How Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Saved my
by Richard Bresler with
Rev. by Robert Drysdale
June 28, 2021
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.
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.
can better understand Rorion after reading this book. He wasnft necessarily
the first Brazilian to teach Jiu-Jitsu in the USA (João
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Publication date: November 12, 2020
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.
"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.
"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
(c) Robert Drysdale 2021. All rights reserved.
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