GTR Archives 2000-2020

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 Remembering George Mehdi

By Robert Drysdale

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George Mehdi teaching judo in Ipanema in 1999. 

Posted November 6, 2019

It is difficult to credit the impact and depth of influence of someone who did so little in regards to his self-promotion during his lifetime, and yet did so much in furthering the growth of martial-arts in Brazil in a responsible and ethical manner. George Kastriot Mehdi was the prototypical martial-arts Master whose teaching went well beyond throws and submissions. He witnessed and helped kickstart a revolution that would ultimately culminate in MMA and BJJ, yet he never wanted anything to do with any of it, let alone to take any credit for it.

George Mehdi moved to Rio de Janeiro as a teenager where he would initiate his martial-arts practice there. The late Armando Wriedt tells the story:

gHey kid, have you got the courage? You said youfre a fighter and so on." After all, he was really a strong kid. He would dance that eyeah, yeah, yeahf, he could dance that pretty well, he was good! Well, one day, he accepted, saying he wasn't afraid of anyone because he was strong. So, they took him over there. Getting there, the poor kid. Soon he faced off with Carlson [c] So, Carlson did what he wanted to George, and George didnft know what to do. So, Helio asked him, eKid, you said you just arrived in Brazilf [c] eCome stay with usf. They didnft have a guy to take care of the clothes. Valdemar [Santana] had already left, and so they put George in charge of the clothes. And George trained. He was strong.h [1]

Helio Gracie, immediately recognizing the boyfs potential, lauded him in the press as a French Champion with a long successful fight-record overseas and that he had specifically moved to Brazil because he had heard tales of Heliofs feats from his homeland. This would all had been a normal marketing exploit typical of that era if it werenft for one thing: Mehdi, according to himself, was a beginner and never a champion when he moved to Brazil, nor did he move there to train martial-arts.

Mehdifs journey was an unusual one for a beginner French judoka turned Brazilian. Albeit having initiated his training in Brazil under the Gracie Academy, it wasn't long before he fell-out with Carlos and Helio and committed the infamous betrayal of becoming a champion and an icon of a dreaded rival: Judo. In fact, Mehdifs gbetrayalh, and what some would call gcreontagemh, may not have bothered him at all, since he believed he had left the Gracie Academy for the right reasons.

Following Mehdifs departure from the Gracie Academy, he went to Japan where he practiced at the Kodokan, as well as Tenri and Chuo Universities and trained alongside World and Olympic Champion Isao Okano amongst other Japanese judokas including meeting (and possibly training with) Masahiko Kimura himself. After his experience training in Japan, Mehdi brought back an enormous treasure of knowledge to Brazil that helped initiate his career as one of  Brazilfs greatest judoka at the time and go on to be one of its most successful coaches. His exploits in judo cemented his place in judofs history having placed second at the 1963 and third in the 1967 Pan-Am Games. It was through Kanofs philosophical approach to combat that Mehdi found his life purpose.

His trip to Japan forever impacted not only his personal growth as a martial-artist, but may have impacted the technical growth of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well at a time when the arsenal of techniques available to its practitioners was still very limited: gWas it possible that many, possibly even most of the Jiu-Jitsu techniques used by the Graciefs and their students were introduced by guys who learned them from Mehdi? I asked Zoca. eVery possiblef, he saidh. [2]

In later years Mehdi became known as a critic of certain members of the Gracie family. But not all however. The record indicates that his relationship with Carlson Gracie and his students was always a healthy one. He taught the likes of Murilo Bustamante, Ze Mario Sperry, Wallid Ismail, Marcelo Behring and most of Carlson Graciefs students at the time. Mehdi's issues with the Gracie family, in particular Carlos and Helio, seem to stem from what he referred to as their gpenchant for brawling and lyingh.[3] The problem rested in the differing approaches judo, and its off-shoot later known as BJJ, had to martial-arts.

The rapid worldwide growth of sport oriented approach to martial-arts, embodied in judo, from the 1950fs onwards not only rallied Jiu-Jitsu and Kodokan instructors teaching across the globe under its banner but also created an avenue for civilians in Brazil to practice Jigoro Kanofs method. The distancing of the Gracie family from its roots wasnft only on the grounds of their technical and rules disagreements. It was also on their approach on how to market the two franchises.

Carlos and Helio were at an enormous disadvantage in marketing reach compared to judo with its worldwide social-political acceptance as well as its prestige given its Olympic status. Their approach to countering this wasnft always commendable and often leaned on the dishonest and thuggish in order to keep their brand of judo alive. An example of their differences is illustrated by an event that took place during a seminar in Brazilfs northeast where Mehdi allegedly claimed to have defeated Gracie Academy champion Pedro Hemeterio. Whether Mehdi actually said such a thing is unclear. Heliofs reaction to what he considered or wanted to believe was a provocation is recorded.

Subsequent this event, Helio brought Hemeterio and two other fighters to challenge Mehdi in his own gym in order to gdisprove your lie and show that any Jiu-Jitsu fighter is superior to judoh, to which Mehdi replied that gI donft want to fight Hemeterio, because a judoka isnft in a condition of equality with a Jiu-Jitsu fighter. One is a sport and one is a fight without rulesh[4], making clear their leaning at the time towards a more gmartialh approach to martial-arts than their counterparts.

Mehdi embodied Kanofs teachings who, in his turn, was a man heavily influenced by Western philosophers and particularly by Herbert Spencer. According to Pedreira, for Spencer, geducation should do more than instill knowledge. It must also produce good citizens and it must build healthy bodies to house healthy brains and spiritsh.[5] And so, Kano envisioned his new Jiu-Jitsu school as a step into modernity and education while maintaining certain aspects of Japanfs past. Whether Mehdi embodied this philosophy due to his own character or upbringing, is unknown. What is certain is that he was at odds with Carlos and Heliofs marketing approach at the time. In his own words: geIfm not here to certify bullies. Ifm here to bring up people with healthy mindsf Mehdi did not mention the Gracies by name but it is difficult to believe that he did not have them in mind. Helio Gracie seemed to think so anywayh[6]. Mehdi was a Kodokan man all the way.

In a recent trip to Brazil for the filming of the documentary gClosed-Guard: The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazilh our crew had the opportunity to interview many Grand-Masters. Among them was Flavio Behring. Knowing of Mehdifs reputation for not liking to be interviewed or filmed, I asked Grand-Master Behring to call Mehdi on the behalf of our production in order to request an interview. After a few minutes of friendly conversation with his old friend, I could overhear him on the phone: gBut why do they want to talk to me? Ifm no one.h [7]

History tends to record the wretched and to remember the vain. Men like George Mehdi, seldom have their legacies recorded. His distaste for self-promotion and for giving interviews certainly playing a role here. On November 6, 2018, it wasnft only judo that lost one of its icons. But a man that could be credited as being a central column in the development of BJJ away from its Kodokan roots, at the very least in regards to its takedowns. Mehdi also deserves credit for being ground zero for the legitimate historical study of BJJ history, despite wanting no credit for it.[8]

It is ironic that the man who was such a rival of the Gracie Brothers and such a stout supporter of sport judo would have had such an impact in the growth of the art, particularly in Rio de Janeiro. According to Mehdi, it was gall judoh and BJJfs distancing from its roots a perversion of Kanofs teachings. Differences aside, it is unquestionable that he played a crucial role in the formation of BJJ. For these and many other reasons, George Kastriot Mehdi deserves to be remembered in the Pantheon of BJJfs greats, not because he would have expected it, but because he belongs there.


Notes

Photo courtesy of Roberto Pedreira.

1.  Interview with Armando Wriedt [January 18, 2018].

2.  Pedreira, Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, Chapter 25.

3. Pedreira, Choque 2, Chapter 4.

4. Pedreira, Choque 3, Chapter 8. The incident was described in a recent interview with Armando Wriedt (to be published soon).

5.  Pedreira, Craze 1, Chapter 5.

6.  Pedreira, Choque 3, Chapter 5.

7. The telephone conversation took place on January 9, 2018. To the best of the author's recollection, Flavio Behring's part went as follows: 

Flavio Behring: Oi meu amigo tudo bem [Mehdi response inaudible]. Tem uma equipe de filmagem dos EUA aqui e eles querem conversar com voce. [Mehdi response inaudible] É um documentario sobre a historia do jiu-jitsu no Brasil. [Mehdi response inaudible] Mas converse com eles...
[After they hang up]
Robert Drysdale: O que ele disse?
Flavio Behring: Ele disse "mas eu não sou ninguem, eu não tenho nada a dizer".

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8. Personal correspondence between the author and Roberto Pedreira in regards to this article.

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(c) 2019, Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.

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More articles by Robert Drysdale:

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 2000-2020

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