RIO DE JANEIRO: New Zealander Jason Lee lies face down on a Rio de Janeiro floor, his arm twisted in a painful lock. But the 26-year-old couldn’t be happier — it’s exactly what he came halfway around the world to experience.
As pastry chefs might make pilgrimages to France or mystics to India, so hardened fighters from around the globe beat a path to Rio gyms to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a formerly obscure martial art that has become an unlikely success story and export.
Once restricted almost entirely to the Latin American country, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is one of the world’s fastest-growing forms of unarmed combat, credited with igniting the mixed martial arts or MMA cage fighting phenomenon, and popular from the United States to the Middle East and Asia.
At the cramped GFTeam academy in a section of northern Rio rarely visited by tourists, Lee is one of four non-Brazilians among the 20 or so men and women grappling on the mats.
Clearly the gringos—as foreigners in Brazil are teasingly dubbed— didn’t come for the fancy facilities: the gym is open to a noisy sidewalk, has a dodgy toilet, and is so small that fighters literally bounce off the padded walls.
The real attraction is simple: more than half of everyone in the room wears the elite black belt.
“They refer to this place as the champion factory,” Lee says.
A wiry, soft-spoken man, Lee was a karate black belt in New Zealand when he stumbled across jiu-jitsu. Less than three years later—after reaching blue belt, stage two in the long haul to jiu-jitsu black—he was sufficiently hooked to grab a plane to Rio.
“There’s something about jiu-jitsu,” Lee said. “You fall under the spell.”
In about 1914, with jiu-jitsu barely known outside Asia, Japanese immigrant and jiu-jitsu master Mitsuyo Maeda introduced the sport to Brazil by giving lessons to the sons of businessman Gastao Gracie in the Amazon jungle city of Belem.
But it was Gracie’s youngest son Helio—considered too sickly to take part— who would make history.
Helio, according to legend, spent years watching his brothers from the sidelines before finally getting a chance. When he did, he had a novel idea: why not adapt the traditional moves to suit his weaker physique?
The supposed weakling proved right.
Experimenting and refining, Helio came up with techniques that would allow skilled smaller practitioners to dominate bigger, stronger opponents — and with that, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ, was born.
The Gracies have since turned the sport into a remarkable family empire.
Arguably the most successful has been Helio Gracie’s oldest son Rorion, who launched the Ultimate Fighting Championship or UFC in the United States in the 1990s, kicking off today’s hugely popular, multi-million dollar MMA industry.
But the rest of the extended family has been just as busy.
“I have students here from Bermuda, Argentina, Iran, France,” Rolker Gracie, another of Helio’s sons, said in an interview, sitting cross legged on the green and red mats of his jiu-jitsu school, the Gracie Academy, in Rio de Janeiro.
“I go to Africa for seminars, I go to Buenos Aires for seminars, and my brothers go to Israel, Kuwait, everywhere,” Gracie, 51, said. “I have a brother living in Spain, a brother in Honolulu, a brother in San Diego, a brother and two sisters in Los Angeles. And they’re all teaching jiu-jitsu.”
While the Gracies are jiu-jitsu royalty, it’s an actual royal, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, who has emerged as the sport’s biggest new booster.
A huge UFC fan, Sheikh Tahnoon created his own Abu Dhabi Combat Club with annual tournaments featuring prize fights worth up to $40,000, turning the oil-rich emirate into a new capital for the much-traveled martial art.
The United Arab Emirates are also the engine pushing the next wave of expansion, with jiu-jitsu being included for the first time in 2018 Asia Games in Jakarta and, the UAE hopes, eventually the Olympics.
The ‘soft art’
To Brazilians jiu-jitsu is the “arte suave,” or soft art. Others liken jiu-jitsu to physical chess and it’s true that with hitting and kicking banned, there are fewer injuries than in other martial arts.
But given that jiu-jitsu’s goal is submission through arm locks and choking—competitors often end up briefly unconscious—“soft” is a relative concept.
At the Rio GFTeam academy, headquarters of a network that has spread across Brazil and the United States, the air filled with cries and the thwack of limbs against mats. One Brazilian pressed ice to a huge swelling around his eye.
“I’ve broken my nose three times and dislocated both knees,” said Jacob Mackenzie, a multiple champion black belt from Canada who trains at GFTeam.
“The training is really hard here. Here there are no tourists or special prices for gringos.”
But getting that Brazilian connection is worth the pain.
After training for years in Brazil, Mackenzie, 29, is in high demand as a seminar teacher in a dozen countries. “A lot of the Brazilians who come over to teach can’t explain the techniques, so being from Canada and speaking English is a real plus,” he said.
Lee also hopes to leverage his Rio experience into a career back home.
“I want to open a martial arts academy eventually. Coming here made sense,” he said.
“I want to get recognized accreditation so I can say: ‘I trained in Brazil.’”