Rickson Gracie – The Man Behind The Legend
In the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu the word “legend” gets thrown around a lot. I won’t say it’s over used, but anyone that’s been aware of jiu-jitsu for any length of time can probably start rattling off a dozen or so names that they would consider legends. But there’s a level of accomplishment that’s above legendary status. It’s reserved for a very elite few (if even more than one), the term “greatest of all time.” Baseball has The Babe, boxing has Ali, hockey has Gretzky, basketball has Jordan and so on. Well in the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu we have Rickson (Gracie).
The third son of Grand Master Helio Gracie grew up in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, but now calls Palos Verdes, California home. Rickson made his name in the 80’s and 90’s competing in jiu-jitsu tournaments, Vale-Tudo, and MMA. It’s said by many that Rickson never lost any type of jiu-jitsu, freestyle wrestling, sambo, vale tudo, MMA, challenge or submission matches and has well over 400 wins. Rickson’s career was documented in the 1999 documentary film “Choke.” After the tragic death of his first born, Rockson Gracie in late 2000, Rickson retired from competition. Rickson has two daughters; Kauan, Kaulin, and his son Kron who’s now taking his successful grappling to MMA with a fight scheduled for later this year.
Rickson is a private man, but just recently he launched an all out publicity campaign to bring attention to his new jiu-jitsu federation, the JJGF (Jiu-Jitsu Global Federation). If you listen to any sort of jiu-jitsu related podcasts you’ve definitely heard an interview with him on the subject by now. We got the chance to spend some time with Rickson and along with talk about the JJGF we got to know him a little better, his daily routine, his beliefs, his advice and more. You’ll be able to find the complete interview with Rickson on our YouTube channel (youtube.com/jiujitsumag) or at the end of this article.
JJM: Can you please explain to us what the JJGF is about?
Rickson: The main purpose is to service the community and the sport. While there is plenty of efficiency in terms of winning medals, jiu-jitsu is losing effectiveness in the aspect of real life situations. We promote three pillars of service to the community: communication, education and competition. The competition has to be a little bit modified to translate effectiveness in real life. By changing the competition rules today we will be able to project more dynamic fights with much more objectivity that will better cross over to real life situations. Today’s competition, because of what I call anti jiu-jitsu rules and moves such as advantages, stalling, 50/50, etc… (pauses)I love watching jiu-jitsu fights, but maybe 8 out of 10 today are boring to see because those positions allow competitors to stall the fight to give them better control of the motion, a better pace, as well as rhythm of the fight and a better strategy for the medal. This makes it easier to strategize based on the rules, but realistically it doesn’t transfer over into a fight. The new rules aren’t exactly new and we can go back to the old rules while penalizing for stalling and taking away advantage points. That is the competition aspect.
In terms of education, a lot of people today who are coming from the competition background are being promoted today as they win more and more medals, become famous, open up their own school, which is great, but the element to service their community is coming solely from the competitive aspect. This doesn’t translate to self-defense and everybody would like some knowledge of self-defense to protect themselves, but not everyone wants to compete. The knowledge of self-defense can be used by women, executives, children, anybody and that totally changes the function of the sport. It creates self-esteem, better ability to handle stress and deal with obstacles that arise in life. I see black belts today that have no understanding of concepts of self-defense and that has diminished the effectiveness of jiu-jitsu.
In regard to the communication aspect we have a huge opportunity to spread the word. For example, Facebook has only been around for seven years and look at how it’s changed the way we communicate. We can use tools and platforms similar to that for athletes to have their own profiles, have their fights available for viewing, look for sponsorship, etc. We will have a master’s council to have an active voice for the community, as well as a developmental council. These persons may not be masters, but they too can have a voice to share their opinions, fight out what is happening in the community and if they need to change some things.
Overall, the idea of the federation is to create an open door policy to follow and listen to ideas to restore effectiveness, to unify the jiu-jitsu community, provide a belt ranking system, bring a unified set of rules to all the events and a complete competitor ranking system. I’m not interested in running a tournament as there is already too many of them, but these changes would allow for a world wide premium circuit where athletes competing in different organizations can truly see who is the best. I believe this would create opportunities for the next level; possibility of the Olympics, possibility of major sponsors coming in and one major association like those found in tennis and surfing. Those associations rank everyone and unify all the competitors in their sports. If we can come together, we can bring the sport to the next level for sure.
…my middle name right now is “Motivation.”
JJM: When did the idea for the JJGF come about?
Rickson: The idea isn’t new. As I’ve been doing seminars (because of my health diminishing) I noticed a big disconnect of people not understanding the basics. Sometimes black belts don’t know how to escape the most basic positions. I believe the idea of a federation that can feed the community good information is beautiful. I came to the realization that if I don’t do anything then maybe no one will. Maybe 15 years from now jiu-jitsu will be looked upon as judo or karate (has been); great athletes, great tournaments, but nothing relating to real life situations. So I believe the sport side of jiu-jitsu needs to be redirected to a better effective way. Without one of the three pillars that I mentioned we can’t inform current teachers how they can better help reach more people effectively.
JJM: What made you start teaching class recently at Kron’s school?
Rickson: Kron is intensifying his MMA training for his debut and that, along with the time it takes for teaching, I feel was putting more stress on him. So I volunteered to step in to help out with the classes. It works great all around because he can focus on training, I’m happy to teach again, the students seem to enjoy my presence, it’s good for my health, so it’s all positive.
JJM: You’ve mentioned your health diminishing a couple times now. Is everything okay?
Rickson: I have nothing to complain about because I’ve done so many things in my life; however, my middle name right now is “Motivation.” I have to do everything because I have so many injuries on my back and my hips from the trauma I placed on myself. Now I’m minimizing my efforts in certain things because I have to better take care of my body. I’m still very happy how I function; that I can move as I do and still be able to surf waves.
JJM: What’s a typical day like for you and what do you normally eat?
Rickson: Wake up 7:00am to 7:30am, eat well and start with stretching. Sleep-wise I try to get 6 to 8 hours a day; it just depends on my schedule and I’ll take an hour nap sometimes. I try to eat 6 meals a day, love superfoods, love organic foods and stay away from processed foods. In the morning I’ll eat whole wheat bread, cheese and have a cup of coffee. Three hours later I’ll have a shake with almond milk, bananas, blueberries and protein powder. For lunch maybe chicken or fish, organic salad and quinoa. Later for a snack I’ll eat apples or dates. My next meal could be like a smoked tuna sandwich and bananas. For dinner I enjoy making a homemade pizza or organic whole wheat pasta.
JJM: What goes into a Rickson Gracie pizza?
Rickson: I like to use whole wheat flour, wheat germ, hemp seeds, seasonings, eggs and organic yeast in the dough that I make. Also I make fresh tomato sauce, include cheese, mushrooms and it’s on. (laughs)
JJM: Do you have any vice’s that aren’t healthy?
Rickson: Occasionally I may drink or eat ice cream at a BBQ with friends, but these aren’t on a regularly daily basis and in the end what makes you healthy is to maintain a routine.
JJM: How often do you surf?
Rickson: Whenever there are waves I try to be out there. (smiles)
JJM: What are other good things you believe the average guy could do to improve his jiu-jitsu?
Rickson: Have at least a comfortable area like a carpet (We’re guessing for meditation & yoga.) at home, have elastic bands, a medicine ball and a physio/stability ball. These are all good for stretching and having a healthy routine, as well as breathing exercises. Through breathing exercises you can understand yourself better, relax more and hyperventilate in a beneficial way. Yoga, working out, proper nutrition… all this helps.
JJM: Who has been the toughest person you’ve ever rolled with?
Rickson: Hmmm… (ponders) I’ve been training forever with all the tough guys and many guys are very tough. Nobody really stands out. I feel like that at one point the fight becomes so fast and so dynamic that one mistake is all it takes to change things. I’d force guys to make mistakes; sometimes it just took longer. It’s all a chess game. They’ve all been tough and I respect them all.
JJM: In the class we did today you gave a very conceptual approach (this may happen, that may happen, a variety of responses) to teaching as compared to some schools that are specific and say this is the technique, put your hand here, etc. Is this how you normally teach?
Rickson: Well it depends; for example when I show a headlock escape and I explain the shoulder position, this is specific. However, when I show a position like this (or one where you have to escape) you have to not try only one way otherwise you may hit a dead end. You have to keep an open mind to make it work. The concepts of one technique are different than the concepts of a position. For example, the objective may be to pass the guard, but you have to keep in mind when your effort isn’t meeting your objective. So you may ask yourself, “What do I have to do now?” and you must keep an open mind to change. The ability of changing is what makes jiu-jitsu chess. When I teach I have to show both the specific details, but also concepts to make it work. Leverage points are specifics and that’s one thing, but showing the concepts, such as if you can’t push, pull, give you more of a whole idea of how it will work.
JJM: What are the basic concepts of invisible jiu-jitsu?
Rickson: Oh, it’s totally feeling, you can’t see it in a picture, you have to feel it. For example, two guys are in a position and one feels awkward, I’ll say put your weight a little more here and adjust this way. Their response is usually, “Oh gosh!” Elements of connection, weight distribution and leverage will create that feeling of invisible force. It’s all adjustments that make it happen.
JJM: As far as conventional wisdom goes do you see a position that’s just not being done right out there?
Rickson: Well, the umpa (or bump), nobody does right.
JJM: We caught the “how-to” you did with Budo Jake on that.
Rickson: A lot of people do it wrong like that, so they try to do something else like the elbow escape, but then the angle is wrong for that and everything becomes awkward. You’ll end up spending much more time and effort to escape.
JJM: Your black belts teach specifically what you teach, but what about a guy who wants to learn your style of jiu-jitsu yet trains at a school who teaches totally different?
Rickson: That’s a hard situation because it depends on the head instructor. That’s why the JJGF is such a great thing and can provide that knowledge. I’ve heard a jiu-jitsu instructor tell a student to learn Krav Maga because jiu-jitsu isn’t for self-defense, just sport. This is jeopardizing our culture and lineage. By providing guidance and certification for instructors the students will feel better for applying. That way 50 years from now we’ll still have good directions by implementing these concepts. If everyone does whatever they want 50 years from now jiu-jitsu will be completely diluted.
JJM: Do you ever see yourself competing in the JJGF at all?
Rickson: No, I’m completely out of competition. Kron will though.
So you may ask yourself, “What do I have to do now?”
and you must keep an open mind to change.
JJM: What advice would you give someone nearing 40 in terms of jiu-jitsu?
Rickson: Well, injuries take a toll on the body. I look at jiu-jitsu as a religion, so you need to train smarter as you get older. You need to find a good set-up of training partners, not just young, explosive guys or guys that may put you in a scenario to get hurt. You’ll need a capable instructor to provide you with proper knowledge and understand that this is a lifestyle. This is the same for any age really.
JJM: Can you explain the JJGF Challenge Rules to us?
Rickson: These are geared to submission only matches and would be done when a promotion chooses to do so. This doesn’t mean I’m for submission only. Points matches will still be part of the format, as these are needed to further evolve the sport and put jiu-jitsu in the Olympics if possible. There’s nothing set in stone for Challenge Rules matches. It could be one match that goes 20, 40, or 60 minutes and with or without weight classes. It may be set up like Metamoris with multiple individual matches, a tournament like Dream’s The Baddest (whatever belt color) or could be one match during some time of a point tournament.
JJM: I’ve run into the situation and have it happen to others where a referee doesn’t award points because the individual (or a teammate) may have beaten their teammate, so it becomes almost a personal issue. Will there be referees in JJGF who aren’t necessarily affiliated with a school, such as in amateur wrestling to avoid this conflict of interest?
Rickson: No, first thing to do would be to certify all the referees and provide them with the proper knowledge. My suggestion is taking away the advantages system. This would make things simpler as this is a big complication because it’s based on the interpretation of the referees. Referees would have to make specific manual gestures to display the time that the position was held for before awarding points. Now, say the referee still counts too fast or too slow against a competitor. Per the request of that individual or coach he or she can challenge the call after the match before a decision is reached. We will have replay and be able to review the entire match and change the points if need be. It will be similar to the challenge rules of American football, so if the competitor or coach is wrong they can’t challenge anymore. I’d also like to see penalties for stalling.
JJM: Will those individuals 30 and above who compete at Masters and Seniors levels be provided the same time limit per match as those age 29 and under?
Rickson: I don’t see the point of increasing the time limit if there is no stalling; however, dependent upon what is happening on a consistent basis may make me change my mind. I’m not trying to set the rules in stone, but do whatever is needed to return effectiveness to jiu-jitsu. If that means getting rid of, then possibly bringing back advantages, or increasing time limits, so be it.
Well, injuries take a toll on the body. I look at jiu-jitsu as a religion,
so you need to train smarter as you get older.
JJM: Are there any individuals outside of jiu-jitsu and martial arts that you’ve looked up to or taken any ideals from and incorporated them into your own life?
Rickson: Oh, definitely. The mind has to be open like a parachute or it doesn’t work. You cannot be closed minded and think you are the only truth. A long time ago my good friend Erik Paulson gave me a tape showing knee locks; the next day I was submitting everybody in the school with knee locks. Staying open minded, using wrestling moves, using judo moves, whatever works to make things more effective is great. Outside of jiu-jitsu, outside of martial arts my best learning came from Orlando Cani, my master, who taught me breathing and yoga. It gave me a profound perspective of how to control my body and be more focused. Of course, the great masters, Buddha, Jesus, Sun Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi, and my father always have something amazing to say about life that gives us perspective of enlightenment.
JJM: Is there one phrase or piece of advice that your dad gave you that stands out?
Rickson: Yes. “If you want to be a good teacher, you show the movements you know. If you want to be an excellent teacher, try to understand the student and teach him what he needs.” That changed the way I teach because before I would fit the student with what I wanted to teach him, not what he needs. That’s a very profound way to find growth for both him and you.
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