, they won’t want to train anymore because of the chance they’ll disappoint them.

Sometimes you see parents who are crazy about jiujitsu and their kids have the ability to do it. But then the parents push too much, blaming the kids if they don’t meet their expectatio­ns. The kids say, “My father is disappoint­ed with me because I could not accomplish that, so I want to quit.” Then the sport ends up losing kids who have the talent to be great athletes.

Only 10 percent of humanity likes competitio­n. Ninety percent cannot relate and don’t see the benefits of it. Some people never compete and never fight on the street, but because of jiu-jitsu they feel like, “Today, my possibilit­ies in life are much greater.” That’s the mission of jiujitsu at the end of the day.

In what ways do people directly benefit from that mission?

Self-knowledge gives you a sense of defense, a sense of offense, a sense of peace. Self-knowledge gives you the tools to live and maybe the tools to attack or defend. Selfknowle­dge is the way you develop in the art of war, the art of peace, the art of love, whatever.

Do most people who start training in the martial arts, whether for competitio­n or self-defense, eventually migrate toward selfknowle­dge as they become more experience­d and more mature?

That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Even in soccer, surfing and baseball, you get to that point. You get the informatio­n in your heart by competing, teaching, winning and losing, and you need all those emotions to become a better person, to know how to forgive, how to accept, how to love, how to respect. As you focus on self-knowledge, you get universal knowledge. A good martial arts school is there to help you along that path. You’re there to purify yourself, to empower yourself, to become more gentle, to become more kind. And to love more people. For more informatio­n about Rickson Gracie’s Jiu Jitsu Global Federation, visit

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