#195 Jiu-Jitsu Takes Root in the USA

Brazilian jiu-jitsu history
Standing, left to right: Carlos Gracie Jr., Rorion Gracie, Helio Gracie, Richard Bresler, and Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti. Kneeling: Rickson Gracie. Photo courtesy Richard Bresler.

In the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, a skinny Brazilian named Royce Gracie defeated much bigger and stronger opponents using what was largely an unknown martial art called jiu-jitsu. The event was produced by Royce’s older brother Rorion Gracie, the oldest son of Helio Gracie. Many people understandably equate the first ever UFC with the birth of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the United States.

While UFC 1 was a platform for the United States to be exposed to jiu-jitsu for the first time, it was already slowly spreading in the Los Angeles area in the 1980’s. Our guest today on the FightWorks Podcast is Richard Bresler, who was one of Rorion Gracie’s earliest students after they met in 1979. Bresler became Rorion’s roommate and was a front row witness to those early days in LA, where Rorion and other Gracie brothers would face challenge upon challenge from other martial arts masters, who inevitably were shown the supremacy of the Gracie family’s jiu-jitsu. The stories in today’s show shed light into an important time in Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s history that is not well documented.

We will also review last week’s BJJ Poll and thanks to a call from one of the Mighty 600,000, introduce our newest poll. (Please call and leave us a message or question for the show! The number is 877-247-4662!)

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The Fightworks Podcast: Alright family, we are in Los Angeles today. I’ve driven up from Southern California and I’m sitting down with a gentleman named Richard Bresler, and we’re going to hear an angle of the story of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s exodus from Brazil on its path towards global fame and acceptance. Richard, how are you?

Richard Bresler: I’m great, thank you.

The Fightworks Podcast: I’m doing well. So, basically family, the reason I’m here in LA is because I was contacted in December, after some of our more notorious episodes came out and Richard contacted me. He called me and said “I think there are some things you and your audience might want to know about the history of jiu jitsu, at least in the United States, that they might not know right now.”

Richard Bresler: Right.

The Fightworks Podcast: So, let’s talk Richard. Tell me about the early days of Brazilian jiu jitsu in the United States. When I say early, most of our audience – and you and I talked about this – think that the early days of jiu jitsu in the US is probably around ’93, right? 1993, when Royce Gracie first fought in the UFC. That’s when things got big. But your experience is way before that.

Richard Bresler: Right. My experience starts around July or August of 1979, when I was in the restaurant business, kind of aimlessly roaming through life. I actually had a friend in the waterbed business, and I got an extra waterbed mattress. I bought a mattress, so I ended up buying a whole bed, so I had an extra mattress. I sold it – before the internet – on Recycler. When I got home from work, there was a recording that said “I want to buy a waterbed mattress”. It was Rorion’s roommate at the time. I called him back, and Rorion answered the phone. I said “Some guy called me about a mattress.” He said, “Well, he already bought one.” I was ready to hang up, but Rorion says “But I want a mattress.” So I said, “Well, come on over” (I lived in the marina). The guy drove over, took him about a half hour, we talked. He was a really calm, very very confident person, and he ended up talking me into selling him three sets of waterbed sheets for $15. I wanted $15 a set! But he just said, “You never know when it will come back to you.” He was such a nice guy, so I said okay. We started walking down out of the house, and he said “Have you ever done any martial arts?” Not wanting to sound like, you know, I said “yeah, I boxed for a little bit. I boxed for three months, why?” He said “well, my family has been doing jiu jitsu in Brazil for sixty five years, we’re a family of champions,” blah blah blah. I’m sitting there going “and yeah, you’re one of these guys, right?” But he was so nice, I was just thinking it, I didn’t say it to him. He says, “Why don’t you come by for a free class?” You know, he said the optimum word there, free, so I went “wow, free private class.” I drove to his house. It had a little garage – not the one that people have seen pictures of, but before that. I took a class, and I was amazed, blown away by the techniques. I was hooked, and at that time, I said “I gotta come back.” Right after the class, Rorion, he made me a fresh glass of apple juice. This was before electric juicers: he peeled the apples, grated them with a plastic grater, put it through a cloth bag, squeezed it…this is like, not only do I get a class with the guy, but he gives me that. So that’s where jiu jitsu started for me. I was hooked and wanted to go from there.

The Fightworks Podcast: This was what year again?

Richard Bresler: It was in the summer of ’79.

The Fightworks Podcast: So, you were introduced, one of the first Americans probably introduced, to Brazilian jiu jitsu that day?

Richard Bresler: Yes.

The Fightworks Podcast: What happened next?

Richard Bresler: I started coming for class, like one class a week, because at that time he was doing little extra work in the movies, and didn’t really encourage me. He just said “Come once a week.” So, sometimes once, sometimes twice. But I just loved doing jiu jitsu, and my life, personally, was falling apart. I’d been doing the fast food business – which I hated – I had no direction, and jiu jitsu was something I looked so forward to. I was doing drugs, and I mean, I was really going through the worst time of my life. I moved in with guys in the entertainment industry, which didn’t help my personal life. Anyway, so I was talking with Rorion in the summer of ’80, because he had left for Brazil and come back, a couple of months later. As I kept coming back for my class, I said, “You know, I’ve gotta get away from these roommates. Really, I need some change, I need stability.” He says, “Richard, you know, I need a roommate too. Why don’t we get a place?” I actually was so shocked, I went “why the hell does this guy…” I mean, he needed credit, and I had credit, so we got a place that was called The Garage in Hermosa Beach, on 3rd Street. In October of ’80, we moved in there, and the first week we were in there, Rickson, Hélio and Carlos Gracie Jr came and spent a week with us. That to me was jiu jitsu heaven.

The Fightworks Podcast: I think most of our listeners are thinking the same thing right now.

Richard Bresler: Oh yeah, I mean, I get to roll with Hélio Gracie when he was in his mid-sixties. I thought, this guy is old and fragile. I remember looking at Rorion, because Hélio doesn’t speak English, and saying “I don’t want to hurt him.” He just smiles at me and says “Don’t worry about it.” Hélio put his hands inside of his gi, so he was doing no hands, and I was mounted on top of him. I tried to choke him, and he just moved around, then next thing I know, he elbow escapes, put me in the guard, swept me and mounted me, all with his hands in his gi. I was just like “how the hell did he do that?” I have pictures, I have videos of me doing little, two or three minute videos on my Facebook page, of Rickson. Thank god we had 8mm back then: it’s really weird, we see the video cameras people have now on their phones, wasn’t even as good as these 8mm. I got to roll with Rickson more than a couple of times then, but at least it was recorded. It was incredible to be back then. Rickson was nineteen at the time, and I think he’d just fought Zulu.

The Fightworks Podcast: Yeah, that’s about right. Ok, so [laughs] you are suddenly thrust into the paradise of jiu jitsu before anybody. You weren’t the only person training at the time, right, but you were one of the earliest, apparently?

Richard Bresler: I think Rorion had taught a couple of guys before me, but I was the first regular student. I was the first student who kept coming back. He’d given a class, but people for whatever reason didn’t come. I kept coming back. In October of ’80, whenever there was a chance, I would tell somebody. I told one of my brothers friends, I said “I’ve started doing this martial art, and this guy taught me, I can choke you out with a towel.” You know, a beach towel, collar choke. So I threw the towel around his neck, he tapped in like a second. He goes “I gotta learn to do that!” So I told somebody, and he’d meet people, someone would tell somebody else. Back then, we would go to other jiu jitsu schools. We went to an American Jiu Jitsu school, just because I thought if a guy had a black belt around his waist, jiu jitsu was jiu jitsu.

The Fightworks Podcast: Of course! Isn’t it?

Richard Bresler: Yeah! [laughs] I was awakened to so many things…I mean, there are too many stories to tell you everything that happened. We went to an American Jiu Jitsu school, and the guy that was there – I was basically a blue belt at the time – the guy says to Rorion, “Look, you tell your other guys,” (he kinda waves) “go over there with the other guys, and bring your black belts over here.” So I’m going over there with the other guys, and Rorion grabs me by the sleeve, and says “Come with me.” I’m like, “Rorion, he said black belts.” He says, “Don’t worry Richard, you know more than these guys.” I’m like…I’m shocked. So I’m mounted on top of the guy, and Rorion is saying “What would you do if?” I’m mounted, and the guy reaches up and puts two fingers in the bone over here, and he just tries to put pressure on to get me off. I just sat up a little higher, and the guy goes crazy trying to throw me off. As he threw me off, I’d grabbed him in an armlock. Rorion is just like, “So Richard,” he didn’t want to show him anything. He just told me to let go, so I let go of the armlock. Then the guy mounted on top of me, and I rolled him off in a couple of seconds. I was blown away by what this jiu jitsu stuff is about. The more I was involved, the more I went, there is something here. I was telling everybody I could about jiu jitsu, and they would just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.”

The Fightworks Podcast: This is, like you said, before the first Gracie Academy ever opened in Los Angeles. At this point, the extent of jiu jitsu in the United States, certainly round here, was that garage, right?

Richard Bresler: Yeah, the garage on 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach. That was the Academy. I mean, I had a ’76 BMW that I couldn’t park in the garage, because our garage was reserved for the mats. That was the Academy. I lived with Rorion for about fifteen months, then he got married and Ryron was born, so I left there. Things from around 1980, Rorion would talk to different martial artists and – I mean, it’s pretty public now – Rorion would talk to different guys, and he ended up fighting some guys because they wanted the challenge. Rorion told me, he says, “Richard, I don’t want to make an enemy, I don’t want to do that, we realize we’d make too many enemies.” So, if he did it, he says “I’ll tell you what, you can go out, I don’t care who you find, I don’t care what they know, I don’t care how tough they think they are, if they want to put it on the line, put it on the line. Bring them over.”

The Fightworks Podcast: Your job was to go pick fights?

Richard Bresler: [Laughs] My job was to go pick fights! I didn’t know where to go.

The Fightworks Podcast: This is in audio format, so for our listeners, why don’t you describe yourself?

Richard Bresler: [Laughs]

The Fightworks Podcast: Neither of us are big, imposing guys.

Richard Bresler: 6’5, 270…

The Fightworks Podcast: [Laughs]

Richard Bresler: Yeah, I’m barely 5’11, and I’m 160lbs.

The Fightworks Podcast: So, when you went out on these missions to recruit the…victims basically, what was that like?

Richard Bresler: Well, Rorion was 6’1, maybe 170 to 175, so he wasn’t a big guy. Ryron and Rener are much bigger and stronger looking than Rorion was. So I’d go into karate schools. I didn’t know where else, who had the toughest guys? I heard a lot of stories. I’d go in there and I’d talk to them, and I’d try to be really nice, but I’d say “There is this guy from Brazil that is kinda irritating and he thinks that he’s all that. Do you have any guys here that are really tough?”

The Fightworks Podcast: Personally, I can’t stand the guy. [Laughs] Come on over!

Richard Bresler: I wanted to hear this guy, because I heard stories, and they’d make like an inch sign with their fingers, and they’d say “Oh man, I have this guy, and he’s like a stone killer. He can break a brick from an inch away, you don’t want to mess with this guy.” So I said, “That’s the guy that I want.” You know? They’d talk and they’d talk and they’d talk, and nothing would happen. I would say, “Two guys go in, basically. Obviously they’re not going to eye gouge, but it is just going to be a fight.” I’m telling you, I heard so many stories, but no-one was willing to do it.

The Fightworks Podcast: But apparently some people were willing to stop by, because we’ve seen the videos, right?

Richard Bresler: Well yeah, but that was a little bit later. I mean, I had a guy that worked for me, that was a second degree black belt in kempo. This was back in ’80, I had a fast food place. So I said, “Why don’t you come over?” He came over, and they both had on gis. Then this guy is throwing some punches, but just kinda like really lightly, and Rorion would go into the punches, clinch, and take him down gently. Each time that my employee got taken down, he got madder and madder, and kept trying to hit Rorion harder. Rorion actually let the guy have eleven tries. Around the eighth, the guy took the gi off, and he’s jumping around, like “I’m going to take you out!” He’s really serious now. Anyways, we’re on the eleventh time. Rorion lunged in, lifted the guy up and slammed him. Each time, Rorion was gentle, but after the slam, the guy was “Ok, I’ve had enough.” So there were guys that started to see it, but there were still so many guys back then that didn’t believe it. They were like “Wait a second. Yeah, this guy just wasn’t tough enough,” or he wasn’t this, he wasn’t that. I’d seen the videos of Zulu and Rickson, twice, I’d hear about the stories of what those guys did in Brazil, but it was a little different in the US than in Brazil. I mean, the things in Brazil they would tell me. Rorion, or Hélio would put on something in the paper, like “If you want to get your arm broken, come to the Gracie Academy.” This is early on in Brazil. Well, you can’t really do that in the US. Besides, he was trying to make friends and he was trying to show people.

The Fightworks Podcast: Ok, so you’re at a point in the early ’80s there where a few people here, in the Los Angeles area, are beginning to understand what jiu jitsu is because you were out on these missions to help Rorion spread the word, the good word. Did you have any particular stories in the entertainment industry that our listeners might enjoy?

Richard Bresler: Well, actually there’s one I have in mind, but before I tell you that, there was a guy at the time, who I think was a lightweight kickboxing champion, Benny Urquidez, in the ’80s. We had the opportunity to go to his school. So I went there: I remember my mom and my aunt, my dad, we all went over there. It was kind of like a thing where I went “Wow man.” I mean, Benny Urquidez had a reputation for being quite a fighter back then, knocking out guys, but he was a lightweight. So when we went in the studio, they would just be shadow boxing or kicking. Rorion would just cover up and lunge in, but nothing really happened, because I don’t think they really wanted to engage. So it kinda stayed there, and at the time, Rorion went “Richard, go put on your gi.” I’m like, “Put on my gi? I’m a blue belt, I’ve never had any kind of experience.” I’m shaking, and saying “What do I do?” He says, “Ok, we’re going to stand you guys up against each other. I want you to cover your head, and when they say ‘go’, you just lunge.” I didn’t have hardly any practice at all. Not a fighter! They had some guy that was a purple belt in their style, and I was just a brand new blue belt. They put us up against each other, so I covered up in a fighting stance, and they said “Go!” I lunged at the guy, clinched him, pulled him into my guard, sat him down and went for a collar choke, because he had a gi on. As soon as I went for the collar choke, Rorion stopped it. He didn’t really want to show anyone else what we were doing. So, they stopped it, and Benny started saying, well, this is what he’s going to do, you know, so it kinda stopped there. I was happy that it didn’t go any further, but it was interesting that they started to explain that they would be able to counter stuff like that. But it never happened. But the story that probably most sticks out, is when we were invited by Chuck Norris. Or rather, Rorion was invited, and Rorion happened to bring Hélio and Rickson and Relson, Renzo, a couple of the Machado brothers. We went down to Vegas, for Chuck Norris’ annual seminar, I think it was. He invited a hundred black belts, his top guys throughout the country. Then he invited Rorion to come down and do a little seminar. I was lucky enough to travel with them at the time. So we went down there and I met Chuck Norris, who was a really nice guy, told me how he met Rickson and Hélio down in Brazil. Anyways, Rorion was talking with one of the guys, at a break in the seminar. They were talking about how good they thought jiu jitsu was, because they would stand up against their black belts. Clinch in, take them down, and none of the jiu jitsu guys got hit. They could say, you know, maybe they weren’t really trying, but even if they were trying, I would have thought the odds were in jiu jitsu’s favour. Anyways, at the break, this guy was saying about how jiu jitsu was good, but in a real life situation? In other words, if Rickson had to fight Dennis Alexio (who was the heavyweight kickboxing champion at the time), if he had to fight someone like that, he wouldn’t stand a chance. Rorion wasn’t saying anything, so I happened to go to the guy, and said, “Excuse me, this is what you’re saying?” He says, “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Rickson wouldn’t have a chance.” I put up ten grand of my own money too see if I could materialise this fight. To make a long story short, three months went by, and every time we talked to the guy, it took him, the first time it took him a week to get back to us. Second time, two weeks. Third time…you know. Anyway, after three months, we realised it wasn’t going to happen. But I had so much confidence that I didn’t think twice about putting up ten grand back in 1987, when I didn’t have a whole lot of cash to put up. I was so confident in jiu jitsu. This is before the UFC was even thought about, to do this.

The Fightworks Podcast: In a formal setting.

Richard Bresler: In a formal setting, yeah. So I guess that probably takes us to 1989, when Rorion came to me. He had four garages going at the time, he had the Machado’s in one, Rickson in another, Royce in another, and I don’t even know who else. I just remember there was like…

The Fightworks Podcast: …a network of garages?

Richard Bresler: Yeah, all in the South Bay. So he came to me, and he said “You know, if I’m going to make this thing bigger, I’m going to have to get into a school.” So I said, “Isn’t there any guy? I mean, there’s got to be guys out there who are willing to put up some money.” People weren’t knocking Rorion’s door down to open up a school. He needed to get a loan from a bank, and before he could get a loan from a bank, he needed to have something to show for it. So he came to me, and he said “Rich.” I didn’t have a whole lot of cash, but I borrowed twenty grand from my parents, and I had forty grand. So I said “Look, so if you get this money to show the bank, the bank will loan you another sixty thousand.” I went and met with the bank guy, who loaned him the money, and invested a little bit in the academy, and I said, “Let’s go for it.” So here, the Gracie Jiu Jitsu school in Torrance is born. He brought Rickson up – Royce was already here, Royce was a workhorse back then – and then Rickson, and I think Royler came a little bit later. We were doing classes, but people still weren’t knocking the doors down, to get in. At times, we were ready to be shut down by the sheriffs. That’s when I think about how things are now, as far as jiu jitsu. I look at what Rorion created, and realise that love or hate the guy, he’s the guy. He told me back when I met him, “I want to bring jiu jitsu to the world. If it’s in Brazil, it stays in Brazil. You bring it to the US, it will go out to the world.” This was his vision, and created hundreds of jobs for people. The early on guys he brought to do these garages at first, except for Royce, and maybe Rickson, there was a couple of other guys that worked for him. In Brazil, it was very, very lax. If you say 07:30, it means 09:00. Rorion was like, he had to be professional. These were the things that weren’t done back then. You know, the guys in Brazil, they went surfing, they train jiu jitsu, they go surfing. Here, if you say a class is at 12:00, you show up at 12:00.

The Fightworks Podcast: So, do you know if this was the first jiu jitsu school in the United States?

Richard Bresler: Well I know that Carley Gracie was up in San Francisco at the time. I don’t know where or how he was teaching jiu jitsu, but he didn’t make a name for himself there. But I know that this was the first Brazilian jiu jitsu school. I know that Rorion was doing, because of In Action, Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Action 1 and 2 in the martial arts magazines, it started to create a little bit of a buzz. I was lucky enough to travel to Hanner College in New York in the late ’80s, and Parsipanny, New Jersey, where I think Steve Maxwell probably got his start over there. But as far as jiu jitsu schools, not only was it maybe the first jiu jitsu school, but it was probably the nicest jiu jitsu school. You go into that school, and you don’t see paper towels on the floor or whatever. Everything is spotless, he runs it like a business. It’s nice and it’s clean. Even from where he’s gone now, he has his new school, that is incredible.

The Fightworks Podcast: I want to jump back just for a second, because you mentioned something that most of our listeners probably know about, but just in case, worth reviewing. You mentioned, and I think I even mentioned earlier in the conversation, Gracie in Action. Tell people about that.

Richard Bresler: That just spurred on a couple of memories, you know, because there were so many guys. Some of the fights on In Action were some of the fun ones in Brazil, that you can see Rolls and Rickson and Rorion fighting. But some of the stuff was here. They had started to make a lot of friends, and there were still – and I hate to use this term, but – ‘non-believers’. You know, the guys that wanted to put up. So we went to El Camino College, there was a guy that teaches aikido there. Really nice guy, Mitsu Yamashida, who started to study jiu jitsu. So we’d meet people, and they’d invited us down. There was this one night there was some kung fu guy, so Rorion went down to fight the kung fu guy. These guys would all sorts of screaming sounds, and they’d clinch in, he’d mount on top of the guy and finish the fight. Then the kung fu guy’s instructor was there, who Rorion took on twice. There were a lot of these little things that were happening, over and over again. Rorion, every time they would put up, he’d show what would happen, including Ralph Allegria, which was done in a boxing mat. It was kinda like a prelim to a small fight in Torrance, and the fight was over so quickly. Ralph greased his body up, because he knew what Rorion was going to do.

The Fightworks Podcast: Give us some background, because I bet our listeners don’t know who Ralph Allegria is.

Richard Bresler: Ralph Alegria, at the time, I think he was probably a champion in kickboxing. Just like anything, someone probably said to him, “Yeah, I’ll fight this guy.” He does, you know, this jiu jitsu stuff, which no-one really knew enough about. So when they step into the ring, Rorion is looking down, just warming up, and Ralph is jumping all over the ring, throwing kicks, trying to intimidate. Throwing kicks like maybe a foot from Rorion’s head, showing just how powerful a person he is. I understand why anyone would want to do it, to intimidate somebody, but you know, he wasn’t easily intimidated. He’d been under fire before. So when the fight started, actually, I was announcing the fight at that time, but you couldn’t even hear me, there was so much screaming. I wasn’t yelling loud enough, I wasn’t an announcer, but I was just trying.

It happened so fast: Rorion got into the clinch, they went against the ropes, he tried to grab the ropes, Rorion tripped him, fell down. Like Rorion says In Action 1, by the time he turned over, he had so much Vaseline on his body his arm just slid around his neck and made it easy to choke him. Those things happened regularly. It was a common thing back then. Then Royler fought guys, Royler did a couple of things when we had the Academy. Fabio Santos fought, a couple of times. This was after the Academy started, guys would come in and want to, you know, there was the Gracie Challenge.

The Fightworks Podcast: So, these events were the sort of thing that were filmed and put on, at the time, VHS right?

Richard Bresler: Yeah, [laughs] VHS, yes.

The Fightworks Podcast: And distributed in magazines and elsewhere, and that’s where the beginning of spreading this word happened?

Richard Bresler: That’s right. That’s what had happened, where people started to, you know, the jiu jitsu buzz started. But as much as a buzz had started, there were still people that just didn’t realise what it was. It took the inception of the UFC and Royce to show this. There was enough of a buzz in Southern California, and Steve Maxwell on the East Coast was excited about it.

The Fightworks Podcast: But there was still nobody?

Richard Bresler: Yeah. I mean, the whole country knew nothing about it. I always thought that if a guy knew how to strike, you know, I was always watching movies, like Enter the Dragon. John Saxon, who starred along with Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly, both became students of Rorion. It kinda makes me wonder if Bruce Lee had lived, he probably would have become a student of Rorion’s too. Which, you know, I can only guess, because those two guys did. It was amazing. Going back to early on, we were invited to go to Gene LeBell’s school, where they trained judo, down at the LACC. I remember when Rorion went down there with me. The guys did mostly stand-up, but part of their class was grappling. Rorion would go in, because he always wanted to see if he could get surprised by anybody. We went in there and he put his gi on, and he started rolling with all sorts of different guys, and it was amazing to watch. As he was grappling with them, he was also looking around the room to see who the next good guy was. So he is looking at me, looking around the room, as he is sparring with somebody, and then he would mouth out the word ‘armlock’.

The Fightworks Podcast: [Laughs]

Richard Bresler: And he would get the armlock. Yeah, from across the room, “I’m going to catch the guy in an armlock.” Then he’d say ‘choke’, and he’d get the guy in a collar choke. I was just dumbfounded, that these guys had no clue what was coming. It amazed me.

The Fightworks Podcast: This is all, like you said, the time before…

Richard Bresler: Yeah, this is the ’80s, the mid ’80s.

The Fightworks Podcast: First time reference for our newer listeners, or somebody who is just getting into any of this: the first UFC, when Royce Gracie showed Brazilian jiu jitsu on a bigger stage, was in 1993.

Richard Bresler: Right. November of 1993. I remember when I was ringside, because I was one of the guys who invested a little bit of money in it, and I get to travel with them. I remember I brought a little snack of fruit with me, to eat. I couldn’t eat it, because of the knot in my stomach. I was nervous: it was such a big thing back then. That was when most people saw that. The early on stuff in the ’80s, was to look back, to see how jiu jitsu was dominating, and now everybody learns jiu jitsu, or most guys learn jiu jitsu, because it is an equalizer.

The Fightworks Podcast: Yeah, that’s the idea.

Richard Bresler: Yeah, there’s not the element of surprise any more.

The Fightworks Podcast: So, one of the things that you and I talked about, before I arrived here in LA today, was the difference between the jiu jitsu of then versus what the conception of jiu jitsu is now. Do you want to talk about that?

Richard Bresler: Right, yeah. Where I teach now at Krav Maga, they show jiu jitsu as ‘ground fighting’, and most people that are doing like competitions or going to a regular jiu jitsu school – which is great, I love that a lot of people are doing jiu jitsu. When I went over for my classes, jiu jitsu had a whole stand-up array of self defense. A lot of people don’t know they, they know jiu jitsu as going in, some great sweeps and awesome armlocks and some chokes and all that, but we’d start the class out as like a collar grab.

The Fightworks Podcast: From standing?

Richard Bresler: Yeah, from standing. You know, a guy on the street is going to throw a punch at you, a knife, a choke from behind, a club. Whatever it was, it was a whole array of stand up self defense, which is not taught at very many schools now. Although I hear there is a guy, Fabricio Werdum I think, is still doing the stand up stuff. He’s over on Lincoln, in Venice. But other than that, I don’t think a lot of schools do that, and I don’t think a lot of people know that about jiu jitsu, that its got a whole stand-up self defense. Which I liked, I loved doing the whole self defense. I think it made it more complete, ready for the street. I never really was interested in competition. Rorion was more interested in protecting yourself on the street.

The Fightworks Podcast: That’s been a theme, and people talk about that. To what extent – or not – does that take part or belong in the Brazilian jiu jitsu of today. I think there is certainly a lot to be said for what you’re saying. It was the reason it all began, right, to protect oneself, and not win the 180lbs and above blue belt seniors gold medal, right? It’s street stuff.

Richard Bresler: Well yeah, Hélio Gracie, at the memorial for Hélio Gracie, early last year, one of the things that I think Ryron said was that if he had his choice, he wouldn’t have taught anyone over 170lbs jiu jitsu. It was to protect the small guy, to give the small guy an equalising chance against the bigger guy. In an ideal world: he also still at the same time wanted to spread jiu jitsu and show the world what he had. Hélio Gracie was, I mean, I got the opportunity to meet him in 1980 and roll with him a few times. Just an amazing human being, and when I went to Brazil, I got picked up by Hélio Gracie at the airport. Hélio and Relson picked me up there and drove me back. Just to get picked up by the old guy, and to see him at the tournaments, and how many people wanted to have their picture taken with him and get autographs. I don’t know what made me think of this, but I just remember when I was standing on a stage with him, which was, maybe, eighteen inches off the ground, where that brick is? Some guy wanted a picture with him, and I was going to actually help him down, and the guy is like ninety-four, or ninety or whatever it was, and he jumps off the stage. Most people want to be walking at ninety-two, and he jumps off a stage to have his picture taken. Yeah, it was truly amazing. His vision for jiu jitsu, I think, was kinda like Rorion’s vision is. I think it’s great that people do what they do and everyone has to be guided to, you know. I’m not saying anything negative about competition jiu jitsu, I think it’s great, but there is another part of jiu jitsu. Most people, I think, like Rorion told me, were getting involved in jiu jitsu as a self defense, to protect yourself. That is why most people want to do a martial art.

The Fightworks Podcast: Ok Richard, you’ve taken us way back, into times I don’t think many people have much insight into, right? There’s probably not a whole lot of documentation of the way things were back then, right?

Richard Bresler: No.

The Fightworks Podcast: So let’s wrap up. Are there any closing thoughts you would leave our audience with? Given that you had that unique opportunity to be Rorion Gracie’s roommate when he first arrived here, and help start his new school, travel around, this is all years before the first UFC.

Richard Bresler: Right.

The Fightworks Podcast: What would end this conversation with?

Richard Bresler: I guess the purpose for me bringing this to you was just to give the guys, your listening audience, a history of what happened, because there was a whole lot of jiu jitsu before 1993 and the UFC, and how lucky these guys are right now, they get to train. It’s not like I’m being a pro-Rorion person, I’m just saying that this guy, it’s his vision that made this whole thing possible. Nobody else was ready to jump over to America. He created something because he saw what he had, and I think it’s just amazing that we’re living in the time that we are, and the guys have such an opportunity to train in most places in the US now.

The Fightworks Podcast: Or for that matter, the whole world.

Richard Bresler: Yeah, the whole world. Absolutely.

The Fightworks Podcast: I get emails from Australia, New Zealand: people everywhere do jiu jitsu now.

Richard Bresler: Yeah.

The Fightworks Podcast: And it’s because of what you’re talking about.

Richard Bresler: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the guy, he is…

The Fightworks Podcast: …a special guy.

Richard Bresler: Yeah, he brought something to the world, and we all owe him a debt of thanks.

The Fightworks Podcast: We would not argue with you here, on the Fightworks Podcast. So Richard, thank you very much.

Richard Bresler: Thank you.

6 Replies to “#195 Jiu-Jitsu Takes Root in the USA”

  1. I Cheked those 8mm reels , on his facebook …Amazing to see Rickson training with the guy in 1979 !!!!! I would like to hear his take on Rolls Gracie.

  2. I want to thank everyone at TheFightWorksPodcast.com for producing this amazing audio and transcript. Thanks to Richard Bresler for doing this interview and telling the world this story. I have been training at the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California for the past year and a half. I always see Rorion, Ryron, Rener, Ralek, and Reylan Gracie. They are all amazing and fascinating human beings. I am privileged to learn Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Keep up the great work, thanks.

  3. Awesome interview Caleb! I LOVE hearing all the old school stories (and how Fabio was in those fights back then, I’ll have to ask him about that tomorrow night.) I’ll definitely be coming back to this interview to reminisce. It’s also a great bit of insight from someone who was THERE as to the influence that Rorion had on where we ALL are today. Love him or hate him you can’t really deny what Rorion meant to the development of BJJ in the US. I’ll point the critical people to this interview in the future.

    And does anyone know if you have to actually be one of Richard’s friends on FB to view the videos? I found his page and did a quick look but wasn’t able to find them? Just wondering if you need “inner circle” access. LOL

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