Master Ricardo Murgel and the History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

KnuckleUp Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Head Instructor Ricardo Murgel has a 60 year history with  BJJ.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to accompany him to Brazil for the once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from some of its originators.  What follows  is the first of a three part series that was initially published in FIGHT! magazine describing our amazing trip. 

On June 7th 1494, at the Treaty of Torde­sil­las, in an act of mon­u­men­tal hubris the nations of Spain and Por­tu­gal divided up the known world out­side of Europe. Spain got every­thing west of the Cape Verde Islands and Por­tu­gal got every­thing that lay east, includ­ing what would become the nation of Brazil. This is why, although Span­ish is spo­ken in the rest of Cen­tral and South Amer­ica in Brazil they speak Portuguese.

Brazil’s pop­u­la­tion is com­posed of the descen­dants of Euro­pean set­tlers, African slaves, and the indige­nous Amerindi­ans. With a land mass as large as the con­ti­nen­tal US, abun­dant nat­ural resources and a pop­u­la­tion of almost 200 mil­lion, Brazil has always been a nation brim­ming with unmet poten­tial and pos­si­bil­ity. How­ever in the minds of MMA fans the coun­try will for­ever be linked with the fight­ing style known as BJJ or Brazil­ian Jiu Jitsu. The style came out of nowhere in the early 1990’s when Royce Gra­cie used it to smother, trip and choke his way into his­tory dur­ing the first 3 UFC’s.

My own intro­duc­tion to BJJ came from a great mas­ter of the art, Ricardo Murgel. I met him over a year ago after he relo­cated to Atlanta and I was lucky enough to be able to train with him. Murgel’s resume reveals that he is a 7th level mas­ter of BJJ as well as a Judo Black Belt with over 50 years of expe­ri­ence in mar­tial arts. He has coached fight­ers to cham­pi­onship lev­els at events such as the Abu Dhabi Cham­pi­onships and in the UFC and Pride. His under­stand­ing of fight­ing and fight­ers is ency­clo­pe­dic and he knows every­one in the busi­ness. He is an invalu­able resource to me as well as a close friend. Murgel can be a lit­tle rough around the edges but is also incred­i­bly intel­li­gent and wise. Imag­ine a Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid who curses or a Yoda who likes to drink beer; that is Mas­ter Murgel. He has often told me that if I really wanted to under­stand MMA I needed to go to Brazil, the source. I needed to meet the peo­ple who invented it, not in 1993 or with the UFC but sixty years ago in South America.

Murgel is treated like a return­ing monarch. His stu­dents carry our bags, drive us around and see to our every need. We have arrived in Porto Ale­gre, Murgel’s home­town. He is hold­ing a sem­i­nar on Jiu Jitsu. Sev­eral news­pa­pers are cov­er­ing it and well over 120 peo­ple are attend­ing. Before he left Brazil, Murgel would review his stu­dents in for­ma­tion, the black belts lin­ing up in front fol­lowed by the brown and pur­ple belts on down to the blues and whites. When we enter the room they are wait­ing in for­ma­tion to greet him, just like old times. As they catch sight of him they start shout­ing, “Union, Union, Union!” pump­ing their fists in the air. It is a pow­er­ful moment, like watch­ing Leonidas review his 300 Spar­tans. This is my fi rst hint of the incred­i­ble ven­er­a­tion a mas­ter of BJJ receives in his home coun­try. As soon as the sem­i­nar ends Murgel is hounded for auto­graphs and pic­tures, like a movie star. Peo­ple even want to get their pic­ture taken with me, because I know him.


Master Murgel’s Seminar in Porto Alegre Photo Credit Levy Ribiero

The Philoso­pher

If any­one can tell you the true story of Vale Tudo it will be Grand­mas­ter Joao Alberto Bar­reto and his brother Alvaro. They were there since the begin­ning,” Mas­ter Murgel tells me as we arrive in Rio. The Broth­ers are Grand­mas­ters in the 9th level of BJJ. The 10th level is reserved for the founders of the art; Car­los and Helio Gra­cie and their broth­ers. Helio is the only one still liv­ing and he is 95 years old. When he’s gone there will never be another 10th level. Remem­ber­ing with what rev­er­ence Murgel, a 7th level, had been treated in Porto Ale­gre I real­ize that meet­ing the Bar­retos one on one is a rare honor.

We arrive at a gym right off Copaca­bana Avenue. The equip­ment looks old but pris­tine. The place is well used but immac­u­late. “This is amaz­ing,” Murgel tells me, “I trained here 40 years ago.” Soon Grand­mas­ter Alvaro arrives. He is a tall man with dark hair and a regal bear­ing. He moves slowly with the small, sure ges­tures of a man of high cul­ture and his voice is sooth­ing. He has a cere­bral, aca­d­e­mic air about him and is in fact, like his brother Joao Alberto, an accom­plished uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor. Here is a man who is highly edu­cated, wealthy, pro­fes­sion­ally accom­plished and who could kill me in about three sec­onds if the urge took him. But only peace and kind­ness fl ow from Grand­mas­ter Alvaro.

Alvarro Barreto

Grandmaster Alvaro Barreto in his Rio Dojo Photo Credit Levy Ribiero

He and Murgel laugh and rem­i­nisce about old times in Por­tuguese and soon he takes us into a mat room where we sit in a cir­cle on the floor. As I sit next to him I real­ize that his limbs are long for his height. Although he speaks a lit­tle Eng­lish we find that it is eas­i­est to use Murgel as an inter­preter. I ask him about the early days of BJJ and he men­tions how back then the Gra­cies taught only the elite of Brazil­ian soci­ety, CEOs, gov­ern­ment min­is­ters etc. When they opened the 2nd Gra­cie Acad­emy it was a highly pol­ished oper­a­tion with only pri­vate classes and huge indus­trial wash­ers and dry­ers which ensured that the stu­dents always had a clean, pressed Gi ready for training.

And it was as expen­sive as Hell!” Murgel exclaims, say­ing that when he was a boy he had asked to attend the Gra­cie Acad­emy and his father, a suc­cess­ful Rio Den­tist, had refused, explain­ing that the dues would be equiv­a­lent to 17% of his monthly income. In those days BJJ was for the rich­est mem­bers of the soci­ety, the most elite.

Later, Alvaro offers to walk with us part of the way home. On the way we stop by an exclu­sive club on the beach full of rich men with cig­ars and ser­vants in tuxe­dos, rein­forc­ing in my mind how the BJJ prac­ti­tion­ers of Barreto’s gen­er­a­tion were from a very dif­fer­ent strata of soci­ety than most US fight­ers. Murgel is impressed. “I’ve never been in here,” he says wide-eyed. Alvaro has been a mem­ber for many years. He takes us to a bal­cony over­look­ing the sea. As the waves beat against the sand in the moon­light I dis­cover that Alvaro can speak Eng­lish well when he chooses to.

You must under­stand that Jiu Jitsu is really four things. One: it is a phi­los­o­phy that can be summed up by the state­ment ‘give to win’. For exam­ple if you make strength with your arms then you give a point of lever­age for your oppo­nent to use against you. If you stay loose then you deprive your oppo­nent of that so by appear­ing to be weak you gain strength.”

Sun Tzu,” Murgel points out. “Exactly. Sec­ondly it is a sys­tem of teach­ing. It gives access to proper rules of human behav­ior, self respect, honor, dis­ci­pline, courage and so on. Third it is a therapy.”

I ask him how this is so and he says, “If man is too aggres­sive, it will calm him. Is he is too weak or pas­sive? It will make him stronger. And finally it is a fight­ing sys­tem. Today in MMA peo­ple only con­cen­trate on the last and ignore the first three.” As we walk out of the club I ask him one last ques­tion, “What is the essence of Jiu Jitsu?”

He thinks for a moment, “Jiu Jitsu is not an end. It is a tool for cre­at­ing a bet­ter life.” He pauses again and then says thought­fully “ It is like my North.” As Murgel and I walk back to the hotel I feel lucky have been able to speak on a per­sonal level with such a man.

The Lion

You can’t believe how good this man was,” Murgel con­fides to me as we ring the bell at the apart­ment of the great Joao Alberto Bar­reto. “He fights every Mon­day for a year and beats every oppo­nent, all by knock-out or sub­mis­sion.” In one of Joao’s last fights his oppo­nent refused to tap so he broke his arm. The com­pound frac­ture on live Brazil­ian TV was so shock­ing that it very likely played a role in the can­cel­la­tion of the pro­gram soon after. “He was like the Fedor of his day,” Murgel says, “even better.”

Grand­mas­ter Joao answers the door. Although 72 he still is an impos­ing fig­ure, with even longer arms and legs than his brother, a deep chest and a large head. He ush­ers us into his apart­ment. He has excel­lent old world taste, lots of antiques, oil paint­ings and sculp­ture. The fur­nish­ings are expen­sive but not osten­ta­tious. As we all take our seats in the den his body lan­guage is stiff and I can tell he is a lit­tle uncom­fort­able with me being here. Murgel had men­tioned that he couldn’t remem­ber an instance of Joao Alberto ever receiv­ing a jour­nal­ist into his home and now he has an Amer­i­can reporter in his antique arm­chair! I begin to sweat under his serene but intense glare. His brother makes you feel at ease, this man makes you feel his power. He begins to speak in a deep sten­to­rian voice.

When I was 15 I was a body builder and stu­dent at the mil­i­tary acad­emy. At this time Helio Gra­cie was chal­lenged by a fighter named Caribe. My father was the head of the Deaf and Dumb Acad­emy and the Gra­cies wanted to use the facility’s gym. My father allowed them to do this and after Helio defeated the guy very eas­ily and I was pre­sented by my father to Helio and his brother Car­los they said, ‘Wow this boy is big!’ They invited me the next Mon­day to the Gra­cie Acad­emy… They tested me by hav­ing me fight another boy who had more expe­ri­ence and I beat him.”

The Gra­cies were so impressed with the ath­letic gifts of the young Joao that they soon put an add in the news­pa­per that said, “In three months we chal­lenge any ama­teur fighter in Rio to fight this boy because we are man­u­fac­tur­ing cham­pi­ons at the Gra­cie Acad­emy.” I notice that he’s begin­ning to loosen up.

I always had a tal­ent for fight­ing but I wasn’t a pit bull fighter I was a very tech­ni­cal fighter. I was like a sky­rocket,” he rem­i­nisces fondly. He begins telling us about his amaz­ing run on the Vale Tudo TV show; Heroes of the Ring.

Every Mon­day, Jiu Jitsu fight­ers were matched against fight­ers from other mar­tial arts styles. The rules were very sim­ple. You could not gouge the eyes, fish hook or hit in the groin.” I remark that this seems like an early ver­sion of MMA and he agrees. Though in those days it was called Vale Tudo mean­ing any­thing goes.

Every Mon­day I would fight and every Tues­day they would pay me,” he says slap­ping the palm of his hand and smil­ing. It was dur­ing this period that he had his amaz­ing 40–0 run. I tell him that for a sur­vivor of so many fights he is remark­ably unmarked, at which point he insists I feel his ear, now com­pletely brit­tle and calcified.

Alberto in Combat

Joao Alberto Barreto in combat

I ask him about the famous feud between the Gra­cie fam­ily and the vil­lain­ously named Walde­mar Santana:

Walde­mar San­tana was an employee of the Gra­cie Acad­emy and a stu­dent. He used to take care of the rest rooms,” Joao Alberto sneered. “I taught him many times. He had a prob­lem with Helio and Helio kicked him out of the Acad­emy for fi ght­ing with­out [his] permission.”

In retal­i­a­tion Walde­mar, a black belt, chal­lenged Helio. They had one of the longest fights in his­tory at 3 hours and 40 min­utes. Finally an exhausted Helio was beaten by the much younger and larger San­tana who dis­hon­ored the Gra­cie fam­ily by throw­ing Helio to the mat and kick­ing him in the face, knock­ing him out. As Alberto tells the story, Murgel is on the edge of his seat the drama of the moment still fresh in his mem­ory after 50 years.

The loss had to be avenged so the Gra­cies chal­lenged San­tana again. This time he would go up against Helio’s nephew Carl­son Gracie.

Walde­mar and Carl­son fought two matches. The first was a Jiu Jitsu match which went to a time limit draw. Joao Alberto believes that this was a tac­tic on the part of the Gra­cies to scout San­tana because after that match Carl­son chal­lenged him to a Vale Tudo match where Carl­son, now being famil­iar with his oppo­nent, destroyed Waldemar,

Let me ask you some­thing that I have always won­dered about,” Murgel says. “Why did the Gra­cies choose Carl­son to fight [the rematch] instead of you who was the big­ger fighter with more expe­ri­ence and the bet­ter one in my opin­ion?” “Walde­mar [was asked] to choose between Carl­son and I and he chose Carl­son.” Murgel’s eyes widen in amaze­ment. “This is the first time in 53 years that I have ever heard this.”

Joao Alberto clams up for a moment (the Gra­cies and their stu­dents are famously tight lipped about their inner work­ings.) “When I used to train with Walde­mar I had an eas­ier time of it than when Carl­son trained with him.”

I would have done the same thing Walde­mar did,” Murgel exclaims.

There is a knock on the door and Joao’s brother Alvaro, who we met yes­ter­day, walks in. He has brought his Gi and the two men who have not been pho­tographed together for many years agree to pose wear­ing the solid red belts that iden­tify them as 9th level Grand­mas­ters. Look­ing at the belts I real­ize that there are less than 10 of these in the world.

The Idol

When I returned to the hotel the Concierge hands me a mes­sage. It reads, “Sr. R. Gra­cie. Pl. Call Back.”

Wow, Rick­son Gra­cie!” I think. Rick­son, the most famous of all of the Gra­cies is the cur­rent cham­pion of the fam­ily, tak­ing up the man­tle laid down by his father and Carl­son Gra­cie, his uncle. Unlike them both, Rick­son has never been defeated. His record is 11 and 0 in MMA matches. Leg­end has it that he has been in over 400 street fights, Jiu Jitsu and Vale Tudo matches in his life with­out ever tast­ing defeat. Rick­son is noto­ri­ously reclu­sive and I am sur­prised when he agrees to meet me the next day at a small café in my hotel.

He looks a lit­tle older than I expect but he is still very hand­some and there’s an unmis­tak­able aura about him. A lot of peo­ple doubt the cred­i­bil­ity of Rickson’s self pro­claimed 400 and 0 record but sit­ting across from him I think, “It could be true.” We start by talk­ing about the famous Gra­cie challenge.

In Brazil peo­ple are not inclined to accept some­thing until you prove it,” he says.

We have always had the Gra­cie chal­lenge, not to be bul­lies or the tough­est guys in town but because, to sell our beliefs we had to be will­ing to con­front any­one who dis­be­lieved what we had to sell. And what we sell is effec­tive­ness, effec­tive­ness in fight­ing. The chal­lenge was made to prove the point that we were will­ing to con­front other styles and over the last 50 years or so in 95 per­cent of the cases we have been successful.”

When I men­tion that after talk­ing to the Bar­reto broth­ers I real­ize that the early UFC’s were the off­shoots of his father’s Vale Tudo in the 1950’s he agrees say­ing, “In the begin­ning the UFC was just a plat­form to show the dom­i­nance of Gra­cie Jiu Jitsu against other styles.”

I ask him if he thinks, at least as far as the UFC is con­cerned, that Jiu Jitsu has been a vic­tim its own suc­cess (i.e. so effec­tive that every­body went out and learned it thereby negat­ing its advan­tages). He doesn’t answer the ques­tion directly, but instead he men­tions that the rules were changed by the UFC to make the fights more com­pet­i­tive, he believes at the expense of Jiu Jitsu.


Rickson Gracie Explains BJJ in Rio Photo Credit Levy Ribeiro

Stand­ing the fight­ers up, gloves, reduc­ing the time lim­its, all these lit­tle aspects make style a sec­ondary com­po­nent to the indi­vid­ual. How fast you are, how aggres­sive, how explo­sive… It is very hard for a fight to be decided in the first 3 or 5 min­utes, a major aspect of Jiu Jitsu is defense, defense, defense and then cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a mis­take your oppo­nent makes… When my dad fought he was 130 pounds. He would sur­vive until he caught the guy in a mis­take. How can you do this if there isn’t enough time?” He brings up his brother Royce in his fight against Dan Sev­ern at UFC III, “Up until the moment Sev­ern tapped out every­body thought he was beat­ing Royce.”

I ask him if he was sur­prised when Royce was recently defeated in dev­as­tat­ing fash­ion by Amer­i­can wrestler Matt Hughes.

I was sur­prised because I didn’t rec­og­nize my brother. I don’t know if it was his train­ing or men­tal stress or what­ever but he didn’t look like him­self. He made some very basic mis­takes.” He leaves it at that.

Many peo­ple saw that fight as a defeat for Jiu Jitsu. I ask him if he wor­ries that were he ever to be defeated it would be seen as dis­cred­it­ing the dis­ci­pline. He strongly dis­agrees, “I am basi­cally at the end of my fight­ing career. If I am lucky and they pay me what I want then I might have one more fight or I may just retire… But every time I com­pete I put every­thing at risk and if I were to lose, it would be because I made a human mis­take or maybe got too old… It would be me being defeated not Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu has already been proved. Today on a cer­tain level every­body fight­ing in MMA is a Jiu Jitsu fighter”

What really moti­vates him now is pro­mot­ing Jiu Jitsu as a sport and as a way to improve people’s lives. “Box­ing is a fight­ing art, Karate is a fight­ing art. Jiu Jitsu is a guide, a phi­los­o­phy, a social move­ment.” Rickson’s speech becomes pas­sion­ate. “I am in the busi­ness of build­ing char­ac­ter not of mak­ing fight­ers. I pay the same atten­tion to the shy guy who is get­ting bul­lied as I do to the guy who wants to be a fighter. I will make that guy more con­fi­dent and help him regain his self esteem. This is the price­less aspect of Jiu Jitsu, this is the trea­sure… If some­one says that I am just a great fighter I feel like my legs have been cut off,” he tells me, “What I want to be is a great Master.”

As I say good­bye to Rick­son I real­ize that while I have always thought of him as a famous fighter he is really a teacher, and a sales­man. Joao Alberto, Alvaro and now Rick­son are all sell­ing the idea of the com­plete man. They are walk­ing bill­boards for what Jiu Jitsu can do: Impres­sive and com­plete indi­vid­u­als; intel­li­gent, strik­ing, suc­cess­ful and deadly in com­bat. The Gra­cie Chal­lenge, Heroes of the ring and Vale Tudo, Rickson’s matches and even the orig­i­nal UFC are adver­tise­ments for a world­view, infomer­cials for a mindset.

For these three impres­sive men it is the pro­mul­ga­tion of the art of Jiu Jitsu as a fight­ing sys­tem and as a way to live your life that is most impor­tant. What Royce and Ror­ion Gra­cie did in the first UFC’s was just an exten­sion of what Helio and Joao Alberto had done in the 50’s and 60’s, to con­clu­sively demon­strate Jiu Jitsu as a fight­ing art. The infer­ence being a quin­tes­sen­tially Brazil­ian one; If Jiu Jitsu makes you invin­ci­ble in a fight it can also make you invin­ci­ble in life, the vic­to­ri­ous fighter as metaphor for the vic­to­ri­ous man. If I hadn’t met them in per­son I would be skep­ti­cal. But there’s some­thing about being in this fierce and beau­ti­ful coun­try that makes it eas­ier to believe in supermen.


End Part One