By Roberto Pedreira
March 16, 2016
“Truth is the quality that moves us forward, expands our horizons, and ultimately sets us free. We should never fear it. Those who do, do so perhaps, because they have something to hide. Perhaps they worry that the relentless light of truth may expose the inadequacies or worse, the deliberate deceptions, in their own words.”–Rorion Gracie (Gracies in Action 2, 1992)
Almost everything everyone believed about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) up until the recent past derived from three sources, which were Gracies in Action 1 (1988), the 1989 Playboy Rorion Gracie article by Pat Jordan, and Gracies in Action 2 (1992). In all fairness to Rorion, he probably wasn’t trying very hard to deceive anyone. He was simply marketing his school while trying to solidify his place in what he knew (if he was successful) would be a stampede of competitors from the ranks of his own family and anyone else who wanted to cash in. He didn’t invent the story entirely. His uncle and father were saying most of the same things in Brazil before Rorion went to Hollywood to be a movie star. Rorion’s unique contribution was to vastly exaggerate his father’s ring record and historical importance, which of course benefited himself and enraged the other factions of the family, who ignored the harsh reality that the demand for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in America was essentially zero (and near zero in Brazil also, at the time), until Rorion created that demand.
Rorion also conspired with the family and other Brazilians to suppress the seamy facts of the family’s history, including fraud, aggravated assault, adultery, bigamy, statutory rape, narcotics trafficking, and various other questionable and criminal activities. Possibly, he didn’t think it was relevant. After all, the efficiency of Gracie jiu-jitsu did not depend on the personal qualities of individual members of the Gracie clan. It was a big clan and there was a lot of diversity within it. But after living a decade in Los Angeles, he understood mainstream Americans’ propensity for panicking over things as innocuous as comic books, let alone what the Gracie family had on its rap sheet. Rorion wanted to keep the dark side of the family deep in the shadows. Unfortunately, some younger members of the family had self-control issues. It was a problem of continuous damage-control. For a while, Rorion kept the lid on. No one was better qualified to do it. He was the Bill Gates of martial arts.
Jiu-jitsu became a fad. It was an unstoppable martial arts tsunami. Even Rorion was surprised. His little marketing story and Playboy hyperbole grew into an overwhelming mythology not unlike those of scientology and other cults. Black Belt magazine duped itself into designating Helio the Man of the Year in 1997, based purely on Rorion’s claims, and even the New York Times declared him to be the creator of BJJ.
Cracks appeared in the facade beginning with GTR’s publication of its George Mehdi article in 2000. Mehdi-sensei was too discrete, decent, and moral to expose everything, but it was enough to make thoughtful people begin to wonder if what Rorion had told them was really true. Reila Gracie’s 2008 biography of her father provided some unpleasant shocks for Gracie hero worshippers (see here or read her book). But Reila’s book was in Portuguese and difficult to buy outside of Brazil. GTR’s Roberto Pedreira offered a synopsis of the first part of Reila’s book, which was enough to rock the BJJ world, despite the efforts of certain dark forces to cover up the truth by SEO and wiki-manipulation.
While everyone can appreciate the Gracie family for making an honest living, paying their taxes, and introducing the world to the awesome form of Kodokan judo now known as BJJ, the public has a right to know the truth. That is what motivated Roberto Pedreira to spend 15 years researching and writing Jiu-jitsu in the South Zone, 1997-2008, and the definitive history of jiu-jitsu in Brazil, Choque; The Untold Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, in three volumes covering the years 1859 to 1999. and subsequently Craze 1-3 (Craze 1 and Craze 2 are out now, Craze 3 will be out in 2020.
For many people the number one “Go To” source for fast information is Wikipedia. If you google “Helio Gracie life” the first source of information you are going to find is Wikipedia. The second is the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California. Both recycle most of the myths and misconceptions. The Academy however has taken a defter approach by gradually writing Helio out of the story, preserving him mostly as a symbolic object of ritual veneration, leaving it to Wikipedia and fan-sites to disseminate the misinformation (possibly so that Academy can’t be blamed for it.)
The myths and misconceptions are too numerous to address in a single article. The following touches on only a few, and only briefly. For more details, references, and source citations, see Choque 1, Choque 2, and Choque 3 and other sources as indicated. Wikipedia editors and Rener, take notes.
The 30 Top Myths and Misconceptions
Myth 1. Anyone who doubts GIA is a Gracie-hater.
Fact: An intelligent person can and should reject falsehood, myths, misconceptions, and misinformation. The truth should be respected and revered. This is in no way incompatible with admiring individuals for their achievements. Doubting misconceptions, misinformation, and factual errors does not make one a Gracie-hater. One the contrary, by seeking out and sharing the truth, one is doing a service to jiu-jitsu and humanity in general. Grandmaster Helio would have wanted it that way. He hated the “mystification” that some martial arts teachers resorted to promote their schools. The truth is on the mat and in the ring, he believed (helped along with “marketing.”)
Myth 2. Helio invented modern BJJ.
Fact: Every aspect of early modern BJJ was already being trained and taught as early as 1905 in the USA and England. (Obviously, BJJ has evolved independently of judo since the late 1990’s. The Gracies and other jiu-jitsu people experimented with different rule sets in the 1950’s before eventually deciding, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, to adopt post-WW 2 judo style rules. Judo rules continued to evolve and note that even today there are more than only one set of rules used in competitions, just as jiu-jitsu rules also evolved and today more than one set of rules are used in competitions.) Until the shift to judo type rules (modified to de-emphasize throwing and pinning), the Gracies used the same competition rules that everyone else did, which were the rules published in Irving Hancock and Katsukuma Higashi (1906). Conde Koma and his troupe also used these rules for their shows in 1909 and 1901 in Mexico and in 1914 in São Paulo and 1915 in Rio de Janeiro. The rules were published in local newspapers multiple times over the years. For mixed styles fights, specific rules were negotiated. There was one exception. Rules 2 and 3 defined how a contest could be won or lost by pinning. The Gracies refused to accept these rules. Rules 8-10 defined fighting from the back. The Gracies did not invent the rules and did not invent any techniques for fighting from the back, with one exception described in Choque 1 and Choque 2 (it was invented by George in 1933.) It is a fact that Helio’s opponents between 1932 and 1937 generally did not know how to neutralize his “leg guard.”
The Gracies did not use any techniques that were not used by every jiu-jitsu man and some luta livre fighters, until very recently. Incidentally, every professional jiu-jitsu man was also a luta livre fighter. They represented “jiu-jitsu,” but they fought “luta livre.” What they did do, eventually, was rediscover and preserve many forgotten techniques. And the evidence strongly indicated that they were often led to these rediscoveries by judokas such as Takeo Yano, Haroldo Brito, Oswaldo Alves, and George Mehdi.
Helio Gracie, who might reasonably be considered well informed about the subject, denied that he invented anything. He just added leverage to what Carlos was doing (see here.) He didn’t invent jiu-jitsu competition rules either. At first, they were old judo rules, and eventually they were more modern judo rules (with of course, a ground grappling twist). Neither Helio nor Rorion denied that. What Helio did do, Rorion said (GIA 2) was to make judo efficient for street fighting. But it is debatable that he really did that. Gracie street fights were like street fights everywhere. The side with more people (participants/attackers and “supporters”), weapons (sometimes), and element of surprise won. They didn’t use Gracie jiu-jitsu in their street fights that we have evidence of. There was one exception. Helio pulled guard in a street fight. He ended up in a hospital (see Choque 3 for details and documentation.) Eventually, Rorion was reduced to the claim that what Helio invented was his teaching method. But George was using the same method, which he learned from Takeo Yano. It was the systematic, detail oriented pedagogical method introduced by Jigoro Kano in his Kodokan school of judo. None of the above should be taken to imply that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu isn’t awesome. It is awesome. Roberto Pedreira can personally testify to that. But it’s awesome because of what it borrowed from judo (as Rorion admitted, see Choque 3, appendix 5, and notes to appendix 5.) Rorion deserves full credit for re-introducing it, of course (see preface to Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, 1997-2008.)
Myth 3. Helio invented leverage.
Fact: Helio didn’t say he invented leverage. He said, in 2001 (here), that he added leverage to the techniques that he assimilated by watching Carlos. That could mean that Carlos taught himself, or that Conde Koma taught him badly, or that Conde Koma didn’t teach him, or that Koma’s own skills were lacking leverage, or that Carlos didn’t learn the techniques correctly, or that he forgot them by the time Helio saw him teaching them (according to Helio). Myth 4. Gracie Jiu-jitsu was undefeated between 1927 and 1992.
Fact: The first documented Gracie fights were exhibition matches in 1929, 1930, and 1931. Carlos met Geo Omori three times (April 28, 1929, January 5, 1930, and January 19, 1930). All three ended in draws. George confronted defeated amateur boxer Johannes Toon on January 19, 1930 and was scheduled to meet Gabriel on January 5. In 1931 George, Oswaldo, and Benedicto Peres met three supposed capoeira “representatives” under rules that prohibited the capoeiras [capoeiristas] from striking on the ground. The jiu-jitsu men won all three fights. George won because his opponent punched him on the ground. The first professional fight was Carlos Gracies vs. Manoel Rufino dos Santos in 1931. Carlos lost when he left the ring and refused to fight. Between then and 1992, Gracies and jiu-jitsu won fights, lost fights, and drew fights, the same as representatives of other styles. That proved only that the better fighter won, not that one style was better than another in general. Myth 5. Choque claims that Carlos could not possibly have learned from Conde Koma.
Myth 4. Gracie Jiu-jitsu was undefeated between 1927 and 1992.
Fact: The first documented Gracie fights were exhibition matches in 1929, 1930, and 1931. Carlos met Geo Omori three times (April 28, 1929, January 5, 1930, and January 19, 1930). All three ended in draws. George confronted defeated amateur boxer Johannes Toon on January 19, 1930 and was scheduled to meet Gabriel on January 5. In 1931 George, Oswaldo, and Benedicto Peres met three supposed capoeira “representatives” under rules that prohibited the capoeiras [capoeiristas] from striking on the ground. The jiu-jitsu men won all three fights. George won because his opponent punched him on the ground. The first professional fight was Carlos Gracies vs. Manoel Rufino dos Santos in 1931. Carlos lost when he left the ring and refused to fight. Between then and 1992, Gracies and jiu-jitsu won fights, lost fights, and drew fights, the same as representatives of other styles. That proved only that the better fighter won, not that one style was better than another in general.
Myth 5. Choque claims that Carlos could not possibly have learned from Conde Koma.
Fact: Choque did not claim that Carlos Gracie learned nothing from Conde Koma. What Choque said was that, given his lifelong pattern of story-telling, lying, and exaggeration, Carlos own words cannot be taken as gospel. Yet, there is no other evidence that he studied with Conde Koma. There is also no compelling evidence that he didn’t. He might have. He might have learned from Koma’s assistant Jacyntho Ferro, but that too is only a possibility. [Note it is since been established that Carlos learned from Jacyntho Ferro, not directly from Maeda; see here and here].
Jose Cairus, Reila Gracie, Stanlei Virgilio, and various others, have written about Carlos’ contact with Conde Koma. It should be noted that none of them offer any evidence that Carlos ever met Conde Koma. All of them simply trusted what Carlos himself said as true, more often than not via recycled second-hand accounts. But as Reila documented, Carlos had a “vivid imagination.” He made a lot of stuff up (see Choque 3, chapter 3, for one particularly egregious example, which Reila also writes about extensively.
Myth 6. Maeda’s jiu-jitsu was not efficient for real combat. Carlos (or Helio, depending on the version) Brazilianized it and made it efficient for real combat.
Fact: Detailed and thoroughly document accounts of Maeda’s stage shows presented in Choque 1 chapters 5 and 6 and Craze 2 indicate that his jiu-jitsu was the standard theatrical jiu-jitsu of the time, strictly adhering to the Hancock & Higashi rules, in which striking was not permitted and kimonos were required (Choque 1, pp. 66-67). In addition to which his only known martial arts training was Kodokan judo. Whether it was efficient for real combat is an open question. But the Carlos, Helio, George Oswaldo, and Gastão Jr. did little or nothing in the 1930’s to modify it in any way. They didn’t need to. Their fights were fought according to the same or similar rules. In addition, they didn’t claim to have “perfected”, “modified” or “Brazilianized” jiu-jitsu. On the contrary, what they were insisting was that they were trying to preserve jiu-jitsu from being watered down by people who wanted to distort and pervert it into a “sport”. Helio hammered the point home by implying that judokas were closet homosexuals, or at least, sissies who liked unnecessary luxuries like air conditioning (see Choque 2 and Choque 3 for many examples). It was only after Rorion made Gracie Jiu-Jitsu a valuable brand that Helio began repeating Rorion’s line that Helio “improved” jiu-jitsu by adding leverage and positioning.
Myth 7. The Gracies invented vale tudo and mixed styles fights.
Fact: The Gracies didn’t invent either. There had been boxing vs. jiu-jitsu fights as early as 1908, although they were rare. Paschoal Segreto promoted a wide variety of mixed styles fights in São Paulo, Rio, and Niteroi as early as 1909. Sumo (usually called “the Japanese style of wrestling”) vs. catch wrestling matches were conducted in North America early as 1884. Mixed fights were common in Brazilian circuses and on theater stages before the Gracies showed up in 1929. Geo Omori fought capoeiras [aka capoeiristas], catch wrestlers, boxers, and anyone else who wanted to give it a go.
Myth 8. The Gracie Academy was established in 1925.
Fact: According to Helio himself (in1951) neither he nor anyone in his family had ever heard of jiu-jitsu until 1929 or 1930 (he was referring to one of Carlos’ exhibitions with Geo Omori, but didn’t specify which one). Moreover, he said, no one had any idea that Carlos was a “jiu-jitsu fighter.” So much for the theory that Helio had been watching Carlos teach jiu-jitsu lessons in his home in Botafogo.
Myth 9. Helio Gracie was Brazil’s first sports hero. Helio Gracie was a living legend in Brazil.
Fact: Brazil has long history of sports, imported to Brazil from Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Brazil had plenty of sports heroes, especially, but not limited to, soccer [futebol] players. Professional fighting wasn’t even considered a sport. Since 1955 Correia da Manhã, one of Rio’s two elite newspapers, published an annual list [quadra de honra] of the best Rio athletes in 22 categories of sports, not including soccer. Ping pong was a sport, among others. Judo was a sport, and George Mehdi was honored several times. Jiu-jitsu was not a sport. Helio never made the list. In 1967 the Museum of Image and Sound, created in 1963 by Guanabara governor Carlos Lacerda, decided to honor the best athletes in Brazilian history. Thirty-four athletes were nominated and 27 received at least one vote. Helio was among the eight who received one vote. A ping pong player received two votes. One of the reasons Helio Gracie was not a sports hero in Brazil was because no one considered jiu-jitsu a sport until Helio was already deep into retirement. To the extent that Helio is honored as a hero today, it is thanks to his role in fathering Rorion and helping him establish his academy in America. Helio is remembered today because Rorion made jiu-jitsu successful in North America.
If there really was a Gracie who was sports hero and living legend in Brazil prior to 1993, it would have been Carlson. But by 1970, Carlson was better known as a soccer referee than as a former fighter. Fame is fleeting.
Myth 10. Kato was the vice-world champion of judo and outweighed Helio by almost 44 pounds. Kimura was the undefeated world jiu-jitsu champion and outweighed Helio by 77-80 pounds (depending on the version of the story).
Fact. No one knows the actual weights. There was no weigh-in. The press, or promoters, estimated the Japanese judoka’s weights, or made them up, which the press reported. The best estimates by people in close contact with all of the fighters were that Kimura had 33 pounds (15 kilos) on Helio and that Kato had up to 12 pounds (5 kilos) at most and possibly weighed the same (Kato’s usual competition weight was 70 kilos, which is what Helio weighed for the fight, observers estimated). Both Kato and Kimura were Kodokan judoka. There was no such thing in Japan as a jiu-jitsu champion. There was no such thing as a world champion of judo either. Kato was a young inexperienced regional judo competitor with some successes but not the vice-champion of anything. See Choque 2 for details and fully cited sources.
Myth 11. The Gracie Brothers were falsely accused of assaulting a man in 1932.
Fact: They were not falsely accused. They (Carlos, George, and Helio, with Oswaldo serving as the get-away driver) were witnessed stalking and then assaulting Manoel Rufino dos Santos. They were arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and put behind bars. They were pardoned, but no one denied that they had been guilty, just that they shouldn’t be punished for it. A few influential friends pulled strings with dictator Getulio Vargas, who pardoned them. The brothers also gang assaulted João Baldi in the same fashion, which they didn’t deny. And they tried to do the same to Donato Pires dos Reis (but he escaped unharmed). In the first two assaults, witnesses testified that Helio had used a weapon, a “steel box” of some sort. Helio later said, in 2001, that it was the biggest mistake of his life (see interview here). The official post-Gracies in Action story is that Helio did it all by himself in retaliation because Rufino Santos insulted the Gracie family (which was untrue, Rufino Santos did not insult the Gracie family, only Carlos, and his insults were factual statements, disguised as questions).
Myth 12. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not Kodokan judo.
Fact: We don’t know who they learned from but whoever it was either a Kodokan judoka or learned from one, i,e., Jacyntho Ferro, Donato Pires dos Reis, Geo Omori, Takeo Yano, Sumiyuki Kotani, Chugo Sato, or someone else. It is a fact that they read Irving Hancock’s book, and other books all of which were available in Brazil. Everything that Carlos, George, Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., and Helio knew, used, and taught, could be found amply illustrated in the 1905 and 1906 books of Sadakazu “Raku” Uyenishi, Tani & Miyake, and Hancock & Higashi, among many others, one of which was written by (or rather credited to) Conde Koma himself, published in 1913 (see Craze 2 chapter 9).
Whoever the Brazilians learned from and however they learned, it was Kodokan judo (and wrestling, which was also mixed in with Kodokan judo). For anyone with doubts, look at the techniques. If there were any old jiu-jitsu techniques that still existed that were not incorporated into judo, it didn’t matter, because they Gracies didn’t know them. What they knew was judo, or to be precise, the judo of that epoch.
There has been an internet theory going around since Choque 1 (1st edition) was published in 2014 that someone in Osaka invented or perfected a style of ground-fighting and that this is what the Gracies learned. This theory seems based on pure speculation and perhaps the possibility that Sadakazu “Raku” Uyenishi, Taro Miyake, and Yukio Tani came from Osaka (so their ghost-writers said).
Note: for details and documented facts about the “Osaka” connection, see Craze 1 chapter 5 and appendixes).
Since Carlos’s only fight was his 1931 loss to Rufino Santos, we need to look at George and Helio. Their jiu-jitsu was basic pre-WW 2 judo. They could have just as easily learned from reading Raku or Tani & Miyake’s books as taking lessons from anyone. It was all in the books. Certainly, they could have put their own spin on the basics. Every judoka is expected to do that. They also could have made specific tactical choices in their matches. And they did. Helio made one set of choices, based on his reluctance to take chances, preferring to “draw” rather than to risk losing. George made another, based on his willingness to take chances, in order to win at risk of losing. They both often ended up on the bottom because they were either lighter than their opponents, or were inferior in stand-up skills. But as pointed out previously, they did not choose to be on the bottom. They played from top when they could get top position.
They also could have learned advanced leg and guard techniques from Geo Omori, who we know did them, because there are photographs of him doing them. If the Gracie brothers didn’t learn from Omori personally, they could have learned from watching his fights and seeing the same pictures that we can see today (some are included in Choque; for others, visit the archives). Yes, it’s all speculation. That’s the point.
Perhaps this is why in December 2013 Rener Gracie explained that “the Gracie family was introduced to jiu-jitsu by a Japanese man back in the early 1900’s.” That leaves the door open for almost unlimited speculation. Which member of the family? Which Japanese man? When? The Academy seems to want to back down from the claim that Carlos mastered the secrets of jiu-jitsu under the loving personal guidance of Conde Koma. Rorion probably wishes he never mentioned “Esei Maeda.” (which is an incorrect pronunciation of Maeda’s name Hideyo, 栄世, before his changed it to Mitsuyo, 光世.)