I talk to Robert Drysdale. He is a storied competitor, ADCC Champion, Mundials Champion and has also coached many other legends of the sport. Also a History major, he has spent his recent time delving into the history of the sport for a documentary entitled Closed Guard: The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil that traces the journey of Japanese Judoka travelling to Brazil and the formation of the sport we know today involving tough guys, the circus, outlaws, gambling, marketing & promotion and of course plenty of prize fights along the way.
The entire saga makes for a fascinating tale that leaves us with the question of where the good and bad of the story rests between the truth and the myth. After all was it Mitsuyo Maeda that made the legend of Carlos Gracie or Carlos Gracie that made the legend of Mitsuyo Maeda?
Sonny Brown: Robert Drysdale. How are you today, mate?
Robert Drysdale: I’m doing great, man. Thanks for having me. Thanks for inviting me to be on the podcast, and looking forward to catching up.
Sonny: My pleasure. Your competitive career has been illustrious, known for a long time. Today, we’re going to really get into the history of the actual sport that you do yourself and that we all do in the history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu because you’ve started producing a documentary called Closed Guard on the history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’m wondering what made you start looking into the history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu? What was the impetus to actually think what’s the roots of this sport that we do?
Robert: It’s interesting because my other passion outside of jiu-jitsu has always been history, I’m a history major as a child. I was obsessed with combat but I never thought I’d be a fighter, I had in my head, I was going to be an archaeologist. When people ask me, “Oh, what are you going to go to college for? I’m like “Oh, archaeology.” I had it in my head, that’s what I was going to be. I got infected with the jiu-jitsu bug when I was 16 and there was tunnel vision from then onwards. On my free time, I was always reading history books and the humanities in general. I felt very strongly that if BJJ didn’t exist, that’s probably what I’d be doing for a living, something in that realm.
Ironically, I’d never been interested in the history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There was a part of me that was a little sceptical and suspicious. If you’re more familiar with any historical topic, you know that you can’t simplify things into a linear approach to developments. History is not linear, it’s bushy. It goes in many directions and it does that, and it’s very complex. You can’t say, Conde or Maeda, Carlos or Helio, it’s too simple to do that. I remember when this happened, I was at the gym. One of my students asked me why did I not have a picture of Carlos or Helio on my wall like a lot of gyms do.
It wasn’t because I disrespect them or because I don’t believe in their role, it’s just because I don’t know enough about history for me to put anyone’s picture on the wall. My reaction, I had two reactions. I put the picture of my structures that people who had taught me over time. I put their pictures on the wall because I know what they did for me. As far as Helio and Carlos I didn’t know enough for me to put their pictures on the wall. I don’t think you shouldn’t just believe something because people tell you to, you should look into it yourself. It did challenge me a little bit because I did realize, I knew close to nothing about the history of BJJ.
Right around the time, I remember I had seen a book at a friend’s house, Ray Casias in Tennessee. I was just visiting him for a seminar. On the shelf, there was a book called Choque by Roberto Pedreira, The Untold Story of jiu-jitsu in Brazil was the name of the book. It was a thick volume, it was volume one, there’s three of them and they’re big volumes. I’m thinking, “Oh, wow. I had no idea something like this existed. Why have I never heard of this?” I started going through it, and I found it was very rich in sources, and it was done very academically. When I’d ask everyone, no one had ever heard of the book, and the few people who had heard of it like, “Oh, man, it was too heavy for me to read.”
People just didn’t enjoy reading it because it didn’t read like a novel, it read like a catalog and historical events. It was a heavy read and it was meant to inform people, not really entertain them. I did enjoy the read. I also read a book called Samurai, The Guardian Samurai, It was a book in Portuguese and it had a lot of the same sources that Choque had. When I started reading these, I was like, “Man, people don’t know about this.” I started asking friends of mine, people like old-timers, I’m like “Have you heard of this?” and like “No.” “Did you know about this?” They’re like, “No, never heard of that.”
They thought I was making it up. I’m like, “They’re not making it up, they have primary sources here. These guys aren’t crazy, they’re professional historians. They know what they’re doing.” Then later I found more research and I found a PhD dissertation by Jose Tufy Cairus. I think it’s called The Gracie Clan and the Making of Brazilian Nationalism. I can’t remember the exact title. If you Google it, Gracie Clan, the Making of Brazilian Nationalism, Jose Tufy Cairus, it’ll come up. They’ve got another article about the same talk, but they’re very well-researched, and the story that we’re telling, it wasn’t completely different from the one we had heard from our instructors, from what was on Wikipedia, and other websites, but it was different.
It was different. I became increasingly interested in this story, and I was trying to get people to read these books but people weren’t interested. I figured out how can we tell this story in a way where we can bridge the gap between the martial art enthusiasts and this academic work. I figured out the only way we can bridge that gap is through a film. Now, here’s the problem, I have zero experience in film. I like watching them. I don’t think that counts as experience really. I have this thing in my head where if I want to do something, it doesn’t matter what it is. If I get something in my head, I’m going to make it happen.
It wasn’t an easy process getting involved. I probably drove our production team crazy more times than I can count partially because of my lack of experience and partially because I’m very stubborn. If I want to tell something in a certain way, I put my foot down. If I believe I’m right about something, I can’t lose that fight. I wanted to tell something that was unbiased, and I wasn’t worried about stepping on eggshells. I wasn’t worried about upsetting people. There was zero concern over political correctness, nationalism. There’s no partisanship, it’s like straight down the middle, that was always my angle.
The problem is the narrative is so old that anything that challenges it is immediately seen as hate. By trying to be in the middle, I get accused of being hateful, and envious, and diminishing the role of Brazilians or diminishing the Gracie family, or “Oh, you’re just angry because you lost two finals of the Worlds to Roger.” Oh my God. My answer is always, “Yes, I’m angry. I’m very angry, but that has nothing to do with the film.” They’re very different things. They co-exist, and there’s no contradiction there but I never wanted to attack anyone.
When I’m reading about how Maeda’s role was grossly exaggerated, it’s not that he didn’t do anything but we made him sound like he was this creator of something, and he taught Carlos. When you look at the source and there’s none of that. The story that’s coming across is a very different one. Most of Maeda’s fights were fake. When he moved to Brazil, he’s practically retired and becomes more of a diplomat socialite, and a representative of Japanese immigrants in the Amazon. He’s less and less interested in fighting. He passes on the torch to his Brazilian students.
There were at least six of them that we can verify for sure. Five in the Amazon and then one in Rio, a man who trained with them for a few months but we can verify it, and none of them are Carlos Gracie. Carlos Gracie doesn’t appear to the story until much later, and even so, it’s a very, very small role. It’s clearly exaggerated, whatever relationship he had to Maeda’s. The one thing all historians agree on is that it’s exaggerated. You’re never going to meet historians like, “Oh no, everything Carlos said was true.” That guy doesn’t exist.
The degree to which he exaggerated is what people can disagree on. I didn’t feel that that diminished his role. I think because importance is very real but for different reasons, they give themselves credit for it. It’s the same for Helio. I think Helio is very important to the story but for different reasons that they give themselves credit for. They didn’t revolutionize technique. The Japanese were light years ahead of them. You can’t even begin to dispute this. It blows my mind that some people want to argue with me. It was like how can you even begin to argue that? My inbox blows up. Of course, I’ve been called anti-Gracie and pro-Gracie.
I’ve been called both, which tells me I’m on the right track because when the fundamentalists on both ends of the spectrum are angry at you, it tells me that I’m on the right track, so I take this as positive. Helio was very important for resisting the spread of judo. Judo would have taken over had it not been for– I believe that. Some historians disagree. They think that Helio’s role was very exaggerated. I don’t think it’s exaggerated. I think he’s very important, but not because he revolutionized the technique. He didn’t invent guard, he didn’t invent leverage. In fact, if you watch him grapple from all accounts, he was very basic.
He was very simple. I don’t think he really created anything, other that he was the strongman in the face of a movement of resistance towards judo. A movement that almost dies many times, that practically disappears in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, makes a comeback in the ’90s. I think that without a strong personality like Helio, we’d all be doing judo today, so we owe him thanks. Carlos was a marketing genius. If Carlos Gracie had a Twitter account, he’d have 20 million followers today. He understood PR very, very shrewdly, very cunning man for his time. You’ve got to give him credit for that. Did he reinvent martial arts?
No, he was teaching judo because that’s what he was taught. What did Helio teach? He taught judo. It was just simplified modified judo. It was ground-oriented judo. I’ll give you an example. When you talk to Japanese that witnessed the evolution of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the spread of it around the world, when they first start seeing Brazilians, they were surprised Brazilians were calling it jiu-jitsu because jiu-jitsu to them was a very archaic old term, and it didn’t make any sense for them to use it because clearly, they weren’t doing jiu-jitsu. They were doing judo. The Japanese were like, “Why are you calling jiu-jitsu? It’s clearly judo.”
I call it Brazilian judo. I don’t call it Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It’s not going to change anything, but it would be a more accurate description of what we do would be Brazilian judo because that’s what it was. It’s just nage waza. That’s what we practiced. It’s just that Brazilians got so good at it that once you change the ruleset, you create a new martial art. Long story short, that’s what happened, and we wanted to tell the story of all the forgotten characters. There are many, many people that we feel were left out of the story. We wanted to tell them because we thought they were relevant. Members of the Gracie family, not just other Japanese and other Brazilians like George Gracie, most people have never heard of him, very important character in the history of BJJ.
Sonny: It sounds to me that those books you mentioned, I’ve heard them recommended online and pretty much always in the same sentences that they’re very hard to read and very dry academic text, and you might not actually enjoy it. Yes, it seems to me that because of that nature, you’ve decided to make something that’s a bit more entertaining, a bit more digestible, and that the differences between the commonly accepted myth and what we have as historical accounts being the differences in there is the story to tell really, is that right?
Robert: Yes, it’s very difficult to be a historian and be unbiased because we are unaware of our own biases. That’s the problem. I am aware of the fact that I have to look for my biases, and I spend a lot of time doing it. A lot of the historians like two of them at least, not accused me, but they have implied because they read the script of the film and they’ve been giving me a lot of consulting. They’ve implied that I’m pro-Gracie. That I’m taking it way too easy on Carlos and Helio, and they were far less important than I’m making them sound. Again, that’s where my interpretation comes in.
It does fall on me. Perhaps, it’s a lot of responsibility for someone even though I’m acquainted with the story, I am not a professional historian, neither am I filmmaker, but maybe because of these two things, maybe I’m well-positioned to be the impartial person maybe because I’m half-American, half-Brazilian. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I spend a lot of time self-reflecting thinking about am I being biased towards or for someone? I don’t think I am. We’re really doing our best to be just how it is. We want to talk about historical events that have nothing to do with fighting, but they’re relevant.
The Russo-Japanese War, Commodore Perry’s pointing at the Cannons at Edo in 1854 and forcing the shogun to open the ports to Western capitalism. Without that, would have Jigoro Kano developed judo? Probably not. Judo is a product of the opening of Western ideas into the East into Japan, so that played a role. The rubber boom in Brazil in the Amazon. The rubber boom is very important. That’s why Maeda went to Brazil in the first place. The Japanese immigration. The role of Maeda. What is the role of Maeda? Why does everyone assume that he’s the starting point of everything? What did he actually teach? Was he teaching that much? What is his actual role?
To me, these are all important questions, and they’re not clear. What we get from the source is that he’s practically retired in Brazil. His role is very unclear but he has an experience in catch wrestling. The role of catch wrestling is very important in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I can’t back this up, I can’t prove it, but it’s my suspicion. In Brazil till this day, they don’t say chave de braço which means arm bar or juji gatame which would be the Japanese terminology. They say arm lock. When you knee bar someone, it’s not chave de joelho, leg lock. The Kimura is also known as Americana.
Now, if this is not the influence of catch wrestling, I don’t know what is. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, they call arm lock, Americana. These are terms that came from catch wrestling I’m convinced. I can’t prove it. The influence of catch wrestling of the circus to me is indisputable. The approach focus on the Gracie family I think it’s an injustice to history, and we’re trying to correct that as best we can.
Sonny: That’s fascinating what you’re saying. I think the Americana can’t be in any doubt with Bob Anderson showing it and saying himself that he learned from old folk style wrestlers in America, which came from catch wrestling. I don’t see how that can be disputed at all really. It’s funny I’ve been doing some research into Kazushi Sakuraba to put a video together for him. I’ve found I guess some of the things that you’re mentioning is that I just wanted to focus on the techniques to explain how Kazushi Sakuraba was able to do what he did.
It’s so much more than just the techniques because to explain it properly it’s like you do have to talk about the globalization of the world of how a Japanese man is using techniques, he learned from an Englishman to beat Brazilians, and there’s so much more to the story than just armbars and leglocks that I think you’re trying to tell, right?
Robert: You ever hear that, I think it’s a Mark Twain quote that goes, how does it go? It goes, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” “Oh, let’s distort things to make it better.” In the case of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it’s the opposite. The real story is much better than the one we had heard. The real story is something that has to do with nationalism. It has to do with politics in Brazil. It has to do with the rivalry between the Brazilian nationalists and the Japanese immigrants. They’re fiercely nationalists. We’re talking the 1930s and ’40s here. Remember what was going on in the world in the 1930s and ’40s. Where was Japan? Who was Japan?
Japan is an aspiring superpower planning to cross the Pacific and colonize the Americas. We’re not just talking Hawaii here. We’re talking the Amazon. They were very ambitious people. Imagine how the Japanese community felt about Brazilians who had appropriated their art, and now they’re challenging us. Just imagine how they felt about it. This is just another example of Japanese nationalism in Brazil unrelated to martial arts, but still a great side story. In the 1940s after Hirohito surrenders, after the end of World War II, the Japanese were so fanatical about their emperor that when the Brazilian press or any Brazilian or any Japanese went around saying that Japan had surrendered, they consider that a piece of propaganda.
They founded a terrorist group, and they would go around killing people that would dare say that the emperor had surrendered because the emperor is God, and by definition, he can’t surrender. Here’s the best part, they did that with just Samurai swords. Just to give an example of the fanaticism of some of these Japanese nationalists. They were in Brazil too. They were all over Brazil so for them, watching Brazilians to challenge them in their art must’ve felt like a huge insult. That rivalry to me is super interesting. That is way more interesting than Helio observing his brother while teaching class, and then learning by osmosis. Who believes that?
It’s such a simplistic– I don’t know. When I look at the actual development of Brazilian jiu-jitsu away from the official narrative, I think it’s far more interesting. It doesn’t discredit anyone. It’s just more rich that’s all it is.
Sonny: Yes, I’d agree with you on that about it being more rich. That’s the problem looking into the Sakuraba for me is I just wanted to start a video on how he was using the Kimura double wrist lock. Then it’s like, “Why was he the only one turning his back?” Then all of a sudden, you’re down a rabbit hole of pro wrestling. He’s a pro wrestler. Why do pro wrestlers turn their back? Pro wrestling came from catch wrestling. How did catch wrestling turn into pro wrestling? Where did catch wrestling come from? The simple fact of him having a habit of turning his back to look for that double wrist lock just goes so much deeper than just, it was a move he chose.
Robert: No. There’s a history. It’s interesting. It’s so ironic to me that the Japanese through Sakuraba have appropriated a western style. Then the other Brazilian representatives, In a Gi going through Japan, you’re using a Japanese martial art. To me, that’s so ironic. This is probably one of my favorite parts of the documentary. I love this story so much, and I’ve told in every podcast I’ve ever been on because it’s such a good story.
Robert: We went to Yuki Nakai in Tokyo, I wasn’t sure whether Yuki Nakai was going to stay because he’s a godfather of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Japan. He’s the president of the Japanese Brazilian jiu-jitsu Federation, and I just love that. Japanese president of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu Federation, which is so ironic to me. His interview was probably one of the best ones, if not the best one. He said some– He just gave them some gems about how Japanese perceive Brazilians, because he’s a judoka of course in judo, fought Shooto. Then he had that clash with Hickson in ’94, and later he loses on eye, falls in love with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, runs a school in Tokyo.
He told us that his reaction to, or the common Japanese reaction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu was three. The first one was surprise. It was like, “Who are these people? Why are they calling it jiu-jitsu? Why they’re not calling it Judo?” They had no idea there was a movement in Brazil that resembled Kosen judo, but that was their first reaction was surprise. The second reaction Yuki Nakai tell us is, it was respect and a little bit of fear. I think he used the word fear, if I’m not mistaken. They’re looking at guys like Rickson and Hois they’re going, “These guys are really good.
How do these Brazilians get so– We had no idea there were all these Brazilians that are not from judo officially, right? Indirectly they are, but not directly under a Kodokan rule set, and they’re really good. There’s that element of fear. Then the third feeling, the third sentiment was one of nostalgia and sorrow for having lost something so valuable because it’s like, “We had this. We created it. This is ours, and we lost it to Brazilians.” Brazilians had to revamp it, recycle it, and bring it back under the new terminology of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which they embrace humbly. They’re not going, “This is our art. It’s Japanese jiu-jitsu or Japanese judo, oh it’s judo.”
They accept the term Brazilian jiu-jitsu. They accept the Brazilians have essentially change the name of their art, brought it back to Japan, and there’s no ego there. They humbly accepted it. I don’t speak Japanese, so I’m reading the translation. You can see he was very sincere in that. I thought it was such an admirable position for them to take, because they can make a much better claim. You see this idiotic debate about Brazilian jiu-jitsu, American jiu-jitsu. I’m just listening to this. I’m like, “You guys are stupid.” The people that could actually make a case for it aren’t. It’s all Japanese, it’s all judo.
They could actually make a much stronger case for saying something like that, but they don’t. They humbly accept Brazilian jiu-jitsu. These things to me, those are my favorite things about the documentary. It was fun just being– and part of this, and being able to better understand our roots, and the influence of Brazilian culture and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I became aware of that during this trip. It had never dawned on me how much of Brazilian culture was in the sport. I’ll give you an example. still in Yuki Nakai’s gym. We go to the Kosen judo gym in Tokyo University and Kyoto University.
The black belts show up 30 minutes early. When have you ever seen that in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school the black belt showing up 30 minutes early? Unless they’re Aussie or American maybe. The Brazilians definitely don’t. I’m half Brazilian. I can say it. We show up five minutes early. That’s counting yourself lucky if I’m five minutes early. They show up 30 minutes early, and they’re sweeping the mats. Altogether, sweeping the mats. I have a video. It’s perfect synchrony. Absolutely beautiful to watch. I filmed them, recorded them cleaning their mats. Their gi’s are spotless white, nails trimmed.
Their bow was 90 degrees, a 90 degree bow to us was so– and then we go to Yuki Nakai gym. Everyone was very respectful. I always say this. No one was– It was different. They were respectful in a Brazilian way. They showed up late. They sat down their legs open, taping their fingers very calmly, laughing, chilling. Their gi’s were not that clean. They weren’t bowed 90 degrees. It was a hand shake or a fist bump. I’m looking at that and I’m going, “That’s not Japan.” We’re in Tokyo, but these mats are not Japanese. They’re more Brazilian than Japanese because that’s how Brazilians are, sit with their legs wide open. If you show up late, no one cares.
Fist bump, Acai after workout. It’s very Brazilian. It’s very surf culture. I think that Rio de Janeiro surf culture permeated jiu-jitsu more than people realize. Even some of the streetwear what the jiu-jitsu wear is very influenced by surf culture. To me, it’s not Japanese. It’s something that we’ve appropriated from the Rio de Janeiro culture, and it’s inevitable. You go to Chechnya, you go to Dagestan, you go to Japan, you go to Canada. You name it. You go to Paraguay. You’re going to find a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school, and you see aspects of Brazilian culture inside the mats, or on the mats. Sorry, Portuguese in my head.
This was very interesting for me to observe. To me, it was so much fun doing this. I got to have a much better understanding of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and why things are the way they are just being part of the production.
Sonny: Yes. I found that fascinating too just the way that maybe these unconscious habits can be spread through just practice of the sport, and how those influences can all be combined. One of the things that did make me think about there speaking of Yuki Nakai was, the all-time great Brazilian jiu-jitsu movie Choke with Rickson in the Vale Tudo tournaments. When he heel hooks Gerard Gordeau in his first match, and that’s the one where he loses his eye as well, which is amazing. He hooks Gerard Gordeau and I’m thinking, “Wait, he’s not doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Where did he learn the heel hook from?”
Robert: You’re right, and it’s important to remember. You just mentioned something very important. Shooto has always existed. Shooto precedes the UFC by many, many years. At the same time, we got give Brazilian’s credit for creating the UFC namely Rorian, Art Davie, and others. He didn’t do it alone, but Rorian was a big part of it. The Japanese never stopped. There was a tradition of fighting of Shooto that never really stops Japan. It’s pretty much MMA. It just never took off for some reason. I think it was missing some– Maybe it was the cage. Maybe it was Art Davie. Maybe it was the American paper view. Maybe it was Dana White.
It never really took off. This culture of fighting always existed in Japan, and Japan was not limited to judo. The Kosen schools never really died in Japan. They were just not as popular as the Olympic style. Judo as an Olympic style had become so dominant around the world, not just Japan that the techniques on the ground there just no one practice them because there’s no use for them in tournaments. There’s not enough time on the ground for them develop. Except if you’re doing Shooto or catch. There was this always– It’s like Brazilians and Japanese, they meet again.
They met through Ono and Helio or even before that with Omori and Carlos and then Helio and Kimura. Later, they’re going to meet again. It’s part of the same movement. It’s the whole thing. It died for a long period of time. It was dead in the ’70’s, ’80s, ’90s. It revives, and we’re reliving that moment that– It’s a momentum that began early in the 20th century. When I look at the fight world today, I really see a continuation of something that started 100 years ago.
Sonny: Yes. Let’s maybe go back to that 100 years ago point in time, because that’s another thing with Shooto that I was fascinated to find out. Started by Satoru Sayama who was as a wrestler is Tiger Mask, and wrestled all around the world Mexico, Japan. Learned from Karl Gotch who was a catch wrestler to start Shooto. In fact, the comic book or manga that Tiger Mask based his character off was in fact, the inspiration for Kazushi Sakuraba to get into pro-wrestling as a child. He’s reading the manga of Tiger Mask that leads him to getting into pro-wrestling, which eventually led to his catch wrestling or MMA career.
I’m wondering if we can go back to that catch wrestling start back when it first began as a way for bored English minors to place bets which was developed before the establishment of the judo Kodokan and how things go from there.
Robert: I’m less familiar with the history of catch around the world, to be honest. I am a little more familiar with the role it plays in Brazil, because that’s really what I’ve studied and what I put my energy into. There’s no doubt that catch wrestling plays a role in development of judo and martial arts in Japan, as you described. For some reason it never really took off as a sport and I wonder why that was because clearly, it’s important. It has a tradition that much older than judo in fact. There were catch wrestlers traveling the world way before judoka wrestlers were doing it.
It’s not like they weren’t known around the world and sometimes I wonder if the Japanese hierarchical system didn’t play a role here. Much later, but the bells, the uniforms, whereas the whole even, but again, you have Western wrestling, which is a world sport. It’s everywhere. I don’t really know why catch wrestling never really started a federation. They missed the Kodokan. Kodokan became their organization for judo, IBJJF for BJJ. I think cash never really had that maybe, but it’s a little unfair with the art because they were very important and we describe their role is undeniable.
George Gracie trained catch wresting for a while, even Helio crossed trained with the Luta Livre catch wrestlers that he prepared with them for one of his fights. It’s just that in Brazil, it later becomes Luta Livre and it’s catch, but Luta Livre is very influenced by Brazil Jiu-jitsu. It goes back and forth. It’s just not one way. It’s a two- way street. As an example, is the Luta Livre crowd in Brazil, some gyms train in gi pants, and they wear belts, where do they get that? It was an influence of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu or judo really. As far as the history of catch wrestling, man, I know it’s a very rich history, but it doesn’t fit in the documentary.
We stop where catch influences Brazil. We mention it briefly and we move on because there’s way too much to talk about in 90 minutes. That’s the problem by the way.
Sonny: I totally understand that problem you’re having because it does go– runs so deep. Maybe if we skip forward then just to bring us into the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu picture is Maeda and just linking it up with catch, when he was traveling the world as Conde Korma. Another part that blew my mind is to find out that he actually competed in the world catch wrestling championships in London, in 19′ or something or rather, and there’s that picture of him in the tights doing the hammerlock and half Nelson. When I saw those, I’m like, “What is this?” How did that all play out?
Robert: Maeda, a few interesting things with Maeda. If you go on Pedreira’s site GTR, global training report, and if you type in global training report, top 20 myths about Maeda, it’s very interesting. It’s a must read very, very, because it mystifies a lot of the things that we know or what we think we know about Maeda. From my understanding, and we even had some stories about people who knew people who knew Maeda in [unintelligible 00:34:09] in the Amazon. He was a fairly known character and the stories that circulated about him made me like him even more. Not because he was a master Miyagi because he really came across as a normal person.
That’s why I like him even more now, because I’ve always been suspicious of the heroic type. You put them on a pedestal and this guy is really different. This guy is special. Yes, he was heroic in some way and then when you meet him, you’re always disappointed. You’re always disappointed when you meet your heroes because when you meet them, you see their human and then you’re always disappointed. I’ve been disappointed every single time I met someone who I admired because I saw that they were human. They were not superhero and now I like him more.
I’ve evolved, passed that worshiping phase of him. I like you even more now, but Maeda apparently liked to gamble, and he was a womanizer and he loved to drink and he liked to dress nicely. When people that met that knew people that knew him described him, it was like man, what a normal person. He just went to Brazil trying to make money and he had his moment on a stage in London like you’re describing is 1908, if I’m not mistaken.
Sonny: Yes, that sounds right.
Robert: He had his moment there, man. He liked the crowd and he liked the reporters and he probably had groupies. Was it really that different from a UFC fighter today? I don’t know, maybe he talked some trash. Maybe he didn’t, I don’t know how good his English was. From all accounts it wasn’t very good. It’s interesting to me when you see these characters that we put on pedestals, we frame them on the wall and they become godlike to see them with a normal face and a normal demeanor. I liked him even more. Maeda, I think that he was just enjoying his like– think about, imagine how many places Maeda went into.
He was all over Europe, Spain, England. He went to the United States, Mexico, Cuba, all through South America, ends up in the Amazon. This man came from Japan in the early 20th century, early 1900s. It’s like, for us, it’s the equivalent of going to Mars or something. Look at the experience this man had, he was enjoying his life. He was living his life to the fullest. To me, I think martial arts, even though he certainly was passionate about it, it was a vehicle for him to be normal. He just wanted to travel the world, make his money and have a good time. He reaches his 40s and he settles in the Amazon, gets married, has a couple kids, boom. What’s more normal than that.
He lived his life, man. He lived it with intensity. Traveling the world like that today is already very ambitious and unusual, 100 years ago, man it’s a dream come true. It’s not even– how many people in that era can say that. When you put things in perspective like that, I think that he was not a missionary of judo. I think he was just like, “Hey man, I’ll make it anyway I can.” When he got older, he moved away from fighting. He became a diplomat. He was an ambassador for Japanese immigrants in the Amazon, which is like a whole side story that’s really interesting too. I fell in love with the character even more than not because he’s a superhero, but because he was so normal.
That’s why I like George Gracie by the way because George was so normal from all accounts, same thing, womanizer, he’d drink a beer after fights with his friends, he was a normal guy. He was just enjoying his life and I suspect when Carlos presented the Gracie diet, it’s not really Gracie diet. It’s from an Argentina nutritionist, but that’s a different story too. I suspected George went like, “Get out to here, man. I’m not going to eat oranges all day, that’s stupid. No, I’m going to eat meat like everyone else. I’ll eat whatever I want. That’s stupid.” Carlos was like, “Oh, this is how you have to eat.” George, to me, my guess is he would’ve been like, “Get out to here with that crazy diet.”
Every person who described him described him as a rebel, which makes me like him even more because he seems so normal. I think that’s what came across. The history of Jiu-jitsu is a very normal history, even though it’s very rich, it’s very normal in the sense where its characters are not different from the same people you know in everyday life. You know someone like George Gracie, and you know someone like Carlos, and you know someone like Helio. You know immigrants, they’re struggling to make money an immigrant. You know an immigrant out there that will do just about anything to get paid. Why would we think that Japanese were any different?
There were not these noble missionaries, there were hustlers. I’ll work in a sugarcane field. I’ll work in a coffee plantation. You want me to teach judo even better?
Sonny: Yes, for me, I’ve always found that idea of them traveling around the world to challenge different martial art styles, and going by boat just to think that they must have been sitting there for ages thinking about I’m going to go to this place and ask people to fight. There’s something just romantic about that I just read about and it draws me into that must have been a wild adventure.
Robert: There’s a Brazilian director called José Padilha who was a director of Narcos and RoboCop. You might have heard of them. He’s paid with Netflix now and he’s doing a film on Rickson Gracie. Originally, I think the film is more focused on Rickson now. Originally it was about Maeda, Helio, Rickson. He was going to tell more of the history of BJJ. I actually spoke to him on the phone a couple of years ago because it’s around the same time we started working on our project and I’m trying to convince him to do something different. I’m like, “Man, if you’re going to do a film, let’s do something. Let’s move away from that Rocky Balboa.”
How many times have we seen that film, the hero type? How many times have we seen that? I wanted to write a story about nationalism, the rivalry between Brazilians and Japanese, which I thought was way more interesting than just that Rocky Balboa the superhero type, we’ve seen that movie so many times. The recipe works, it sells but he wasn’t too interested in something that was atypical. Just watch his films, you get to the typical superheroes. He’s a good director but his story will be very, very inaccurate.
Whatever comes I can almost guarantee you- -I offer not even for myself to put him in contact with other historians that could help him so he doesn’t make any mistakes but he seemed to be adamant about telling what he thought was the truth ad not really what was historically verifiable. I can almost guarantee it’s going to be very inaccurate.
Sonny: Well, that was also then one of the things that made me, however, you want to put it but the classic Hixon, 400-0 record which the first time I heard it I was like “Wow, that’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard.” Now, I’m looking back going, “I can’t believe I ever really believed 400-0. Come on, it’s an absurd claim used for marketing.” Those kinds of marketing things-
Robert: No, you’re right. I was just going to say it’s important. The marketing was important but that’s what it is. I’m the same as you, the first time I heard that like, “Oh, my God this guy can walk on water.” Then later you start learning more about fighting and you blame the BJJ” I’m like “That’s like a child’s tale. How can you even–?” There’re people that have records like that and he certainly had a very impressive record for his time but the whole pedestal thing, you don’t have to dig too deep to find out that it just doesn’t stand. It just doesn’t hold but no doubt he was an important character.
Sonny: No doubt, of course, all the usual caveats you can stand on the work that we do have on video footage, he’s very important to the role. Let’s be real. The other parts there’re some probably disputing then is when Maeda actually gets to Brazil and actually starts teaching the art, whatever it is you want to say he’s actually teaching to people who was actually the learning and who we actually taught. How did that all start to play out?
Robert: The traditional narrative goes Maeda gets to Brazil and he’s fighting in the circus, Gastão Gracie Senior, Carlos’ father was a circus owner and a fight manager. That’s all true. There very likely there was a connection although we can’t prove it. It’s very likely that there’s a lot of truth to that because they were in the same scene, one’s a circus manager and fight manager, the other one is was a fighter fighting in the circus, right? Same place. Ironically, the very first time Gracie is in contact with Jiu-jitsu, he’s managing wrestlers against Jiu-jitsu, the Japanese. They’re actually working against Jiu-jitsu and the Japanese are complaining that the wrestlers had too much oil on their body so they couldn’t really grapple with them.
I just thought that’s the first time Gracie is in contact with Jiu-jitsu, is working against it really. Maeda settles there and he teaches, they’re five Brazilians that are in the forefront as Maeda’s students. It’s very obvious because they’re repeatedly referenced in the press. Over and over and over you see Maeda being associated with these five Brazilians. Jacyntho Ferro was the most prominent one, Dr. Matheus Pereira, Waldemar, Gomes Raphael, Lopes, and Guilherme de La-Rocque. These five Brazilians and very likely they were promoted, we’re not sure to what rank that seems to be.
It’s either the last cue which will be today the equivalent of a brown belt or Shodan down which is first-degree blank range. They don’t go black and then first degree, they go straight to first degree. That’s where they start the black belt. Given how long they had been training under Maeda approximately five years and given the Kotokan would have promoted somewhere around that period of time, it’s very likely that Maeda promoted them to black belt except that the reporters did not understand the language at the time. Early in the 20th century black belt meant nothing. He just promotes them to first rank.
That’s the best they can translate, promoting the five to first rank. First rank of what? The reporter didn’t think it relevant enough to mention, he probably didn’t understand the difference anyway, but very likely black belt. Then when you see others and you see these five Brazilians being consistently mentioned in the press, at one point Maeda is tired of fighting, still know, he’s getting challenged and he just goes, “I’m too old, I don’t want to fight. Fight one of my students. Take one of the five and you can fight one of them.” Nowhere in there is Carlos Gracie mentioned, that’s the real problem because how can he be his favorite if he’s never mentioned.
A, he was too young. You got to remember he’s a teenager at this time. It’s highly unlikely that he’s the most prominent figure in a place where you have all these known athletes with fight experience, and he’s a teenager and he’s the boss in the gym when Maeda is not around. Helio implies that in her biography. You become a little suspicious of how much Carlos actually trained there. There’s an article 1922, if I’m not mistaken that mentions a man called Oscar Gracie fighting Donato Pires dos Reis. Oscar is very likely an error by the journalist’s comment at the time, probably Carlos, maybe it was Oswaldo, a little too young perhaps but very likely Carlos Gracie.
What’s interesting about this article is that they’re both referenced as students of Jacyntho Ferro not of Maeda even if Maeda is present at the event. Whatever little evidence we have at this time suggests that in fact Carlos was trained under Jacyntho Ferro and not Maeda directly because Maeda he’s moved away from that position of teaching at that point. Even though it’s possible that Carlos had some experience with Maeda, this is the one thing that every historian agrees on, that relationship is exaggerated. It’s just the degree to how exaggerated it is that people disagree on.
Sonny: I guess even just saying that relationship is exaggerated is such a diversion from what is commonly accepted as what happened, that it raises a lot of questions or a lot of interest in and of itself. Donato Pires, his story, I might be getting my stories mixed up so you’ll be able to correct me. I had a thought that I’d heard that maybe his involvement with Carlos Gracie was more important or at the time he claimed it did and there was an argument over that at the time, is that?
Robert: Donato was very important because he gives Carlos his first job teaching Jiu-jitsu. Donato is the one who’s in a challenge with Oscar Gracie, it’s the same person. In 1928, they will meet again in Belo Horizonte which is close to Rio, and Donato is the head instructor for the police there. He hires Carlos as his assistant. He gives Carlos Gracie his first job teaching Jiu-jitsu. Two years later, Carlos has a brief experience in São Paulo where he actually opens the first Gracie academy. The first Gracie academy is opened in São Paulo in 1929 or 1930, I can’t remember now but it was opened for a few months, it didn’t do well.
You’re talking about going against the best Japanese in the country were living in São Paulo at the time. Carlos had some tough competition. He didn’t survive, he moves to Rio where he opens a school under Donato. Donato is the head instructor in 1930 of the Jiu-jitsu Academy it was called. Carlos Gracie and George Gracie are assistant instructors, meaning they were there but there’s clearly a hierarchy as to who’s the boss and who’s an instructor there, Carlos is under him. Right away you see a hierarchy. That academy, by the way, it was not called the Gracie Academy. The Jiu-jitsu academy its founder was Donato 1930.
There is no Gracie academy in 1925. They have to fix that patch and this is not controversial. There’s nothing that points to the Gracie academy 1925. 1930 is when it’ s founded by Donato. He later leaves, he has a fallout with the Gracie brothers. They attack at the hotel America or Donato says, claims so at least that he was attacked by the brothers. He’s a tax collector, he doesn’t need the money. He goes on with his life and he just leaves the gym and Carlos takes over. From then onwards it becomes the Gracie Academy but it was only after this fallout.
He would later, I believe in 1936, it might have been before, I can’t remember exactly the year but he’s going to open an academy in São Paulo with George Gracie. He doesn’t disappear from the scene. He has a much better relationship with George who was enemies with Carlos and Helio at this time. He’s a very important character because he actually claimed to have a diploma from Conde Korma from Maeda. We never saw the diploma. There’s at least one reporter who confirms seeing a diploma but we don’t know of what but he claimed to have a certificate which at that time was more valuable than a black belt really. That’s all people cared about was a diploma.
He also claimed that Carlos never met Maeda which is very interesting because the only eye witness, the only person who could comment on this period other than Carlos Gracie himself was Donato because he’s from Belem do Para, he was a student of Jacyntho Ferro and he categorically says that Carlos never met Maeda. Now, this is at a time when he’s enemies with Carolos. Whether he was just saying that to attack Carlos or he was really telling the truth we’re never going to know. My personal suspicion is that Donatos not the most reliable of characters. He was a political actor like everyone else, but the only eyewitness at the time, other than Carlos himself to comment on this relationship is Donato, and he very emphatically says that they never even met.
Sonny: That’s interesting that that’s possibly how it went down. Donato Perez, when he’s making those claims, is that after he was attacked, or was that before he was attacked?
Robert: Probably. Here’s the case for Carlos here, if you knew nothing about Jiu-Jitsu, why did he invite him to be an assist instructor, both in Minas Gerais and Rio De Janeiro? If he didn’t know any Jiu-Jitsu, why would you invite a guy who doesn’t know any Jiu-Jitsu to teach next to you? Why would you? It makes no sense. Once he’s on bad terms with Carlos, that’s when he goes around saying he never make Carlos or Maeda.
You can see that there’s a political rivalry there as well and that might have impacted the choice of words, but at the same time, his testimony is at least as valuable as Carlos. At the very, very least, just as valuable. He was there. We know for a fact that he was a student of Justin Tofehu. We know that he outranked Carlos because both times they’re interacting, Donato is in a higher position, a position of authority over Carlos, which suggest that Carlos was learning from him as well given that hierarchy.
Carlos probably learned from him. A lot of his historians or a lot of researchers in Brazil, they claimed that Geo Omori might have been the source for a lot of their knowledge. Through George Gracie, Geo Omori have a good relationship with George. George was actually the one teaching the brothers, Carlos and Hélio, because he was better than, during the beginning at least, he was better than Hélio, was better than Carlos.
Geo Omori might have been a source of their as well. Anyway, what everyone agrees on is that the relationship, the apprenticeship of Carlos under Maeda is grossly exaggerated. That seems to be unanimous. No one really argues with that.
Sonny: That’s pretty believable that he could be exaggerating his story or that’s just wrong that if he’s invited him to be a Jiu-Jitsu instructor, then he must have some experience, obviously, that would make sense. Then after he gets attacked by them, his claims are, no, he didn’t know a thing. I can see how that could play out.
Robert: The order of events is instructive here. Anyway, the story is interesting. Either way, in one way or another, the role of Carlos is undeniable. It’s just that his role was not a technical one, and that’s what people get mad at them, “Oh, you’re supposed to revolutionize the art,” then I go, “This is where my challenge comes in.” Watch them do positions, watch the videos of the 1950s, ’60s, does it look very sophisticated?
What’s different from what the Japanese were doing? It’s less sophisticated, it’s not more, so what did he revolutionize? This is why I keep asking, “Show me the technical evolution that you’re talking about.” It’s inferior to the Japanese, it’s not superior, so if anything, they were a notch below, technically, not above. This is very clear about how adamant they were about tweaking the rules to their favor, fighting with shorter gis.
They didn’t want to fight the Japanese with long gis. That was a huge issue. The gis thing kept coming up over and over and over. They did not want to fight with long gis, they wanted short sleeves. Marcel Sahan, one of the Brazilian historians, he goes, “The Gracies were more Japanese than the Japanese” because the Japanese would take their gis off to fight. Geo Omori, “No, gig? Let’s go. Point? Okay. No point? Okay.
A different way class, no problem, let’s go.” Then Carlos and Hélio are more traditional, “Oh, it has to be in a gi, the sleeves have to be short, it has to be noble points, longer fights.” They’re very specific about how they wanted to fight and George was different. That’s why I wanted to raise that, George was less picky, even though most of George’s fights were probably fake too.
He admitted to that, by the way, he admitted to most of his fights being fake, but he was the kind of guy like, “You want to fight? Let’s go. What ruleset? Don’t care, let’s go.”
Sonny: Just to bring up. In doing my research for this interview, for the first time, I saw, it looked like it was from a course in Judo textbook of someone doing, it pretty much looks like rubber guard in there. It was the first time I saw that and I was like, “Wow, I might have to look into that a bit more,” but just on the surface, that’s what it looked like. It’s going then into rulesets. One of the stories that really highlighted that for me was the story of Rufino Dos Santos and his trying to arrange a match with, I think it was Carlos
Robert: Rufino, because he’s a catch wrestler, he’s the instructor of gymnastics at the YMCA in Rio De Janeiro. He ends up fighting with Carlos and the match was a bit complex. It was controversial in the sense where apparently, Rufino was in the ring, they’re going out of bounds with the ropes. Carlos catches a choke, the ref tells him to stop. Carlos keeps choking, they’re out of bound, Rufino apparently taps.
Rufino claims because the ref said to stop and you’re still choking me. Then Carlos says, “I won.” The referee demands that Carlos continues fighting, sides with Rufino. Carlos says, he tap, “I’m not fighting again,” and then he goes, “If you don’t step on the mask to continue to fight, we’re going to disqualify you. I’m going to give the fight to Rufino Dos Santos,” so that’s what happens.
Carlos refuses to continue fighting, Rufino was declared the winner. The trash-talking back and forth in the press keeps going. It gets so extreme that it gets to the point where Rufino Dos Santos attacked outside the Ginásio do Tijuca Tênis Clube. If you’re an old-school Jiu-Jitsu person, you know exactly what I’m talking about because Ginásio do Tijuca Tênis Clube is where the world championships were held in Rio De Janeiro, so just outside that arena.
They attack him. Hélio claims that he attacked him alone, Rufino Dos Santos claimed that it was all the Gracie brothers, it was Valdo, George, Hélio, and Carlos. One of them remained in the car. I think it was Valdo who stayed in the car and the other three attacked him together. It’s interesting, that’s not the first time that’s happened. They’ve been accused about three times with Bourgi with Manuel Rufino Dos Santos, and Donato Pires Dos Reis.
Donato Pires Dos accuse them of attacking him, the Gracie brothers attacking him outside his hotel where he lived, Hotel America where he lived.
This time with Rufino Dos Santos, they’re actually arrested. They’re sentenced to prison, two and a half years sentenced to prison. The Brazil at the time was a dictatorship. It was under Getúlio Vargas, who was a very controversial figure in Brazilian history, but Vargas, he was a Brazilian strong man at the time.
Whatever he said was law. One of the Gracie student was this woman, I don’t remember her name, but she held a role inside his office. I don’t know if she was his secretary. I can’t remember what her role was, but she knew Getúlio Vargas, the dictator at the time, very well. She threw her connections and managed to get a pardon from Getúlio Vargas to the Gracie brothers. They were convicted and later they are let free.
They never served time, but this really did a lot of damage to them because they were really hustling to get a job at the Navy. They wanted to work with the military so they have a guaranteed salary. After this, they released them with a really bad rep in the press in Rio De Janeiro, so the Navy hires Takeo Yano instead. It was not such a noble period there for the Gracie brothers.
If you’re accused of the same thing three times, three independent sources all saying the same thing. It’s interesting that they’re all accusing them of using what they call boxe aço. Now, it’s difficult to translate because it’s not a box and aço means steel. No one goes to a fight with a steel box, but it’s very likely brass knuckles because box, “I’m going to box you with steel.”
That’s might have been what the reports were referring to, brass knuckles at the time. They were accused of using brass knuckles in the attack. It’s certainly not the most noble aspect of their history.
Again, before people judge them too, you got to remember, we’ve all had our– I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying I would’ve done that, but you got to be careful not to be the other side too like, “Oh, they’re horrible.” I don’t think that’s admirable, but that doesn’t diminish their role in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. That’s why we don’t talk about it in the film because, okay, they attacked Manuel Rufino Dos Santos and then they beat them up, does that change their role in BJJ? No.
Does that make them angels? No, they were not angels. If that’s the answer you’re looking for, they’re far from angels, but that their role is still there, that doesn’t change. If I made a documentary about Hélio and Carlos, I would mention these things, but I don’t, I’m making a document about Jiu-Jitsu. We’re not going to get into their personal life. That’s a whole another story, man.
They’re very interesting people, there’s just no doubt about that. You can read Hélio’s biography and the whole time is like, “Man.” It’s a very unique family and good and bad like any other family. I have a job because of them, but things are less admirable. I can’t see myself attacking someone down the street with brass knuckles with my brothers unless they try to rape my daughter or something extreme like that. No circumstance can warrant something like that.
Sonny: I think part of that story, the implication of a metal instrument, possibly brass knuckles, and the conviction, that might happen. I think part of it is that we might have that idolized myth of putting the photo on the wall, you have that higher opinion, and then that brings it down back to earth in such a startling way that it wasn’t just a bad, I don’t know what you can even describe it as.
Let’s just say attacking someone with brass knuckles is a pretty extreme form of revenge for people who you might assume are the noble image of martial artists.
Robert: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, but again, it just reinforces what I was saying earlier, people are people. We all lie. We’re all messed up. We’re not angels, we’re not demons. We vary and only in the degree in which we lie and deceive, to the degree in which we’re honest and dishonest. That’s what we vary, but who can say that they’re always honest? Who can say that they’re always doing the right thing? Who can say that they never lie?
The history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu comes with the good and bad, but here we are. Robson Gracie, another one of my favorite interviews, very, very charismatic. Renzo Gracie’s father, very charismatic, and fun guy to hang out with too. He said something like that. I can’t remember the exact words. He says like, “For good and better or for worse, here we are.”
I think he summarized the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with those few words, because for better or for worse, the good and the bad. The good and the bad got us here. You are who you are because of the bad decisions you’ve made and because of the good decisions, the right decisions. We’re not the product of only the good or the bad, it’s we’re a product of everything.
Why should the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu be any different? The history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, it is the product of some hideous acts, but it’s also the product of the stubbornness and egomania, and it’s a product of some very brave moments, and it’s a product of a lot of marketing, and the ambition to carve a niche outside of Judo and they do that. You got to give them credit because I much prefer BJJ over Judo.
I don’t dislike Judo, but I think BJJ is far more interesting. I know I’m biased, this is what I’ve been doing my whole life, but if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have this, we wouldn’t have Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. We have Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because they’ve put their foots down and disagreed with the Japanese on the ruleset. What else are you going to say? It’s both good and bad.
Sonny: No, I agree with you on that. The fact that there’s going to be the good, the bad, maybe the truth somewhere in the middle, maybe the ugly tacked on the end as well. That’s not just the story of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, that’s the story of life of the world. Every story you tell is going to do that. The idea that you could fit it all in a 90-minute documentary.
Robert: That’s where we’re struggling because we have changed the script more times than I can count and it’s hard, what do we leave out. There are so many great segments that we’re going to leave out, so many, so many. What are you going to do? We have material for 12 episodes, but unless someone gives us a million dollars to produce 12 episodes, we can’t do it. For 12 episodes, we need a million dollars. If someone’s willing to give us a million, we’ll produce 12 episodes.
Sonny: That’s the pitch there.
Robert: Hey, if there’s someone rich out there that really loves history, DM me, we can make this happen. I think for what we have, we’ve done a lot. I think we’ve done okay. I’m happy with what’s coming out of this because we had to tell a hundred plus years of history, so many events, so many characters, so many outside influences.
You can’t correct history without talking about what’s wrong about it. First, you got to tell what is wrong about history before you can correct it. If you just correct it, it’s out of context. How do you do that in 90 minutes? It’s very, very hard.
Sonny: I’m of the opinion now that everyone should have the experience making a documentary like that so they can understand when they watch a documentary, maybe there’s more to the story of how things could be portrayed and how much choices in the hands of the person making the film, what they put in, what they leave out, and what their limits are just so they can get more of an idea of the process.
One of the things I don’t want to leave out of this interview is the story of George Gracie. You’ve touched on him a bit. You’ve said he’s one of your favorites. I wonder if we can just go into that a bit more and his development.
Robert: No, absolutely. It’s interesting because I heard of George since I was a white belt. The first time I heard of George Gracie, and I’ll tell you why. My first instructor in Brazil, his father was a student of the Ono brothers and of George Gracie. That was the first time I’d heard of George, but you just didn’t hear of him outside of that. The first time I heard of him as a white belt, I never heard of him after that. I’m like, “Why?”
Then when I started reading more about the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and that’s when George started coming up all the time. George Gracie, George Gracie all the time. He was the first hero of the Gracie family. Hélio was still a swimmer, he was still rowing. He was not a fragile individual, we was an elite athlete. That’s another myth that we’re going to try to correct. The whole thing of him being weak was a market exploit.
It’s brilliant and it goes back to the rest of the Japanese work, small defeating the large, you see. He was a successful swimmer, but George was the first hero of the family. He just had a very different personality from Carlos to Hélio. Like I said, he seemed like a very normal guy and didn’t follow the rules and did what he wanted to do. There was probably some disputes over five passes. Speculation, but it’s the one thing that everyone fights over is for money.
Brothers, family, money, working together, that’s got to get complicated. George was interested in me because many of his fights were fake, but one of my favorite episodes about George is when he admitted. He went to the press in the 1940s and he basically goes, “By the way, all these fights you guys are watching and applauding, they’re all fake,” and everyone, “What? All fake?” and like, “Yes, most of them are fake.” “Yours too.”
Like, “Yes, mine were fake too.” He calmed himself, why would he do that? There was a certain degree of honesty there to be able to say something that hurts you and your cause. Then a reporter goes, “All of them are fake?” Then George goes, “No, not all of them. My brother, Hélio, he never fought a fake fight in his life.” This is at a time when they were enemies. They were not on good terms.
George and Hélio almost fought a few times. They almost went at it in the public, they were not on good terms, so instead, they had their students fight for them. George would pitch his students against Hélio’s students and that’s how they fought. For George at that time, when they were not on good terms, to praise his brother as the only person who never had a fake match, who does that?
Who puts enemies up? He put himself down in order to put his enemy up. It takes a certain degree of honesty, and that’s why he’s not remembered, I’m convinced. He didn’t have the ambition to be remembered. He was he’s a normal person. He’s like, “I don’t have to have a legacy and be remembered in history. I can just be me and enjoy my life. I don’t want to have 21 kids.”
He’s such a normal guy, but he could be called, at least, the very least, one of the founding fathers of modern MMA. Why? Because what you could call the first Vale Tudo fight, Vale Tudo is what we used to call MMA back in the day. At that time, it was Valendo Tudo, a little bit different. His fight with Chico Solidadi was Vale Tudo in the ’90s sense of the word; headbutts, no gloves, elbows, both of them in Speedos. “You do whatever you want to do, I’ll do whatever I want to do, let’s go at it.”
George wins the fight. It’s arguably the first modern version of Vale Tudo, even far more brutal than the UFC, headbutts. I’m not sure about groin shots, I’m not sure about that, but I think groin shots might have been legal as well. He plays that role, man. He had a great relationship with the Japanese and he had a great relationship with the catch wrestlers and everyone loved him.
From all accounts, he was funny, charismatic and that’s why he’s not remembered because history remembers who? History remembers the hustlers. It remember the people who are pushing to have a flawless record of 400-0 because go ahead, get something serious. If Rickson had fought in Abu Dhabi in 2001, 2003, you think he would have won? Or ’99 for that matter, you think he would have won? I don’t think he would have won.
I don’t think he would have beaten José Mário Sperry. I don’t think he would have beaten those guys. What do you do? You conserve and crystallize that moment where I’m 400-0 and you stick to that and you pick your fights and it’s nothing new. It was an old marketing scheme that was way back in the ’30s; pick your fights, pick the ruleset, pick everything, and then make everything work in your favor, and then win, and then you market the hell out of that as the most important fight in history.
If you draw, you didn’t lose because you didn’t get tapped, and if you lose, it’s a moral victory because your opponent is heavier. You can’t lose. You won’t lose. You can’t lose. You never admit defeat, everything is a victory. It’s brilliant marketing and it works. It’s surprisingly it still works. I had people argue with me about the 400 fights, and they get mad. It’s almost like a religion.
I’m like, “Man,” and then you start thinking like, “Okay, I can see how dogma takes place, I can see where it begins.” If some of these addicts had been born 800 years ago and we were still talking about him, he would have superpowers, he’d be flying. He’d be doing armbars with the power of his mind. It gets blown so out of proportion when people just are so adamant about conserving that aura of invincibility, and it’s just so inhuman.
It’s so supernatural. I look at it and I’m like, “Who believes this?” That’s why I love the story of Maeda gambling, I love George Gracie the womanizer because he’s normal, he’s not a saint.
Sonny: I guess that’s probably part of the thing that interests me, especially with this sport, there seems to be that aura about the founders where, in other sports, it wouldn’t even be debatable that the people coming up now are better than people of the past. Maybe it’s easier with running, you’ve got a set time, but in every other sport, it’s a given that improvements have been made and the people of the past were the best at that time.
You could say that if they were born now, they would be the best now, they had that natural gift, or you can make that argument. The fact that it’s even controversial even to say that, I understand it, I guess, but I just feel that it just shouldn’t really cause any tension.
Robert: It’s fundamentalism. It’s just under a religious form, but quasi-religious. You’re absolutely right. You can measure swimming, you’re going to put an Olympic gold medalist from the ’80s in a pool with Michael Phelps, what do you think is going to happen? Is that an insult to the swimmer of the 1980s that Michael Phelps outswam him? Why would you be offended? Swimming improved.
“Do you love swimming?” “Yes, I love swimming.” “Do you want swimming to improve as a sport?” “Yes, I do.” “So why are you upset that people today have better times than people in the 90s? How arrogant are you to crystallize that moment in history and act like, ‘Oh, no, the Jiu-Jitsu that I did in my prime was the best one.'” It’d be like me saying the Jiu-Jitsu in 2007 when I won ADCC was the best Jiu-Jitsu, there’s nothing better than that.
I’m like, “No, Jiu-Jitsu in 2007 was better,” and I just want to keep saying that for the rest of my life. How arrogant am I? If you love your art, you want it to evolve. I am proud of the fact that my purple belt’s going to be beating me very soon, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So what? You want the art to evolve, don’t you? Are we such egomaniacs that I have to be the huge superhero for the rest of my life?
I can’t lose, I can’t accept the fact that the techniques evolve and that the new generations are better, and I can’t pass on the torch acknowledging that they are standing on the shoulders of giants because I am standing on the shoulders of giants? The giants of the past are Rickson Gracie. He’s one of them, are Royce Gracie and Carlson and Hélio, why can’t you accept that I am here because of them, and without them, I would not have a job?
Now whether the young generation wants to take knowledge of that speaks to their intelligence because if you have half a brain, you have to acknowledge these giants of the past, but to say that they are better grapplers than the young generation is delusional. The best scrap in the 1980s was Paulo Miyao and Paulo Miyao will be on his back in seconds.
So what? It’s a compliment to Jiu-Jitsu, it’s not a compliment to Paulo Miyao. It’s not an insult to Rickson Gracie. It’s a compliment to the beautiful art of Jiu-Jitsu that we all love so much.
Sonny: Yes, I hear you. It’s funny you mentioned purple belts because I’ve even had that thought myself, rolling around I’m like, “Damn, these purple belts, they’re getting good, man, they’re getting good. Yes, they’re going to get me,” and they should. If the sport’s evolving and they’re not being held back at all, I’m getting older, they’re younger, they’re going to catch up and go past us. It’s just the fact of life.
Robert: That’s a good thing. It really is, I insist on that. I think the young generation makes it hard sometimes. You get the purple belt with the Shoyoroll gi, watches a lot of YouTube videos, subscribes to every BJJ academy out there. He’s like, “Yes, old man, I got it. I know more Jiu-Jitsu than you,” and you’re like, “You don’t have shit. You had it all digested, you were spoon-fed that, you didn’t come up with any of it.
You’re an idiot if you give yourself credit over things you didn’t do.” It drives me crazy when you get these 22-year-old purple belts like, “No, I got it.” What do you got? You’re spoon-fed. You didn’t do anything. What did you actually develop? Go. You memorize something on YouTube. Don’t act like you’re all wise and knowledgeable, you’re not. That’s called memory. It’s not impressive.
I think it’s cute in a condescending way when you get these purple belts and brown belts that are like, “Yes, I know, I got it.” I’m like, “Man, you just wait” because I used to think that way too. I was that guy. I was that annoying blue belt who thought he knew it all. I knew three half-guard sweeps and I thought my Jiu-Jitsu was so sophisticated.
You have to go through that. I think you only learn these things where you go through the phases. You have to experience that arrogance of youth to be able to become a wiser person as you get older. You look back and you go like, “Oh, man,” it’s embarrassing. It really is. It’s just part of the journey. Like sometimes people say people like Gordon Ryan be so full of themselves, and then you’re like, “I can’t wait for him to retract every single thing he’s saying and apologize to everyone” because he will.
By the time he hits 40, he’s going to, “Man, what an ass I was.” Unless he’s that crazy. I think if he’s got half a brain, he’s going to go, “Man, what an ass I was. I was a total idiot, really bragging about other people’s accomplishments. I was treading a road that was built by other people. I was walking in a road that was built by hundreds and thousands of other people that came before me and I never acknowledged them and I never said thank you.”
Sonny: I think it’s such a huge point there where you just hope that people don’t get arrogant. You can just pretty hope that people don’t take it in a negative direction. Then I guess the choice comes up to you, are you just going to let that happen or would you start thinking that, well, maybe if I do create some idols and some mythology, that can prevent it?
Because they can never touch the mythology that we create because that’s set in stone, so that’s going to keep them in their place because there’s this thing they can’t challenge ever. Whereas you’re just going to be like, “Okay, let’s roll.” If you get us, you get us fair and square, and it is what it is.
Robert: We start this film with that. That’s one of our opening lines, we crave mythology. To me, it’s a glitch in human psyche. It’s a flaw. If there’s something we needed to fix, we have a leaning towards a mythology. I’ll give you an example. If I hid behind my black belt and my accomplishments, I could literally cruise the rest of my life and no one would suspect that the Robert Drysdale of 2020 is not the same Robert Drysdale of 2008, ’09.
I could literally drift that way for the rest of my life no one would question me, but I don’t do that. I throw myself on the mats, which, to me, is an act of bravery because I’m not as healthy and I’m not as athletic, but I’ll throw myself on the mats and I’ll train with my younger students. They’re in their prime and they’re giving me hell. The white belts looks at that, “What? Robert is not invincible? What? He just had a brown belt pass his guard?”
I am no longer on a pedestal, therefore, I’m nowhere. The way they look at you, they don’t think more of you, they think less. They should think more because it takes a lot of courage to step on the mats when you’re beat up. I think it does. I admire if you commit and still competing, I’m like, “Man, you’re a superhero.” Wellington Megaton is a superhero.
He’s like 50 and he’s still competing with the adults. I can’t imagine, how beat up is that guy and he’s still doing it? The way people see it is they see it as a sign of weakness instead of seeing it as a sign of strength. I think that someone who’s mature enough will see the opposite. I have to force myself on the mat sometimes. I understand where some of these guys are coming from and why they want to hide, crystallize that moment of the past and make that the whole story because it’s too hard to admit that you’re going to lose to someone younger.
It’s not easy. It happens to me now and I don’t like it, but I accept and what I tell myself is that I am a good representative of the art of Jiu-Jitsu because of that. I’m better for it and if people want bullshit, that’s not on me. I’m going to give them reality and the reality is you can’t stay in your prime forever. That’s the reality. If you want to believe the mythology, go ahead man, believe 400-0, but that’s on you and your lack of critical thinking. Your lack of skepticism. It’s not my fault, you know what I’m saying?
Robert: I feel that instructors who give their students the truth are worthy of martial arts. I’m not trying to put myself in. I got many flaws, but I do make an effort to expose myself like that. I’m like I’m not scared of training with my students. If I get beat in practice, that’s that. I have zero ambition to compete. People are like, “Why don’t you compete?” I don’t care about it anymore. I think that a lot of this idolizing of the past has to do with that. It’s more about ego than it is about the growth of the art.
Sonny: I hear that and I think that probably resonates with my own personal view as well. My instructor’s still competing and I respect that and that’s something. My goal is to still keep competing and still try and force myself to do those things. What would you say maybe to someone that you’re trying to tell the truth, but, hey, these myths are out there, it’s probably too late to change them?
The myths have done some good in spreading Jiu-Jitsu and getting people involved in helping the marketing and promotion. Maybe without the myths, we wouldn’t even be doing Jiu-Jitsu.
Robert: Honestly, man, I think that without the marketing, we’d all be doing Judo. The lies are a part of it. The exaggerations, the myths, they’re all part of what got us there, so are they necessary? I don’t know man, I don’t have a good answer, maybe they are. Maybe they’re necessary because I wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for those things and we would have been absorbed and swallowed whole by the spread of Jiu-Jitsu. Maybe it would have been better.
Judo is a lot more. There’s a lot to teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in terms of its philosophy and approach to life and values of respect and hierarchy. I think there’s something to be said about Judo that we’re missing in BJJ and I like it, but from a strictly martial perspective, from a combat perspective, I think they made way too many mistakes, they left too much out. They ignored too much a grappling. They don’t let shots.
A double and a single you can’t, why would you do that? Why would you eliminate a double? Does it work? Yes. Then why are you eliminating it? Why would you eliminate a shoulder lock? Oh, you’re going to get hurt? Takedowns don’t hurt? Have you ever grappled? Takedowns hurt way more than submissions do. Sometimes I wonder, people who are making these rules, have you ever grappled?
Do you have any experience with the sport or are you just coming up with stuff from your head like, “Oh, I think that this is what’s going to happen, so that’s the new rule set.” Very common thing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu today. Promoters coming up with rules. They have zero experience competing, but they’re making rules. It’s like me telling you what to do with your teeth. It’s like me giving you advice on quantum physics.
I don’t know about it, I’m not going to give you advice. You want to create a rule set for Jiu-Jitsu, you talk to the competitors. You don’t do that. Come up with rules and all head. Judo made mistakes, but as far as the philosophy goes, man, we have a lot to learn from them. I think it could be argued that we’d be better off doing Judo today, but technically, I don’t like it nearly as much as I like Jiu-Jitsu.
Sonny: Talk about the philosophy and that’s one thing with Judo was the way and I think had elements of that Dallas philosophy and when they changed their name to Jiu-Jitsu, which I think meant just more techniques. There was some pushback with the Judo because it’s, why are you taking that side of the philosophy side out? Is there anything to that?
Robert: Jigorō Kanō never refers to Kano Jiu-Jitsu to my knowledge, but he was referred to by other people to Kano Jiu-Jitsu because everything was Jiu-Jitsu, so Kano was just another school out of many, but he does chant to Judo after a while because he didn’t like the association with professional fights, the circus, fixed fights, so he wanted to move away from all that and create a means to educate the public.
He could only do that by changing public perceptions, so that’s why he tried to change the name, but there certainly is a lot to be said about Judo as a means of education. We’d go to a Judo school today and you see that. It’s very different from a Jiu-Jitsu. Maybe that’s one reason why Jiu-Jitsu is so appealing, it’s so relaxed. The Brazilian culture, it’s so chill and it’s such a break from the normal life work.
What does it work like? Deadlines, 9:00 to 5:00, your boss angry, hierarchy and can you go to the BJJ gym and your instructor’s chill. He does this and he fist bumps and he gives you a hug. If you’re late, he’s not mad and he jokes around with you and you guys have dinner together afterwards. It’s such a break. Maybe that’s why it’s popular, but at the same time with that, sometimes the values aren’t there.
IBJJF created a platform for the growth of BJJ in terms of hierarchy, belt system, rules, tournaments all that, but if there was a philosophy, what’s the philosophy of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Who influenced BJJ philosophically? They try to make Carlos that person. Hélio tries to make her father that spiritual leader, but then you dig into the man’s life this much, is he really a worthy spiritual leader? I don’t think so.
In her own biography, you can read it, what jumps is that he was not a wise man. If you read Choque and [unintelligible 01:26:19] It’s a whole new ballgame. Even in her own biography what comes across is not a nobleman, so we’re missing that. It’s good and bad. You get the lack of philosophy, but you get a very happy environment with it. Brazilians are very happy people, but they’re also very unorganized. These things you have to balance it out.
Sonny: Yes, it’s just funny, it’s the good and the bad. I guess the yin-yang, which I guess is Taoism, which is Judo the way. I don’t know what it all means, but as you’ve described and that feeling of getting on the mat’s one thing I do know for sure is I love Jiu-Jitsu and at the moment, I’m missing doing it. No doubt about that.
Robert: That’s how I feel, man. That’s how we all feel. I always give this as an example because to me, it’s a very good argument in favor of the Gracie, the role of Carlos and Hélio. Have you ever heard of Peruvian Jiu-Jitsu?
Sonny: I have not.
Robert: Because it doesn’t exist. You know why? Plenty of Japanese in Peru. It was like Brazil, half of Brazil was like Peru. The main destination for Japanese. Why?
Sonny: No sure.
Robert: I think that’s where Carlos and Hélio come in. The Japanese migrated everywhere. It wasn’t just Brazil. I think they played a role there. I think there’s something to be said. I think it does say something about their force.
Robert: I get your point.
Sonny: Robson did something that’s great. I love Robson’s interviewing and it goes like this, “What would Maeda be without Carlos?” It’s a very good question. Would you have heard of Maeda without Carlos?
Robert: Maybe not.
Sonny: In other words, it wasn’t Maeda who created Carlos, it was Carlos who created Maeda. Maeda, in Robson’s words, would be a legend of the Amazon without a man like Carlos Gracie to make them relevant because it’s true, without him, who would have heard of Maeda today? He’d be a footnote in the annals of Judo history, he’d be a footnote.
There were Japanese who were allegedly better than Maeda at that time. We haven’t heard of them because they didn’t have their Carlos Gracie, someone that would turn them into a mythological like creature. In one way or another, man, you can’t deny their role. For better or for worse, it is what it is.
Sonny: Yes, of course. No, I think that it’s a great point of just, look, they did it. They’re the ones who did it. They actually made it happen. They took that and spread it worldwide and created this massive, whatever you want to call, culture that spread all across the globe. They’re the ones who put the rubber to the road and made things happen and that is fact. They can’t take that away.
Robert: Even though we’ve been accused of being pro- Gracie and anti-Gracie too, I’ve been accused of being pro-Fadda and-anti Fadda, I’ve been accused of being pro-Brazil and anti-Brazil, pro-US. It was never the intention. The intention was always to try to be accurate. Hopefully, people will enjoy it. It was a lot of work, a lot of our time. I do ask the community support.
We did this for the BJJ community, so we really hope that they support and help spread the word. Our best means of educating people is organically. It’s something that is word of mouth and people talk about it, so we’re asking for everyone to help us the best they can.
Sonny: I love it. I can’t wait to see it as well. Just going through that history, I cover so many things that can be seen in society like the mythology and just how news is presented and how we latch on to things. You can see echoes of what’s happening today is starting off in the past, it’s a great way of looking at it.
Robert: That was the goal. That was only the intention, but anyway, I really hope for you guys support it. We should be done by the end of our summer, your winter. We have our website closedguardfilm.com, you can subscribe to receive some of the news. When we’re about to release, we’re going to be reaching out to you guys. You can follow us on our Instagram page, closedguardthemovie.com, and check us out. Support, spread the word. We’re trying to make this something for everyone. It’s time we leave behind that linear simplistic approach to BJJ.
Sonny: I love it. Robert, Mr. Drysdale, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a great story, great share, and make sure all those links go in the show notes and I’ll make sure to try and get the word out when the movie comes out. Thank you so much. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and maybe you can come back on in the future and we discuss your competitive career and all that stuff too.
Robert: We’ll do that. Maybe after this film is out, you can watch it, and then we can talk about it when it’s out.
Sonny: That sounds perfect.
Sonny: Okay. Thanks, man, I appreciate it.
Robert: You too.
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