Classic Historical Myths and Misconceptions about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
By Roberto Pedreira
Myth 1: In order to avoid confusion with judo, the original Gracie belt system (at least during the 151 Rio
Branco era) consisted of white belt for students, dark blue belts for
instructors, and light blue belts for masters ["Para não se confundir com o judô, não
haviam graduações de faixa, o aluno era faixa branca, o instrutor
era faixa azul escuro e o mestre azul clara."] Black and other belts were
introduced when the first (unofficial, unapproved) jiu-jitsu federation was formed by the Carlos and
Helio Gracie in 1968.
Fact: Carlos and Helio wore black belts in their Rio Branco
academy and awarded black belts. So did George. In fact, they used them even
before the Rio Branco academy opened on Wednesday, April 23, 1952 (see Choque
2, p. 80). When Masahiko Kimura, Toshio Yamaguchi, and Yukio Kato arrived in Rio, they were hailed by the press as legitimate black belts,
while the Gracies were snubbed as "fake black belts". But not only the
Gracies. Apparently there were many people, both Brazilian and Japanese, wearing belts that
were not awarded by an organization that was authorized to award belts. The press believed that a genuine black belt was one
that was awarded by the Kodokan.
Thus, Geo Omori, Yassuiti Ono, Takeo Yano and their graduated students,
also had legitimate black belts. The Gracie brothers simply gave themselves
belts....with the possible exception of Helio, as explained in Choque 1 and
Choque 3.) The BJJ belt system now in place was created in 1968 (see Choque
chp. 8, and chp. 13). Of course, there were many people, primarily in São
Paulo, who had legitimate black belts. Masahiko Kimura himself personally
awarded a number of belts and dan [段]
ranks (up to 3rd dan) in 1951.
Above: Helio (left) wearing blue belt, supervising Royce's
preparations for first contest with Olympic judo champion Hidehiko Yoshida [吉田秀彦]
Myth 2: There were no rules and no interruptions "back in the day
of Carlos/Helios and even Carlson eras of the 40 & 50s a fight or challenge
was taken as a test of manhood and mostly contested with almost no rules and
definitely with no interruptions until someone surrendered" .
Fact: There were never any no-rules fights. Even supposedly no-rules fights [vale tudos] had rules and time-limits.
The process of negotiating the
rules was a large part of the pre-fight build-up (all thoroughly documented in
Choque 1, Choque 2, and Choque 3).
Myth 3: Helio was "diminutive" (i.e., tiny). Gracie's ground style developed because
"diminutive" Helio often found himself under his opponents. 
Fact: Helio was bigger than some of his
opponents. He was
on the bottom sometimes and on top other times. His guard style was nothing more
or less than the ground style shown in Miyake and Tani's 1906 book
The Game of Ju-Jitsu for the Use of
Schools and Colleges. An alternative to the theory that Helio developed his
ground style because he was diminutive is that he read Miyake and Tani's book.
Another alternative is that he didn't have a unique ground style. To
appreciate that, we need to compare Helio's performance in the ring with those
of other fighters (George, Omori, Ono Brothers, Yano, etc.) against similar or
the same opponents (for that, see Choque 1). Helio was not the only one who sometimes found himself on the
bottom and he was as big, or bigger, or not significantly smaller than most of
the fighters he faced, and he was no more diminutive than the other jiu-jitsu
representatives of his two periods of ring activity (1932-1936, and 1950-1955).
See Myth #2 here for more about that.
What did distinguish Helio Gracie's style from almost everyone else was his
reference for stalemating rather than risk losing by going aggressively for the submission, and he
adapted his overall contest strategy around that in combination with his
realistic awareness of of his relative deficiency in stand-up skills (in other
words, he accepted the fact that he was going to get thrown or put on bottom
most of the time).
Myth 4: The vale tudo television
program "Heróis do Rings" was cancelled because Gracie Academy
representative João Alberto Barreto fractured an opponent's arm and
viewers were shocked and appalled by the brutality of real fights.
Fact: João Alberto did
break Jose Geraldo's arm on July 6, 1959. It was not the final fight of the
series, but rather the first fight. The
program was not cancelled. It went off the air April 1960 and subsequently was
renamed and continued under new direction, after a six month hiatus, following
the new "safety" rules demanded by the sports authorities. (In this
sense it was revamped, renamed, and overhauled rather than cancelled). The
matches were luta livre americana matches,
staged by the Organização Carioca dos Lutadores, which consisted
of most of the academies that had taken part in Heróis, minus the Gracies
(a few of their representatives appeared, but seldom). Semi-legit luta
livre americana gradually morphed into blatant pro wrestling. Jiu-Jitsu fighters who
wanted to get paid in Rio took off their kimonos. Oswaldo Fada took an active
role. Helio suspected that it was conspiracy against the Gracie family. He and
Carlos subsequently promoted their own hardcore program of real fights in São
Paulo that quickly failed due to lack of viewer interest. There was still vale
tudo in Brazil, but in Baia and the interior, with a few exceptions between 1983
and 1999. (See Choque 2 and Choque 3 for full details.)
Myth 5. Oswaldo Fada team defeated
Gracie Academy team.
Gracie brothers (Carlos and Helio) attempted to promote jiu-jitsu as a sport
along the lines of judo beginning from 1950, when they organized a tournament and
invited four other academies to participate. The four academies were headed by Carlos Pereira,
Azevedo Maia, (both former students of Carlos Gracie), Oswaldo Fada, and Augusto Cordeiro. After the first round, Pereira, Maia, and
Cordeiro withdrew, charging that the
Gracies were substituting fighters and entering professionals (specifically
in what was supposed to be an amateur sporting competition. Fada hung in, and in
fact, competed himself, and had his arm dislocated. The Gracie brothers were
criticized by the press for charging high admission prices to watch recreational
All of the competitors in the final
round were Gracie Academy students, who thereby became the "Brazilian
In 1955 a friendly competition was
arranged between the academies of the Gracie brothers and Oswaldo Fada. Fourteen
matches were held. The Gracie team won seven (7), lost three (3), and drew
four (4). George showed up to act as time-keeper. (see Choque 2 chp. 6 for
Myth 6: Carlos Gracie was a boxing champion. And George Gracie was a boxing
vice-champion. According to
Carlos in 1961, he was a boxing champion in 1925 (Choque 3, chp 1).
According to Reila Gracie, "Carlos was
Brazilian amateur middleweight champion, and George was vice-champion" (my
translation; see here for Reila's own words).
According to Reila, quoting Carlos, he fought "almost 20 fights and was never hit even
Fact: That would be an
extraordinary, indeed miraculous, achievement for any
boxer, if it actually happened. But there is no record of
Carlos ever stepping into a boxing ring, at least not with boxing gloves on his
hands. We know that because boxing began in Brazil, like the other combat sports, as a variety show attraction. A few amateur "sportsmen" took it up as
a physical fitness activity. Professional boxing, on a small scale, began in
1921, introduced by immigrants. Organized amateur boxing began in 1928. Two
Brazilian amateur boxing championships were held in 1928 and 1929 and were
extensively covered in the Rio press. People who registered to
fight, weighed-in, gloved-up, fought, and won titles were well covered. Carlos
Gracie's name was never mentioned. George Gracie registered to compete (George was familiar with boxing gyms,
taught his jiu-jitsu out of boxing gyms (at times), and had
rudimentary boxing skills, as Choque 1
proves). But George didn't show up for the weigh-in and never fought a boxing
match. However, Carlos
and George's jiu-jitsu instructor Donato Pires dos Reis did. Donato gloved up
and was ready to rumble. His opponent didn't appear so Donato won by
"walk-over". But that is more than Carlos can truthfully
(See Choque 1, chp. 7 for details.) Carlos enhanced his personal
autobiography with details from the life of his instructor, Donato Pires dos
Reis on other occasions (documented in Choque 1). It appears that he was
dipping into Donato's boxing resume as well (inflating one walk-over win into 20
victories without ever being hit).
Myth 7: Rickson Gracie was victorious
in 430 fights and never lost.
Fact: By October
1998, just before Rickson vs. Takada II, the number of Rickson's supposed
victories had risen to 460 (according to Karate Bushido magazine, below).
Reports differed as to whether they were total victories (in any type of fight),
or specifically in vale tudo contests. Rickson himself said (in 2005, here)
that if we included fights of every type (including dojo challenges, or "desafios")
the number might actually be 1,000 or more. And that is with no losses. He
didn't know the exact number. It was too many to count. He hadn't been keeping
track all these years.
So there are two
answers. One is that if we are talking about every type of match, including
sparring sessions, then the number might be vast. But the number of losses is
more than zero. Rickson conceded that he lost a sambo match to Ron Tripp.
Rickson didn't think it really counted though, because no one explained the
rules to him before the match.
If we are talking about
vale tudos, then the answer is known. Rickson was undefeated in October 1998,
but the number of victories was considerably less than 460 (it was 13, to be
How did this myth
arise? It arose in October 1995 as part of the hype for a Brazilian vale tudo
tournament known as Desafio Internacional Vale Tudo Brazil Open 95. The concept
behind it was that fighters from various countries would eliminate each other
and the last man standing would qualify to meet Rickson. In order for that to
make sense, Rickson would need to be portrayed as superhuman. Accordingly,
Rickson was described as the "undefeated world champion with 430
fights" ["Campeao mundial invicto a 430 lutas RICKSON GRACIE"].
Rickson was described as the "Great Big Dragon" ["O Grande
Dragão"], possibly a play on Bruce Lee's nickname. He was also
described as "The King of the Mats with 430 victories" ["O Rei
do tatame, soma 430 vitorias"], and with 430 fights and an equal number
of victories ["forma 430 lutas e o mesmo numero de vitorias"].
In the above, the
"fights" [lutas] were not specified. Luta does not
necessarily mean value tudo (or any specific type of contest or struggle for
that matter). The vale tudo myth began on Tuesday, October 24, 1995. On the
evening of that day Rickson was scheduled to appear, via an interview taped
earlier in Santa Monica, USA, on the popular late night TV show Gente de
Expressão, hosted by Bruna Lombardi. In an afternoon newspaper
article about the show, Rickson was praised as a man who no other man on the
planet could beat. Rickson (it went on) had 430 fights and 430 victories in vale
tudo ["não há lutador no planeta capaz de derrotar o
homem, que ostenta em seu curriculo 430 lutas a 430 vitorias, na modalidade do
vale tudo"]. (For details, sources, and an extensive glossary of
fight-related Portuguese vocabulary, see Choque 3, esp. chp, 35, and app.
Obviously, the 430
number was intended merely to hype a tournament (which did take place, although
Rickson ended up not participating). The addition of "vale tudo" to
the "record" was the inspiration no doubt of another marketing person
who knew nothing about fighting, but apparently must have assumed that all of
Rickson's fights were vale tudo. Between October 1995 and October 1998, Rickson
had one more fight, beating pro wrestler Nobuhiko Takada. Disregarding
elementary arithmetic, Karate Bushido boosted Rickson's record by 29
instead of one. (And to leave no knot untied, Rickson had two more fights after
that, Takada again, and Masakatsu Funaki in 2000, and then retired. Funaki talks
about the fight here.)
Above: Rickson Gracie (October 1998), winner of 460 fights. Will he
beat Takada again October 11?
Myth 8. "Gracie
[Helio] introduced a series of adaptations to traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu
that emphasized leverage and position as a way to compensate for size
differences among opponents." So said The New York Times on January 30, 2009 (pg. B9)
Helio never studied traditional Japanese "Jiu-Jitsu" so he couldn't adapt
it. He also never said that he did. What he said (here)
was that because he couldn't imitate Carlos' power-based techniques, he began
learning jiu-jitsu (or what he thought was jiu-jitsu) "in his own
way". He didn't adapt Japanese "jiu-jitsu", he adapted Carlos'
power-based jiu-jitsu by using science, such as force and
This may seem like beating a dead
horse if you've read Choque, Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, or the
previous Myths & Misconceptions, but it brings up an important
point. As always, we need to ask where the information came from. The NY
Times obit gives a clue: The Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy Web site. Obit writers
are rarely experts in the field of the dead person's eminence. So, where do they
get their information from, especially on what is sometimes short notice?
According to one NY Times obit writer (here),
they get it from family and friends of the deceased. And,
apparently, from academy web sites.
Myth 9: The Gracies were the first Brazilians to spread jiu-jitsu in Brazil.
Fact: Mario Aleixo was the first. Unfortunately, his march to martial arts
immortality was derailed when he met a young man named George Gracie. The full
story is told in Choque 1, chps. 4 and 11).
Azevedo, Luiz Guilherme C. A., Souto, Fabio Pinto, &
Rocha, Marcelo. (1997). A História do Jiu Jitsu através dos
tempos. Escola de Educação Fisica e Desportos, Universidade
Federal do Rio de Janeiro Centro de Ciências da Saude, p. 21 and p. 27.
Downey, Greg. (2007). Producing Pain Techniques and Technologies in
No-Holds-Barred Fighting. Social Studies of Science, 37(2),
201-226, p. 205. Downey's article has (as of July 17, 2016) been cited by 76
other scholarly books and articles, most of which have also been profusely
cited. But where did Greg Downey get this information about Helio's ostensible diminutiveness
and its alleged role in the creation of guard techniques? His sources were Renzo
Gracie, Royler Gracie, Kid Peligro, and John Danaher.
Poor Ron Tripp. The
only man with a verified victory over Rickson (not counting Relson, see Choque
3, chapter 24), and no one will give him credit. According to Rickson,
in two interviews with a Japanese magazine called Free Fight in 1997 and
1998, his loss to Ron Tripp didn't really count because he didn't understand the rules (both
interviews are or
were at one time available on bjj.org.)
5. Before publishing the present article on
July 25, 2017, JST,
Roberto contacted (on July 21, 2017, JST) The New York Times, specifically their star obit writer Margalit Fox (based
on a this interview
and this interview).
Margalit Fox responded within about 12 hours saying she had nothing to do with
the obit. Assistant Obit Editor Peter Keepnews, also within 12 hours, informed Roberto that the Helio Gracie
obit was contributed by an anonymous Associated Press (AP) reporter and suggested that
Roberto contact AP for more specific information, which Roberto promptly did. On
July 26 Dan Slotnik, also from the NY
Times, again advised Roberto to contact AP, which Roberto had already done, as
indicated above. As of August 20, 2020, AP has not replied and it is safe to
assume they will not.
The essential point applies
nevertheless because the NY Times printed the Helio Gracie obit. According to the
information provided in the brief obit, either the AP reporter just happened to be
browsing the Gracie Academy web site, or someone with an interest in the matter sent AP a heads up
(which is easy to do, AP welcomes it).
Previous Myths and
& Answers about BJJ History
Top 30 Myths
Myths in GIA 1
Myths in GIA 2
classic Helio Gracie interviews:
Interviewed by Nishi
Yoshinori in 1994 (with Rorion Gracie)
Interviewed by Dalila
Magarian in Brazil in 2001
Interviewed in Japan
in 2002 (with Pedro Valente Jr. and Royce Gracie)
Also in Japan 2002, interviewed
after Royce fight with Yoshida
(c) 2016, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.
Updated August 21, 2016.
Updated August 25, 2016.
Updated November 29, 2017.
Updated October 15, 2019.
Updated August 20, 2020 JST.