I had often wondered why Brazil should be home to its own national version of a Japanese martial art. After all, Japan is on the other side of the world. I understood why Capoeira, Brazilian fight dancing, had been invented by African slaves: they had to conceal their martial arts from in the guise of dance so as not to alarm the slave owners. But where did Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu come from? And how had it become one of the most popular martial arts in the world?
As we sat on the mat during a break Jairo, a big man with cauliflower ears and a grey eyes, explained it all to me.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was invented by Helio Gracie, a skinny boy who lived in Rio de Janeiro. “Helio,” Jairo explained, “was so weak that he could barely walk down the street without fainting. His family had learned the secrets of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu from a Japanese nobleman, Count Coma, as a reward for helping a group of Japanese immigrants. The Gracie family learned the Japanese secrets and then taught Jiu-Jitsu in Rio in a special gym, but Helio was forbidden from fighting. He was too weak. Too fragile. Then one day a man came for a private lesson. The regular teacher was late so Helio, who loved to watch his brothers practice, gave the man the lesson. Afterwards Helio became a regular teacher at the academy. Helio transformed Jiu-Jitsu so that it became applicable to street fighting. It’s the most efficient way to neutralize a real attacker if you are really attacked. It allows you to fight from the ground. To fight from a vulnerable position. To beat your attacker, even when he has an advantage over you. You learn that you are not vulnerable. How to turn a weak position into a strong position.”
The Gracies, Jairo said, popularized their sport in Los Angeles and caught the attention of Hollywood. After that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu quickly became an international martial arts craze with Gracie centers all over the world. Today Brazilian fighters regularly win mixed martial arts competitions on the world circuit.
The break is over and we grappled again. I try to throw Jairo. “No, no,” he says. “Relax. Your body is too tense. When you fight, you have to keep your body loose. Keep your mind open and your body loose. When your body is tight, you quickly tire yourself out. When you are tense, you stop thinking. This is how you defeat yourself. When we fight, we must be like water. Always flexible. Always attentive. Just like in life.”
Later he showed me how, if you can maintain your composure under attack, you can use the attacker’s strength against him.
“In Jui-Jitsu, you can defeat anyone, no matter how much bigger and stronger they are than you. You use their strength against them. That’s because you fight up close.”
Here, I could tell, his Jui-Jitsu lesson was once again about to veer out of the realm of martial arts and into the province of personal philosophy. Smiling his big toothy grin again, he said, “People are afraid to clench, they are afraid to take on their problems close up. But in Jiu-Jitsu we learn to grapple with our enemies at close quarters. The closer you are to your enemy, the more protected you are.”
I straddled him again and Jairo effortlessly rolled me over onto my back. I tried to stop him, but I was helpless to resist the hold.
Later, as we sat in the café of the gym Jairo confided that he was a deeply spiritual man. I asked him about how his belief in God had influenced his style of fighting. “Helio Gracie,” he said, “was weak, small, and light. He said he felt like a dead chicken. That’s why he invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so that he wouldn’t feel weak anymore. When I started Jiu-Jitsu I was afraid, too. I felt like a dead chicken, too. But I didn’t give up. I learned Jiu-Jitsu. And then something happened. Suddenly I wasn’t afraid anymore. And you know what?”
I sensed that our conversation was reaching some important insight.
“When you are no longer afraid, there is no more reason to lie. . . . Once the question of physical fear is solved, then you can be open. Then you can become a spiritual person. Then you reach your spiritual nature. When I am no longer afraid, then I have compassion.”
He smiled his toothy grin one more time and I knew that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu had made another disciple.