Carlos Valente goes way back. Now in his early fifties, he began jiu-jitsu at eight years old studying with Rolls Gracie, who until his early death in a hang gliding accident was revered as much for his charisma and leadership as his jiu-jitsu skills. In our conversation on this episode of The FightWorks Podcast, Carlos takes us back to Rio and describes what it was like training under Rolls, the reaction of the community to his death, and decision the students were faced with upon his passing: with whom should they train? While it was announced that students would now begin training under Carlos Gracie Jr., some elected to train under a young man named Rickson Gracie, whom would later become a legend in his own right. It was the birth of a new legacy as those of the Carlos Gracie Jr. camp would eventually become known as Gracie Barra, and those who followed Rickson and his father Helio would move on to Gracie Humaita.
In this chat, Carlos’ stories are like a who’s who of the biggest names of those who’ve spread the sport outside Brazil: Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti, Mauricio Motta Gomes and many more. Listen to the conversation with Carlos “The Mentor” Valente and come on a time trip back to Rio de Janeiro in the 1970’s, as jiu-jitsu became a force on the streets!
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Caleb: This is Caleb with The FightWorks Podcast and we are here with one of the classics of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Carlos Valente. How are you Carlos?
Carlos Valente: Very good. It’s an honor to be here, to share some information about how you plant the seeds of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in America.
Caleb: Yeah we have a lot to talk about.
Carlos Valente: I hope I get paid well. (jokes)
Caleb: You’re going to be paid as well as I am. (laughs)
Carlos Valente: You see my fiancee here is in front of me. I had to ask her permission [to do the interview]. At least a thousand dollars right? So I can buy her a Porsche or something. (laughs)
Caleb: You’re going to be paid at least a thousand dollars for this interview. (laughs) So let’s start at the beginning Carlos. In the few moments we’ve talked since I came here, I learned even more about you than I thought I read online, but you go way back. When did you begin jiu-jitsu?
Carlos Valente: I began first judo at five years old. And jiu-jitsu at eight. My father was already in martial arts. The whole family was in martial arts and the legacy of the Gracies in Brazil at the time – the sixties, seventies, especially in the fifties – not many people [knew them]. You had to have a very inside martial arts background. And doing judo I met a lot of people from my father’s side, friends and stuff, [who said] “you gotta go and meet this family”. We were very fortunate to have a house in Petropolis, also in Teresopolis where the family used to live.
Caleb: And you’re referring to the Gracie family.
Carlos Valente: I started training in Rio Branco. Rio Branco was Helio Gracie’s school in downtown.
Caleb: The first school.
Carlos Valente: The first school. The first school ever, right there. And from there, the first school was in Copacobana. Not even the school in Figuerero Magalhaes. The first school was Carlson Gracie’s school in Nossa Senhora Copacabana in Jibara. It was a material store that had three small rooms and Rolls (Gracie) used to teach there, and Carlson Gracie.
Caleb: And this is the academy where, different nights of the week there was different instructors. It was Rolls or Carlson, right?
Carlos Valente: No, no, you’re getting confused. That was the second one. In [the school in] Figuerero Magalhaes you had all the generational stuff. Not many people train like me before. I had the pleasure to be in the first one in Nossa Senhora Copacabana, it was the main main street in Copacabana. Atlantica [was] the other one. And then from there they moved in 1973 or 1974; they opened Figuerero Magalhaes. It was Carlson and Monday, Wednesday and Friday was Rolls. Carlson was Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. And they had two levels. But I started in the one before.
Caleb: So you were exposed from your family, who has a history of martial arts. On your website, it alludes to Rio being a rough place to grow up. Did you have to use jiu-jitsu much back then on the streets?
Carlos Valente: Well, I had a very interesting background that not many guys did in Zona Sul, the South Bay we call it. Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. The mentality in Copacabana was totally different from Ipanema and Leblon. The best school that I had besides jiu-jitsu: I went Airborne, by my own choice. At eighteen years old in Brazil you gotta go no choice to the military. And I chose to go Airborne. It was the toughest ever thing anyone could do, because first of all it was in the suburban area. You had to take a train, a bus from Copacabana to downtown, and a several hours train to go to Maraxao de Aramis. By the time I was eighteen I was a brown belt in judo, a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, and I had a lot of skills in terms of surviving. Copacabana, when jiu-jitsu started in the seventies, was very very tough. Because every street had their own group. It’s like you grow up in one street, if you go mess around in the other street, you’ll find a lot of trouble. And every street was divided by age: one group of this age, another one the older (guys)… It was very common in the seventies. In jiu-jitsu the school was by Figuerero Magalhaes, and the building had a group that was very famous. In the seventies we used to go out in parties in people’s houses. And sometimes one street was to fight with the other. And this was the problem in Copacabana. But I find these days much more danger than before. Way back it was safer.
Caleb: So you’re actually saying that today it’s more dangerous than then.
Carlos Valente: Before, the only problem was the territory. The neighborhood’s territory. Now, you don’t mess around with one group or whatever. Copacabana was the most beautiful place to grow up. It has the beach, you know, the buildings, a lot of freedom, no robbery, no problems. It had no people from the favela. [They’d] never go down to the street. When I grew up I was very lucky. Me, my friends, all the old timers of jiu-jitsu… I remember I used to have to walk from my house in Avenida Atlantica – my family still lives there since I was little – to Apuador back and forth many times a day. These days you go in Copacabana bullet-proofed, or carrying a magnum, or be a good runner, or otherwise, stay home.
Caleb: So times have changed in Copacabana.
Carlos Valente: Absolutely. You know it’s just like a little bit of Beirut with Colombia. (laughs)
Caleb: Well let’s talk about changes, because you’re one of the few guys probably practicing today, and it’s crazy because you’re all concentrated here in Southern California, who were around in the time of the transition when Rolls died. Can you tell us about how you found out about Rolls’ death, and the circumstances around the change?
Carlos Valente: Well, Rolls Gracie was a father. Rolls Gracie was beyond a regular instructor. He was beyond any regular instructor in martial arts. You have the vision of the tough guy, and the respect for his black belt, but Rolls’ energy, his aura that can touch your soul in so many ways, that I don’t see many Gracie family members [like that], except after he died, Rickson Gracie is the only one that has the energy that can touch your mind, the mental and your soul. Rolls taught me a lot, and Rickson was my graduation. Even being older than Rickson. We have a saying here in America, especially us the old-timers [who were] students of Rickson, that if you can spend time with Rickson, if you can spend one day with Rickson, it will last you one or two years. Whatever he has to say to you, whatever his energy. You know, Rolls had the same thing. Rolls is a guy, that, let’s say we had people on the mat… forty guys left… Monday night was the toughest night and Friday night. Lotta people talking bla bla bla bla (loudly). Rolls walked in and: silence. But not as fear, but respect. And he could say things to you, not about the position, about the armlock. Pretty much what I do today, I picked up way back [then]. Today they call me “The Mentor of the Champions” because I was very lucky to have schooling – from Rolls, from Rickson, from Rorion, the mentality then – to understand the Gracie family and grow up in the Gracie family you gotta be from the beginning. People they enjoy this new generation, the new champions, they don’t have the pleasure to understand what the Gracie family mentality is, or their legacy, what they really want to do. I had the tremendous luck to be at a time when everything was growing up. From the name, to go stay in the family’s house in Teresopolis… I travelled with Rolls… that’s an experience that no money can take away from you. And talking about Rolls’ death, doing a little jump ahead, I was in Saquarema… it was a Sunday. I was with Sergio “Malibu” Jardim, one of my best friends [who is] another jiu-jitsu fighter and a student of Rolls also, and Evandrew. Each one with our girlfriends, kind of surfing at the time and were watching Fantastico.
Caleb: What’s Fantastico?
Carlos Valente: Sorry it’s not Fantastico, I am getting confused, it’s the news of TV Globo. Late at night, a Sunday. We were going to leave to [return to] Rio. And I remember it was a very famous – if you watch Globo he’s still on there today, the newscaster guy – he says, “We are sorry to inform you of Rolls Gracie’s death”. And we were paralyzed. First thing we started calling people, we jump in the car, and drove all the way to Rio. And when we got in Rio there was so many people in Flamengo, where Helio Gracie used to live. There were cars all over, it was a tragedy. And I was there, when he – I’ll never forget it – when you had to go see him when he was buried. Everyone was to go up the stairs and walk when he was in the [casket]. And I’ll never forget the picture for many many years, and he had his two hands [crossed on his chest], and [it was like he was] sleeping. And everyone had to go and look, in the [casket]. His wife, everyone there went up, I’d say over a thousand people in the cemetary, and we had to go look [at] him, and I remember looking and his neck was big, because he broke his neck, but I felt he was only sleeping. You could not believe this stuff. It was incredible. When his case went down the hole, everyone threw belts, threw gis, threw stuff… one guy I’ll never forget that when I looked, I helped (it was me, Jacare, to Nick “Bamboo”, were some of the guys who helped to carry the [casket]. And every name that you can remember was there. Every name. At one point I remeber when the casket went down, I looked far away on the hill and I saw Carlson. Carlson went away from everybody. He was so sad. I’ll never forget the picture. Carlson was standing far away from everybody with his arms crossed and I look at him… I never saw Carlson so sad because Carlson was very, always a funny guy. (Every Gracie has their own particular way to talk, in language and stuff.) And it was remarkable because a new legacy was to come up. It was Rickson. You know?
Caleb: So it was a transition for the whole family.
Carlos Valente: The new transition of the family. Because the Gracies, what I felt at the time was from Carlos, from Helio, to Carlson… Carlson passed to Rolls… and then Rickson. And to this day, I feel still… [among] the old people we have many incredible people – Renzo Gracie, Royce Gracie, many others, not even counting any of the [young ones] like Roger Gracie but, to this day, there’s still no one that can come close to Rickson Gracie’s image. You know? After Rolls, it’s going to take many many many years for another guy to come like Rickson or Rolls Gracie.
Caleb: Well transitioning from the past to the present, I want to get a picture from you of… Do you think that when you visit the schools today and do seminars, to schools today train in the same spirit, or is there something different in the quality of the training today than in the past way back in the beginning?
Carlos Valente: Well, absolutely it has a totally different way. First of all these days, what do you have these days in a new school? You got new moves. That’s the only new things you got. Jiu-jitsu went beyond my imagination, and even Rolls Gracie’s imagination, any Gracie imagination. It grows so much [because of the] new moves. New champions. New abilities. But – to have the old times like before [and] the instructors? Totally different. The respect… the respect for each other… how serious [it was]… and the desire… The old timers like most of my friends (me, Fabio Santos, Pedro Sauer, Romero Cavalcanti, Sergio “Malibu”), we had a thing that many schools do not do today. It’s very easy to put on the belt and show a move. But you have to have the image of your students to really respect you. Not because you’re the toughest guy on the mat. Because you show beyond moves. That’s what I took from Rickson, from Rolls. If you’re going to be what I call a full instructor, you gotta have the right message. You gotta be a message, you gotta be a psychologist, you gotta be a friend. That’s was Rolls [and] Rickson were. You gotta be a full package. You know? You can go in Brazil and every corner has a black belt. But to have the school it takes the opportunity I had, like many other guys. A school’s not only about the super flying armlock or the choke, it’s about discipline. It’s about your students come and they have something to hear from you. In the old days, like I said we had the jokes and stuff but, we had a respect and motivation to go see this guy (Rolls Gracie) to train. You know? Jiu-jitsu is a way of life. It can help you guide you in so many ways, if you [have] the right mind. Like Rickson always said a long time ago, “Who makes the school is the instructor”, you know? You can go to [learn from whoever], even my own guys like [Eduardo] Telles, or Andre Galvao, whatever – “Oh the champions!” – but it’s not the same. I put a guy that goes beyond, that has something to say.
Caleb: So you’re explaining the difference between what makes a champion versus what makes a great instructor, and those kind of characteristics, the charisma that you want of the leader.
Carlos Valente: You gotta be a leader. You gotta be a mentor. You gotta have the right philosophy, you know? Student’s don’t stay with you because… If I was thinking I was gonna be a black belt one day and I had to have a different move every day, my goodness! How am I gonna come to school everyday and try to show a new move? That’s not the way that you keep the student. You keep your student the way you present yourself. Your mentality. Your personality, you know? There’s not many, [like] Rickson, Rolls… that explains it right there.
Caleb: So those are the characteristics that you think make a great instructor. What characteristics do you think make a really great jiu-jitsu student?
Carlos Valente: The characteristics that make a Brazilian jiu-jitsu student… Well first of all Brazilian jiu-jitsu is totally different in United States than in Brazil. In my times, in the old times, for you [to] get a black belt it’s twelve years, ten… in the old days the colors were faded. Brown – faded. Everyone. Because you had to pay time. Pay time for the simple reason that you gotta belt if you win a tournament. If you have the desire to stay, you know? These days in jiu-jitsu you can get a black belt if you’re good, exceptional, in six, seven [years] in Brazil. Here in America, the mentality is different. It’s very common you can go in many schools and have a legitimate Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor… if you can make a purple belt guy, a brown, stay with you for five or six years, you’re a good instructor. Otherwise, it’s very common to have a five thousand blue belts stay with you two years, three years, and leave. Because Brazilian jiu-jitsu number one is very rough on your body. And every one here works the next day. It’s less forgiving to train with the gi with the right guiding, with the right instructor who can guide you. And then you understand. To make a good jiu-jitsu practitioner, that comes to be a champion: desire. Discipline, you know?
Caleb: So you talk about some of the trends that are happening now in the United States and the way that jiu-jitsu black belts are made here, and the differences. You’ve been writing about that in your magazine. And this is something that you and I talked a little bit about before the interview, but it seems like a lot of the classic jiu-jitsu guys that we’ve been talking with, like Fabio, and you, and some of the guys from the very early days, seem to be very opinionated, and that’s not a bad or a good thing, but it’s just an observation. Would you agree with that?
Carlos Valente: Depends who it is. If you’re talking about us old timers like me, Fabio, I think you can be opinionated. You’re talking about a five or six degree black belt with a lot of history. I think I can be opinionated. Like Carlos Gracie Jr. can be opinionated. Rickson Gracie – he can be opinionated. We are the founders. But, I think the new generation they are not opinionated because most instructors always pull for their own team. “No, my student is better! This guy is not good!” Whatever. When I say these guys are opinionated, I say they are shallow. They don’t have much to tell. And they don’t have much history and background, like me, Romero Cavalcanti, or Fabio Santos, or Pedro Sauer. You’re going to say a Gracie guy cannot be opinionated? He can be opinionated! They created the story! Carlos Gracie, you can talk about whoever! They created [jiu-jitsu]! Rickson can come in and say anything about anybody in jiu-jitsu. In your question I feel when I ask this I feel it goes more to the young people. “Oh no, this [guy] is creonte, this [guy] is a traitor! Oh no I am [better] than him! bla bla bla” This is very shallow. Empty. Nothing to say, because when you know you and people knows who you are, they will respect what you have to say. I have a position today to tell, in a magazine, because I have something to say, like many others. What it is, is that a lot of the new guys, flying over [from Brazil] in the plane, and creating their own stories in America because they’re Brazilian – you know these guys coming over on the plane with the purple belts and creating their own story, bla bla bla – I come [from] way back. From the seventies. You know this whole thing I was there when it started. All the names we’ve been saying here, we were all there from the beginning. So you know only us, the truthful instructors can be opinionated. The rest, better shut up than to say something stupid. (laughs)
Caleb: Okay we’re going to wrap up the interview because it’s been a good one and a very long one. But one of the questions I want to ask as we wind it down is, do you have a favorite memory that jiu-jitsu’s given you after all these years?
Carlos Valente: The best memories I have from jiu-jitsu after all these years, was at the beginning. The Gracie legacy in the seventies, in Rio. First of all in the seventies, karate was the biggest thing. You know, it had big names in the South Bay like Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon like Paulo Goes, Paulao, the toughest guy in karate… Tanaka… bla bla bla and every bouncer in Rio was only a karate guy or a boxer. And the best memory was me and my old friends (I’m not going to put the names) when we used to go out and beat the crap out of the bouncer, beat the crap out of everyone. No one knew what jiu-jitsu was about. That’s when the Gracies and the name [got bigger]. “Oh it’s the guys from the Gracies!” And I have many memories, even of Rolls, such an incredible guy. I am going to tell a little particular way that Rolls handled things. If you were a student of Rolls, weekends went by, and they’d come in at the beginning of the week and say, “Rolls I went to this place and the guys from some tae kwon do school roughed me up and beat me up.” “Where is it”, Rolls would say. Rolls, me, used to go and take care of business. Like in the seventies, your buddy what is his name, who you stay with in Brazil?
Caleb: Oh, Breno Sivak?
Carlos Valente: Breno was in a house with a babysitter. He was not of that time. (laughs) And we used to go, Rolls used to walk in the school – this is one of the stories of Rolls – I was there when he went to Flavio Molinas’ school in Lago do Machado. There were big stairs going up. We all went up, everyone was lined up. It was a dispute from Charles Gracie. He was a little guy and he got beat up from one of Flavio Molinas’ guys in Teresopolis in the Eugeno club. That’s where we all used to go. But anyway, I went to train and every one was leaving saying, “Get in the car, let’s go!” It was me, Mauricio Gomes, and Rolls in one car. And everybody else, Romero Cavalcanti (Jacare), got in the cars to go to the place from Copacabana over there. We got up in the school. And Rolls didn’t say, “[Which one] is he?” And, “What did you do to my nephew?” And it was a slap in the face and showtime. Just like the Western times.
Carlos Valente: The memories of the seventies, was like, we went in every class you talk about winning challenges, the Gracie family, whatever, on the street, on Apuador beach, I was there. And those are the best memories from the seventies. No money can buy [them], no money can produce [them]. All you can do [to have them] is only if you were there to live [them]. And that’s the way it is.
Caleb: Excellent Carlos, thank you very much.
Carlos Valente: Okay thanks for this opportunity, for the opinionators right there!
Carlos Valente: Go train! And stop the Jerry Springer soap opera!