GTR Archives 2000-2022

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Jiu-Jitsu Books 

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Roberto Pedreira

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Worth Defending: 

How Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Saved my Life

 by Richard Bresler with Scott Burr

 Rev. by Robert Drysdale

June 28, 2021

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Why do people train Jiu-Jitsu? It is physically, exhausting, hard on the body, can be full of frustrations, expensive. Is it the glory? The self-confidence it builds? Fitness? The social prestige that comes with the gained respect? At its core, gWorth Defending: How Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Saved my Life" tackles these questions, with Richardfs memories as Rorion Graciefs first student in the U.S. in 1979, jiu-jitsu in the U.S. in its infancy and also the story of the UFC as backgrounds. But more than this, the book is the story of a man who, above confidence, self-defense and social ranking, was after something of far greater significance: meaning.

Contemporary practitioners are, for the most part, completely oblivious to the hustle of the early days of jiu-jitsu when the idea of grappling someone and taking them down in order to win a fight or defend yourself was absurd and far from an easy sell, unlike today where new practitioners are pouring through the doors of thousands of gyms across the country almost effortlessly. But it wasnft always like that. This book is also about the battle to convince first Southern California, then the U.S. and then the world that jiu-jitsu did indeed have value. According to Richard, a value far beyond winning fights efficiently. He was a big part of that initial effort.

Richard describes himself as an insecure, self-loathing and depressed drug addict prior to an unexpected encounter with a man that would go on to be one of the most important figures in the history of Martial Arts (also one of the most controversial). He was a tanned Brazilian practicing a Japanese martial art called jiu-jitsu. An unusual combination to say the least.

gHey my friend, have you ever done any martial arts? My family has been doing jiu-jitsu for 65 years. Wefre champions. Wefre very well known in Brazil. Why donft you come by for a free class?h Richard did show up, and the class was in a garage, the new pupil a man looking for a sense of belonging and finding in Rorionfs garage both a place to belong as well as a cause to defend. Richard was sold.

One can better understand Rorion after reading this book. He wasnft necessarily the first Brazilian to teach Jiu-Jitsu in the USA (João Alberto Barreto claimed to have taught jiu-jitsu in the USA back in 1963 (see gOpening Closed Guardh, Chapter João Alberto Barreto for details) and neither was he the first Gracie to open an academy in the USA for that matter (see gChoqueh Vol. 3, Chp. 22 for details). But he was the man with the vision, ambition and grit to approach people in parking lots at random and convince them to roll around with him and his Brazilian brothers and cousins in a garage in Hermosa Beach CA. Far from an easy sell.

The method to spread jiu-jitsu in the U.S. was as old as his familyfs involvement with fighting in Brazil. They didnft have big money, government support, a place in the Olympics or Hollywood on their side. But they could fight and beat most of the practitioners that possessed everything they lacked: credibility with the public.  The formula? Dojo-storming, challenges, street-fights and anything that would confront the Gracie version of jiu-jitsu against the martial arts community that was for the most part completely clueless as to what would happen in a real fight. But Rorion knew what would happen and he would teach Richard.

One can question the methods used by the Gracie family to popularize jiu-jitsu in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro. One can even call it bullying to call out other martial arts practitioners and humiliate them in front of their students. One can also question the merits of winning a challenge match with a rear-naked-choke against someone who had no idea what a rear-naked-choke was. But how else do you get the word out there when you know you have a more combat-ready approach to fighting yet no one will believe you because almost their entire education of what a fight would look like was coming from Hollywood movies? Martial artists around the world were deluded about real combat and putting their skills to the test might have not been to most ethical approach, but it certainly was the most efficient considering the standing of a broke Brazilian immigrant in the late 1970fs.

The truth of the matter is that the Gracie were sharks swimming amongst tuna and they knew it. These challenges were a big part of the early days of jiu-jitsu in the U.S. (well before the beloved IBJJF Opens and the competition scene that largely dominates the jiu-jitsu community around the world today). Can he be blamed? Perhaps. In Rorionfs defense, and as Richard describes, he did this with as much class as possible and always with the intention of converting new members, never to be ostentatious. Although one can ask if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.

What Rorion did wasnft only to bring the Brazilian version of judo his family had been practicing for decades in Brazil, he brought also the means to promote it, it was an old formula and Rorion knew it would work, Richardfs memoirs are about this confidence and belief in this winning recipe.

According to Richard himself, it was working, just not fast enough. They needed more, something big, something that would shock the entire martial arts community and put the Gracie method of fighting on the map once and for all. He had the right idea, but he needed help, he needed Art Davie, John Milius and he needed a right-hand man. Richard Bresler would be that guy (along with undoubtedly others who are also seldom acknowledged).

The early days of the UFC, his experience living with Rorion and his family (the lease was in Richardfs name) in a house in Hermosa Beach, his help financing the first Gracie Torrance Academy as well as the first UFC are all vividly depicted in this book. The book also tells of Rorionfs involvement (and fall out) with Chuck Norris, the movie Lethal Weapon, the challenge that never happened between Rickson and American Kickboxer Dennis Alexio as well as countless other cool stories about the time when the terms gGracie Jiu-Jitsuh or gBrazilian Jiu-Jitsuh meant absolutely nothing to anyone in the U.S. other than the few practitioners Rorion had in his garage.

His story goes also into the familiar claims about the psychological benefits jiu-jitsu brings all of its practitioners. Its physical damage, as well as how to remain functional and on the mats while dealing with the damage, is also depicted in his memoirs.

The most interesting part, to me at least, of the book is the description of the influx of Brazilians (mostly brothers and cousins) who followed in Rorionfs coattails and were also looking for a place under sun. The only problem is that the sun wasnft shinning very brightly in Rorionfs garage. There were too few students, too many hungry Brazilians and, at least as Rorion saw it, he was the top of the food-chain as he had been the one to lay the ground-work for their exodus from Brazil (and later the exodus of thousands of other Brazilians over the course of the next two decades).  It was a recipe for a family disaster. Something Richard describes vividly and, notably, without taking sides.

After reading Richardfs book, one can become more empathetic towards Rorion. He laid the ground-work, he had the vision and ambition, he was the leading force (at the very least in terms of the idea if not execution) behind the UFC and the establishment of jiu-jitsu in the U.S. As he saw it, everyone else was just tagging along his efforts. Of course, his brothers and cousins didnft see it that way.

When I reached out to Rorion about being interviewed for the upcoming documentary gClosed-Guard: The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazilh this was his reply: g15k for the materials (historic photographs, newspapers and magazine articles, videos, etc and an additional 20k for my interview, so youfll know how it all started from the one who did it!h

Rorion wanted to either own or lead jiu-jitsu. The real problem was that it grew too fast and too unexpectedly. The product was too good for anyone to contain. The camaraderie combined with the complexity of the art was too much for any single individual to handle. Jiu-jitsu, as an art, transcends everyone, including Rorion and all his family.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Rorion, he was a key figure in changing the martial arts world forever. Perhaps it didnft go exactly as he had planned but he was undoubtedly successful, just not at the forefront as he envisioned it. Ultimately, we are all here because of him (amongst many others), even if most practitioners donft acknowledge that today. And as Richard reminds us in his final thoughts: gHey, youfre on the mat, youfre doing jiu-jitsu. Thatfs the win.h

Richardfs book is far more than a memoir of his life in jiu-jitsu and his personal struggles, it is the story of jiu-jitsu in the United States, it is the story of a family whose role in the martial arts arena is beyond any discussion. It is also the story of how money and greed will splinter just about anything, including a family who grew up together on the mats with the common goal of learning and teaching jiu-jitsu.

His memoirs are a fascinating description of these struggles, antics, ambition, rivalry and successes. But above all, this book is about the art that has saved the life of so many of us, that has changed us all for the better and that now gives meaning to hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of practitioners around the globe. It is about a long and contentious journey of meaning and self-improvement we can all relate to. And because it saved so many of us, it is worth defending by all of us. Richard was just the first North American to be saved.  

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About Worth Defending

Publication date: November 12, 2020

280 pp.

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Part 1 "Wayward Youth":  Richard describes his upbringing as well as his life prior to Jiu-Jitsu, his lack of confidence and low self-esteem  as well as meeting Rorion.

Part 2 "The Garage(s): Training in the garage, meeting Rorion's family and friends, the slow growth of Jiu-Jitsu, the "Challenges", the confidence he was gaining as well as the excitement about being part of something new.

 Part 3 "The Academy":  The loan for the original Gracie Academy, life living with Rorion and his family, the growth of Jiu-Jitsu, his involvement in teaching as well as the beginning of the problems with his family and other Brazilians.

Part 4 "WOW Promotions and the UFC"; Richard describes in Part 4 the need they felt to speed up the process of spreading Jiu-Jitsu, the ideas brewing in Rorion and Art Davies minds as well as the loans, the work and everything else that went into organizing the first UFC. 

Part 5 "Falling out, Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu and Krav Maga": The "Falling Out" with Rorion over what he called a "misunderstanding", his involvement at Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu along other defectors from the Torrance Academy as well as his relationship with the Krav Maga Studio in which he still works today.

Part 6 "Health and Healing": Richard describes here the need for health and balance in life, his addiction problems, his health and how Jiu-Jitsu and a balanced lifestyle have changed his life for the better. Here, he also gives tips on longevity for Jiu-Jitsu practitioners.

"Part 7 "No Such Thing as a Bad Student": Undoubtedly Richard is a passionate teacher. In Part 7 he talks about how to become a better instructor, how to listen to your students needs as well as his opinions on contemporary Jiu-Jitsu and Self-Defense.

 Part 8 "Helio Gracie's Favorite Student": Here, Richard finished with an homage to the Gracie Torrance Academy, how Helio referred to all his students as his "favorite" and how he patched up things with Rorion at the end.


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(c) Robert Drysdale 2021. All rights reserved.

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More articles by Robert Drysdale on GTR:

Remembering George Mehdi

Reflections on the Evolution of BJJ

Who Taught Oscar Gracie?

I was Skeptical

Selling Self-Defense

Rickson Gracie is Wrong

Rev. of book by João Alberto Barreto

Maeda Promotes Five Brazilians

Science and Sanity in BJJ

Jiu-Jitsu in Cuba

Is Oswaldo Fada Jiu-Jitsu a Non-Gracie Lineage?

 

 

 

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GTR Archives 2000-2022

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