Why you should care
Because there’s a name for the new martial badass, and it is Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The year was 2006 and the place was Renzo Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) emporium in midtown Manhattan.Daniel Gracie, cousin to Renzo and another head of the Gracie hydra that spawned the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competition, was doing what he does best. He had his arms latticed around his opponent’s throat in what is comfortingly called a rear naked choke, or Mata-Leao (“lion killer” in Portuguese).
”Oh, come on. You can’t honestly expect me to believe that you want to tap to that,” said the well-muscled and clean-cut Gracie, smiling and beneficient in his clear mastery of the situation at hand. Shamed by the well-meaning but slightly patronizing tone, his opponent turned it up to 10. Which amounted to tapping out 30 seconds later versus 30 seconds sooner, to laughter, cheers, claps and no small amount of suffocation.Squeezing. Slowly. Inexorably. Until the inevitable: His opponent did what is commonly called “tapping out” and submitted, or cried “uncle,” by hitting his hand against the mat.
That opponent? Me. And I was deeply and thoroughly in love.
Not with Gracie, though he was a fine fellow, but with the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Born out of judo’s ground game, it was taught to Carlos Gracie and later his brother Helio Gracie by Mitsuyo Maeda starting in 1917. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not so much a breakaway derivation from judo as much as it is an expansion of the grappling self-defense art — and it breeds obsessives. With its quiver full of armbars (bending the arm or shoulder opposite from the way it usually bends), kneebars, ankle locks and chokes, it’s not for the non-obsessive.
”It’s life and a way of life,” says 34-year-old Leopoldo Serao, BJJ instructor, five-time Brazilian Luta Livre champ (Luta Livre is a derivation of the jiu-jitsu derivation) and five-time state champ. ”While it’s not for everyone, the ones it’s for? They never gonna be the same.” And coming from the 6-foot Serao, his ears cauliflowered after 20 years in the game, with over 350 winning fights to his credit and a professional mixed martial arts record of 18 wins (including a middleweight championship belt), this comes across as unholy writ.
While the numbers of people taking martial arts in America at any given time are, according to Plunkett’s Sports Industry Almanac, around 6.9 million, or 2 percent of the U.S. population, BJJ is drawing a lot of celebrity heat lately. Mixed in with the tattooed and muscled are doctors, lawyers, engineers, biologists, Silicon Valley CEOs making deals on the mat, Anthony Bourdain (lured in by his wife, Ottavia Busia), playwright David Mamet, the late star of the Fast and Furious franchise, Paul Walker, and even Sam Harris (the neuroscientist, not the Star Search winner), fer chrissakes. Moreover the UFC, the most reliable stage upon which to see BJJ, just pulled in 1,025,000 pay-per-view purchases for a fight this past December. Up from only 590,000 a year before. So it’s not arriving — it’s arrived.
Progression through the ranks can take upward of a decade. Black belts are doled out so sparingly that there’s a website listing every person who’s got one from Gracie. The sport is no easy walk in the park, yet it never loses that effortless, centered spiritual zone called “flow.” And designed as it was to help smaller people get a self-defense edge over larger people, it’s drawing a fair share of women who are deathly serious about it.
”It’s a sport, more so than many, where you have to use your mind,” says longtime practitioner and third in the CCS Girls Wrestling Championship 2013, Grace Robinson (hell YES a relation, and because the fruit does not fall far from the tree, in the name of total disclosure, my daughter). “It’s like puzzles that have to be figured out, and when you’re rolling [BJJ slang for fighting – eds.] you’re not only beating them physically, you’re beating them mentally. So you’re beating them on all levels.”
Monthly national and international competitions foster a communal spirit grounded in the strange, joyful suffering that comes from the conditioning and flexibility required to just not get the moves more wrong than right. BJJ, while not exactly generating the same kind of ease as golf, does create a certain quality of peace.
”Knowing I can twist someone’s head off if the situation calls for it,” says BJJ blue belt and social worker Salvatore Russo, ”does impart a kind of peace and peacefulness.” And he laughs. Curiously enough, we know exactly what he means.