The Witch Doctor and Attila: How Jiu Jitsu Debates Reflect the Gracie Legacy

Fightland Blog

By Pedro Olavarria

The jiu jitsu debates continue. This month, Carlos Gracie Jr. released a video on YouTube describing his opinion regarding the current state of the art, wherein many are drawing a distinction between sport jiu jitsu and self-defense jiu jitsu. For example, Royce Gracie compared the jiu jitsu of most BJJ schools to Tae Kwon Do. Royce has pointed out that Tae Kwon Do was originally a self-defense style but became popularized as a family friendly, point based sport, and as a result has lost its effectiveness in street fighting. Rickson, Rener and Ryron have also echoed this sentiment, that many modern jiu jitsu schools don’t teach jiu jitsu for street fighting. On the other side of the debate is Carlos Gracie Jr., Renzo Gracie and others who claim that those who sell a self-defense oriented jiu jitsu as “real” or “pure” jiu jitsu are selling falsehood. They claim that there is no distinction between “self-defense jiu jitsu” and “sport jiu jitsu” because both are simply two sides of the same coin. The purpose of this piece is not to argue who is right but rather to describe why such a philosophical division exists, seemingly along patrilineal lines. In doing so, the roles Helio and Carlos Gracie Sr. played in the development of jiu jitsu, along with their personalities, are intentionally oversimplified.

On a video uploaded on the Gracie Barra YouTube channel, Carlos Gracie Jr. is shown on a mat, surrounded by a handful of attentive black belts. Carlos describes his opinion that the division between self-defense jiu jitsu and sport jiu jitsu is largely a fantasy. Carlos argues that what people term self-defense jiu jitsu is actually the most basic jiu jitsu, the jiu jitsu someone learns to fight on the street, against people who don’t know jiu jitsu. He then goes on to argue that once one begins to spar against fellow jiu jitsu practitioners then more advanced techniques are needed to mount, pass the guard and submit because you are using jiu jitsu against someone who already knows jiu jitsu; herein, according to Carlos Gracie Jr., comes the more advanced and profound knowledge of jiu jitsu. Though he doesn’t make this point, an example of this is 10th Planet, as Eddie Bravo is obsessed with jiu jitsu’s success in MMA, an arena where everyone knows jiu jitsu.

As with striking, in jiu jitsu, the moves you don't see coming are the ones that get you. And so, for Carlos Gracie Jr. what people call sport jiu jitsu is simply jiu jitsu for use against other jiu jitsu players thus making the appearance of two styles illusory. For him, the issue isn’t self-defense jiu jitsu vs sport jiu jitsu but rather basic jiu jitsu techniques for fighting laymen vs advanced jiu jitsu techniques for fighting other jiu jitsu practitioners. It must be acknowledged that Carlos Gracie Jr. is the son of Carlos Gracie, the founder of the Gracie jiu jitsu tradition; and though Helio may have been the family’s most prolific and important innovator, followed by Rolls, it was Carlos Sr. who got everyone started on jiu jitsu, the diet and names starting with C, K and R. Carlos Gracie Jr. is the founder of IBJJF, the Gracie Barra family of schools and is a 7th degree black belt. His opinion is certainly based on a lifetime of experience and knowledge, passed down from the source. However, I think his argument, though rational and well-founded, is missing the point critics are trying to make.

Proponents of “self-defense jiu jitsu” or what I have described as First Wave, are not complaining about the complexity of newer techniques; they are complaining of what they perceive to be their ineffectiveness in situations where someone is trying to punch you in the face. Carlson Gracie is credited with saying “Punch a black belt in the face and he becomes a brown belt; punch him again and he becomes a purple belt.” In other words, real fighting involves punches to the face, changing the whole game of jiu jitsu and rendering some techniques and strategies, like the berimbolo and jumping guard ineffective. Also, proponents of the first wave are arguing that some of the most basic and battle tested techniques such as “standing up in base”, closing the distance into a clinch, the side kick, and defenses against the sucker punch are not being passed on to newer generations of American, and possibly Brazilian, jiu jitsu practitioners. Surely, Carlos Gracie Jr. is correct in his assessment that Brazilian jiu jitsu is one art, with perhaps different emphasis. Unity remains largely because of the Gracie family, both as teachers and as symbolic figure heads, holding the jiu jitsu nation together the way House Bourbon acts as a national symbol for Spain, keeping the Basques and Catalans in. However, the philosophical divide between Carlos Gracie Jr and Royce Gracie probably has its subconscious roots in their respective fathers, Helio and Carlos Gracie.

Historians of Gracie family lore will tell you that both Helio and Carlos filled different roles in their spreading of the jiu jitsu gospel. Carlos was Jesus and Helio was Paul, Carlos was Joseph Smith and Helio was Brigham Young, Carlos was Yoda and Helio was Luke Skywalker; or in other words, Carlos was the mystic who touched the face of God and Helio was the successor who codified the doctrines and gave them their current form in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. As Ayn Rand would put it, Carlos was the “witch doctor” and Helio was the “Attila”. All religions have a witch doctor and an Attila, the witch doctor reveals and the Attila, as in Attila the Hun, beats the world into submission with the new creed.

Carlos Gracie was a very mystical man. He only wore white and had a fascination with numerology; he had a spirit guide named Lasjovino and though a bigamist only had sex for reproduction. Helio was the gladiator, who then trained the next generation of the art’s most famous gladiators: Carlson, Rorion, Royce, Rickson, Royler and Rolls. Granted, Carlson, Kyra, Renzo, Ryan and Ralph come from Carlos side of the family but it was Helio’s sons who brought the art to world attention by taking up the Attila mantle of their father, in the United States.

Yes, Carlos fought too and Helio shared many of his spiritual beliefs. But I think the philosophical difference between the Helio Gracie side and the Carlos Gracie side, exemplified by Gracie Barra and the Gracie Academy, is rooted in the personalities and roles their fathers played in the development of jiu jitsu. One side of the family is perfectly comfortable with promoting the sportive aspects of jiu jitsu as a vehicle for human development; Carlos was a man dedicated to cultivating himself spiritually. Not fulfilling the gladiator role to the extent Helio did perhaps; maybe, this is why the sportive, lifestyle aspect of jiu jitsu is promoted in Gracie Barra and debates about a self-defense style vs a sportive style are brushed off as fantasy. For Carlos Gracie Jr, self-defense is covered by the most basic techniques and debates over its lack of emphasis detract from the humanistic worth of jiu jitsu. Then there is the Helio side, the branch that put out the Gracie jiu jitsu In Action 1&2 tapes. These were the people who sold jiu jitsu as a fighting art and only a fighting art, with the cultivation of the human being seen as a valuable side benefit but still only a side benefit. Carlos Gracie Jr. founded the IBJJF and Rorion Gracie founded the UFC. Both are valuable in the promotion of jiu jitsu but they are radically different, largely because one was created by Helio’s son and another by Carlos’s son. It's as if these two sets of warrior cousins have subconsciously filled the roles of their fathers, both of whom were honorable and exemplary men.


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