Too often we pass up on the opportunity to stare greatness in the face. As crushing as it is, people aren’t immortal and we tend to have a highly variable expiry date. You only have to look at the 2016 death curse, and the more recent passing of Chris Cornell to know that our time on this floating watery space rock is a tiny insignificant little blip in the grand scheme of things. With that in mind, I’m taking a more active approach to seeing the people I want to see, whilst I still can. Morose eh? More notably, I’m going to be focusing on BJJ and training with the baddest motherfuckers alive. That’s the plan anyway.
Rickson Gracie is a polarising figure; not without his critics. The Gracie’s warhorse has gone to battle four hundred million times and never given up a single point, but conveniently those records are hard to come by. His own father discredited the records for their alleged hyperbole (stating that Rickson counted rolls as victories, alongside actual fights), and the truth of it is, we’ll never really know for sure. This crafty old bastard predated the internet and all things social media, so if there’s bullshit there, anyone that has called him out on it hasn’t had the reach of today’s crowd. So let’s not dwell on it? Let’s focus on the positive, and what we do know.
What we’ll focus on is those that have experienced this man’s grappling, and the brave wee souls that faced him in MMA fights. The talk ringside was that no-one wanted to fight this guy. They saw how Royce dismantled people, and it was well known that Rickson was capable of dismantling Royce. He was never meant to be that guy, but things in the family shifted and it was decided it was Rickson’s time to take the stage and show what BJJ could be when combined with a raw animalistic athlete.
Whether his record was embellished or not, this man is the best the Gracie family had to offer. Rolls shaped him into a killer on the mats, and from that close family death he honed his skills and carved out a path for himself in martial arts history.
His philosophy, understanding of technique, motion and physiology gave him an edge that others didn’t have. Apparently he’s the strongest fucker ever to walk this earth too, but all great grapplers are. Once you crack how to take a hold of someone, it’s REALLY fucking hard for people to shake that off (Taylor Swift might be able to). Rickson fought like a bear though. Ferocious.
A whose who of BJJ and MMA royalty cite Rickson as the best there ever was.
If you’ve got Fabio Gurgel singing your praises (Marcelo Garcia’s coach), then the chances are you’re pretty fucking brilliant at what you do. The Machados, Faddas and every other Gracie all speak about him like he’s at the very top of a very dangerous pyramid. All the BJJ elders speak incredibly highly of this man’s grappling abilities, and his reputation proceeds him as a result. So when the opportunity presented itself, I threw a gold brick at it (that’s a wee joke about the cost of his seminars – this dude ain’t cheap).
As we sat by the sidelines in the Glasgow Emirates Arena, the roof parted and a bright light shone down on this Jiu-Jitsu deity. He put his gi jacket on, tied his coral belt and started to warm up. He runs through a very similar warmup routine to myself. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because he has about 4 bulging discs, and is pretty fucked physically. I’m hoping that’s from his countless hours squeezing people to death, otherwise my future is pretty bleak.
As I looked out onto the mats I was nervous in a good way. It was a pretty special moment when it hit me that I was about to train at a Rickson seminar. The mat space was fucking huge, filled with 188 people. There was a pretty even mix of white, blue, purple, brown and black belts. I’ve probably never seen so many black belts together, all seeking the very same thing we all were, understanding of technique from someone that’s been around the mats a fair few times.
It’s refreshing to see black belts as students. Incredible life long martial artists like Rick Young are still looking to learn wherever they can, and that’s a good insight into what’s to come. Learning doesn’t stop when you get your black belt, you’re continually evolving your own understanding of this horribly complicated art. For one day, regardless of rank we’re all on the same page. Or at least, in the same section of a library.
Rickson’s far shorter than anyone expects, but still looks absolutely fucking solid at 59 years old. He manages to be wholly intimidating and personally welcoming at the same time. He shook everyone’s hand as they walked onto the mat, but fuck that noise, I stole a quick hug. I drew the line at a kiss on the cheek because I didn’t want to tempt fate with my own expiry date. He has a back like a bag of rocks.
He started his seminar by taking about breathing and using your full lung capacity. This is something that has always been at the forefront of his training, and you don’t really give it a second thought (even if you have watched Choke far too many times).
I don’t consider myself fit, but I know when I roll with less experienced grapplers, they’re going to tire far quicker than I do. Panting away like a puppy in the park, whilst I casually place their arm where I need it to be so that I can viciously explode through with a spiral armbar, ending their dreams of being an oil painter. Fucking oil painters man.
Rickson’s breathes properly. It may look like he’s a marble short of a game of kerplunk when he’s doing it, but he’s using his lungs the way they should be used. Full diaphragmatic breathing, combined with meditation to give himself the edge on his opponents. He explained that before competing; even with a full sweat on he’d get his heart rate back down to 60 beats per minute, so that he always had further to go in his gas tank than his opponents. It’s something I want to better understand, because I haven’t really bothered in the past when Billy the Yoda mentioned it. Billy the Yoda is a clever cookie it would seem, he’s been going on about this shit for years.
After the introduction was done, we worked flying berimbolos, floating inverted guard and trans-dimensional-worm-hole guard. No wait, we didn’t. We actually worked on some self-defense principles. Being honest, I’m really not interested in self-defense but what he said resonated and made more sense as the seminar went on. The seminar focused entirely on base. Understanding when you’re in base, and when you’re not. We refined standing and grounded techniques to make sure we were an absolute shit of a bastard to fight against. That’s what he’s going for right? As I continue to refine his approach to these techniques, I’ll hopefully one day be able to hold fuckers down like they’re shackled to the earth.
What I really appreciated in his instruction is how he got a technique into your head. He instructs by feel. So if you’re struggling, he’ll have you do the technique on him, and he’ll correct it appropriately. This is something a lot of instructors do, but it felt like something more with him. I don’t know why. I was probably just gushing like a school girl because it’s Rickson fucking Gracie.
I don’t think I can think as well in reverse like that yet. Maybe with some techniques, but it’s cool to witness the process. The man’s also a gentleman. He didn’t at one point say, “Woah man, your technique is fucking dogshit. Go get changed right now.” I’ll never have that decorum, fuckers be getting telt yo.
It was a great seminar. His philosophy & approach to technique etc surprised me (I’m aware that sounds stupid, he’s a coral belt for fuck sake, and has been harping on about effectiveness being missing from Jiu-Jitsu for a years now).
However, we’re so often you’re caught up in the mythos of these characters, that you just assume Rickson was super successful because he could bend girders with his bare hands. Whilst it played a part, it doesn’t seem to be the full story. His techniques are simple, efficient and highly effective. There’s white belts at that seminar, that will hopefully start using his techniques from here forward. They’re going to have an understanding of fundamentals that has been drilled into them at a very early stage in their game. Whereas us wiley veterans are now going to have to work hard, to correct our dirty bad stanky habits.
His Invisible Jiu-Jitsu seemed like more clever Gracie marketing, but there was none of the Rener or Ryron flair or bullshit with it. He explained clearly, and made sure a room of nearly 200 people were on the same wavelength. I feel I’ve got a better understanding of it than I did before; making simple adjustments to techniques that I’ve been doing for years, and my partner was literally fucked as a result. Those lightbulb moments. This is what a good seminar should be. Taking away vital details that have an overall impact on the effectiveness of your game.
If you get the opportunity to attend one of these seminars, jump at it. Starve your kid for a week, sell your dog, default on your mortgage, drive without an MOT, maybe skip a night out or two. It’s worth it. Cheerio cunts. x
Back row: Tony, Chris, Rickson, Grant, myself. Front row: Danny & David.