Ambassadors of the ‘Gentle Art’ : Jujitsu: Chuck Norris helps bring the first family of the Japanese technique from Brazil to a studio in Encino.
Chuck Norris--movie star, San Fernando Valley resident and martial arts practitioner extraordinaire --is discussing his new film, “Cold to the Touch,” a thriller being filmed in Chicago.
Norris plays a Chicago cop who is tracking down a psychotic murderer who has superhuman strength. Norris faces the madman in the movie’s climactic scene.
“When I start fighting him,” Norris says with relish, “I use several different martial arts. One doesn’t work, another doesn’t work and finally I start using jujitsu to really disable the man. Because kicks and punches just won’t work, I break him down using jujitsu.”
Norris, wearing his martial arts gi , is sitting on a mat at the just-opened Carlos Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Studio in Encino as he provides this sneak preview. When he gets to the part about jujitsu, Carlos Machado, sitting near Norris, beams proudly.
Machado, 27, and his brothers, John and Rigan, are part of the world-famous Gracie clan, a Brazilian family whose reputation in jujitsu circles has been spread by word of mouth for nearly 70 years. Their uncle, Carlos Gracie, is the Babe Ruth of jujitsu; he learned the ancient Japanese martial art in 1918 and molded it with street combat, all the while establishing the Gracies as the first family of jujitsu.
Now Norris, who has spent the bulk of his screen career using his martial-arts skill to humble scores of bad guys, has encouraged the new generation of Gracies to come to the States--and, more specifically, the Valley--to spread the ways of this sport whose name means “gentle art.”
Officially, the Gracie name came to America in September when one branch of the family, headed by Rorian Gracie, opened a studio in Torrance.
When the Gracie school in Encino opened in June, it became one of the few schools in the Valley to specialize in jujitsu. The sport has been surpassed in popularity by such martial arts as karate and tae kwon do, in which, unlike jujitsu, tournaments and competitions are emphasized.
“In a relatively short time, the Gracies have established themselves as one of the leading groups in the U. S., or the world, for that matter,” said Jim Coleman, executive editor of Black Belt magazine, the national circulation leader in its category.
Norris, who has no financial interest in the Encino studio, knew that he had to bring the Gracies to the Valley after he traveled to Brazil five years ago and trained with Helio Gracie, Carlos Gracie’s brother, at a studio in Rio de Janeiro. Helio Gracie was in his 70s at the time.
To put it mildly, Norris did not dispose of Helio Gracie as easily as he has dispatched vile criminals of the silver screen. Indeed, he didn’t dispose of him at all.
“I’ve never felt more helpless on the mat,” Norris said. “It’s the best hand-to-hand combat I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot. . . . I finally talked them into moving out” to the Valley.”
Talk about a hard-hitting ad campaign.
It was in the 1920s that Carlos Gracie, who was born in 1902, tried to establish jujitsu in Sao Paulo, Brazil. According to Carlos Machado, he placed a newspaper ad that read: “Whoever wants to have a broken rib, a broken arm or be choked out, just show up at this address and I will be there.”
More than once, Machado said, a tough, big Brazilian man would accept Gracie’s challenge. Gracie weighed 145 pounds. And more than once, the tough, big Brazilian would be choked out or leave with a broken rib or broken arm.
It was actually Carlos’ father, Gastao, who had brought jujitsu to Brazil by helping establish a Japanese community there. Prior to that time, the sport’s masters had forbidden the teaching of jujitsu outside of their homeland. But a leading member of the Japanese settlers in Brazil, a jujitsu champion named Maeda Koma, showed his gratitude to Gastao Gracie by teaching Carlos.
Koma taught young Gracie the 2,000-year-old martial art that combines leverage techniques of judo and cutthroat tactics on the mat. Gracie added street tactics to mold the martial art to his personal tastes.
He then began teaching his brothers Helio, Osvaldo and George, and set out to establish jujitsu as a recognized and formidable martial art in Brazil.
“They didn’t take my uncle seriously,” Machado said. “He was skinny, pale. Anyone who looked at him would say, ‘This guy is everything but a martial artist.’ So he eventually had to challenge other styles. Gracie jujitsu was developed under circumstances of reality.
“We didn’t have only mat work; we had the street and we had the arena.”
The arena Machado refers to is the site of what he calls “no-rule fights” in Brazil. Carlos Gracie, in an effort to establish jujitsu, would enter an arena in Brazil and take on any challenger at loosely supervised exhibitions. The fights would go until one combatant was rendered unconscious or surrendered.
“They kick butt on everybody,” Norris said of the Gracies. “They accept all challenges, get in the arena and kind of go for it.”
Carlos Gracie and his brothers flourished in such situations. But in the 1950s, the Japanese again spearheaded a movement to close off the teaching of jujitsu outside Japan, according to Machado.
The Gracies, now centered in Rio de Janeiro, simply refused to stop teaching jujitsu. They opened schools in Rio and cemented their reputation as the family you would most want to be seen with in a hostile nightclub.
“Gracie jujitsu is different,” Norris said. “They’ve refined it to an art of combat because Carlos started it by actually doing combat in the streets, to see what worked, what didn’t work and refining it to a realistic combative art.”
And Norris knows an effective martial art when he sees one. He holds black belts in judo and tae kwon do and has been kicking and throwing and jumping around on mats for 32 years, since he was stationed in Korea with the Air Force in the 1950s.
By the time the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s rolled around, a new generation of Gracies came on to carry the name in all its fighting splendor. Rigan and Rixson Gracie, especially, established themselves in the arena as taking Gracie jujitsu to its highest forms.
But the first Gracie to break ground on American soil was Rorian, who set up the school in Torrance. Machado came to America to work at the studio. There he met Norris, and the two got to talking.
The Carlos Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Studio, Valley-style, was created shortly thereafter.
“Whether their style is more effective than any other is hard to say,” said Black Belt magazine’s Coleman. “But I’ve seen it, and there’s no doubt that their form is really very effective against any style of martial art.”
Students young and old have enrolled to learn under the Gracies. And then there are students such as Richard Norton, a 41-year-old, 196-pound Australian kick-boxing champion who said he has served as a bodyguard for, among others, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Linda Ronstadt.
Norton said his time spent with the Gracies is a wonderfully humbling experience.
“I was grappling with Rigan the other day, and I suddenly realized there is absolutely nothing I can do against the person,” Norton said. “The average person has no concept of how technically advanced these guys are.”
Norton, who holds a black belt in karate, said Gracie jujitsu has filled a gap in his 28-year martial-arts career.
“It’s so different from punching and kicking,” he said. “Everything else is like a standoff, but almost always a fight in the street winds up in a grappling situation. It’s a complete way to end an altercation.”
Norton even let a 6-year-old student put a chokehold on him in a workout recently. Lo and behold, Norton was nearly rendered senseless.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Doesn’t it hurt your ego to be rendered totally helpless?’ ” he said. “I said, ‘No way. This stuff excites the hell out of me.’ ”
Machado said his school reflects a different attitude than the South Bay school. Rorian Gracie, of the South Bay school, is the classic tough guy. He has a standing bet of $10,000 to any challenger who defeats him.
Machado advocates developing the mind as well as the body and disdains boastful challenges to potential fighters.
“You can’t let the ego interfere,” Machado said. “If you’re good, you do not need to worry; you just do it. You don’t need to speak out against other people. That’s the way I see it.”
Norris said Rorian is simply more eager to prove the effectiveness of Gracie jujitsu.
“Rorian wants to prove that they’re the best,” Norris said. “It doesn’t mean that Rorian is bad, just that they’re more dramatic in their approach of trying to prove it. But even if you do prove that you’re the best, what has that proven?
“Really, the key thing is studying something that you enjoy studying.” That’s really what Machado’s “philosophy is: teaching and learning at the same time.”
Machado has a far-reaching vision for the sport, hoping to organize a statewide federation of jujitsu clubs and, eventually, a national federation.
In the past, karate and tae kwon do have proven more popular martial arts in the United States. Coleman attributes jujitsu’s smaller audience to a difference in style.
“I would say the main reason is that it’s not as flashy,” he said. “It’s also not a tournament-type sport, so it doesn’t hold the same excitement as karate, although they are trying to change that.”
Machado said: “Jujitsu is something practical. It’s a martial art that fills your needs. What do you need? Self-defense? You can fight self-defense. You need fitness? You can get fit working out. You also get the emotional aspect of it--you get more confident and lose that fear of body contact.”
Or, if you’re Chuck Norris, you can use it to dispose of a superhumanly strong psycho to keep Chicago safe for another day.
A 2,000-Year Tradition of Self-Defense
Jujitsu is a 2,000-year-old martial art with roots in India and ancient Japan. It is characterized by an absence of kicking and striking, and more closely resembles wrestling in its grappling techniques than anything else. Jujitsu is also similar to judo, which concentrates on using leverage to throw an opponent.
But jujitsu goes further, showing how to choke an opponent or disable him by breaking a bone. It is a more practical martial art than karate or judo, and its focus on mat work and grappling--rather than jumping and kicking--makes it a superior self-defense technique for women and the elderly.