Meeting Anderson Silva and a Close Shave with Rousimar

 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.

Beau­ti­ful People

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.

Joinha and Anderson

Anderson Silva and Jorge “Joinha” Guimaraes Photo by Levy Ribiero

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.


Murilo Bustamante Photo by Levy Ribiero


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.

Toquinho with Cross

Rousimar “Toquinho” Palharaes photo by Levy Ribiero


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.


Toquinho in slum 72dpiu

Toquinho outside BTT in Rio. Photo by Levy Ribiero

The End