From Brasil, Thailand, Japan, and
March 1, 2013*
Gracie: O Criador de uma Dinastia
Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2008
by Roberto Pedreira
In 2001, Dalila Magarian1
if he planned to read the biography of his brother Carlos being
written by Reyla (or Reila) Gracie, daughter of Carlos and Lair de Aguiar Silva. He
answered, "Pretendo, para ler as besteiras que ela vai botar nele"
[I intend to read it to see what nonsense she puts in it.] Helio felt that Reyla
was dishonest to dare to tell the story of a person she didn't know [A
Reyla esta contado a historia de um homem que não conhece. Para mim, isso não
parece muito honesto]. Carlos was 65 when Reyla was born and unlike Helio,
Reyla hadn't been around to see most of her father's life or to understand
what it was like to live through depressions and wars and other hard times and
have to support a large family. Or two families.
Reyla's aim in Carlos
Gracie: Dinastia2 was to
rectify the record The Gracie story that people know is excessively
Helio-centric, she believes, due to the fact that her cousin, Helio's oldest
son Rorion, spun the story for his own self-serving purposes. According to
Helio's version of the story (or more likely, Rorion's), he created Gracie jiu-jitsu without any input from
Carlos. He did, he admitted, watch Carlos giving lessons, but Carlos's technique
was limited and crude (see this interview for details). It lacked
"leverage" apparently, because that is what Helio added that made
jiu-jitsu more efficient.
Reyla thought that Helio and Rorion's
version was twisted. According to her interviews and research, it was Carlos who
improved and Brazilianized jiu-jitsu, not Helio. Helio did not teach himself.
Carlos taught him.
The book was published in Brazil in 2008,
with an English translation promised. It hasn't materialized. Rumor has it that
Rorion made Reyla or someone an offer they can't refuse, in order to keep it out of the
USA. That may be attributing too much of a "Dr. Evil" type ambition to
control the universe to Rorion. There is plenty of dirt on Carlos himself.
Possibly someone on his side of the family put the kibosh on the deal. Or it may be that translating an almost 600 page book is too expensive
given the market for such books. As fascinating as the story may be to
people who love jiu-jitsu, most North Americans have never heard of the
Gracies and don't care.
Parenthetically, there is an ironic twist
to this: In Japan, no one has heard of Kimura Masahiko, apart from some older
hard-core judokas. Even most younger recreational judo players don't recognize
his name or picture (Kano would have liked this, since for him judo was not
about obsequiously worshipping heroes and authorities, but rather self and
social betterment). But everyone knows the Gracies. The average Japanese
person who has heard of Kimura has heard of him as the man who beat Helio
The original Portuguese edition was avidly
discussed in Brazilian internet forums. There are people who were actually around
in the 1950's and 1960's when the Gracies were at their peak and when they began
their decline into obscurity (until Rorion came along). There are also
Brazilians who know of the Gracies and their jiu-jitsu primarily as something
that Brazilians are good at that gringos respect. The old timers vary in point
of view from admirers to haters. A common theme is that while the Gracies were
liars and criminals (covardes is another word that often appears), they were
responsible for marketing a product that put Brazil on the map for something
other than soccer. It should be noted that when people talk about "The
Gracies", they generally mean Carlos and Helio. George did his own thing,
Gastão Jr. maintained a low profile and kept out of trouble, and Oswaldo died
in 1943. Carlos and Helio had admirers but people tended to either love them or
Carlson was a different matter. It is almost
impossible to find anyone who didn't like, respect, admire, or even love
Carlos on the other hand, despite Reyla's
understandable desire to restore him to what she feels is his proper place at
the center of the family story, comes across as a misfit and sociopath, a Don
King meets L. Ron Hubbard (inventor of Dianetics and Scientology, for
those who haven't heard of him).
Like Don King, Carlos was able to impress
intelligent, educated people with his spiritual and philosophical gibberish
(mostly plagiarized, it appears). Poets,
novelists, and otherwise sophisticated people were routinely taken in by Don
King's charades of erudition. He had plenty of time (three years and eleven
months) in the Marion Correctional Institution, in Ohio, to memorize some
Shakespearean soliloquies. His prison associates were probably
less impressed, recognizing his act as the con it was. Carlos might have done
the same (although Reyla is silent on the possibility; curious readers will
want to see Choque: The Untold
Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil3).
Actually, Carlos's inspiration, according to
Reyla, was Tex Rickard, the American promoter of the first million dollar boxing
match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier on July 2, 1921.
Carlos was skilled at discerning what gullible
people wanted to hear and then telling it to them, while helping himself to
their wallets and girlfriends (one of them was Reyla's mother), and occasionally
going after their daughters (a violation of Brazil's penal code). He would have
made a successful internet marketer or new-age guru (which in fact, is what he
tried to be).
One of the people who was initially
impressed by Carlos was psychology professor and former Gracie representative João
Alberto Barreto. João Alberto did not take sides in the family conflict, which
in fact did not pick up steam until big American money entered the picture.
Before that, there was rivalry, but the domestic market was small. There wasn't
that much to squabble over, and there were fewer clan members. João Alberto
hoped that Reyla's book would help to promote a rapprochement between the two
divisions of the family.4
So far, it hasn't seemed to. And it
probably won't. Jiu-jitsu can go bust as suddenly as it boomed. A few
accusations, a few convictions, a beef with the IRS, can put a definite
dent in revenues and recruitment of the most valuable market segments (newbys,
wannabes, and kids). And so it is all the more important to control the brand,
to avoid being contaminated by the crimes and reputational toxicity of
out-of control individuals who happen to be genetically or legally related. In
other words, Rorion will (and should) exercise even tighter control over his brand
and make entry into the inner circle even more restrictive. Rorion foresightedly
monopolized the family name in America (where it is most valuable) and was
successful at establishing a mythology that he can manipulate (simply by
updating his web site and then making sure one of his many pages caps the
results of the major search engines). As Rorion probably thinks, and with
justification, he was the one who made Gracie Jiu-Jitsu valuable, why should he
share the finite and perishable bounty with a unlimited number of people who
can for one reason or another use the Gracie name and who he can't control. If
some clan member screws up really bad, it will negatively impact Rorion's
business. Is that fair? Other clan members are free to do what he did, Rorion
might say (although undoubtedly he would prefer that they do it with a
completely different name). He wasn't the first Gracie to arrive in America (far
from it; see below).
Carley could have done what Rorion did. Any Gracie or any Brazilian could have.
They didn't. Rorion did.
At least, that's what he probably thinks, and it is
hard to find a flaw in his logic. Carlos Jr. seems to be having success
franchising Barra Gracie, one might say taekwondoizing5 jiu-jitsu,
and other Gracies are doing quite well in America. It is almost enough
just to be from Brazil (or pretend to be) to recruit students and start banking
dollars. That is entirely the result of Rorion Gracie's marketing.
But Rorion didn't invent
"Brazilian Jiu-jitsu" and neither did his dad. (Even Helio said
that he didn't invent anything, he just perfected it). Gracie Magazine
[Revista Gracie] tries
to maintain some balance: Carlos was "o primeiro brasileiro a aprender jiu-jitsu" [the first Brazilian to learn jiu-jitsu] while
Helio was "o homem que aperfeiçou o Jiu-Jitsu" [the man
who perfected Jiu-Jitsu].
Either Conde Koma's jiu-jitsu was
strength-based, or Carlos didn't learn some of the details. (We might find
out in chapter 3).
But Rorion's version is the one
everyone knows. He reprises the myth in "A Historia do Gracie
Jiu-jitsu."6. Helio was too weak
and sickly to participate in any form of physical activity. He was so
fragile and frail that he couldn't even go to school like other kids his
age. Instead, he spent his free time watching his brother earn extra money
giving jiu-jitsu lessons in the family home. One day Carlos was late,
and Helio offered to teach the lesson to a waiting student, who accepted. He
preferred Helio's lesson to Carlos' and requested that Helio teach him in
Evidently it wasn't necessary for Helio
to actually receive instruction or train. It was sufficient just to watch.
Might one learn jiu-jitsu and become a great champion merely by watching
Gracie DVDs? Hmmmm.
Carlos's technique was strength based,
so Helio, being weak and frail, had difficulties applying them. In order to
guarantee the efficiency of the techniques that he was trying to teach,
Helio "dared to break" [ousou quebrar] with the Japanese traditions that his brothers were still stuck
in. He began to improve the movements so that they could be executed even by
a person with a a fragile constitution like his own. After many trials and
errors, he decided that it would be advantageous to incorporate
"leverage" [alavanca] which would reduce the necessity to
use force during the execution of the movements.
Reyla doesn't buy this story.
Reyla's book recounts stories (facts
actually) that do not depict the family in the most positive light, particularly
if the brand's founder is being held up as a philosopher-saint, with a large
portrait of him always visible in the main training area as a constant reminder
and example. Reyla doesn't refrain from discussing her uncle's character and
behavioral flaws. She is reasonably upfront about her father as well.
Reasonably, but not completely. Possibly she did not have access to the
information during her research that is available today. But what she does reveal is illuminating, keeping in mind that it is
the tip of an iceberg and represents an understandable family bias; her feelings
about her father are not so clear, but it is obvious that she wants him to be
recognized. Her feelings about Helio and Rorion are considerably clearer.
What kind of book is
Gracie: O Criador de uma Dinastia? More
Gracie myth-making? Or a serious attempt at historiography? A good place to
look for indications is in the references, index, notes7,
and methodological appendices, if any. Reyla interviewed 139 individuals for her
book, all family members, friends, former students and
"representatives". Even Helio Gracie, who in 2011 said that
he expected the book to be filled with "nonsense" was interviewed
(although it isn't certain that he knew he was being interviewed when he
presumably talked with Reyla). Very reasonably, Reyla apparently got most of
her information by talking with people who were "there" at the
time. That is ok if we are looking at the recent past, or at least the times
when her informants were old enough to be paying attention to what was going
when the topic is early Jiu-Jitsu history, the question of sources becomes
more critical. The only interviewee who had direct experience with the
crucial issues was Helio Gracie, and he, to put it mildly, was not a neutral
observer. So, like any other historian, Reyla would need reliable sources.
The book does not have a references section so we don't know where Reyla got
her information. In some cases, she cites newspaper or magazine articles or
books as sources. In other cases, she doesn't. If Conde Koma told Carlos
that he was going to be a great champion some day, as Reyla claims, how do
we know that? For that matter, how does Reyla know? Who among her
interviewees could have heard or overheard such a conversation? Helio
(born in 1913) and Helena (born in 1909) were too young, and Gastão Jr.
(born in 1906) probably also. That leaves Carlos himself. Maybe
Carlos had a perfect memory and always told the truth. But as we will see,
Carlos had a very active imagination, and was known to stretch the truth
from time to time. So, while what he testified or said in a magazine
interview or casual conversation might be historically accurate, it is wise
to confirm it with independent sources, if available (and if none are
available, it is wise to suspend judgment). They will be considered on a case by case basis
when it is necessary to consider them.
book contains 42 chapters, an epilogue, a fragment of Carlos Gracie's last
interview in 1994, a 7 page afterword "Desdobramentos do Clá"
[break-up of the clan], and two unpaginated sections of photographs.
To get things rolling, let's start with
Chapter 1. Da Escocia Para O Brasil [From
Scotland to Brazil]
Chapter 1 is short and to the point. It
simply traces Carlos Gracie's line of descent back to the first Gracie to
step foot in Brazil, namely George Gracie, He
wasn't the first Gracie to seek greener pastures in the Americas. George headed
south, but considerably before him, Archibald Gracie immigrated to New York,
hefty fortune, and initiated his own line of distinguished descendants (none
of them involved in jiu-jitsu). Archibald's house, built in 1799, at East End Avenue and
Eighty-Eighth Street, serves as the residençia
ofical do prefeito de Nova York [official residence of the major of New
To make a long story short, George
Gracie disembarked in Brazil in 1826. He and his wife (Mariana Antonia
Malheiros) had four daughters and three sons, among whom was Pedro (the only
son to produce descendents). One of Pedro's 15 children was Gastão, who,
with the former Cesalina Vasconelos Pessoa, had four daughters (one died
soon after birth, as was the norm in the days before antibiotics) and five
sons. One of them, born September 14, 1902, became the subject of Reyla's
Chapter 2 "Belém Do Pará"
review will appear March 8
2013, below (the Chapter link will be activated), followed by Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and so on, approximately
one week apart, but maybe less (some chapters are long, some are short).
2. Belém Do Pará
3. Do Japão Para O Brasil
4. Rio de Janeiro, Capital do Brasil
5. O Primeiro Amor
6. O Jiu-Jitsu Como Profissão
7. 1925-Academia Gracie, O Sonho Vira
8. Helio Gracie, O Caçula
9. Oscar Santa Maria
2. You can order the
book here (below). If the price is too high, you can buy it from tatame.com, but
you will need a CPF, which you can get outside of Brazil, but it is complicated.
Inside Brazil it isn't, but then if you are in Brazil you don't need the CPF,
just pay cash. Or you could borrow copies from the Harvard or UCLA libraries, if
you are a student or professor at either one, or know someone who is. That's
what I did.
Choque: The Untold
Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, Vol I, 1856-1949 is now available in both
e-book (for various Kindle devices, iPad, iPhone, etc) and in traditional
old-school print versions (i.e., paper and ink books). Also Jiu-Jitsu in
the South Zone (right), by Roberto Pedreira, includes relevant
information about the Gracie story (most of which is not covered by Reila).
Barreto, João Alberto. Diario
do Senado Federal,
November 18, 2009, page
5. I mean that in a
non-judgmental way. The Koreans were the pioneers and remain the masters at
monetizing martial arts. Anyone who wants to make money teaching martial arts
needs to pay close attention to their example. You might not like what it does
to the art, but no one can argue that it isn't the way to make money.
6. It isn't clear
who the author of A Historia do Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is. A variety of
individuals are credited as editors, revisers, and translators. Apparently,
the original was written in English in 2006 and copyrighted jointly by Helio
and Rorion Gracie, while a Portuguese version was published in 2010 (and
available on the Gracie academy web site in 2012). It is probably safe to
say that the contents reflect Rorion's vision.
The book has a 10-page index, which is always useful. If you want to know
about Rolls Gracie, for example, you can efficiently turn to pages 268, 452,
463, 469, 470, without having to read through the previous chapters.
D. (1985). Gracie Mansion. Historic Preservation, 37(2),
20-25. For more about Archibald's descendents, see Tymn,
M. E. (2012). Our Fascination with the Titanic Story. Journal Of
Spirituality & Paranormal Studies, 35(2), 61-62, and
(c), 2013, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.
Minor edits, April 9,
2014; November 11, 2017, September 1, 2019, July 19, 2021.
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