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Blitz Magazine, Feburary 2014

  • Blitz Magazine - Feburary 2014
  • Blitz Magazine Feburary 2014

Schooled in Submissions
An interview with Rener Gracie

Interview by Boon Mark Souphanh with Luke Beston

With his father, Professor Rorion Gracie, known worldwide for creating the UFC as a way to bring his family’s jiu-jitsu style to the attention of America’s masses , Rener Gracie has worked hard to perpetuate his father’s legacy while carving out his own name in the jiu-jitsu family tree. Rener has become famous for his engaging teaching style as much as for the famous people he teaches at his father’s school in Torrance, California, alongside his older brother, Ryron. Pioneers when it comes to taking BJJ into the technological age, the brothers have founded the online Gracie university, as well as targeted education programs such as Gracie Bullyproof and Gracie Women Empowered. On Rener Gracie’s recent trip Down Under to teach a series of seminars, he caught up with Luke Beston for Blitz.

Q: What is it like to be one of the most recognisable jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world? Are you a jiu-jitsu ‘celebrity’?

A: I guess I’m semi-famous on YouTube, not just for the jiu-jitsu videos but for the other videos as well. One time I was running in Manhattan Beach and a guy looks at me and he gave me the look of “I recognise you”, and finally he says to me “Aren’t you that guy from the watermelon Juice Video” and that’s when I recognised my celebrity extends beyond the jiu-jitsu world.

Q: The ‘Gracie Breakdown’ has become super popular on YouTube and you’ve even taken it to television. How did you and your brother Ryron come up with the concept?

A: That started after the GSP [versus] Dan Hardy Fight several years ago. GSP couldn’t break Dan’s arm and after the fight they went to the locker room and GSP was asking his coach John “what was missing” and the rest of the world was confused as well. Then, we got a call from our friend Gui Valente in Miami, who said we should put out a video explaining what GSP should have done differently, and the Gracie Breakdowns were born. Since then, they have generated millions of views and have become our most effective educational vehicle.

Q: Your father was probably the first Brazilian to establish himself in the US as a jiu-jitsu instructor. What are your thoughts on the influx of Brazilians moving overseas to start their own academies?

A: Its natural, it’s like a gold rush. There is money in America and there are people who want to learn. The only thing there is a shortage of is teachers. So every Brazilian who can make it happen is migrating this way. It makes perfect sense; they are just meeting the demand. My only real concern with this rapid expansion is when people go to a school and they are led to believe they are learning Gracie jiu-jitsu for self-defence, when in most cases they are only learning the sport aspect of the art. It’s not uncommon for someone to study sport jiu-jitsu for five years without ever learning [our] punch-block series from the guard. I’ve met many sport BJJ Purple-belts who have admitted to me that they do not feel prepared to defend themselves in a street fight. It’s very unfortunate.

Q: Do you think the quality of instruction improves or suffers as a result of the influx of new instructors?

A: The only real problem with rapid expansion is that there is no quality control, and this stems from the typical ‘affiliation’ model that is so common in the jiu-jitsu community. Someone pays a monthly fee to be affiliated with a reputable jiu-jitsu master, and they throw a large sticker on their storefront and students are led to believe that this affiliate school is adhering to a curriculum that mirrors what they would learn if they were to train directly with the master instructor – but nine times out of 10, that isn’t the case. Other than a seminar once a year with the master, the instructors at these small satellite schools have little or no guidance and are making up the curriculum as they go, and that lends itself to all kinds of problems for everyone involved. At the Gracie Academy, we don’t have affiliations; instead we have certified training centres (CTCs). The difference is that we have 100 percent control over every lesson that is taught at every CTC. Thank s to the power of the internet and, Lesson 3 at our CTC in San Diego is exactly the same as Lesson 3 in South Africa, so there is no guesswork for the instructors. If any instructor deviates from the curriculum, we are notified and the instructor’s certification is revoked. The bottom line is, when a student shows up at any one of our 96 CTCs around the world, we want them to know that they are getting the exact same training experience that they would get if they came to Torrance to train with me or Ryron.

Q: You perpetuate training jiu-jitsu with ‘keep it playful’ mantra, could you please elaborate on what you mean by this?

A: Ryron noticed that there is so much pressure on people and it starts from the top, you have the instructor saying “hey you are a purple belt you should tap to that blue belt, take off your belt and give it to them!” This type of kill or be killed mentality fosters a belief that if you are not killing everybody you are worthless , and if you’re worthless, why bother showing up to class?

So it all stems from removing that pressure, and recognising that sometimes the best way to learn is to be more accepting of the submission. If you get tapped today it doesn’t matter because you are going to be here for another 5, 10, 15 years hopefully and you will correct the mistake and life will go on.

Q: Some may argue that ‘keeping it playful’ will not prepare you adequately in a street fight/self-defence situation. What is your response to this claim?

A: There is some truth to that. On the streets it’s intense. However, your ability to be prepared for that situation is more directly correlated with one thing than anything else – time on the mat. If you don’t keep it playful, your time on the mat will be cut in half. BullyProof is the best example where we tell the parents “expect nothing and praise everything”. We show a move to a kid and let’s say they only get it 25% correct, the parents might say he’s going to get beat up in a street fight, he’s got to do it 100% and they focus on the 75% that’s missing. They are right, we want to get to 100% but if we focus on the 75% he won’t come back to class because it becomes a negative experience. If, however, we praise the kid and tell him what a great job he’s doing, then he’ll be back next week looking for more recognition. Over time he will reach 100 percent, but only if we focus on what he’s doing right. Using the ‘keep it playful’ ideology, we apply this same logic to adults and they can train well into their nineties!

Q: How does your jiu-jitsu game compare to all your brothers? Do you have similar games? How much did you take from your father?

A: Mine and Ryron’s games are very different. I learned from my father everything I possibly could the same way I took from Royce, and uncle Rickson and Royler and my Grandfather, I took from everyone. Jiu-jitsu is something that you steal. You train with people, you get choked, and then you find someone else to try those moves on.

With me and Ryron it had to be different; he’s two years older so I had to play defence for 19 years, whereas he was on the offence. So in the end, my defence and bottom game evolved more than his, and his top game became stronger than mine. Over the last 10 years, however, our styles have really balanced out.

Q: You have created a number of programs such as Gracie Combatives, Gracie Bullyproof, Gracie Women’s self-defence etc. How do you go about tailoring these different programs? How would a kids BullyProof program differ from the Combatives syllabus for example?

A: I didn’t create jiu-jitsu, I’m just a messenger. If there’s anything that Ryron and I deserve credit for, it is for creating these demographic-specific curriculums. Although the principles of our jiu-jitsu are universal, we cannot apply a one-size-fits-all mindset. What a kid needs against a bully is very different from what a woman needs against a rapist, which is very different from what a man needs to protect himself from a drunk in the club.

Gracie Combatives is based on the program we created for the US Army Rangers in 1994. It features the 36 techniques most likely to be used in any real street fight, and it prepares the student for a real fight father than any other program we’ve ever created. It’s definitely our best selling DVD program of all time.

The Women Empowered program was created several years ago when we realised that one in four women would be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. We did lots of research to identify the most common threat scenarios facing women and we came up with the 15-lesson Women Empowered program. It’s been taught to thousands of women around the world and the US Air Force officially adopted it in 2012 to help reduce the frequency of sexual assaults in the air force. This program is perfect for women who don’t want to ‘train jiu-jitsu’ but want the skills and confidence to break free from an assailant.

Growing up in the Gracie family, we had the privilege of learning jiu-jitsu from a very young age. When Ryron and I created the Gracie Bullyproof DVD program, our goal was to give children around the world the same early empowerment opportunities we were given. Today, we have tens of thousands of families learning jiu-jitsu from home, and it gives us incredible gratification to know that the bond between family members is growing because of the home-study programs we’ve created.

Q: Your philosophies regarding the art seem to be very polarising within the greater jiu-jitsu community. Why do you think this is the case?

A: My dad always told me “If you do something great, half the people will love you and half will hate you”. When we created, we received a fair amount of negative backlash from existing jiu-jitsu instructors, including some within our family, largely because the curriculum is so complete and they felt threatened that they would lose students. But what they didn’t realise is that is helping them far more than it is harming them.

When someone watches the UFC and becomes intrigued by jiu-jitsu, nine times out of 10 they won’t sign up at a jiu-jitsu school because they are too intimidated. But, through Gracie University, we are able to give the student an amazing introduction to jiu-jitsu in their home, for free! Most people don’t have the discipline or necessary training partner to learn from home, so once they watch the first few lessons of the Gracie Combatives curriculum, they will almost certainly go to their local BJJ school and sign up for classes, even if that school is not a certified training centre. I’m pretty sure Ryron and I are responsible for creating more beginner jiu-jitsu students than any other instructors in the world, and I’m proud of that.

Q: Do you think the rule set used at [the Gracies’] Metamoris tournaments is the best for jiu-jitsu competitions? Will you be implementing any changes at Metamoris III?

A: As an entertainment spectacle, it’s the best that it can be. You have to put a time limit [on a bout], you can’t let it go forever, but obviously no time limits would be better. Ironically without time limits matches would end faster, but you can’t count on that when you have a limited pay-per-view broadcast window. I don’t agree with having judges, I think we should take the judges out. Ultimately it’s up to Ralek, it is his thing. I think they need to incentivise the submission a little more, meaning the submission gets double pay or whatever. If they get paid the same regardless, they will play it safe and fight to a draw. At the end of the day there’s nothing like just rolling, no points, no time limit, no money, just honour.

Q: Recently, your uncle Royce recently came out criticising the new generation of Gracie fighters in MMA saying ‘jiu-jitsu is enough’ to succeed in modern MMA. He blamed the decline of Gracie success in MMA to overtraining in other aspects of the game. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree?

A: I agree and I disagree. I agree that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu by itself is a complete martial art and I know what Royce is saying because we come from the same bloodline and upbringing. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is complete by itself.

What he is not considering when he makes that statement is that what might be true for a street fight against a larger opponent is not necessarily true for a sport MMA fight against someone your same size. As soon as you take the fight off the street and have three five-minute rounds while trying to impress three totally incompetent judges, who will dictate a victor based on punch points and takedown, Royce’s statement is no longer entirely accurate.

All the striking and takedowns of jiu-jitsu are designed to be energy efficient, but the UFC, for entertainment reasons, wants you to be 100% energy inefficient. They want you to be as aggressive as possible. Dana will tell the fighters, “Don’t save anything, because your next fight will be decided on how much you leave it in the cage today”. As an entertainment spectacle he needs that, so Royce is very right in that jiu-jitsu is complete, but he is wrong in that in order to impress Dana, the judges, and the world, you need to be overly aggressive in MMA, which is totally uncharacteristic of our jiu-jitsu.

If Royce fought Dan Severn with ‘pure Gracie jiu-jitsu’ under today’s unified rules of MMA, he would have lost by decision. But because he had no judges to impress, no rules to follow, and no time limit to force his wasteful energy expenditure, he won by triangle-chose after 15 minutes and 49 seconds.

Q: Where do you see the art of jiu-jitsu in 20 years time?

A: I see it as being synonymous with self-defence. Everyone will know that without it, you don’t have a chance against a larger opponent. It was adopted by the US Army in 2002, and by the US Air Force in 2012, now all we need is for public schools to add it to their PE curriculums. UFC is growing faster than any other spectator sport, and jiu-jitsu is growing right alongside it! When you watch the UFC, ji-jitsu is the one thing people look at and say, ‘I can do that!’ and it’s my goal to show them how.

Q: What do you and your brothers hope to achieve going forward?

A: At the rate the UFC is growing, our goal is to make sure quality jiu-jitsu instruction is available to everyone. Whether it’s home-learning through or group training at one of our certified training centres, once everyone has access to Gracie jiu-jitsu, we’ll know we have accomplished our mission.

The Master’s Tips

Q: Rener Gracie on how to minimize damage from the closed guard on the street:

A: Head-control – in the fight, whoever manages the distance manages the damage that can be done. That’s one very unique thing about jiu-jitsu: the comfort that we create when we are on the bottom. With jiu-jitsu we can manage the distance, whether it be the bottom of the guard, mount or half-guard. [For] every worst-case scenario, I can teach you how to manage the distance. Without the [correct] distance, they cannot knock you out. From the bottom of the guard, we manage distance by head-control.

Q: On which submissions are most likely to succeed from the closed guard in self-defense situations:

A: I’d say the straight arm-lock and triangle-choke, because these two submissions, when taught correctly, allow us to use the opponent’s most common attack behaviours to our advantage.