25 February 2009

DVD Review - Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Advanced (Rorion, Royce & Helio Gracie)

The UFC brought notoriety to the Gracie Academy, but demand for teaching meant that others saw an opportunity to provide their own instruction. By 1998, the Gracie Academy was merely one of several options for legitimate instruction. Renzo and Rickson had developed their own schools, while their cousins the Machados were also doing good business. In addition to family members, various other high-level black belts, like Mario Yamasaki, had begun to establish themselves in the US. Even within the Gracie Academy itself, there were splits, such as the tension Roy Harris relates, resulting as ever from Rorion's desire to keep the Gracie Academy as the primary source for Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

Not only was there competition for students, but there were also other instructional BJJ tapes on the market. Pedro Carvalho and Mario Sperry both had popular releases, as did members of the Gracie family who were no longer directly affiliated to the Gracie Academy, such as Renzo and Carlson Gracie Jr. Unlike the stripped down basics of Rorion, these instructors were willing to show more complex and 'advanced' techniques, which quite possibly prompted Rorion to produce an 'advanced' series of his own (though this is something of a misnomer, as there is nothing especially advanced about the material covered in Gracie Jiu Jitsu Advanced).

As this series is later than Basics and Intermediate, there were more contemporary responses available on the internet (though still very little). Both Bill Lewis and Planet NHB emphasise that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Advanced was too little, too late. As Lewis concludes, "it is clear that Rorion and Royce, who were once BJJ trailblazers, have become followers straggling behind the times. The best they could come up with was a faint watered down imitation of other tape sets out there." Planet NHB is more concise, stating simply that "this series should be called 'Don't buy this.'"

Again, it should be noted that there have been arguments on the internet that 'Bill Lewis' was merely a pseudonym for Paul Viele, who just so happened to own a tape company himself, World Martial Arts (e.g., several threads on NHBGear, which should pop up here.) If true, that would put a quite different light on his reviews.

Then there are the thoughts of a poster on rec.martial-arts, GEEP30, who comments that "The Brazilians and the Gracies are not having it easy anymore, like they used to. Why? Because people have become familiar with the moves." Gracie Jiu Jitsu was no longer the mysterious, seemingly invincible style it had been in the past, further compounded by the rise of wrestling in the UFC.

[For more on the history of Brazilian jiu jitsu, see here]

Nevertheless, a lingering consequence of the earlier UFC success was that the man who did the actual fighting for GJJ, Royce, had become a much bigger name than Rorion. As a result, he now took on some of the instructional duties on Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Advanced. Unfortunately, at least at the time, Royce was a great deal less adept both at teaching and the English language than his brother. Where Rorion is charismatic, providing clear and detailed explanation, Royce speaks in a dull monotone, lacking his brother's descriptive skills.

As ever, the tapes were split into three, 'Defenses Against Attacks From the Mount: Front and Back', 'Foot Locks: Offences and Defences', 'Finishing Moves From Standing Up and Combat Strategies'. There is also, as usual, a bonus tape. Interestingly, the advert refers to both Royce and Rorion as 'champions', which is a little disingenuous: Rorion was never a top competitor, though in his defence, during his prime there weren't many opportunities to compete.

The first tape is probably the best of the three. Rorion, who by this point had shaved off his trademark moustache, is again clear and detailed in his description. Defences against the submissions from previous tapes are carefully explained. For example, turning to the side and bringing your elbow to the mat, followed by bridging, to prevent the Americana.

Rorion actively brings Royce into what becomes a conversation, rather than just instruction, with a somewhat contrived "what do you do now, Royce?" Rorion still does the majority of teaching, but that gradually changes as the series progresses. He also elaborates on a jigsaw metaphor, treating each technique as part of that broader puzzle. Rorion explains how you need to drill them thoroughly before you can then put together the big picture, instead of just doing each technique in isolation.

I was a little uncertain about the rear naked choke defence, where you put your arm over your head. The way I've been taught is to protect your neck, keeping your hands in and elbows tight. I'd feel I was leaving my arm vulnerable if I followed Rorion's method, so would be interesting to experiment with that variation. Finally, Rorion warns against the common mistake of crossing your feet when trying to secure your hooks, as this exposes you to getting footlocked.

Bill Lewis was positive about the first volume, stating that "this is the best of the three tapes [...] if they would have produced about fifteen tapes like this, they would have been golden." He goes on to say "this might even be the best tape that Rorion and Royce have put out." Planet NHB is less forgiving, complaining that "there are easier and better counters shown on other tapes."

Both reviewers appear to have been deeply unimpressed with the second tape, which concentrates on basic lower body attacks and counters, mainly the achilles lock. Planet NHB wrote "this is about the worst leg lock tape I have seen [...] Bottom line, don't waste your time with this tape." Bill Lewis was equally scathing: "Rorion did not seem comfortable with the material [...] This tape seemed like a pale rehash of Pedro Carvalho set 1 tape 8 [...] Why buy a Xerox copy when you can get the original?"

Personally, I've never been especially keen on foot locks: I'd be constantly worried about accidentally injuring my training partner, so I doubt I'd ever try one in class. However, it would be foolish to ignore them altogether. Therefore I am keen on learning the escapes, which meant I found at least that part of this tape of some use. Of course, that doesn't mean much from the perspective of an admitted leg-lock phobic like myself.

Rorion calls foot locks an "extremely efficient weapon," which is in marked contrast to the traditionally negative light in which the Gracie Academy viewed them before (again, as Roy Harris remembers). In the process of showing foot locks, Rorion also demonstrates the Toreador pass: this would have been a far more sensible option to include in earlier tapes than the 'Gracie Gift'.

As Rorion describes defending the straight footlock (by grabbing their collar and kicking your foot through, then grabbing their bottom leg and shifting forward to mount), Royce appears to interrupt, providing his own perspective. Presumably that was scripted, but either way, it isn't a welcome addition. As Bill Lewis mentions, Royce left much to be desired as an instructor in comparison to Rorion, at least at the time.

It is also worth noting that Rorion makes a point of highlighting the dangers of heel hooks. He explains how the technique is banned in sport jiu jitsu, due to the serious problem that by the time you feel any pain, your knee ligaments may already be badly damaged. Whenever anybody teaches heel hooks (which Rorion refers to as an ankle lock on this tape), that risk should always be heavily emphasised.

I felt that the third tape was the least useful, mainly due to the unnecessary second half. In addition, the instruction is largely left to Royce, which was a mistake. Although the techniques are interesting enough – a variety of ways to pull guard straight into an armbar – Royce's explanations are dry and poorly delivered. Bill Lewis sums it up:

Here instead of Rorion teaching, Royce has the honors. At least I think its Royce, we see his lips moving but I can barely hear the words. He almost whispers, and says very little as if he is nervous or shy. Maybe he is unsure of his English, so he uses less words. Either way, we get almost a documentary feel out of this tape getting very little in the way of explanation. [...]

Later on, during the strategies portion, Royce picks up the volume considerably. However, it is too late because you have brain cancer from sitting so close to the television trying to hear what was being said.

On the other hand, both Planet NHB and Bill Lewis are complimentary about the actual material Royce covers in the opening segment of the tape. Planet NHB wrote that "this is the first time I have really seen some of this material," while Lewis states "The moves taught on the first half of the tape by Royce are all very good and are the only advanced moves on the tape set." Like the leg locks, I wasn't all that interested in jumping into armbars, but that doesn't detract from the quality of the techniques themselves.

The real vitriol is saved for the 'combat strategies' portion. Royce and Rorion are supposed to be talking you through their thoughts as they roll, but it becomes a slow re-enaction of the techniques covered over the course of all the Gracie Jiu Jitsu tapes. There are no startling insights into strategy or useful new details, so the section as a whole serves little purpose.

Bill Lewis believed that this was merely a "less than successful attempt to copy the black belt tapes from Carlson Gracie Jr," in which Carlson Jr coached his two assistants as they grapple. According to Lewis, this was a productive free-form exercise, whereas Rorion's attempt is "very boring and useless [...] no value was added."

Finally, there is the bonus tape. In a significant divergence from the two preceding series, this is by far the high point. Before, the bonus was a quick demonstration, under ten minutes, not really teaching you anything. In Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Advanced, the bonus is almost half an hour, and a fascinating piece of history. It isn't showing any techniques: instead, it is an extended interview with Helio Gracie (there is a version up on Google Videos, so if it isn't removed, this is the link).

One of the reasons it is so interesting is that Helio heavily criticises various members of his family who were teaching jiu jitsu at the time. Even Rickson takes some flak for his inflated 400-0 record, but it is the other side of the family who come in for the most abuse.

While Helio speaks at length about how much his brother Carlos did for him, in the role of surrogate father, he is dismissive about Carlos' abilities as both a fighter and a teacher. He states that another brother, Jorge, "decided to get him [Carlos] out of the fighting business, because the jiu-jitsu that he knew was not up to date." Helio follows up by claiming that Carlos "was not much of a hard worker," which allegedly meant Carlos rather liked the idea of Helio teaching instead of him.

By the end of the tape, Helio goes much further. First, he attacks Carlson Gracie Jr, asking "Didn't you see Carlson's son is selling a certificate in the United States? To anyone who buys four or five of his tapes, he'll give a certificate as an instructor. What else do you want? Is there a bigger con artist than this?" That then leads into a broader complaint:

This kind of dishonesty I do not approve of. I already elected Rorion my representative in all areas, not only because he's my oldest son, but because he is the one who is more dedicated to jiu jitsu for what jiu jitsu is and the way I like it. [...]

Lets not confuse the student with those presumptuous ones who want to become teachers, because my own sons, who were born with me and since three years old have been doing jiu jitsu, only got their certificates after practicing their teaching skill for ten years.

Now an individual comes by my academy and spends five or six months or a year, and then leaves calling himself a jiu jitsu teacher. There's no way. Because for me, the instructor skill is not the learning of the movements, its in the philosophy behind the movements. In Brazil, unfortunately, it is very difficult to find someone with the morals I expect to become an instructor at my academy. That's the problem.

Jiu jitsu in Brazil was only learned through me, because Carlos Gracie never put a gi on to teach class to anyone, especially to his sons. When his children were born, I was already teaching classes instead of him, better than him, and not one of them learned from him. So this is the deal: to know jiu jitsu is one thing, to be able to pass it on is another.

This probably should not be taken at face value, especially as it is a translated voice-over on the tape, possibly by Rorion (though I didn't think it sounded like him). The context was that the Gracie Academy found itself confronted by growing competition, due to the numerous Brazilians who were moving to the US to teach jiu jitsu. Rorion had to do something to protect his livelihood and what he saw as his father's legacy, so in certain respects, Gracie Jiu Jitsu Advanced was an attempt to make Gracie Jiu Jitsu distinct from what became known as 'Brazilian jiu jitsu.' There was even a disclaimer included in the transmission, warning against "unqualified instructors" (though sadly, that has indeed now become a problem in BJJ, with some individuals claiming black belts under dubious circumstances).

That effort continues through to the present, over a decade later, with the sons of Rorion making much the same distinction as Helio between 'sport' jiu jitsu and 'self defence'. The most overt indicator of this is the Gracie Combatives program, which aims to separate 'sport' – the allegedly 'ineffective' BJJ – from street-ready Gracie Jiu Jitsu. As Helio claimed, "my sons are the only ones who know this jiu jitsu that works in a street fight." (for more on the course, see here and here, along with this and this. More recently, this has been put online at the Gracie University: for threads on that, see Bullshido, EFN, NHBGear, Sherdog, and The Underground).

Other sources would of course disagree with Helio's interpretation of events: Reila Gracie has written an extensive book on her father Carlos Gracie, which unfortunately is only available in Portuguese at present, while Carlson Gracie frequently commented on the manner in which Carlos' contribution had been overshadowed by Rorion's marketing (for example, this interview).

Never afraid to be controversial, Helio also made surprising claims about Masahiko Kimura, at first admitting "I knew I couldn't defeat Kimura," saying that he merely "wanted to experience the type of jiu jitsu he knew, since [Kimura] was the best in Japan." Despite being defeated by Kimura, Helio continues, "When the fight was over, I was convinced that they were beginners in comparison to my jiu jitsu. This jiu jitsu that I know enables me to say that anyone who does it as I do, or as my sons do it, cannot be beaten unless by accident."

It is possible that "cannot be beaten unless by accident" should have been translated as "cannot be beaten unless they make a mistake", but even that is a bold statement. Not only was it bold, but it was also proven to be untrue: Wallid Ismail and later Kazushi Sakuraba both beat several members of the Gracie family, including Helio's son Royce, in BJJ and mixed martial arts competition respectively. They were not the only ones to do so, but remain perhaps the most famous (and in Ismail's case, the most entertainingly vocal). Then again, Helio had already made his views on competitive fighting clear, so it could be he was only referring to self-defence encounters:

Here in Brazil now, everybody does jiu jitsu with rules and time limits. How can I fight a man much stronger than I for five or ten minutes if I'm weak and he's strong? I have to wait for him to get tired, so I can defeat him. Who is a better fighter? I, who can make him tap in half an hour, or he, that wins by points in five minutes, because the time-keeper or somebody with a pen says that he scored more points. The winner is the one that wins the real fight, which is what we do.

Interestingly, Mario Sperry was making a similar distinction between 'sport' jiu jitsu and 'self-defence'. In the January 1998 issue of Black Belt, Sperry featured in an article entitled 'Fail-Safe: Will Your Brazilian Jujutsu Work on the Street?' Sperry is quoted as saying "The majority of the Brazilian jujutsu instructors in America are teaching sport jujutsu. Americans must understand that sport jujutsu may not be the most effective method of self-defence in the street." He then continues, "If they try these [sport] techniques in a real fight, they are going to be in for a big shock. These techniques won't work. Everything from the takedown to the finish of the fight is different."

Not surprisingly, it also just so happened that Sperry was hoping to open up an academy in the US, building on the success of his own instructional tape series. Like Rorion, Sperry had decided that the self-defence angle was a useful way of distinguishing himself from the competition.

The following month, yet another BJJ black belt renowned for his instructional tapes appeared in Black Belt. Pedro Carvalho contributed to an article called 'Modifying Brazilian Jujutsu for the No-Holds-Barred World of Vale Tudo'. Even in martial arts magazines, Brazilian jiu jitsu now meant more than just the Gracie family. Rorion was able to keep the name 'Gracie jiu jitsu' closely associated with the Gracie Academy, but the art itself had moved far beyond Torrance.

I'm not sure if Helio's interview was carried over to the DVD version of Gracie Jiu Jitsu Advanced, which is available from the Gracie Academy for $49. You could also get it here. I wouldn't recommend the rest of the series for instructional purposes, except for portions of the first tape, but overall it remains intriguing from a historical perspective, which is the main reason I was excited to get a chance to watch it.

As with all of my GJJ reviews, if there is anyone reading this blog who trained BJJ back in the early 1990s (so therefore may well have used these tapes upon their original release) I’d love to hear about your experiences. I'd be especially interested in the contrast between your view of the tapes then as compared to now.

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