11 March 2009

DVD Review - Renzo Gracie: Legacy

Brazilian jiu jitsu has rapidly spread across the world, and is now becoming a fashionable sport. While this has the disadvantage of some dubious individuals seeking to take advantage of demand for BJJ, it also means that excellent documentaries like Renzo Gracie: Legacy can find a sizable audience. I had heard about Gethin Aldous' film from various internet sources, so jumped at the chance to pre-order it last year. It finally arrived in late December, when I watched it with my younger brother.

That says something about its appeal: my brother has never done any martial arts, or shown any interest beyond the odd action flick. However, he was riveted to this film, so it isn't just for those already heavily involved in the sport. Renzo is well-known for his abundant charisma, which is on full display: despite several long periods which simply show Renzo talking in his car, his personality is such that you're drawn into his stories.

One of those stories surprised me, when Renzo talked about his father Robson. I've read The Gracie Way and a whole bunch of other sources for my BJJ history, but I had no idea what Robson had gone through. Renzo relates how his father suffered torture for his opposition during the military junta in Brazil, only escaping death through the political connections of a student.

There is a general sense of being part of the Gracie family, with numerous members featured throughout the film (if I remember correctly, that includes Ralph, Renzo, Rickson, Relson, Roger, Kyra, Robson, Ryan, Daniel, Rodrigo and Royler.) You get to see Renzo with his children, talking to his relatives about the past, and training with brothers, cousins and uncles in preparation for fighting.

It is fighting that forms the centrepiece of the documentary. The film begins with Renzo's classic knockout of Oleg Taktarov, and features numerous quotations from Renzo himself about the importance fighting holds for him. At one point he shows surprise at how many fighters seem to compete for the money: Renzo just loves the challenge.

There wasn't as much of a focus on history as I would have liked, with a large chunk of the fights coming from the latter part of Renzo's career. However, that does make for an interesting trajectory, as it isn't simply Renzo crushing the opposition. Instead, we get to see him overcome adversity, bouncing back from defeat to again prove his skill in the IFL against fellow veterans.

Like The Smashing Machine, the film provides the viewer with an insight into the whole process of a mixed martial arts fight. The camera follows Renzo through his training, overcoming injuries, travelling, exploring the venue, then finally the fight itself along with its aftermath. We also see how Renzo trains others in his family, in particular the powerfully built Daniel Gracie. The inclusion in the film of this younger Gracie provides an opportunity to present a picture of Renzo the teacher as well as Renzo the fighter.

It is a good documentary, but what puts this above The Smashing Machine for me is not the main feature, but the impressive selection of extras included on the DVD. As opposed to the brief snippets offered up by some DVDs, these extras are almost all huge. They are also distinct from the film in that the extras seem very much geared towards hardcore fans rather than a general audience.

For example, there is an extensive conversation between Renzo and two of his black belts, Matt Serra and Ricardo Almeida. For the general public, this is probably very boring: a bunch of sweaty men talking about different strategies and specific techniques they feel are important to mixed martial arts competition. But for those who can empathise with sitting on the mat chatting about favourite moves, this is awesome. It also reflects well on Renzo's character: the teacher is more than willing to learn from his students.

You also get to see a sparring match between Maurição Motta Gomes and Renzo, from 1997. Seeing two masters fight is always a pleasure, although I have to admit a certain disappointment that we don’t get to hear the two men talk. I was looking forward to hearing a voice I know popping up, particularly as Maurição is every bit as charismatic as Renzo. His son Roger also appears, in an extra about the Abu Dhabi 2003, though again he is just in the background.

That desire to hear some extended chatting from the BJJ celebrities was later satisfied by yet another extra, in which Renzo talks to his uncle Relson Gracie. As you would expect from the man famous for being as tough on the streets as he is on the mats, this feature is awash with stories of Relson laying down the law in Brazil, and even on a football field in Hawaii.

Finally, there was another extra which I found intriguing, ‘Renzo and Roosevelt’. Renzo discusses the fight at the Whitehouse between Maeda’s teacher and the American wrestler, under the auspices of Teddy Roosevelt. Renzo claims that Maeda was ready to step up in the other man's place and could have won, but was not allowed due to being a rank below the other judoka. According to Renzo, Maeda was so annoyed that he decided to leave the judo association and “return to his roots, jiu jitsu”. I wasn’t certain if that was a classic case of BJJ dismissing the contribution of judo (which I always thought was something more common to Helio’s side of the family), or a story with some truth to it. If anyone has a link to some evidence, let me know.

All in all, this is without any doubt the best DVD documentary currently available for fans of BJJ. The piece on Renzo would have made this a good DVD well worth picking up, but the fantastic extras elevate this to an absolute must-have.

(Note that at present this is only available Region 1, but multi-region DVD players are fairly easy to come by now.)


  1. You forgot to add "Best DVD Ever" lol

  2. Heh - best DVD ever is still either Pumping Iron: 25th Anniversary or Conan the Barbarian. Although Arnie does terrible commentaries: seemed to mainly consist of "Yeah, I remember that". ;p

  3. Slidey... I'm about to thank you and compliment you on a great review and then I read... pumping friggin iron??? Seriously?

    Still, thanks for the review.

  4. Pumping Iron is awesome and remains the best documentary ever: I feel no shame whatsoever in saying so. Of course, I also happily spend money on stuff like the complete boxed set of Mysterious Cities of Gold, so I'm well beyond embarassment at this point... :D

  5. Slidey, are you honestly surprised on Renzo's "presentation" on Maeda and Tomita in the U.S.? The Gracie family depends on the fact that their schools and focus on ground-fighting are marketed without giving away to alluding judo in a positive or respectful manner. The members of the Gracie family (whether through Carlos or Helio's lineage) are quality instructors and Jiu-Jitieros, but they're also businessmen and they're not going to mention a grappling competitor like Judo in a favorable light. And Renzo's accounts of history is not accurate to say the least. Even Mastering Jujitsu which was written by Renzo and John Danaher is not a well-researched book on Judo or Koryu Jujutsu history. The Fusen Ryu was not primarily a ground-grappling school. Mataemon Tanabe's school was a branch of the Fusen Ryu that focused on groundwork. If you take a look at Fusen Ryu videos today, it doesn't resemble Tanabe's personal teachings to his students. And the Gracies and their publicits have never given any reference or evidence that Mitsuyo Maeda trained in Koryu Jujutsu. If you read biographies and historical research on Maeda and growing up in Japan, you find that his father a sumo wrestler. Maeda had tried out sumo in his youth. Later, he trained in Kodokan judo, an art which "displaced" (Kano's own words found here http://judoinfo.com/jhist5.htm) the archaic schools of Jujutsu. And keep in mind that during the Meiji era of Japan, Jujutsu schools were brought to harsh scrutiny and even banned due to the government's efforts in modernizing the entire landscape of Japanese society and culture. Jigoro Kano synthesized what he took from multiple Jujutsu styles for realistic application of martial arts to be practiced while promoting character development. In that format, Koryu (meaing Old School) was succeeded by Gendai Budo, which is the modern format of martial arts in Japan. Judo was at the forefront in bringing an updated approach on the traditional method. And Maeda was also involved in many catch-as-catch-can wrestling matches in his traveling days. I would argue that BJJ owes itself more to Kodokan Judo and Lancashire wrestling than alluding to some form of Jujutsu whose name isn't mentioned by BJJ circles and with credible evidence like a dojo roster or the instructor's name for Maeda. I highly doubt that a Gracie Jiu-Jitiero would openly say anything favorable or even historically accurate to judo in an interview.

  6. I was a little surprised, as I had thought the anti-judo bias was more in the Helio side, but then I don't know much about Renzo's feelings on judo.

    Like I've said before, BJJ has largely embraced judo these days, such as Saulo Ribeiro's school having a judoka on staff to teach judo. Similary Roger Gracie always incorporates judo into his classes, and has strong ties to Olympic silver medallist Ray Stevens.

    So, as I've never personally encountered a BJJer who puts down judo, it always strikes me as a bit strange when I come across the "Maeda wasn't a judoka" type thing outside of own circle of BJJers.