Why you should care
Truth is sometimes stranger and much, much more horrible than fiction.
“What do YOU want?” The surly greeting was spit at me by a muscled Brazilian sitting on the edge of a mat, or a tatami, in a martial arts school that specialized in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). It was Ralph Gracie. I had recognized him from a multitude of his televised fights.
“A schedule for your kids’ classes.” I got his tone, but like Sinatra had suggested, I kept the party polite. It wouldn’t have worked well for me if I hadn’t. In the 1990s there had been a sort of Wild West time when all and sundry martial artists walked into Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy for a shot at the standing offer the Gracies had once made: a five-figure cash prize to whoever beat a Gracie. And there were tons of takers. And not a single winner.
But I was there as a father, specifically a father of daughters, and the path of a father of daughters is beset on all sides by the iniquity of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. My oldest was 5 and it was time for her to be taught tricks that would last a lifetime, and the stylized pajamas known as a Gi and one white belt later saw her set up for class. Not wanting to be the odd one out, her sister, who was technically too young to officially sign up for classes, participated anyway. And their mother, not wanting to be outgunned, also signed up. Though I was officially training somewhere else, I also jumped in. It was a family affair.
There started to emerge a pattern. A pattern of struggle for the true nature of his soul.
Though the place flew the Gracie name, like many other academies, they were typically staffed by an able coterie of black belts, and Ralph’s was no different. And teaching the kids’ class was the estimable Cameron Earle. In true traditional martial-arts lore, Earle — a kid who, to hear him tell it, was in and out of foster homes, courtesy of a mother who may or may not have been bipolar — showed up one day desperate to learn Jiu Jitsu. Desperate enough to sort of start bunking at the school and keeping the place clean by way of earning his keep. As an indirect consequence he was living and breathing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, training three times a day, every day, and the results ended up showing.
He went to Brazil and competed in the prestigious Mundials and came back loaded with medals. I had done an article on him for one of the BJJ journals of note back then, the now-defunct Grappling magazine. He was poised for greatness.
But one day he had been at the Mexican restaurant across from the academy eating dinner. A guy who had had too much to drink came in. Was making an ass of himself. According to Earle, after finishing his burrito, he decided to tell the guy to “shut the fuck up.” What happened next was fairly predictable and ended with the drunk guy choked into unconsciousness on the floor. What happened after that? Not so predictable: Earle fled, dropping his wallet while doing so.
Now I am unsure why you’d flee after “defending” yourself, but like cats and dogs, if one runs, the other will chase, and when the cops eventually found him, and this is where things got hazy, they found he had been living out of his car in the academy parking lot with his pit bull. Shots were fired. The dog died. Earle did no jail time for it, but there started to emerge a pattern. A pattern of struggle for the true nature of his soul, since always in parallel with the great tales of BJJ derring-do were ones like these: totally inexplicable. And trending toward terribly fucked up.
Him planning on fleeing to Venezuela when he choked out a skinhead on a freeway shoulder after a case of road rage (the skinhead’s) and he thought he had killed him. And then one I didn’t hear from Earle but one I saw with my own eyes. Watching one of the early UFCs at his girlfriend’s house with a klatch of BJJ players and MMA enthusiasts, everyone musical chair’d into the scant couch space, Earle turned to the guy sitting next to me. The guy? A grown adult male. Who was also not a butler.
“Get me a beer.” The guy looked at Earle. “What?”
“I said, ‘Get me a beer.’ ” This time the six words hung with a quiet menace. The guy shrugged, got up and got the beer. Earle took it, took one sip, did not take another. It wasn’t about the beer, I guess, but whatever it was about, it was enough for me to pull the kids from the school. They needed a school with a bigger kids’ program that also had boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. And, yeah, I didn’t dig the power play. Humans are dangerous, and the average fighter even more so. But what makes it all work is the understanding that even if you think might makes right, you maybe don’t think it does so all the time.
But then the story got irretrievably dark. Earle had been accused of robbing a woman at knifepoint. What was clear was that a woman had been robbed at knifepoint by a masked man. The BJJ community noted that if Earle had “really done it” he wouldn’t have needed a knife and on account of the woman not getting a good look at his face, Earle was free. But part of getting free involved him offering a DNA sample. Which turned back a positive hit.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, on the night before Christmas in 2003 a woman in San Jose who had been putting presents under her tree while her husband and kids slept upstairs had a knife held to her throat by a masked man. He raped her, eventually fleeing with money and a coffee pot. Leaving behind, outside of misery, his DNA. Earle was 32 and was eventually imprisoned, where he remains to this day, serving a 25-years-to-life sentence.
“Dad? Why’d you have him train us?” my oldest daughter, now in college and a lifelong martial artist and former high school state wrestling champion, asked.
Well, we didn’t know. How could we?