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An Interview with Carlson Gracie Jr. FeaturedWritten by Daniël Bertina
Photography BAS UTERWIJK
Since the death of his legendary father, Carlson Gracie Jr. has been on a quest to reunite Carlson Gracie teams worldwide. After a seminar in Amsterdam hosted by Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Holland, ‘Junior’ as he’s called affectionally, speaks about his life in Jiu-Jitsu.
Daniel Bertina: How was your trip? And where are you headed?
Carlson Gracie Jr: I just came over from Austria and Germany, together with Ari Galo and his student Justin Gaffney. Now I’m here in Holland with my friend Marcos Flexa – a great and loyal student of my father’s for many years and the representative of Carlson Gracie Holland. Afterwards I’m going to Denmark, and from there to England, Ireland and Luxembourg. For this series of seminars in Europe I’ll be on the road for 35 days. But I will take some time in each place to get to know the city.
DB: You speak of your love and life in Jiu-Jitsu. How did you come to realize your role and leadership in this sport?
As a blue belt I lost again to another guy from Oriente. It was scored 4-4, but they gave the match to him. But I got my revenge one month later when I beat that guy really badly, like 28-0. As a brown belt I fought and beat him again. This guy was very good. I think he was a student from Oriente or Kioto – it was a long time ago. Back then there weren’t many Jiu-Jitsu academies in Rio. There was the Gracie Academy, Oriente Academy headed by professor Amélio Arruda, Francisco Mansur’s Kioto Academy, and there was Monir: the academy of Monir Salomão. Those were the four strong Jiu-Jitsu teams in Rio de Janeiro at that time. I especially remember the fighters from Monir and Oriente were very, very good with footlocks. That was their specialty. Those two teams still exist by the way; Oriente is located in Niteroi across the big bridge in Rio, on the other side of the bay. I think their master Amélio Arruda just turned ninety years old.
DB: How do you view Jiu-Jitsu in the context of life?
CG: In Jiu-Jitsu, you have to be able to understand the game is based on switching from movement to movement: action and reaction. This is the most fundamental aspect of Jiu-Jitsu that everyone has to master. When you play, you should never try to desperately hold on to your position. You have to understand that getting beat is part of the game. That is the only way you can learn. Jiu-Jitsu is not about going to the gym every day to lift weights, and getting super strong to hold down your opponent and win by one advantage. You have to learn to open up your game. You have to adapt to the variations. You have to know where you come from, where you are right now, and where you are going. Jiu-Jitsu is a philosophy of life. In life you deal with new situations constantly, and you have to make choices. Sometimes you choose the wrong path. Same thing in Jiu-Jitsu – you try, but things don’t always work out. But in life you have to keep trying, you have to keep moving. Just like in Jiu-Jitsu losing and winning is part of the game.
DB: When did you go to the United States?
CG: I moved to the USA in 1995. My plan was to stay for two months – and now I’ve been there fifteen years. When I got there I didn’t speak any English. I just tried to go with the flow because I didn’t understand a word people were saying. The only thing I got was my daddy telling me to spar, and ‘go and beat the crap out of that guy!’ But I started making good friends. Then I got an invitation to go to Chicago start a school there. After that time I think the Jiu-Jitsu in America started growing a lot. Especially California has a lot of Jiu-Jitsu schools now, and I mean a LOT – almost on every street corner. I have a school in Temecula with a lot of champions. My friend Fabiano Silva teaches there, and in Chicago I teach with my friend and assistant instructor Daniel Wanderley. They both got a second place at the World Championships in the black belt master division, and Daniel got first place at the Pan Americans. I am very proud of them.
DB: You are a championship wrestler, is that right?
CG: Yes, many people don’t know this, but I was a six time Brazilian national champion in both greco-roman and freestyle wrestling. I competed a lot outside of Brazil and went to the Pan American games. So those techniques also found their way into my game. This blend of wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu happened when a friend of my father who’s since passed away, Orlando Barrares – a very good guy with great Jiu-Jitsu – showed up at my daddy’s school. He wanted to build up a new Rio de Janeiro wrestling team. So we all trained really hard for one month and went to the state championship, and we all won! After that we went to the Italian embassy to compete, and Carlson Gracie Team again got first place in the Rio de Janeiro state wrestling tournament. We were Jiu-Jitsu fighters beating wrestlers at their own game.
DB: Tell us about your opinion on the playing the Top in Jiu-Jitsu.
CG: Of course the rules of Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling are very different. What is the Jiu-Jitsu fighter’s dream? Getting an excellent guard! But if you play guard in wrestling you’re done. As soon as your shoulders touch the mat it’s game over. But when I started wrestling I understood basic idea right away, because my daddy always liked the top game: take the opponent down and fight from the top. So for me it was easy to develop the skills needed for wrestling. I never really liked to play from my guard any longer than absolutely necessary. Our philosophy is that if you stay down in the guard too long, you’re losing the fight. If you’re on top, you’re winning. A lot other Jiu-Jitsu schools learned details about passing the guard from watching our fighters pass the guard in competition. If you know how to defend the triangle and the armlock, keep a good base and block his hooks to avoid getting swept – you win.
DB: Your school has a history of great jiu-jitsu fighters, what does your school do different?
CG: In our school there were many fighters with very good guards, like Ricardo De La Riva who became world champion with his guard, or Murilo Bustamante, Ari Galo and Clovis da Silva. Actually, I have a good guard too – I just don’t like to play from there. I like to smash from the top. The reason I like this game is because I used to be a light featherweight. And at our school, if you were that light and you stayed on the bottom, fighting against all those aggressive heavy guys – my friend, you were in big trouble! You have to get up, get on the top and stay there – otherwise you would get smashed. Our style is famous for being very aggressive, but our Jiu-Jitsu not very different from other schools. The only big difference is that we cut the crap. I don’t like those complicated set-ups that require me to change my grips. Often when you try to something fancy in the middle of the position, you end up losing. We only go for moves that really work.
Some people outside of the Carlson Gracie lineage sometimes say, that our style uses a lot of strength to hold the positions. Sure we smash people, but in a continuous motion. It’s not just static holding. Jiu-Jitsu is not judo where you have to pin the guy down for thirty seconds to get ippon. It’s one thing to know how to hold your opponent, but you also have to be able to maintain control for the next step. In Jiu-Jitsu, if you hold a secure position you get points after three seconds. Then what are you going to do? You have switch between different immobilisations, always keeping control, always keeping pressure and looking for an opening to submit your opponent. Nowadays if you want to become a champion you have to move, because after 10 seconds of inaction you risk getting a penalty, or even getting disqualified. I think that’s a good thing.
DB: Any final thoughts?
CG: Carlson Gracie Team was like a brotherhood. My father was a great inspiration and father figure for everyone in our team. But even as his only son, I never felt jealous at anyone. You cannot make people like you – you are what you are – and my daddy was born a very likeable person with a big heart and a lot of integrity. He was very honest, sincere and loyal to his friends. Always ready to help people. That was who he was, and I really respect that. I try to be the same way.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist and art critic, based in Amsterdam. He holds a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Marcos Flexa
Bas Uterwijk is a freelance documentary photographer, based in Amsterdam