Interview with Rickson Gracie: jiujitsu master and founder of theJiu-Jitsu Global Federation

Interview with Jiujitsu Global Federation founder Master Rickson Gracie.

A concise version of this interview was recently published by Blitz Martial Arts, Australasia's leading martial arts magazine.

This interview was conducted on 29th July 2014. 10am Los Angeles Time

Liam Wandi: How's your morning been?
Rickson Gracie: It's great man. Just waiting for your call and excited about this new endeavour.

LW: Of course, and we are all excited. The whole jiujitsu community is excited. We met a couple of times during your seminars, once in Amsterdam and once in Glasgow and I am curious, were you thinking about forming the federation as far as back then in 2012?
RG: The idea of doing something about the sport is always on my mind and a while ago a friend of mine tried to create a new federation and gave me that idea. But at the time he wanted to have me in it but also to be the main responsible for it which I disagreed with because once I get into a federation, it will have my body and soul and creativity and ideas and I cannot just be his employee so we didn't go through with the idea. Finally, I got into a position to go ahead and create my idea and everything just fell into place.

LW: Fantastic. What is your role within the newly started JJGF?
RG: My role, with my current experience, is that I could identify the real problem with we have to solve today. Then, I give my input and my ideas on how we can approach and address that.
My partners, experts in technology and the corporate sides, and I will get together and try to build a platform where the message can be exposed and shared. We are working to achieve a very balanced federation between the technological and the business sides.

LW: Absolutely. What would you say is the mission statement of the Jiu-jitsu Global Federation (JJGF)?
RG: It's service. Our mission statement is service because I think that's what is the most important need, not only for the sport but also for the community.

LW: Why now? Obviously you mentioned that the idea has been brewing on your mind for a while but why now in 2014?
RG: It is a combination of factors. First of all, over the last 7 years after I moved to Brazil, I have been travelling around the world teaching seminars and I can definitely feel the appreciation of the knowledge. A lot of black belts don't have even basic principles of weight distribution, invisible power and leverage. Everybody has been motivated to play the sport and the sport has become a huge competitive element and growing in every corner of the world but I feel like there is a need for people to understand the concepts.

I have 10 different seminars, progressive levels. If people are comfortable with level 1, I will give people the next levels 2, 3 and 4. But every time I got into a seminar, approximately 200 people, at least half of them don't have the basic ideas from level 1 so I end up giving almost the same seminars, of course with a little difference. I feel like there is a big need for people to understand the concepts and as my body is getting tired and my bones start to complain, my position for the community is to create something where my reference becomes bigger than me hands-on. My intention was, through the federation, almost the same service I have been doing for jiujitsu my whole life, spreading the good knowledge, giving good reference in how they can teach, train, incorporate more techniques in their jiujitsu to facilitate the absorption from all segments of the community. (Jiujitsu is) not only for competitors, not only for tough guys, but also fragile people, women, law enforcement so I feel jiujitsu is a very complex and a very positive art to be taught for anyone not just for competitors or tough guys so this way, I feel like doing this I can serve a lot more people in the community.

To get back to your question about the amazing thing of doing this business in 2014, if you imagine that Facebook has only existed for about 7 years, we can use a modern tool to definitely spread, with much more efficiency, all the guidance and all the reference, to support  the needs of the practitioners, of the black belts, of the competitors, of the school teachers, of the school owners, of the federations all over the world and the independent promoters who sometimes divide themselves. Being in different organisations with no governing body to legitimate everybody and put everybody under the same umbrella. To give a real functional idea for the growth of the sport and be more helpful and more interactive with the community as a whole.

LW: That's great. I know you have mentioned in the past that you want the federation to become a meeting point for the jiujitsu community, very much like Facebook.
RG: That's right, because you know by using those tools I think because the federation is based around service, like I told you, and we focus on three different pillars of work. The first one is the "communication" aspect which I feel like there is a need in the entire community to have access to general information where everything is in the same basket. That means the biggest associations today have their own circuits and their own champions and they don't mix with each other. There is no one federation that represents even 50% of the community. The IBBJF has a good slice of the cake, NAGA has another, Grapplers Quest, DreamJiujitsu, SEVEN, Copa Pacifica, US Open. So many different associations and federation doing tournaments those days and they have no relation with each other. This is creating a divide in the competitor community.  and doesn't give them access to eventually look towards the olympics, or even before that look towards a premium world wide circuit, which would translate into a possibility to appear on TV or put major sponsors into the game.

I believe the sport needs this kind of unified thinking in order for us to get to the next level. I'm not creating this federation to compete with other associations or federations that have been in this game for so long.  I try to validate everybody and put everybody under the same umbrella, looking to fix our biggest problem which is restore effectiveness. I think the whole mission statement which is "Service" is to fill the need of the jiujitsu community itself which is, we are losing effectiveness. Based on that need, we need to come up with a lot of service in the communication aspect, by creating a "Masters Council" to get their active voice in the community, by creating a "Development Council" with the best teacher who are still hands-on to give their opinion on how to restore effectiveness. Also, creating a Facebook-like social media for the community so every fighter, every athlete can have their own profile and download their own fights and ask for their own sponsorships. This will also provide forums so the community can ask and get answers from the masters. It's a very interesting way for the community to start to find itself included within a body which will replace how we resolve our problems.

Jiujitsu is an evolving art and the way I feel about the evolutionary process of jiujitsu now is taking us to a very sportive-like direction in competitions and losing effectiveness in real life so in order for us to restore effectiveness, we have to work in the communication, such as sharing all the news and reporting all the tournaments within the sport. Some magazines nowadays are very partial. They talk about one show but don't talk about other shows or other champions. I think a real federation has to have eyes on every event me athlete, bringing everything to the same basket so they can expose themselves to the community.

Talking about the competition aspect,  I feel like if we don't do anything radically efficient we're going to lose our effectiveness. I love competition. I love watching the athletes fight but in the last few years, I feel like 8 out of 10 fights are very boring and very ineffective. They fight for positioning and to stall the game. They developed ways to make it easy to reach the medal, but they lose effectiveness in real life, in self defence and in the cage. My purpose I'm suggesting a change of rules is to create more dynamic action, prevent the stalling and making the fighters fight more dynamically as they fight on the street, in the cage and preserve our effectiveness. I want to make them rethink the way they fight. With the new rules, 90% of the current champions won't be happy because they're used to fight in a way I call anti- jiujitsu. They create technical ways to diminish the motions and control the action and gain an advantage. Once they get the advantage they sit back again and stall the fight in order to win the medal. While this is an easy way to the medal it jeopardises our effectiveness as a whole. This is why we have to work in the communication and in the competition aspects and most of all we have to work in the "educational" aspect. We need to preserve the art and philosophy. The federation will legitimise every black belt out there but it is a bit problem today in our culture because people are coming up through the belts based on tournament achievements. Eventually they become black belts and achieve fame by winning tournaments. One day they decide to open a school, which is beautiful, but when they go and start to teach the only thing they have to offer is the way they compete. They don't have children-, women- or law enforcement programmes. They have a very small ability to fulfil the complete needs of the community as a whole. The can only fulfil the needs of somebody that want a to compete.

Of course, I'm not going to de-validate anybody, but I will suggest to every instructor out there to be certified by the federation to increase their ability to serve and fulfil the needs of their community. They will then be able to retain more students too. Instead of having a hundred guys training with them they can have 500 people training with them: 200 kids, 100 women and executives and professionals.  Everybody cam take advantage of jiujitsu.

With this view in mind, we have to work within the federation to enhance service to help the instructors, the school owners, event promoters and so on.

LW: This is fantastic. Jiujitsu has been around for a few years and we have had a few different federation but why do you think we have had these problems arise? Where do these problems come from?
RG: You know, I feel like it's nobody's fault. I feel like introducing advantages into the the game, which is presented like half points but they're not really points. It's like in basketball having a ball hit the ring and you reward the team for that. That would create a situation where the player don't feel the need to learn how to score the ball in the basket anymore. By touching the ball to the ring enough times, they'd already be winning the game. Advantages were meant initially to help resolve grey areas but unfortunately they created more grey areas. The evolution of he rules do the sort has meant that tough guys now don't actually need to go for scoring point anymore. They can just make an attempt at a technique or show the referee a set up, like "hey referee I ALMOST passed the guard" so when they have the advantage it's almost like they gained a point so they stop trying. The game had become so sophisticated around gaining advantages and lost objectivity on who the best guy out there is in passing the guard, gain the cross side, mount and submit. Using the rules to get the medal is now the goal and the objectivity of the fight becomes secondary. In order for is to restore effectiveness, which is part of our culture, we have to definitely make changes in the rules like i, cutting advantages and ii, penalising stalling. By doing these two things, you're going to see a completely different fight because if the fighter cannot stall and hold a position just because they got a few points they have to let go and do something. It brings a completely different action package that's going to be better for the viewers, for the training and ultimately for the fighters. I really believe most of the existing champions aren't going to be too happy with that but I'm trying to favour 85% of the competitive community today who are the white and blue belts who, without knowing, are being misled into believing that they have to use thee stalling positions to get the medal.

If this keeps going, in ten years from now, jiujitsu will become something like taekwondo  or sport karate which had great athletes with great, explosive expression of athleticism but far removed from effectiveness in real life.

LW: I completely agree with you and I think many in the community do too. So you feel the changes in the rules and focus in education will help the JJGF avoid falling into these same mistakes?
RG: yes I do but having said that, I don't believe that the rules are set in stone. I tank we are still able to have an evolutionary process with the rules and make them more effective still. We will start with these sets of rules but, based on the opinion of the masters, the results of the tournaments and the comments from the development council we can change the rules. I'm not trying to own the truth. I want to be openminded in my focus on restoring effectiveness. You know, jiujitsu is an animal that keeps evolving. Techniques evolve, the athletes evolve, everything keeps moving ahead but you have to keep the quality control in terms of effectiveness. That's what we are about: restoring effectiveness through service.

If you think about it, all the first generation of the family members, and jiujitsu competitors, they all feel comfortable in any situation in life. They can handle life on the street, they can handle life in the cage or wherever. Now, I can see a new breed of champions who have no relationship to any real life situations and I think it's because the rules do not translate into effectiveness but rather only into efficiency in getting the medals. This is very disappointing for me to see the core of jiujitsu disappearing. It is a very serious matter in terms of what the future will hold.

LW: Absolutely. The new rules push towards a very dynamic future for jiujitsu competition. Will the JJGF enforce or at least suggest testing for performance enhancement drugs?
RG: of course. I think any governing body for a sport today that does not oversee that situation and aspect of their sport and how it threatens the sport is making a huge mistake. I mean it's like showing up to F1 with a car that has a jet engine. Drug enhancement is forbidden in sports for a reason so to make our sport legit, we cannot close our eyes to this modern problem. The federation will have to play an active role in overseeing this and taking away all the bad apples so they don't spoil the whole sport.

LW: Many in the community feel that existing or past "federations" carried the name federation but were actually run as corporations. It's embarrassingly visible out there and when there are suggestions for PED TESTING, rule changes or democratic votes, a blind eye is turned to that. What is going to be the organisational structure within the JJGF? Will it have regional / national divisions? Will there be a JJGF-Europe? Etc?
RG: 100%. I agree about the current situation. Our idea now is to create our new circuit and, instead of dividing everybody, to welcome everybody to be completely supported by us. This year, I'm not going to say "if you don't use our rules we don't respect or support you" instead, we want to welcome everybody to the federation. I will promote every tournament on the planet. I will accept and distinguish every champion, no matter the rules. I will try to bring attention to and suggest our new rules in order to create a strong body in the JJGF. the aim is to unify the community and bring major sponsors to the game and TV contracts.

All this is in my vision for the growth of our beloved art. Depending on the reaction and retaliation from the community, we might end up drawing ourselves back and preserve our own vision and culture for those who share and accept it. But I don't want to try to create that kind of division to begin with.

I need to talk to the promoters around the globe and get them on board. They need to see that they can't necessarily just double and triple the size of their events so if they can't expand horizontally, through the work of the federation, they can expand vertically through the involvement of sponsor and TV exposure. We'd be creating a very unique and sound business model and a very interesting development for the sport.

 I come with a very open mind to work with everybody because my position means I'm not trying to compete with any promoter, association or federation. It's just that somebody had to come and say "hey man,we need to create a big umbrella over the whole thing and let's make the sport grow and make the community get better results overall. Let's make the teachers more capable and more professional and the school owners and promoters more successful."

My vision starts with bringing effectiveness back to the sport. It's a beautiful thing, man. I wake up everyday very motivated and driven because I feel I'm till in the fight, but without my bones. (Laughs)

LW: absolutely. This is exactly what sport needs. When you used the term "umbrella" I was thinking "that is exactly what a federation should mean".

So to deliver your services and the pillars we takes about, do you have a structure of employees under you? I understand the JJGF was started by three people and that there's the masters and the development council, but is there going to be a structure of people within the JJGF governance?
RG: yes. The initial ideas are a follows:
1st: a clinic for the referees. We're going to certify the referees who already understand our rules, for them to spread all over so any tournament that want to run our rules can have official referees too to support there cause and event.
2nd: the first certified full instructors programme. I will invite the instructors who I know already know the programme of self defence, they will be certified as "Full Instructors" and then they will return to their regions and clubs whether in Europe, Brazil, Japan, Australia or the US. As they become full instructors, certified in that region, they will be the contact point for whoever is interested in our certification path, which is step 3.
3rd: instructors expressing interest in our certification pathway will contact the above full instructors and receive a digital training programme to study. Once they become comfortable studying this material, the applications and techniques of the self defence programme they will attend a test with those full instructors. If they pass the test, they will start a one year probationary certification period. During this year they will continue teaching and once every quarter or so they will show a class of whatever we ask them to show for us to see how they portray the correct ideas, concepts and teaching methodology. After the end of that year of being evaluated, they'll become full instructors like the first wave. That way, I can create scale because if everything depends on my availability and resources, I'm not going to have the time. I'm trying to create a multiplicative scale to replace me. The goal is for it to be the norm for a jiujitsu school to have a certified instructor within it.

This is what will give the school the potential to help all elements of society, from the police officers to fragile children to women's self defence and so on. That's exactly the position a jiujitsu school should have towards its community. It's a complete centre of martial arts where you can learn the techniques and concept you need to enhance your life.

LW: It sounds like you're trying to create something bigger than yourself, something that can replace you.
RG: oh man, you know that's exactly what I'm trying to do. If I look back at my life, I did everything I could do to represent, to fulfil my students' needs in order for them to become better. As men, as competitors, as parents or whatever. I feel like I've been dedicating my life to jiujitsu and as my body is physically fading, the best contribution I could do is to create some kind of pattern of quality control for our product and our community because what I see is our product being diluted and weakened. I see that my last challenge, my last fight, as very fulfilling and very motivational. I feel like if I can accomplish half of what I'm thinking, I'll be the happiest guy on earth. I'm out there fighting and providing service, working hard to conquer this challenge but in a much bigger position. For example, instructional videos: I will never, ever put my instructional videos on the shelf for anyone to buy. It's not about the money but for me it's about the principle. It's weakness from me if some guy I've never met pays $50 and takes my knowledge and a piece of my soul and then becomes my enemy. On the other hand, if a jiujitsu practitioner from anywhere in the country or the world, gets in contact with me and says "Master, I'm a jiujitsu teacher from wherever and I'd like to have your programme", I don't feel it's the same as selling it on the shelf to anyone. I feel like I'd be fulfilling that guy's needs as a black belt to become a better teacher. This is a completely different feeling for me because while I can be betrayed, but my intention is to serve jiujitsu  and I'd be giving another jiujitsu practitioner the elements he needs to become better. I'd be working with people who love the art, respect the art and live by the art and the knowledge so it's a. Completely different service.

LW: fantastic. So how are you going to select the first wave of certified full instructors?
RG: We are going to advertise through the JJGF site the schedule of all the events we've discussed. The first wave, as I mentioned, will be restricted to those who already know the programme. That step is neither about testing, teaching or failing nobody. That step is about recognition as full instructors and let them spread the full art. For anyone to make the cut for that very special first meeting, they must for sure be already very comfortable with the whole programme.

LW: is the digital material that will be distributed to applicants of the second wave already available? Has it already been recoded?
RG: No. I will create that and film it in the first full instructors certification phase. All the material will be there, I will be displaying and teaching it fully. Only if it comes to my attention in the future that something needs to be amended or added I will film additional material. In the JJGF offices, we have now received mats and set up a studio to not only portray those techniques but also have a mini TV station where we can solve technique problems, run interviews with masters and people who are relevant within the community and talk about current affairs within the community and the sport.
LW: Looking at the information on the JJGF website, I saw a distinction between "black belts" and "elite competitors". Can you please describe the difference and how practitioners can go from one category to the other?
RG: We aim to create a ranking system within our circuit, just like sports like surfing, tennis and others. Ideally, once we have everybody in that ranking system, we can look at the elite who may be the top 50 athletes. We will have premium events within the circuit which will have the elite athletes, which will become a professional tour much like in tennis and surfing. That, however, is a vision for the future ahead. We have to divide the average black belt competitor from the premium black belts who for instance already have sponsors and dedicate their whole life to training. We're trying to create a high level of competitors who will become like the professional reference for the rest. We are hoping that this worldwide premium circuit will bring our sport to the next level.

LW: Wow that's unique of in jiujitsu. Do you foresee on the future the JJGF to have a world championship?
RG: the mission of the JJGF is NOT to create a new world championship. It's rather to oversee all the tournaments and create a ranking because we feel that a champion cannot come just from winning one tournament. Winning one tournament does not, in my opinion, give the guy the legitimacy to be a world champion. I think by competing in different events, in different countries and by summing points throughout the tour we can form a better and fairer understanding who is the true champion. For example, if you cannot participate in a particular tournament it shouldn't mean that you are not the best athlete on the planet. Essentially we are trying to add value to the competitors and the competitions. This circuit is what will allow us to attract major sponsors and TV deals and exposure. Much like what we see in, say, tennis and golf.

LW: changing gears a little, will the JJGF interfere with belt graduations at the club / school level?
RG: No, we are not a dictatorship and I think leadership comes from having an open mind trying to bring the people together by listening to and respecting their opinions and observations. We have a belt system with knowledge requirements within each belt centred around technique and reflexes, but again we're not in the game to forbid people from using their own standards for belt testing. Ideally, we're going to legitimise all the existing ranks but we are going to suggest to the black belts to get certified as full instructors and we will share this belt knowledge breakdown and suggest that they consider using it for evaluation. If they don't want to then they don't have to but it wouldn't be ideal.

I think, little by little, the culture will change because this gives the students, the white belts, the voice and opportunity to make choices: shall I go and learn just how to win medals with efficiency or shall go learn the full art? By having this kind of self evaluation based on exposure to the knowledge and the elements of the art, students are going to think "we'll I'm a blue belt under Joe, but I'd be a white belt under Paul. What do I want to be, a weak blue belt or a strong white belt?" All this is going to become part of our new culture that prioritises effectiveness, no matter what the belt is. My blue belts sometimes go to other places and give a hard time to brown or even black belts which displayed either that the black belts don't know what they're doing or that my blue belts are super blue belts. I can tell you that they are just regular blue belts but they just have consistent information.

LW: in your opinion, what makes a good instructor and what makes a great instructor?
RG: a good instructor teaches the programme. The great instructor identifies what the student needs to learn and then teaches to fulfil those needs.

LW: will you still be doing seminars?
RG: yes. As my mission and dedication towards the federation becomes bigger, I will definitely diminish my physical seminars because firstly I'm nota getting any younger and my bones are complaining more and more and secondly I can really achieve great work by spreading the art through this new tool. Of course, I'm always happy to be on the mat and fulfil people's needs by being there and sharing techniques but you know that's not something I'd be focusing on.

LW: thank you very much, master Rickson Gracie for sharing your time and knowledge with out readers.

RG: my pleasure. Thank you for your great questions and for having such a passion for jiujitsu.

This is the end of the interview. I would like to thank Master Rickson Gracie for his time and my friend Tony Pacenski who made this interview a reality.



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