Today’s post is not about carpentry or furniture, per se, but about a person I met a few years ago who had quite an impact upon my life. His name is Rickson Gracie, a Brazillian Jū-Jutsu master whom I trained with in Los Angeles on a couple of occasions.
To talk about Rickson, I need to explain a bit about his art, which relates to jūdō. Jūdō developed in Japan in the late 1800’s, a synthesis of two ju-jutsu schools created by a fellow named Jigoro Kano. In the early years, it was not referred to consistently as ‘Jūdō‘ but as often as not as ‘Kano Jū-Jutsu‘. The word ‘jū-jutsu‘ is often rendered in English in a number of ways, like ‘jiu-jitsu‘ or ‘jujitsu‘. The correct transliteration is jū-jutsu; it is written in Japanese as 柔術. The first character, read with a long ‘u’ sound, means ‘soft’, and is also read as ‘yawara‘, which is another name in fact for jū-jutsu. The second character, ‘術’ means ‘technique’, thus jū-jutsu means ‘soft technique’. Jūdō means “the way of soft (technique)”
The strategy or ideal in jū-jutsu is that an adversary’s push is not met with a push-back but rather a pull. The opponent pulls you, and you push – the intent is to use the opponent’s strength, add to it so as to upset his balance, and once his balance is upset it becomes easier to throw them down. Once thrown to the floor, the opponent may be pinned, or strangled, or be placed into a joint-lock. The techniques are accomplished by subtle applications of leverage and position, not by brute force. This art stems from feudal period combat techniques, a time of endless warfare in Japan. These grappling moves were used by foot soldiers after they had managed to grab an enemy, by the armor, and take them to the ground, where they would be killed or tied up, depending upon their value. Judo, in its early form as Kano Jū-jutsu was an art primarily concerned with ground grappling.
Kano set out to popularize the art, soon extending his aims to that of world-wide popularization, eventually gaining Olympic recognition for the art. In this process of popularizing, the emphasis of the art was changed to make it more ‘spectator friendly’ – which means, by way of rule changes, to emphasize the throwing aspect over the ground grappling aspect, and today the main focus of Jūdō is as a sporting competition with 90% of the emphasis being upon throwing technique, as that is how you win matches. Throws are dramatic and obvious to the spectator, whereas ground-grappling, like watching a chess match, requires intimate knowledge to understand. Many casual spectators become quickly bored with grappling if they cannot discern something ‘going on’ (though much may in fact be happening of a subtle nature).
In the early days, when Jūdō was more focused towards ground grappling, Kano sent out some of his top students as emissaries to the world, their aim being to spread and popularize the art. One of these was Kōsei Maeda, who toured the US in the early 1900’s. He traveled the country giving demonstrations, even to the Roosevelt Whitehouse, and offering ‘catch-as-catch-can’ challenge matches, which are precursors to today’s no-holds barred martial art spectacles on the cable channels.
Maeda, perhaps due to his skill at strangling techniques, gained the stage name of ‘Count Coma’ and eventually ended up a few years later down in Brazil. There he was shown some kindnesses by a wealthy citizen named Gastao Gracie, and in return Maeda offered to teach his sons Jū-jutsu. The jū-jutsu Maeda taught was strongly based in grappling, along with techniques he had picked up or perfected through his many challenge matches. One of the Gracie children, Helio Gracie, was a slender and sickly child who could not participate in the jū-jutsu classes but was very interested all the same and often attended just to watch. A few years later, his older brother had become good enough at jū-jutsu to start teaching classes, and Helio also watched those. One day, the student showed up for his brother’s class, but Helio’s brother was nowhere to be found – so Helio offered to take his place. Despite his complete lack of practical mat experience, Helio has apparently absorbed enough by his years of watching intently that he was actually able to teach the student quite effectively. In fact, after the class, the student stated that he preferred Helio’s teaching, and this is how Helio started doing jū-jutsu.
The jū-jutsu that Maeda had taught required more strength and power than Helio could muster, so he set about finding ways of making the techniques work for his slender frame of about 135 lbs. Soon enough, he also began to involve himself in challenge matches, just as Maeda had done. Over time, largely due to Helio’s innovations out of his ‘weakness’, the jū-jutsu that Maeda had taught became modified in a lot of subtle ways – this art today is known as Gracie ‘Jiu-Jitsu’.
Helio had, I believe, 9 sons, all of whom were schooled in Gracie jū-jutsu from about the time they were able to walk. One of these sons, Rorion (in the Gracie family tradition, son’s names, each unique, begin with ‘R’ but are pronounced as if they begin with an ‘H’) came to Los Angeles and began to teach and do challenge matches. In time, some of his brothers came up from Rio to join him, including my eventual teacher, Rickson. In the early years, the Gracies in LA had no school – they taught small classes out of their garages, which had ‘mats’ consisting of multiple layers of old carpet.
I spent virtually all of my 20’s studying jū-jutsu, along with a smattering with other martial arts. I had spent a year as a 14 year-old doing judo, and this is how my interest for both martial arts and Asian culture in general was first sparked. One art I practiced for a long while was a Korean art called Hapkido, which had technical roots in a school of Japanese jū-jutsu called Daitō-ryu Aiki-Jūjutsu. After 6 years of practice I had risen to a high level in the club in which I trained, and was the teacher for the art at the university I attended, having some 40 students in the club at one point. I thought I was hot stuff. People bowed to me, people thought I was a ‘dangerous weapon’, and I believed it too.
One day another instructor brought in a video he had obtained, called ‘The Gracie Challenge’ or something like that. It showed the Gracies challenging fighters of various other schools, along with wrestlers, street brawlers and so forth, and defeating them quite convincingly. I was intrigued. I told the manager of the club that if the club would split the expenses with me, I would go down to LA and take an intensive 1-week training, then come back and share what I had learned with the other students. They agreed, and a month or so later I was on the plane.
When I arrived I checked myself in to a youth hostel out near a Korean Memorial in South LA, and contacted Rorion by phone. He said that he would be unable to teach me, but that he would send his brother Rickson instead. I was a little disappointed not to be trained by the main guy, not knowing then that Rickson is considered the family champion, the most technically adept practitioner. Anyway, Rickson picked me up in his little beater car and took me to his house.
Thus began my first week with Rickson Gracie. We trained 8 hours a day together, for 5 days, just me and him, and it cost $150/hour. Rickson picked me up in the morning and dropped me off after class, and fed me lunch. It proved to be well worth the money.
I’ll never forget the first time on the mat. I was a bit nervous, as my impression of the Gracies was that they were a bunch of bad-asses – I thought it likely that I might in fact be injured in the process of trying to learn from them, and in fact was prepared for that eventuality. Rickson snugged up his belt and casually sauntered up to me and grabbed my arms and shoulders, gently squeezing here and there, kind of sizing me up to see how much meat I had on my bones. I stood there wondering what was going to happen. Then he said, in a thick Portuguese accent, “okay, you’re a tough guy and you’ve been training a while, so why don’t you just come at me with whatever technique you want and we’ll just see how it goes“. Rickson calls all of his student’s ‘tough guys’, but believe me, when you ‘roll’ with him it is very quicky apparent who the tough guy is – not me!
So I went at him with some moves. Well, it was more like a move – as soon as I extended a limb in his direction with a punch or kick, etc, he trapped the limb, smothered my attack, then threw me, gently, to the floor. An instant later I found myself in an excruciating arm lock or choke, slapping the mat with my free hand to surrender. “Try again” he said. And I did, again and again, each time the same result. Clearly, I had no game whatsoever. Six years of training and I could do nothing against Rickson. At first, it was quite depressing.
Rickson had a unique way of teaching I had never experienced before. Most martial art schools are quasi-militaristic, with someone at the front barking out commands, the students in rows obediently performing on their moves on cue. In most clubs, rank is all-important, and you are expected to show deference at all times to your seniors, everyone bow to each other before engaging in practice, people bow to the dojo (training place) when entering or leaving etc. In most clubs, it is not uncommon to find senior practitioners be a little sadistic at times to newcomers – and hazing is not unknown. All this adversity is supposed to make you tougher, though I think now it just becomes a self-perpetuating pattern and completely unnecessary to any learning process. Some people wear their hazing scars like a badge of honor, and often seek the next opportunity to do the same to someone else.
There’s a cartoon I remember where a General yells at the Sargent, the Sargent takes it out on a Private; the Private, having no one lower than himself to take it out on, kicks a dog, and then the dog runs and bites the General.
Rickson, a veteran of some 400 fights without a loss, a guy with a scar of teethmarks on his neck from a guy who bit him in a fight, well, I thought he was going to be severe. Instead he was one of the kindest and nicest people I had ever met. I was completely taken aback. There was no bowing or trappings of ceremony. Instead of Rickson throwing me around like a rag doll to ‘show’ me the technique, instead I learned by throwing him. He treated the student with great respect instead of demanding great respect from the student. Instead of standing in rows and marching in unison, Rickson would teach me using a set of sequential ‘experiences’: he’d put me in a given position, ask me to try and escape, and if I couldn’t, he’d show me a way how to escape. We’d practice that a few times, then he would put me in a slightly different position which I wouldn’t know how to get out of. Then he’d show me the way out of that one, and on and on it would go, in a seamless set of techniques that grow one upon the other – a lot like a chess match in fact, every move having it’s consequence and it’s counter. There were no forms to practice – it was all directly experiential. As you learned more techniques, Rickson would give less and less of a time window in which to do them- this forced me to stop thinking about the technique and simply learn to respond with my body in the technique. At least once in a while anyway.
It was a revolution for me! Here’s a picture of me with Rickson out on the street across from his garage:
While we were training, Rickson would tell me stories of various fights and situations he had been in – it was really incredible to hear. I have trained with a lot of teachers in jū-jutsu both before and after Rickson, but he is the one who, without doubt, showed me most clearly what the ‘jū‘ of jū-jutsu really meant in its truest essence. Grappling with Rickson was like struggling with quicksand – each move you made turned quickly into the miss-step that led to your arm getting into a lock, or you found yourself strangled. The really convincing thing too was that Rickson would never defeat me by being faster, stronger, or by suddenly doing some technique I’d never seen – he simply does the basics perfectly and beats you with stuff of which you’re already well-familiar. On occasion, he would tell me ahead of time what he was going to do – “I’m going to get your left leg in a knee lock” – and then we would grapple and there really wasn’t anything I could do about it even with the foreknowledge of what he was after – inevitably, usually within 30 seconds, he would have me in that knee lock sure enough. Rickson could lie on the mat, tuck both his hands into his belt then invite me to try and choke him out. Even with both hands tied, incredibly, there was nothing I could do to him. That may seem hard to believe, but he knows exactly how to move his body so simply can’t get into a position to apply your technique.
Once, after three days of training, Rickson said he had another student coming in after our session was done, and if I didn’t mind hanging out for that class, he would afterwards be able to give me a ride back to the hostel. At the appointed time, in walks his student, a hulking 205lb fellow who happened to be a highly-ranked collegiate wrestler. Watching them grapple though, it was the exact same scene as I had experienced – a move here, then there, and the wrestler was tapping out, Rickson moving effortlessly despite the wrestler’s significant advantage in weight and strength. They went at it again and again, and the wrestler was soon exhausted while Rickson looked like he had been doing little more than pick flowers.
About half-way through, Rickson had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom, and said, “hey Chris, take my place.”
Nervously, I got into some grappling with the wrestler, and really I was no match for him at all. He choked me in round one, then he arm-locked me. On our third go-round however, I did a move and managed to obtain a position where I had him pinned to the mat. And he couldn’t get out! I didn’t know know how to finish from the position I was in to move to a choke or joint lock, but it was exhilarating to find I had already learned a technique which the much more powerful and skilled grappler could not get out of. That was a transcendental moment for me. I felt a core solidity I had never experienced before. After the previous shattering of the ‘delusion of my grandeur’, now I had at least one technique that I could feel grounded in.
A few years later I returned for another week of private day-long classes with Rickson. This time we trained in a private home dojo of one of Chuck Norris’s top students. It was also an amazing time in my life. In the two weeks of training with Rickson I got to learn a large number of techniques, the vast majority of which have passed from memory, but I will never forget the experience and what it taught me. to have gone there thinking I was a ‘skilled’ practitioner of jū-jutsu and then to find I had nothing really, was a wonderful shattering of illusion and ego that, though it was initially depressing, was in the end a godsend, a tremendous learning experience and opening up, that in time became a source of strength for me. To find someone like Rickson who could show me the pure essence of the art I was studying, the real ‘soft technique’, and who could do so without all the overlay of bowing, ceremony, enforced hierarchy, intimidation, ego, cults of personality, and the rest that you find in most martial art schools was absolutely like a breath of fresh air for me. I didn’t respect Rickson because of some belt rank, I respected him as a superb martial artist who embodied the pure essence of a warrior. He was a nice guy who spent no time trying to put on airs of being a ‘bad hombre’ like a lot of martial artists – Rickson wasn’t insecure about his skills, he knew what he could do, and had the battle scars from numerous real-life fights to give him that security. Rickson was authentic, not someone spending time cultivating an image. He seems to me to be a modern day embodiment of the iconoclastic character Musashi, the famous swordsman of Japan who fought unconventionally with two swords, and learned by experience and putting himself on the line.
Since that time I trained with Rickson, I have generally been wary of people and schools who are trying too hard to cultivate a ‘mystique’, who unduly ‘put on airs’, or who insist that there is only one way to do X, and that if I don’t do it that exact way, I’m not a ‘purist’, ‘serious’, ‘honest’, ‘classical’ or in some way don’t apparently measure up. I figure that if I’m doing it ‘all wrong’ now, then sooner or later, continued ‘blundering’ in that direction on my part will show me the way of my errors. Wood is now the teacher for me, and the truth is, er, plane to see.
Rickson proved to me the truth of the phrase by Robert Musil,
“One does what one is, one becomes what one does“
Rickson began his training at the age of 2, and still teaches today in his 50’s. He is what he does – a martial artist of the highest caliber who lives and breathes the values of the warrior path. Though I do not follow the path of martial arts any more myself, I am forever grateful to Rickson for shattering that veil of illusion that I had been laboring under for the years prior to meeting him, and for showing me the depth of his art, though admittedly, in truth I little understand it. I remain wary of falling into traps of similar ‘delusions of grandeur’ in my path as a carpenter, though I am sure I fall short of that ideal at times. If so, I very much welcome the next shattering, the next lifting of that veil.