In a recent post, I tried to capture what has become the commonplace creation myth of Gracie jiu jitsu. While some of the details of the narrative vary—depending on whether it’s being told by someone from Carlos Gracie Sr.’s clan or Helio Gracie’s clan—there are many constants when it comes to the traditional story about how the Gracies were responsible for creating, developing, defending, and then spreading the art of Brazilian jiu jitsu. If you want a more detailed telling (especially of the development of jujitsu in Japan from the 1500s until the early stages of its evolution in Brazil in the early to mid-1900s), you should check out John Danaher’s excellent history of jujitsu in the book he co-authored with Renzo Gracie—namely, Mastering Jujitsu. Danaher—a Renzo Gracie blackbelt who has a MA in Philosophy from Columbia University—does a nice job with both some of the early history and with some of the theoretical issues that arise when it comes to the development of martial arts more generally. He nevertheless relies on pieces of the traditional Gracie myth that depend more on the legend the Gracies have actively cultivated than historical documentation. So, even though I highly recommend Mastering Jujitsu as a solid introduction to the history of Brazilian jiu jitsu, the story is more complicated than Danaher’s account suggests. As we’ll see, there are grounds for suspicion when it comes to some core features of the Gracie mythology.
My main focus in the third post in this series will be on the non-Gracie lineage of Brazilian jiu jitsu (which is no secret—but it is not discussed as much as it should be). But before I get into the contributions to Brazilian jiu jitsu made by Luiz Franca, Oswaldo Fadda, and their students, in this second post I want to briefly discuss a controversial book that was recently published (2014) by Roberto Pedreira called Choque: The Untold Story of Jiu Jitsu in Brazil (Vol. 1: 1856-1949). Pedreira is also the author of another book called Jiu Jitsu in the South Zone 1997-2008—which is an autobiographical sketch of his experiences in Brazil while pursuing his black belt.
Unfortunately, Pedreira is not a very gifted writer and the books are not well-edited. Fortunately, despite their flaws, both books bring some much needed perspective to the story of how Brazilian jiu jitsu came to be. So, while it is clear that Pedreira is no fan of the Gracies, his most recent book Choque is a well-researched and eye-opening but tedious 600+ page account of the “untold story” of jiu jitsu. By combing through Brazilian newspapers from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, Pedreira does an admirable job of piecing together a more balanced account of the development (and reception) of jiu jitsu in Brazil. It is often a painful read, since Pedreira simply catalogs one news story after another about the professional fighting scene in Brazil--which included catch-as-catch-can, luta livre, savate, boxing, luta romana (i.e., Greco Roman wrestling), the native-grown capoeira, and eventually, jiu jitsu. For the grappling nerd, it is worth the read even if it is by no means a “page turner”!
For present purposes, I just want to alert the handful of readers of The Grumpy Grappler to some of the more controversial claims made by Pedreira in Choque—especially when it comes to the Gracie mythology. Since these claims are not going to be my primary focus at the end of the day, my overview of Pedreira’s research in the present post will be brief. But I will provide the references to Choque for those who want to dig deeper. My present goal is merely to highlight some possible holes in the story told by the Gracie clan in the hopes that it will provide readers with some skeptical food for thought. As is often said, history is written by the victors. And at least when it comes to jiu jitsu, the Gracies won the proverbial war (even if they lost more battles along the way than they’ve let on). So, while we should respect their accomplishments, we should resist the temptation to believe every fantastical facet of their telling of the story—especially given that Carlos Gracie Sr. seems to have been a bit of a huckster from the start. That said, let’s survey some of Pedreira’s more controversial claims.
For starters, Pedreira provides some evidence that jiu jitsu was already being taught in Brazil by Mario Aleixo at his academy in Rio before Maeda and his troupe of judokas arrived in 1915—which undercuts the claim that Maeda introduced jiu jitsu to the Gracies who in turn introduced it to Brazil (2014, pp. 65-67). So, while Maeda’s trip to Brazil may have sparked a newfound interest in jiu jitsu, there was at least some interest prior to his arrival (and hence prior to the Gracie’s involvement). Indeed, a book about jiu jitsu by H. Irving Hancock had been translated into Portuguese and made available in Brazil as early as 1906 (2014, p. 28). Shortly thereafter in 1908, the first confirmed professional jiu jitsu fighters arrived in Brazil from Japan—namely, Sada Miyako and Mme. Kakiara (2014, pp. 44-46). In the wake of their visit, the first two Brazilians to engage in a professional jiu jitsu “fight” were Waldemar Silva and Carlos Pinto Soares—whose match was in 1909 (2014, p. 57). But these are all admittedly fairly minor historical details. Just because there was some public interest in jiu jitsu before the Gracies, it doesn’t follow that they didn’t catalyze further interest.
However, Pedreira makes a much more controversial claim early on in the book—namely, that Carlos Gracie Sr. was never really a pupil of Mitsuyo Maeda (or, if he was, it wasn't for long)! Given that Maeda is supposed to be the first link in the Gracie lineage, this is indeed a major revelation, if true, since it strikes as the very heart of the creation story. But before we discuss Pedreira’s bombshell on this front, it’s worth pointing out that Maeda—like many professional fighters before and after him (including the Gracies)—relied on challenge matches to promote his style of kodokan judo in Brazil with offers of 5,000 francs to anyone of any size or weight who could best him in the ring. These challenge matches caught the attention of the Brazilian police, who saw the potential application of jiu jitsu to their line of work. Shortly thereafter jiu jitsu—which was already being described in 1915 as “a game by which the weak can use the force of the adversary to easily defeat him”—was made mandatory for civil guards in Brazil (2014, pp. 84-87). But I am getting sidetracked again! Back to one of the real alleged scandals revealed by Pedreira—namely, the relationship (or lack thereof) between Maeda and the Gracies.
Pedreira begins this part of the story with Carlos Gracie’s first professional fight in 1929 against Geo Omori—one of the top judokas in Brazil at the time. In promoting the fight, Gracie claimed to have learned the art from Conde Koma. That Carlos Sr. was teaching jiu jitsu to the civil police of Sao Paulo lent additional credibility to the fight. With typical Gracie bravado, Carlos Sr. claimed to be both undefeated and unbeatable (2014, p. 130). Two things are worth mentioning at this point: First, the event was more of a “demonstration” than a real competitive fight—a demonstration which ended in a draw. Second, Omori later explicitly claimed that Carlos Sr. “knew nothing about jiu jitsu” at the time (2014, p. 131). Instead, there is evidence that while Carlos Sr. may have learned a few moves from Maeda, he was certainly not his “prized pupil” as was often claimed (2014, p. 133). What evidence exists suggests it is more likely that Carlos Sr. learned what little jiu jitsu he knew at the time from two of Maeda’s actual star pupils—namely, (a) Jacyntho Ferro (a well known Brazilian athlete and bicylist), and (b) Donato Pires do Reis (the only Brazilian to be formally presented with a diploma by Maeda authorizing him to teach jiu jitsu). According to Pedreira, it was Donato who gave Carlos Gracie his first teaching job and who first established what would later become the Gracie Academy on rua Marques de Abrantes, 106 (2014, p. 134). So, while Carlos Sr. seems to have had connections to Maeda, his claim that he studied with Maeda for three years appears to be exaggerated (if not fabricated). Given that Carlos Sr. was his own manager-promoter in the professional fight business, perhaps it is unsurprising that he would indulge in hyperbole, exaggerate his credentials, etc. But if what Pedreira says on this front is true, the Gracie creation myth has some holes in it.
Another important piece of the traditional Gracie mythology is that while Carlos Sr. and his brother George were busy teaching jiu jitsu and putting their skills to the test in the rings of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, their younger brother Helio was too weak and frail to practice jiu jitsu for several years. This is not an unimportant detail since it’s Helio’s frailty which allegedly eventually led him to modify jiu jitsu so that he could use leverage to counteract the strength of bigger and more imposing opponents. But Pedreira suggests this part of the story is also an embellishment of the truth. According to Pedreira, “while Carlos was spreading the art of the samurais among the rich kids in Sao Paulo’s best families, his kid brother Helio was in Rio, swimming and rowing boats in Botafogo. Helio represented Clube de Regatas do Botafogo. On Sunday January 19th, Helio competed in a 100 meter breast-stroke swimming race, coming in second with a time of 1:60…on Sunday February 9th, Helio was part of a swim team competing in the 3 x 100 relay” (2014, pp. 140-141). While these details are consistent with Helio being small in stature, they don’t comport with his being a sickly and frail young man. Indeed, this is one part of the Gracie mythology that always seemed suspicious to me based on the early photographs of Helio that have survived. He certainly doesn’t look sickly or frail to me in those photos. If Pedreira’s right, it’s because he wasn’t.
The final contestable facet of the Gracie mythology that I want to discuss in the present post is their alleged success in professional fights, challenge matches, etc. While the Gracies clearly had success in the ring in the 1950s through the 1990s, their success in the early days is more contestable. Because Pedreira spends several hundred pages cataloguing the results of all of the fights that were discussed in Brazilian newspapers during the early days of the Gracie rise to power, I won’t survey the details here. Just a few things are worth pointing out: First, in the early days at least, George Gracie was the real fighter in the family. Second, it seems that Carlos Sr. didn’t fare as well in the ring as we’ve been led to believe--e.g., Pedreira claims that, “his life-time record was one fight, one loss, and two no-decision demonstrations/exhibitions” (2014, p. 163). Third, while Helio (to his credit) seems to have harbored a genuine lifelong aversion to “fixed” or “worked” fights, both Carlos Sr. and George were purportedly open to worked fights when they were more profitable that real matches. Finally, when the Gracies weren’t taking part in worked fights, they would recruit “patently unqualified people to represent rival styles” so that they could impressively defeat them and thereby establish the superiority of what they were touting as “Gracie jiu jitsu.” While this doesn't in itself undermine what we've been told, it certainly casts a less glowing light on the traditional story.
Well, that’s probably enough purported dirt for now. If Pedreira’s central claims in Choque are true, then it appears that the Gracie myth is as much exaggeration as it is reality—at least when it comes to the early days of jiu jitsu in Brazil (namely, the early to mid-1900s). If you're skeptical of these claims, then I suggest you check out Choque for yourself. I, for one, was pretty impressed with how much time Pedreira spent scouring Brazilian newspapers from this time period for any and all information he could find about not just the Gracies but professional fighting in Brazil more generally. Even if the book isn’t especially well-written (which admittedly could be a translation issue) it appears to be well-researched and the controversial claims Pedreira makes seem to be well-documented. Minimally, Pedreira’s version of the untold story of the early days of kodokan judo and jiu jitsu in Brazil is an interesting and important antidote to the larger-than-life legend that has been cultivated by the Gracies for nearly a century. In the third installment of this series, I will leave Pedreira’s story behind to focus instead on the non-Gracie lineage of Brazilian jiu jitsu that traces back to Luiz Franca, Oswaldo Fadda, Roberto Leitao, and others. For now, I have already gone on long enough! But stay tuned for more to come!
p.s. Remember not to kill the messenger here! I have simply tried to provide a concise overview of Pedreira's very long book!