In the final installment of this three part series on the roots of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which first appeared in FIGHT! Magazine, Master Murgel and I meet Anderson Silva, nearly get shot and meet Rousimar Palharaes before anyone had ever heard of him.
As you move south of the equator, so too does the focus of male sexual attention. Unlike the American cultural obsession with large breasts, Brazilian women pride themselves on the tone and shapeliness of their behinds. The ideal of feminine beauty is also different: darker, athletic, and more authentically sexual. Where the US gave the world blonde but bland Jessica Simpson, the primal passion and physical vigor of Shakira, truth-telling hips and all, is more Brazil’s speed. Brazil is home to some of the most beautiful women in the world – they are one of the nation’s greatest natural resources. Brazilians are in general a good-looking people and in crowds, one’s eye is drawn to plain people because they are out of the ordinary and here even the ugly ones are homely in interesting ways.
These thoughts occur to me as I watch the crowd in a posh eatery on the outskirts of Rio called Churrascurra. Stunning models hobnob with soccer players and the county’s business elite. It’s one of those “see and be seen” type establishments. I am here to meet one of the premier power players in Brazilian mixed martial arts: Jorge Guimaraes. Everyone who knows him calls him by his nickname, Joinha. It means shiny jewelry or bling. In addition to being one of the top players in the country, Joinha is also a TV star. He has hosted a weekly TV show called Passing the Guard since the early nineties and his wife is a popular model. The most successful and powerful manager in the country, he now deals with only the very biggest names, but he still keeps his eye on the up and comers, looking for the next big talent. A call from Joinha can change a Brazilian fi ghter’s life.
As we wait for him to arrive, my friend Ricardo Murgel, who has known Joinha for years, tells me a story about the Brazilian Renaissance man. He says they had both happened to be in South Africa handling fighters for a tournament in 2001. The promoter paid for them all to go on a motorized safari on an off day. When they were deep into the bush, the ATV they were crammed into came upon a pack of nine or ten lions shading themselves under some trees. The driver told everyone how dangerous the animals were, and how lions in that very group had eaten a Chinese tourist the year before. Joinha shocked everybody by jumping out of the car and approaching the deadly cats.
“He was trying to get close to take their picture,” Murgel says, shaking his head. The lions paid no attention to Guimaraes until he got too close; at which point the male reared up and let loose a deafening roar. Murgel laughs and says that Joinha covered the distance to the car and jumped through the open window in a single bound, yelling, ”Go, go, go!” as the panicked driver sped off. When they had escaped from the lions, Joinha told everyone, “It’s a good thing you pulled me back in or I would have grabbed that son of a bitch by the beard and shown him the real Mate Leon (rear naked choke).
Soon Joinha, a dark handsome man of around fifty, arrives. He has come straight from the airport after fl ying in from Los Angeles. His eyes are bleary from lack of sleep and he needs a shave, but cuts a dapper figure in jeans and a black T-shirt. Joinha exudes the nonchalant personal magnetism of a man who is used to living with celebrity. He is in constant motion as he smiles and shakes hands with us in while deal making in Portuguese on his cell. He reminds me of Marcello Mastroianni’s character from La Dolce Vita on speed.
Joinha has been involved with MMA since the early days. A childhood friend of the Gracie family, he trained as a teenager with Rickson and the late Rolls Gracie. Later, in 1979, he moved north with Helio’s eldest son Rorion when he set out to bring the gospel of BJJ to the United States. “Rorion was very smart. He knew what he had with Jiu-Jitsu,” Joinha tells me when he finally takes a seat and we start to talk. “He went to the US with only one thing in mind: to make Jiu-Jitsu popular in the US and eventually the whole world, and he did it.”
But it didn’t happen overnight. “It was crazy,” he says. “When I first got there, he used to teach out of our garage. He had one student, a guy named Richard Pressley. The guy had a hamburger place in Hawthorne, and at least two times a week Richard would bring some huge guy who was a Karate champ or whatever.” Joinha smiles, remembering BJJ’s humble beginnings in the US. “So he would always be at his hamburger shop saying, ‘I know this guy [Rorion] who will tie you into a pretzel.’ The guy would go, ‘ No way,’ so Richard would bring him in and they would challenge Rorion. Rorion was always very nice, but…well,” he says, turning both palms up. “You know the ending.” He is referring to how Rorion dominated the clueless tough guys and karatekas of southern California with his arsenal of Jiu– Jitsu techniques, which at that time was unknown in the United States.
“You might find this surprising,” Joinha says as he nods, acknowledging someone he knows across the room, “but Rorion didn’t care about the money or anything … he just wanted to prove that Jiu-Jitsu was the best. The proof of this is when he created the UFC just to promote to Jiu-Jitsu.” Joinha is referring to the pre-Zuffa UFC Rorion started. In those days, the shows were tournaments and featured the style vs. style format, which was designed to display Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s dominance over other fighting styles. Rorion’s idea worked, and soon everybody knew that to survive in a real fight you had to know how to handle yourself on the ground. Gracie Jiu– Jitsu was the best way to do that. Although Rorion eventually sold the UFC, he had succeeded in vindicating the fi ghting style his father, the great Helio Gracie, had created fi fty years before.
I ask him why Brazil still seems to produce so many top-flight fighters. “Over here it’s a struggle,” he says. “You have great fighters like this guy Luis Pizzoro.” Pizzoro is an upcoming fighter from the Luta Livre gym RFT. “He has great potential, but he’s a delivery boy.” He shakes his head at how a top talent has to hold down a menial job in order to make ends meet. “It’s a lot easier when you are training in a first world country. You’ve got to work so much harder over here. You have guys over here trying to be fighters that get one meal a day. How can you train like that?” I remember Murgel telling me about a great prospect he trained who ended up being a brick mason in Rio. He could not support his family on his fight purses, and couldn’t get an international promoter to take a chance on him.
“If you are promoting a small show and you’re looking at a Brazilian fighter and an American one,” Joinha explains, “with the Brazilian one you’ve got to fl y him over, put him up in a hotel, deal with his visa… it’s easier just to get an American.” Murgel adds, “It also has to do with the struggle for life,” and Joinha nods in agreement. “Is this why it is so hard for them to succeed?” I ask. His answer surprises me. “No, it makes it easier. Because to come through some of the difficult circumstances, you have to be so mentally strong that things like training and fighting, well…they’re easy.”
“Why is there so much emphasis on the teams over here, and so much heat between them?” I ask, referring to the constant bickering and feuding that seems to take place between rival schools in Brazil. “It’s a different culture over here,” Joinha tells me. “Over here, if you cheer for the Lakers, you can’t turn around and cheer for the Celtics later. They are like rivals. It started with Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre.“
“You don’t want to be a creonte,” says Murgel. “Ahhh, creonte.” Joinha smiles, recognizing a word that Carlson Gracie popularized to describe Brazilian fighters that switch teams. It is a grievous insult. Suddenly, there is a huge commotion at the front of the restaurant. Joinha’s star client Anderson Silva appears. He sees us, and in a display of physical grace and amazing dexterity, he delights the crowd by doing an impromptu soft shoe across the room. Many of the diners cheer and clap. The man knows how to make an entrance. Joinha stands up and gives his star fighter a big hug before introducing Murgel and me. This is the first time that I have met Anderson, and he looks bigger that I expected.
Murgel has known Anderson since childhood, and they chat amiably. Since Anderson doesn’t speak English and my Portuguese is nonexistent we just smile and nod at each other. The champ makes his way to the buffet in the middle of the restaurant. He returns to take a seat by Joinha, his plate heaped with pasta and bread.
“He has to stuff himself to make 205,” Joinha says as he slaps Silva playfully on the back. Anderson is a few weeks away from his debut as a light heavyweight, and has to put on about twenty pounds. Anderson has to eat quickly because he keeps getting interrupted by fans. He makes time for everyone who comes up to him, posing for pictures, signing autographs, and really engaging the people. He has limitless charisma.
While Anderson alternates between greeting fans and packing carbs, I ask about his next opponent, James Irving. “Irving is big, hits really hard, and has fast hands. Don’t you think it’s a dangerous fight?” “No way man,” Joinha says, expressing perfect confidence in his man. “Anderson is going to kill this guy.” I catch Anderson looking up at me from his plate of pasta with a sly smile. I think he understands more English than he lets on.
The Last Man Standing
Unlike most big cities in the US, where the upper and lower class neighborhoods are separate, in Rio they merge unexpectedly. You can be in the equivalent of the Upper East Side in Manhattan, then turn a corner and be in an urban hellhole like Cabrini Green in Chicago. Although the gym of the legendary Brazilian Top Team is in an office plaza of a major bank, we have to park in a back alley that is sketchy to say the least. The littered street teeming with a crowd of surly-looking people, doesn’t seem like a good place to park a car, but Cido, my guide, says that because of the proximity to BTT our car will be all right. When we get out of the car, I have an idea that almost leads to disaster.
“Levy, get some pictures. It will be good for atmosphere,” I tell my intrepid photographer, four-foot tall dynamo Levy Ribeiro. Like a good soldier, Levy immediately starts snapping pictures. There is an ominous group of men leaning against a graffiti-covered wall about fifty yards away. As soon as they see Levy with his camera, they start angrily gesturing at us, glaring and shouting. Levy turns to me, and in his broken English says, “I go ask permission…”
“Are you crazy?” Murgel says. “If they think he is taking pictures for the police, they will shoot him and probably us too.” Murgel looks genuinely concerned, and for the first time, the usually cool Cido looks shaken. Standing in the middle of the street, we are very exposed. I have visions of my party being cut down in a hail of gunfire like the shootouts in the movie City of God. I motion for Levy to come back and forget about it, but it’s too late. He is now in an animated discussion. I see them all pointing, gesturing violently at us. This doesn’t look good. Suddenly, Levy turns and starts coming back towards us with one of the men (the meanest looking one) following him.
“This is leader of community,” Levy says slowly, using what I take to be a polite euphemism for gang member. “I tell him you…” he searches for the correct word in English “…journalist.” “That’s right, I am.” I smile, faking calm and trying to emote the sort of confidence and authority such situations call for. The leader of the community is unimpressed. “Show him the magazine,” Murgel slaps my arm angrily. I produce a copy from my laptop case and hand it to the guy. He looks at it, then back to me scowling. “Dan Henderson,” he growls, referring to the fighter on the cover, “Anderson fucked him up.”
“He sure did!” I exclaim. Just like that, disaster is averted. Thanks Dan! The community leader insists on walking with us to the steep staircase that leads to the front door of BTT, flipping through the magazine the whole time and talking to Levy.
When we enter BTT’s gym, the first person I see in is UFC up and comer Thiago Silva. I immediately give him an exaggerated glare and the thumb throat cut he always does after he wins. He smiles and nods his head. He’s a good sport – he probably gets that ten times a day.
Thiago is not a member of BTT, but has come to improve his ground skills. He is about to roll with Milton Vieira, a Jiu-Jitsu specialist who has developed hundreds of variations on the arm triangle. Thiago dwarfs Milton, but once they start to roll, Milton schools big Thiago and even taps him out several times. Welcome to Rio.
One of the founders of BTT, Murilo Bustamante, walks trough the door. “Hey Murilo,” Murgel calls to him, and he leaps up to introduce me. Murilo cuts his eyes to us but does not move his head. Every move he makes is precise and slow, unconcerned. As we approach him, I smile broadly but his face remains expressionless. “This is my friend, he is here doing a story about Brazil for an American magazine,” Murgel says. I extend my hand and Murilo gives me the fi sh and eyes me warily. He sizes me up for a moment, and with a precise nod of his curiously oblong head, he motions to two chairs by a table at the front of the gym. We go over and take our seats. When he finally speaks, it is in a faint rasp reminiscent of Don Corleone’s throttled delivery in The Godfather.
I immediately like him. I realize that he isn’t rude; he just is an unhurried and deliberate individual. In conversation, he listens carefully to what is said, digests it, and weighs his response before speaking. I have often wished that I could be disciplined enough to be so thoughtful in my speech, but not one man in a thousand is.
I ask him why he has elected to remain in Brazil when the rest of BTT’s founding members and so many top Brazilian fighters have made the trek north to the States to cash in on the exploding MMA market. “I’m a Brazilian, so I live in Brazil,” he says simply. “I’ll never move because I love my country.” The way he says it makes it seem simple and honorable. ”Of course, the business here compared with the States is nothing, but I can survive here.”
“Why is the MMA business less in Brazil, if the sport was born here?” I ask. He thinks for a while, and then gives me a deft analysis. “It has to do with the culture of pay per view. Brazilians aren’t going to pay to watch something on TV. In the States, people pay to watch so the money is better.” He mentions that whenever fights are on free TV they are very popular. UFC heavyweight champ Rodrigo Nogueira is becoming huge in his home country because his come-from-behind victory over Tim Sylvia was shown on free TV in Brazil.
I ask him how someone becomes a member of Brazilian Top Team. “Can someone just walk in the door?” I ask. He say every once in a while it happens, and he tells me y about a fi ghter who he thinks will be the future face of Brazilian Top Team and maybe even Brazilian MMA, Rosimar “Toquinho” Palhares.
“Sometimes a fighter will just walk through the door, Rosimar was like that. I was training every day for the 2005 PRIDE Grand Prix. I wasn’t teaching, just training. Every day, I saw him in the academy. I kept looking for who brought him or knew him, but nobody did. I would be tired from training, and I would catch him looking at me, and I would say to myself, fuck who is this guy? I didn’t know that he didn’t have any money and was sleeping in the streets. It was his dream to come here and be part of the team. I didn’t know because he didn’t talk – he was so shy. The last day, he prayed to God and said if he couldn’t talk to me he would go back home, forget MMA, and go back to working in the sugarcane fields. That day, I had hurt my back in training so I was resting. I sat down to watch my students train, and I noticed that this same guy was looking at me again, so I asked him, ‘May I help you?’ and he nearly jumped over the mat. ‘Yes sir, it is my dream to make the team.’ I explained to him that he should come to the next class and we’d test him. But the next class was Monday, and he didn’t have enough money to stay the weekend. I could see he was so sad, so I gave him a chance on the spot, and I found he was a big talent. It’s funny, because I think this guy will become a UFC champion really fast.“
I have heard a lot about Toquinho since I have been in Brazil. Joinha raved about him, and Murgel is convinced that he is going to be the next great fi ghter from Brazil. World famous grappler Daryl Gholar, who is helping BTT with takedown defense, told me that Toquinho is the type of athlete that comes along once in a lifetime.
I have seen his fights, and he is incredibly compact and explosive, like a smaller, more technically skilled Brock Lesnar. Toquinho recently made his debut in the UFC where dominated to usually durable Ivan Salaverry submitting him in less than three minutes into in the fi rst round and retiring him in the process. Toquinho is notorious for his brutal foot locks and often snaps his opponent’s ankles before they have the chance to tap. When I meet Toquinho a little later, I find that he belies his fearsome reputation by being exceedingly humble and shy. Toquinho means, tree stump, and it suits him. He is an incredibly stout individual, nearly as wide as he is tall. He slouches his shoulders; his posture makes him seem almost sheepish. The only thing he insists on being photographed with is a small wooden cross he always carries. As Toquinho speaks no English, Murgel translates. The old man has trained fighters all his life and looks at Toquinho with the unbridled excitement of a horse trainer getting his first look at Secretariat.
I ask him about the story Murilo told us, and he smiles. He says his brother sold many of his personal possessions raise the money for Toquinho to come here, but when he finally made it to the gym nobody paid attention to him. Knowing the first impression Murilo makes, I can see how Toquinho would have been hesitant to speak to him. I ask him if it took a lot of faith to come. He says that he doesn’t have faith in himself, but that he has faith in God. With God, he knows that he can do anything.
He tells us about working since he was seven years old, from five in the morning until seven at night. He harvested sugarcane or coffee or herded cattle, depending on the season. I notice a jagged scar on his chest, which he says is from an accident with some farm machinery as a small boy. It’s hard for me to imagine how difficult it must have been being a child in such circumstances.
He echoes a sentiment I heard from some of the other Brazilian fighters I have met, thanking God for giving him the opportunity to earn the chance for a better life for his family through MMA. It is his dream to buy a house for his mother. It’s rumored that he doesn’t have any tattoos because mother forbade it.
I discover that he is living in a tenement in the alley behind the gym, the same place where we nearly meet our doom. When he finds out about us wanting a picture, he suggests we get one of him in front of his home. I think it’s a bad idea after our last narrow escape, but before I know it , he and Levy go out the door. I am tempted to stay inside and let them get the shot (or get shot) by themselves, but I feel a tinge of shame at having humored such a timid thought. When I get back to the alley, I find to my relief that the menacing crowd from before has melted away and the street is empty except for Toquinho and Levy.