My eyes are taken by the light pastel beige color covering the walls and roof and the royal blue of the mat while sunrays of light cross the windows, illuminating the colliding bodies. The kids in white gis exhale innocence while yellowish degrees make a parallel to the wrinkles in the man’s face, little spots in his hands and a few thin silver hairs on the side of the sensei’s bald head.
Practice starts with every student kneeling down in a sign of respect towards the master. The scene happens in a humble two-story house in the middleclass neighborhood of Belenzinho in São Paulo, Brazil: once a working class area, a testament to its gentrification.
Kids are learning Brazilian jiu jitsu, smiling, and before noticing they’re already doing cartwheels, dodges and arm-locks. The environment values self-defense before competition. There is a huge gap between a dojo and a gym, philosophy and entertainment, bushido and prize fighting. The house is a reflex of 84-year-old Sensei Oswaldo Carnivalle, great master 9th dan red belt in Jiu jitsu from legends George Gracie and Otavio de Almeida Sr. and 3rd dan of Judo by the Japanese brothers Yassuitchi and Naoitchi Ono.
For the red belt—it’s a degree above the black belt—it’s imperative to keep traditional judo and jiu jitsu rituals. “The white gi symbolizes purity and my uncle always says that if there is someone who can wear black, those are senseis Jigoro Kano and Hélio Gracie, or someone in that same level”, explains Thiago Porto, Carnivalle’s nephew and 1st dan black belt in BJJ. For him, the current fighting scene with its multicolored wardrobe is more like a Rio de Janeiro carnival parade or a Street Fighter videogame than the art’s origins from Middle Ages Japan.
One of the fundamentals of his class is Jiu jitsu’s History. Carnivalle and his most advanced students explain the evolution of jiu jitsu with the growth of families and personalities, just like ancient Japanese teachers told their students about the samurai clans. “If you think carefully, jiu jitsu is universal and doesn’t hold a nationality. Some say that it got into Japan from China while others believe that Buddhist monks developed it as an art of self-defense, and there are even those who trace its roots back to Mongolia”, says the old master. For him, it’s an art that was developed and assimilated better by the Japanese and “the pioneers of Jiu jitsu in Brazil were the Japanese Geo Omori and Mitsuyo Maeda (a.k.a Count Koma) and definitely the Gracie family”.
When asked about how he began in the game, his mind takes a long rewind. He was a thin, white-skinned young man with a Clark Gable mustache, just as many guys had after the Great War. His good old buddy Fausto Castro Ruiz always stopped by the industry he had with his father to chat a little bit. One day he sported a black eye and Carnivalle asked what had happened. His friend got into a street fight with a cab driver and, to Oswaldo’s dismay, the bigger and more athletic Ruiz got the worst of it as his foe was more streetwise. A few days later, whilst walking in the center of São Paulo, the duo noticed a sign in front of a house with the words “Jiu jitsu and Self Defense George Gracie”. Carnivalle thought it was interesting and Ruiz told him that he had enrolled in there and, to his surprise, had given his name too. He tells this passage laughing a lot at this most unexpected start in this journey.
In the early beginning, they trained basic defensive moves, from grapples to punches, and by the time they became proficient, the moment came for a more specific jiu jitsu practice. Suddenly George left his mat under the supervision of Otávio de Almeida Sr., and as years went by, Carnivalle progressed in the dojo, being seen by his new master as a brother and also his star apprentice.
“Hey! I’m considering giving the black belt to Oswaldo, but first I want you to check if he is for real. I want you to give him an exam to see if he deserves it now”. It was 1953 and De Almeida Sr. was just receiving his old sensei. Carnivalle showed all he had in the ne-waza (ground game) that afternoon against the versatile George and, after hours, drenched in sweat and sore all over, he heard: “you can give this little piece of shit the black belt."
Studying his martial art, the new master always knew he had to improve his nage-waza (standing moves) and always put energy in judo trainings with the Onos and the Japanese immigrant Takeo Yano—in the past judo was very similar to jiu jitsu. After one year, he became São Paulo’s freestyle wrestling champion using the moves he already knew and a ones learnt from the Brazilian wrestler Armenio Bueno—it was a new sport in the country. “I seriously don’t get why some folks think you cannot start fighting jiu jitsu on your feet. Jiu jitsu is a complete technique and if you don’t know any throws or grapples how are you going to take your rival down?”
Once again, I’m sitting in front of him. His dark brown eyes become wider while the pupils swell inside them, and the wrinkles in his forehead become deeper as he tells me: “Sincerely, you really need to have some knowledge—not that you have to be an expert—of judo and other self-defense methods. How can you take down bigger, stronger and heavier people? It is by using technique that you can overcome them. So I believe that to enhance your jiu jitsu, you need to know how to grapple so you can take it to the floor. There is also the need to know more about ground moves that in today schools are restricted to points, leaving in the past the ancient jiu jitsu of the great masters who would fight until submitting the other, instead of only focusing on a points system”.
For him, jiu jitsu as a sport is “excellent” because of the high amount of moves using legs, arms and hips, because of how it enhances the senses of space, reach and gravity and mostly how it makes the fighter think strategically, as it is not something mechanical. “When you’re on the mat, you need to think and observe what you’re doing and how you’re moving yourself. So I think that jiu jitsu as a competition is outstanding and we must have it, but we can never forget the part about self-defense, because when you’re facing an assailant, there are no gis and he won’t let you simply grab him the way you want. In a brawl you’re going to deal with an attacker and not some adversary. That’s why jiu jitsu without self-defense is not jiu jitsu”.
He remembers watching competitions called Gracie Challenge in Brazilian arenas, like when Helio Gracie faced notorious rivals from Japan and in attendance was an avid fan—Brazilian president Getulio Vargas. But soon after that, Jiu jitsu felt to obscurity.
Then came the 90’s and his dojo never had so many new faces inquiring about the sport and enrolling in the classes. “Royce and Rickson, one in U.S and the other in Japan, helped boost jiu jitsu. Both have refined techniques. Royce showed in UFC how jiu jitsu was able to depose bigger rivals while Rickson employed punches to then finish his matches with the ‘mata-leão’ (rear choke hold). Some people say that the Gracies created the ‘mata-leão‘. They probably improved it, but it was seen since the times of Geo Omori”.
With the Gracie brothers dominating arenas in the two sides of the world, he saw his martial art making a comeback to mainstream society, but on the other side there was an increase of youngsters forgetting the old ways. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro—two of the most rich metropolis in South-America—became a tropical version of the movie The Warriors (1979) with white and blue belts wearing their gyms t-shirts and brawling in nightclubs, beaches, malls and whenever they felt it was right. Even some more advanced fighters ended up in slugfests.
Brazilian media had a new fever and these men became known as “pitboys”, as many had pitbulls for pets and carried them to their street fights. “Street brawls between gym members? I consider it a lack of moral structure. If the person divorces from the philosophical values, he is not being part of the jiu jitsu inherited from the samurais and great masters”. For Carnivalle those times still echo as some journalistic outlets portray jiu jitsu fighters as vandals. He explains that for a group to pile on a victim, it is not necessary to know any martial arts and journalists in general made few progresses about conveying to the main public the philosophy of jiu jitsu and its ancient history. The sensei even recalls the time he went after journalists from a Brazilian TV station, asking to give his view about the matter as a proper expert, and they simply ignored him.
In 2015, he stills conducts his dojo in the neighborhood of Belenzinho. His students, like himself, when without the gi and walking down the street, could be mistaken for uninitiated men—and women—but the skill demonstrated in a closed doors knife defense black belts class—to which I was the only witness outside his inner circle—prove they are with their bodies, minds and souls deep down in it. As I stop interviewing him to say goodbye and leave the place, I feel that this two-story humble house is a historical link to an almost forgotten past.
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