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Hélio Gracie's Big Concern

This excerpt from Richard Bresler's memoir delves into a particular concern that shaped Helio Gracie's approach to Jiu-Jitsu.
Hélio Gracie's Big Concern

by JJB Admin

2 years ago

The following is excerpted and compiled from Richard Bresler's memoir Worth Defending: How Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Saved My Life, now out in its second edition.

"My focus has always been on the self-defense aspect of Jiu-Jitsu, on the fundamentals. It's always been my specialty as a teacher. I have students who start with me and then they fall in love with the sport of Jiu-Jitsu, or they want to pursue MMA, and they go find someplace to train where they can focus on that. And that's fine. That's what they should do. I don't pretend that I'm going to be everything for everyone. The people who come to me are going to get solid fundamentals that are going to serve them in whatever focus they pursue. As long as you have a good start to Jiu-Jitsu, everything else is going to be much easier.

"When I was coming up, the emphasis was always on the reality of the situation. Rorion wanted people to understand what it would be like in the street. He wasn't saying, "Do this guard and this guard and this guard." He said, "When you get mounted, when you get in a headlock, when you get mounted on top of the guy…" It was the basics. It was different than a lot of what you see in Jiu-Jitsu today. Even the fundamentals were different, because there was this absolute focus on the reality of a street fight. Nowadays you might have a guy tell you, "When you're mounted on the guy, and he has you in a headlock, go for the armlock. Make a frame, break the grip, take the arm." Rorion would have us in that situation and he'd tell us, "Maintain the mount. Keep your base." He would shake you up, try to throw you off. You'd go to make the frame on the neck and he'd try to roll you off. It was a lot of things like that, things that an untrained guy in the street might do and probably would do.

"With so many people today the mentality is to go for the submission all the time. It's one thing in a Jiu-Jitsu match or even an MMA match, where the guy's defenses are somewhat predictable. You at least know that he's probably going to do some kind of technique to try to deal with whatever you're doing. It's different with an untrained guy. You mount on an untrained guy in the street and he's going to go crazy. Think about a big, strong white belt on his first day of class. What's it like rolling with him? You probably catch him, but up until that point it's kind of crazy, kind of wild and unpredictable. It's different from rolling with a blue belt who may be good and fast but who's mostly doing moves that are recognizable as Jiu-Jitsu. But the thing is, the average guy you fight out in the street is going to be a lot more like that white belt. When you get mounted on a guy like that, you can't rush into things. You have to focus on weathering the storm. You have to focus on your base. The assumption is that this guy is going to keep fighting you right up to the bitter end: not with a counter or a defense, but by going crazy. He's going to try to wrench his way out any way that he can. That's what you have to manage with an untrained guy. That's what it's really like. And I don't know how many guys out there these days are talking about it in those terms. It doesn't seem to be the norm. Most places you go people are just showing moves. They're showing Jiu-Jitsu, but they're not showing that kind of Jiu-Jitsu. But that's how it was when I was learning from Rorion, and that's how I still teach.

"I do understand, to some extent, guys wanting to go out and be aggressive and have this assertive, imposing style. I remember back when I was a blue belt, my sister was dating this guy who'd been a wrestler back in high school. I was telling him about Jiu-Jitsu and he was interested, but he was also pretty confident of his wrestling. He was a few years younger than my sister, which made him maybe six years younger than me, and on top of that he probably outweighed me by about 35 or 40 pounds. So finally he'd had enough of me talking and he said, "OK, you think Jiu-Jitsu is so good? Let's see." So we went down to the garage and we started rolling. And right away he started trying do things to make it where I couldn't do the moves. Everything I tried to do he just clamped down, and I really couldn't do much. I couldn't finish this guy, and afterwards I was really frustrated and really disappointed in myself. Here I'd watched Royce and Rickson and Rorion just dominate and submit all of these guys, and I thought that was how I needed to be. And this despite the fact that Rorion was telling me, "Jiu-Jitsu is about self-defense. For a small guy to survive against a big guy is already a victory." He was saying these things to me all the time, but it took me a while to really appreciate what he was telling me. It took me a while to really understand the value of just being able to defend myself. Here I was in my mid-thirties, not an athletic bone in my body, 145 pounds soaking wet, going up against a former high-school wrestler in his early to mid-twenties who's got 40 pounds on me and he can't do anything to me. To be on the wrestling team you had to be quite an athlete, and even if he wasn't that sharp by the time we rolled he was still a hell of a lot closer to high school than I was. And I was only a blue belt, then. Imagine if I hadn't known anything, how utterly mauled I would have been. So it was things like that that made me start to understand what this art is about. It made me start to recognize and appreciate the fact that, because of what I knew, these guys couldn't do anything to me. Because of what I knew, I could defend myself.

"One of the things that Rorion used to say was, "You don't need Jiu-Jitsu if your opponents are small." Meaning that you don't need Jiu-Jitsu if you can overpower somebody—you need Jiu-Jitsu when the guy can overpower you. And I think that's one of the things that people forget, nowadays. Nowadays everybody is so focused on the competitions, where most of the time you're fighting somebody who's your same size and weight. Guys are learning a style of Jiu-Jitsu that starts from the assumption that their opponent is going to be right around their same size. And the thing about that is that you can be effective pitting your strength against their strength when the person is your same size. Doing a Kimura against someone your size or smaller, maybe you can get away with just muscling the arm. But it's different when the person is bigger that you. You can't muscle somebody who's bigger. And that's what I focus on. If you come to my class, I'm going to teach you how to defend yourself and be effective against that bigger person.

"It's tough, though. Guys see the stuff on The Ultimate Fighter or the UFC and they come in all fired up about this move or that move. "Oh yeah, I want to do this, I want to choke this guy out, and I want to finish him like this and blah blah blah." It's something I deal with constantly. And it's not their fault. These young guys come in the door with a lot of miseducation about what a fight looks like and what's going to be effective, and the ironic thing is that it's from the UFC. It's because of the very thing that Rorion created to show the world why his family's style of Jiu-Jitsu—this style with its defensive mentality and its focus on timing and leverage and position—was so important for the smaller person. Now it's become the justification for a lot of misguided beliefs. It's become the justification for guys wanting to train striking and flashy kicks and explosive takedowns. People forget that modern MMA has weight classes and time limits and the guys are wearing gloves. Take those things away and you'll realize very quickly why the art is the way it is.

"I feel like the competition aspects—MMA and the sport Jiu-Jitsu movement—have really confused things. They've really confused what people teach, because a lot of it is based around a competitor's presumed attributes. A competitor—the kind of person who becomes a competitor—is almost certain to be an athlete. He or she is almost certain to be someone who's got some innate athletic ability. Apart from that, they expect that they're going to be in peak physical condition in the tournament, when they're going to be executing these moves. That's the criteria that decides what moves get taught: whether an athlete in peak condition can perform these moves effectively against someone his or her own size. Which is fine—but it isn't most people, and it isn't the context that most people are interested in or concerned about. Rorion used to say that when a person walks into a Jiu-Jitsu school they're never walking in thinking, I wonder if these guys can teach me to be a world champion. The first thing on the average person's mind when they walk into a martial arts school is self-defense. They're walking in because they want to learn how to defend themselves in a worst-case scenario out in the world. That's most people's underlying insecurity. Certainly there are guys who get involved in Jiu-Jitsu thinking that one day they'd like to be a world champion—there are wrestlers who come in thinking that they'd like to incorporate Jiu-Jitsu with their wrestling and become a world-class Jiu-Jitsu player—and probably those guys don't feel as much insecurity about being able to defend themselves. But that's not your average guy. That's not the mentality of the average person. And that's the problem with the way that a lot of Jiu-Jitsu has gone. A lot of Jiu-Jitsu schools are oriented around that guy, that wrestler, that competitor, whoever he is.

"And then you hear these arguments people want to have about how your average competitor would win in a street fight anyway, even if they don't know the self-defense curriculum, and how all of the stuff the old-school guys are saying about there not being enough emphasis on the self-defense is wrong and outdated and overblown. And the thing is, that's all beside the point. Would the average competitor win in a street fight? Sure. Probably. Can the average competitor get out of a headlock? I'm sure they can. Whether they have perfect technique or not, I'm sure the average competitor could work their way out of a headlock. And I'm sure the average competitor, being strong and tough and well-conditioned, could do it without hurting themselves in the process, even if it takes some wriggling and some wrenching and some straining. But what if we're not talking about a top-level competitor? What if we're not even talking about a part-time, local-level competitor? What if we're just talking about the average guy that trains at a sport BJJ school? He's not especially tough, he doesn't have a ton of grit, he's not a highly-conditioned athlete in competition shape: he's just a guy who wants to learn a martial art in case something ever happens to him out in the world. He's not at the sport BJJ school because he wants to learn sport BJJ, it's just the school that's closest to where he lives or works. Or it's the only school in his town. The question is: Is that guy learning how to get out of a headlock? Is anybody showing him? Does anybody teaching at that school even know what to tell him? That's the question, and that's the thing that was always Hélio Gracie's big concern. Sure, if you're a great athlete and you want to do competitions then you should do competitions, but Jiu-Jitsu almost isn't for those guys. It's really for the guys who would never do a competition, who are afraid of what would happen if they ever got in a fight, because they're the ones who need something to make them feel confident, to make them feel like they don't have to be afraid. They're the ones who Jiu-Jitsu is really for. And when the art starts to become entirely about the competitions and the competitors, it loses that. It stops providing the service it was intended to provide to those who it was intended to provide it for.

"And that's the thing. If I was coming up now, I don't know that I would feel compelled to learn the art based on what I see today. I think about what would happen if twenty-nine-year-old Richard walked into a Jiu-Jitsu school in 2020, instead of into Rorion's garage in 1979. If I'd walked into a class and seen some of the stuff going on now in a lot of schools, I think I probably wouldn't have done Jiu-Jitsu at all. And that's all well and good, but the question is: How many twenty-nine-year-old Richards are out there right now, fucked up on drugs and feeling like their life is going nowhere? How many twenty-nine-year-old Richards are out there who could be helped by Jiu-Jitsu if it was presented to them in the right way? Rorion saw what Jiu-Jitsu could be for people. He saw how it could be a positive thing in a person's life whether that person went on to become the baddest fighter on the planet or that person never had a single fight in their whole entire life. Certainly there are people who love to compete and test and push themselves, and Jiu-Jitsu can be an incredible thing for them, but is it only for them? What is the ratio of people who Jiu-Jitsu can help compared to the people who want to compete? A thousand to one? A hundred thousand to one? There needs to be a balance. For me, it's all about this art and what it can do for people: all about the positive impact this art and these ideas can have on their lives. The rest of it is just window dressing.


RICHARD BRESLER was Rorion Gracie's first student in LA, and is widely recognized as the first student of BJJ in the US. For almost 20 years he worked closely alongside Rorion helping to grow Gracie Jiu-Jitsu through the Gracie garages, the challenge matches, the founding of the Gracie Academy, and the inception of the UFC. He still teaches Jiu-Jitsu in Los Angeles. Connect with him online at

SCOTT BURR is a graduate of the creative writing program at the Colorado College. He is the author of the novels Bummed Out City and We Will Rid the World of You, the training manuals Get a Grip and Suspend Your Disbelief, and the martial arts, mindset, and health and fitness essay collection Superhero Simplified. He holds black belt rank in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Kodokan Judo, and the Korean art of Kuk Sul Do, and is a certified Pro Trainer under American fitness guru Steve Maxwell. Connect with him online at  

More information about Richard's memoir Worth Defending: How Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Saved My Life is available at

Header image of Hélio Gracie (1952) - Public Domain from National Archives of Brazil



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