GTR Archives 2000-2020

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Opening Closed Guard

by Robert Drysdale

Rev. by Roberto Pedreira

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If you were wondering how much money Rorion Gracie would want to be interviewed for a documentary about the factual history of BJJ, you will find out in this book. If you were curious about how much Reila Gracie would demand for the same, you will also find out here. It will reveal the answer to the jealously guarded secret about why they aren't in the film. And more. Much, much more.

BBC's 1964 documentary The Great War told the story of the First World War. The War lasted slightly more than four years (August 1914 to November 1918). The documentary was almost as long as the War, consisting of 28 episodes averaging 40 minutes each, without commercials. That is approximately five hours of screen time per year of history. In terms of historiography, it barely scratched the surface. 

Robert Drysdale is a man who doesn't shirk challenges and has often been successful, sometimes remarkably so (Mundial black belt adulto title, for example.) It wasn't a huge surprise that when the history of BJJ bug bit him in 2017, he decided to make a documentary about the history of jiu-jitsu in Brazil, which as of now covers approximately 111-164 years (depending on when you start the count-down.) 

The documentary runs 90 minutes. It obviously doesn't go into great depth. But that isn't what it tries to do. Robert Drysdale explains that the film was intended to be "edutainment," that is, factual information presented entertainingly. He is well-aware that the full story can't be compressed into a 90 minute film. The aim was to entice the viewer to dig into published written works that provide the factual underpinning for the film. If it doesn't manage to do that (because reading long, dense books is hard) at least it will put on record that what we have been told by self-seeking salesmen is not always necessarily the final word.  

Opening Closed Guard (the book) is 419 pages including photographs and miscellaneous front and back matter. The main content is an account of how the film was made from conception to completion. It succeeds in that. Apparently, from Robert Drysdale's account, making a documentary film with an international crew on multiple international locations, is not easy or cheap. Yet he got it done. He wrote a book about it. This is it.

It is also partly autobiographical. Robert Drysdale was by his own account a pretty ordinary bi-cultural kid. He did not grew up on a tatame, and wasn't a street fighter who never refused any challenge. He played futebol (of course) as a kid but wasn't a fenômeno of any particular variety. He was inspired to learn BJJ by watching Royce and other early UFC period heroes of the ring. Coincidentally he interviewed Royce for the film and book. Some of the interviewees are people who were "present at the creation" (the creation was not a point in time, but an extended period covering at least three decades so it would be more accurate to say "during the creation"). In any case, before UFC 1. Some of the interviewees got on board after UFC 1.  Everyone has a different point of view (as is normal in human life), and a range of opinions. Some of the views expressed are based on recollections of experiences, including the experiences of having heard or read something somewhere. 

As often happens in oral histories, people sometimes confidently feel that they remember something that actually didn't happen, because they mix memories of experiences with memories of what they read or heard. (Basically they don't remember when, where, or how they encountered the incident in question.) That doesn't mean they are wrong. It means they aren't automatically right. It means verification is needed. Robert Drysdale gets it. He isn't trying to lay down the "truth". Historical research (historiography). is a process, not a fact-sheet. Robert Drysdale also gets that martial arts people tend to like cool stories.  The founder of Kōdōkan judo knew that too. He told cool stories and encouraged other people, foreign writers especially, to do the same. (People also like conspiracy stories and happy endings, but that is a different topic.) Accordingly, Opening Closed Guard has a lot of cool stories. At least some of them are verifiably true. Some might be. Others are not. This is normal in the martial arts world.

The interviewees include but are not limited to:

Armando Wriedt

Armando Restani

Shiguero and Mario Yamasaki

Oswaldo Carnivalle

Roberto Leitão

Andre Pederneiras

Helio Fadda

João Rezende

João Alberto Barreto

Flavio Behring

Robson Gracie

Carlos Gracie Jr.

Royce Gracie

Kyra Gracie

Yuuki Nakai (S)

Some Kōdōkan people, including those connected with the Kōsen tradition (which was Kōdōkan, not a separate style) are included. One of those was 8-dan Murata Naoki ( c), who unfortunately recently passed on. Murata 8-dan was one of a small group of genuine historians of judo and jūjutsu. For obvious reasons, he had little to say about Mitsuyo Maeda apart from the usual myths and misconceptions emanating from the two inaccurate 1912 books of Susukida Zaun. A few non-Kōdōkan (traditional ryū) people also expressed opinions and even shared some techniques with Robert Drysdale.

The film is not even released yet and has already stirred up passionate controversy. Some people feel it is too anti-Gracie, while others feel it isn't anti-Gracie enough. Some feel it is too pro-Gracie, others that it isn't pro-Gracie enough. Some want their own teacher or lineage to be highlighted more. Welcome to the world of BJJ.

Meanwhile Robert Drysdale declares strict neutrality. He loves jiu-jitsu, but not necessarily everything about the culture surrounding it and the darker corners of its history in Brazil. He doesn't overtly take sides in the BJJ political wars and schisms that began when Rorion made jiu-jitsu a big business. (Roberto sympathizes. To some people if you aren't pro-Gracie, you must be anti-Gracie. In their world-view, there's no such thing as historical research or objective reality. Everything is politics.)

The book (and documentary, which Robert Pedreira has not seen) focus most on the early days and middle period hence is somewhat Carlos and Helio-centric, reinforcing the false impression fostered by Rorion Gracie and his tag-alongs that BJJ is all about the Gracies and that Gracie means Helio or Carlos (depending on which side of the family or franchise business you happen to be.) This is not entirely untrue. There would be no BJJ today without the Gracie family. But the most important Gracie in terms of the BJJ that existed by the time it reached America is relatively neglected in this story (as it was in Gracies in Action 1 and Gracies in Action 2.) 

That man, obviously, is Carlson Gracie without whom (according to himself) the Gracie family would today be selling bananas on a street corner to survive. It was an uncharacteristically immodest statement, but not far from the truth (and probably said without malice, because Carlson was not malicious.) Robert Drysdale acknowledges this unfortunate omission and hints that there may be a sequel documentary/book, in which case Carlson will undoubtedly receive his due. In the meantime Robert includes a picture of himself in 1999 posing with Carlson, looking like a star-struck fan (Carlson was his favorite Gracie, Robert writes.) It's a great picture.

Roberto (Pedreira) has written hundreds of book reviews. He subscribes to the school of book reviewing that focuses on describing, critically evaluating, and elucidating. He doesn't believe in recommending books without knowing the reader's background, interests, and budget, and without being asked. However in this exceptional case he will go out on a limb and say that anyone who is interested in BJJ history, documentary production, and cool stories will probably find something to like in Opening Closed Guard.

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(c) 2020, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.

Updated October 20, 2020.

Opening Closed Guard is also available from Amazon, which includes various independent reviews.

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GTR Archives 2000-2020

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