By Robert Drysdale
Posted November 6, 2019
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:
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
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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.
courtesy of Roberto Pedreira.
Interview with Armando Wriedt [January 18, 2018].
Pedreira, Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, Chapter 25
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
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
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
Flavio Behring: Ele disse
"mas eu não sou ninguem, eu não tenho nada a
8. Personal correspondence between the author and
Roberto Pedreira in regards to
Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.
articles by Robert Drysdale:
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Taught Oscar Gracie?
Gracie is Wrong
of book by João Alberto Barreto
Promotes Five Brazilians
and Sanity in BJJ
Oswaldo Fada Jiu-Jitsu a Non-Gracie Lineage?