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Malandragem and Winning 

in Jiu-Jitsu 

Robert Drysdale

 Posted July 9, 2022


When I was a BJJ purple belt, like the rest of my friends and training partners, the thought of securing myself financially or developing a career outside of jiu-jitsu wasnft even considered as something of concern or as a viable option. Naturally, we all struggled financially and took advantage of the Latino tradition of having the luxury of living with our parents for as long as we needed to in order to develop a career and/or get married. 

The struggle was real, so I began to think of creative ways to make some extra cash through jiu-jitsu in order to pay for all my competitions and traveling. Since making money by teaching jiu-jitsu was out of the question (due to the low monthly fees and the glut of highly qualified instructors in Brazil) I began to think of ways of taking advantage of the growth of jiu-jitsu around the world in the early 2000s. In 2001 I began a inviting foreigners via the internet to come live and train with me in Brazil for only 500 dollars a month (food, training, housing and transport included). At the time $500 was a bargain for foreigners while simultaneously being a small fortune for me.

Over the next few years, there was a busy influx of Americans, Swedes, Australians, Canadians, etc. who visited for weeks, months and sometimes coming back yearly or staying permanently. Needless to say, it fell on me to train them as well as helping them navigate the intricacies of Brazilian society. Which to me, always felt like a fun and engaging exercise.

It was after coaching one of these visitors at a local tournament that I had realized the importance of simple daily words as a symbol of specific cultural practices. To my visiting friend, I simply couldnft explain why he had lost. The words were missing in my English vocabulary.

 In Portuguese, the word gmalandroh and its execution (malandragem) didnft make their way into my vocabulary forcefully. As a child, it was effortlessly absorbed, like every other Portuguese word I had absorbed, and in parallel to the cultural context in which it was used almost daily by those around me (particularly males of lower economic strata). It wasnft until I began interacting with other Americans and Europeans visiting Brazil that it dawned on me that I couldnft translate the word to them or even explain the concept.

The word gmalandroh loosely translates as: cunning, deceitful, full of tricks and borderline thuggish in a street-smart way and someone who manipulates the rules to their advantage. As an example, think of a soccer player who upon a light contact with a member of the opposing team throws himself on the grass in an act of pain in order to impress the referee who will hopefully grant the opposing team member a yellow or red card. That is a classic display of malandragem and it can be seen everywhere in Brazilian society. Naturally jiu-jitsu doesnft escape its cultural reach.

To be fair, the behavior isnft exclusive to Brazilians and can be seen just about anywhere one lives or visits. The difference is that the behavior is so ingrained in Brazilian society, that they have a word for it (once while having this conversation with an American friend, he observed that street Basketball is exactly like that, in other words, malandragem, isnft an exclusive Brazilian feature, it is only more widespread and commendable in Brazil, while in the US the feelings may be somewhere between commendation and condemnation, depending on the environment). It is so ingrained in fact, that it wasnft until that tournament and my attempt at explaining to my visiting friend why his opponent had run circles on him for the entire match, that I had even given this any thought.

Whenever I try to explain this to my American students, by giving real examples, their understanding of it is often voiced back to me in the shape of the question: gyou mean lying?h or gbeing dishonest?h or something equivalent. Yet the bigger issue here, isnft the behavior itself (which is questionable), but rather that it isnft normally perceived as bad behavior or as behavior to be reprimanded by social peers, but that in fact, malandragem is often used in context of a compliment given to someone who so cleverly manipulated the system to their advantage. The degree of the manipulation matters, but so does the execution and subsequent success in this endeavor, with the extent, complexity and level of success of the manipulation being determinant of its quality in a positive way.

A malandro is someone who can be a savvy business man who evades taxes, a womanizer with no boundaries or integrity, a car salesman who doesnft mention that the radiator is broken or even someone verging on a con-artist. In fact, con-artistry can be seen as an extreme example of malandro behavior, but not quite a translation of the word, since the line between a malandro and a criminal is drawn and is mostly clear. In other words, all con-artists are malandros, but not all malandros are con-artists.

A criminal who evades capture is a malandro because he hasnft been caught, and in case he does, he loses the title because, had he been a true malandro, he wouldn't have been caught. In this case, ele deu mole (he edropped the ballf as in, he lost his malandragem). In sum, a malandro is someone who successfully manipulates the rules to his favor, with the lines between the ethical and legal being up to the individual himself.

In competitive jiu-jitsu, malandragem can be many things, and not all necessarily dishonest (which is why the word gdishonesth isn't an accurate translation), such as: exaggerating an injury or purposely untying your belt to take a moment to breathe; circling the square matted area in order to avoid contact and buy time in case you are winning; stalling; wearing a lighter kimono and/or belt in order to make weight easier; use of such tactics as purposely not sweeping your opponent until the last few seconds of the match; going for a submission only to score an advantage and not actually finish it (perhaps knowing that the submission may not be actually possible for a variety of reasons); etc. In other words, being a malandro, is essentially being an astute competitor and playing on the very edge of what is permitted by the rules, but not necessarily dishonestly breaking them or doing anything illegal per se.

Living in Brazil, requires not necessarily the assimilation of the behavior, but certainly requires being able to recognize it if only in order to survive and not be taken advantage of in a multitude of ways. From my observations, Brazilians are to a large extent naturally introduced to malandragem. It comes to them with less effort than it does to other peoples because it is so wide-spread in Brazil (also contingent on upbringing, geography and social-circles and far from a unanimously accepted or tolerated behavior in Brazil). An observation always made all the clearer to me when I try to explain the concept to my American students who donft all instinctively grasp the concept and normally have to learn it by trial and error, which is to say, by competing extensively until they learn, unless of course, they donft learn. With the degree of their success largely contingent on their ability to quickly grasp this.

Conversely, I never had to explain any of this to my Brazilian students, who instinctively knew they had to manipulate the rules, the time, the score and the referee to their favor. It all came with little to no effort to them, possibly made easier to their collective exposure to soccer where the practice of malandragem is practically a necessity as well as the Brazilian penchant for womanizing where malandragem is equally useful.

Back to jiu-jitsu, I believe much of the resentment that some of the jiu-jitsu world feels towards Brazilians can be explained by this entrenched and often overlooked quality of Brazilians. This resentment is rarely spoken out loud, but is real nonetheless, and tends to manifest in vague generalizations or unsubstantiated conspiracy-theories, for example, that Brazilian referees are biased against non-Brazilians.

Malandragem, as it pertains jiu-jitsu competition, is likely to be the only actual advantage Brazilians have over the rest of the world. For the time being at least. Competitors from other nations all eventually end up indulging in it. Well, at least the successful ones do.

Personally, at least in terms of jiu-jitsu, I have mixed feelings about malandragem. I have often scored tactical advantages in order to win close advantages. At other times, in total exhaustion, I rode the clock while eagerly counting the seconds in order to win what to me meant as much as an arm or a leg. And if on one hand the astuteness necessary for high level competition is truthfully a display of an equally high level of intelligence and skill, on the other hand the manipulation of any situation to your favor does often come near the border of an unethical practice. Nonetheless, condemning from afar is cheap, ignorant and easy.

Wrong is called "wrong" because that's what it is. Yet competition coupled with ambition can, often blur the lines. Malandragem, only adds to the blur. Still, as the adage goes, nice guys finish last. When we come down to it,  competition, all competition, is in all truthfulness a wild jungle filled with far more ambition and cunning than scruples.

Ambition, deception, malandragem. They all lay underneath what the 21st century commonly refers to as gsuccess.h  We would do well in rethinking what is behind these words to which we attach life purpose to. We may well reach the conclusion that while some words are dubious, others arenft so much. Some by being unequivocal just do a better job at concealing from the surface all the malandragem that is implicit in their fabric. If we are willing to dig a little deeper than this surface, we may find that in fact, malandragem is nothing but the modest and poorly equipped cousin of what we assertively and commonly refer to in life, as gsuccess.h

More by Robert Drysdale:

The Fallacy of Sub-Only (forthcoming soon)

Rev. of Breathe, by Rickson Gracie

The ADCC Blind Spot

Winning at Jiu-Jitsu while Keeping it Real

Creonte: Loyalty versus Self-Perfection

The Rectification of BJJ's Rules: To Gi or Not to Gi

Americanization of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

BJ Penn for President

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?


 (c) 2022, Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.






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