Sunday, 21 September 2008

Where is Rickson?

Training this week has been more of the same and it’s going well – a couple of sessions this week just working hard on the principles we’ve been covering. Am I making progress? Yes, I think so – I may not have fluid, instinctive movement yet, but every so often I get something that feels great and works really effectively. My marker is that the frequency of such events is steadily on the increase week by week. I’m really enjoying myself at the moment.

For some reason, and I may have mentioned this already, my back is giving me a little trouble at the moment. Nothing like the “old” days, but I start out sessions a bit restricted then warm up into better movement during the session then it seizes up as I cool down. However, I’ve thought back to my time at the Osteopath’s and the hold/cold therapy that I was recommended so when I get in I’ve started using a hot water bottle and an ice pack alternately (always ending with ice) and it’s really helped – by morning I’m moving pretty freely. There must just be something that gets a little inflamed – I’m hoping that staying active, doing Yoga (my back always feels great after Yoga) and losing weight will gradually improve my back health.

On to the topic at hand. I thought I’d try and broaden the scope of the blog – mainly for interest but also as there are a lot of other things that surround BJJ – books, DVDs, news, products etc so I thought I’d try a few different pieces, reviews and so on. So today, I launch a pretty poor investigation into the question “Where is Rickson?”.

Rickson’s is a name that looms large in BJJ folklore and everyone’s got an opinion on him. To many, he’s a legend and an icon. Check any internet forum and there are many threads discussing how Rickson would fare against today’s MMA stars. It seems that as we approach the end of each year, rumours abound that “next year” Rickson is stepping into the ring for one last time, usually with the name of Sakuraba, “The Gracie Hunter” mentioned in connection. These rumours spark excitement, disbelief and their own speculations about who would win and how, and the inevitable discussion on Rickson’s age (he’s 49 at the time of writing) and whether he could still cut it in a professional Vale Tudo/NHB fight.

For an angle on this, we can look at a story from 2006, regarding Paulo Filho training with Rickson stating “I have trained with the toughest guys formed by Carlson Gracie. They were all great and I for sure don’t want to diminish anybody, but I have to say that no one ever did to me what Rickson Gracie has done during training these last days” suggesting that Rickson’s fitness and technique is as supreme as ever. And why wouldn’t it be? For sure, Rickson is genetically gifted, but why would anyone assume that he has stopped training, evolving, improving, just because he is no longer under the spotlights?

So where is he? Fitting with his legendary status, it seems that sightings of him and knowledge of his activities are fleeting. Every time he surfaces, there’s news or clips on the intranet and I guess there are two major things people want to know – is Rickson ever going to fight again and where/when and how can they train with him? It's a question that occupies my mind as a member of his association - especially since pretty much everyone else at my club has met Rickson and trained with him at least once...everyone except me!

Here are a few of the main sightings and rumours:

Rickson quits the US

According to this interview, Rickson has quit the US in favour of his Brazil homeland. Many observers speculate that the death of Rickson’s eldest son, Rockson back in 2001 in a Motorcycle accident (although rumours persist around the cause of death that I won’t grace with any mention here) prompted a retreat from public life for Rickson (and why wouldn’t it? The adage that no parent should ever have to bury a child springs to mind - take a look at this sympathetic interview which sheds light on Rickson's life straight after the death of Rockson). Rickson had this to say about his life in the US:

"There I feel that I am being sucked and I do not have a way to recycle that. "

I heard 2nd hand from someone that had spoken with Eddie Kone, who had trained in Brazil recently with Royler, that Rickson was at Royler’s Academy, just training and hanging out.

Rickson at the Mundials…

…and other assorted tournaments. Wherever Kron fights, Rickson’s usually around. Kron’s a big name. Not only is he Rickson’s son, but he’s also a pretty good BJJ prospect. OK, so after getting his black belt, he lost his first match at the Mundials. This created inevitable glee amongst far less talented people on internet forums all over with accusations of “sandbagging” at Brown Belt. From where I sit, these people conveniently miss the fact that Kron almost finished that fight by choke within the first two minutes but his opponent managed to tough that out – fair play, but it stands to some reason that a young guy (late teens) who’d been a Black Belt literally months, might lose out to an older guy with more experience. Kron isn’t Rickson, something that seems lost on detractors. I’m sure Kron will take lessons from the Mundials and return to dominate in future years. And Rickson will be there, coaching from the bleachers.

Rickson launches Budo Challenge

I think this was launched back in 2005 as a pilot with the prospect of more competitions to follow this foray. The notion behind the event was to promote Gi fighting with a rule set which encouraged submissions with core martial arts values such as honour and respect. This was seen as a rebuke by Rickson of competition Jiu Jitsu which allows competitors to play a tactical game of stalling and holding positions for points rather than seeking to end a fight by submission, which, ultimately, is Jiu Jitsu’s aim. It was also seen by many, with its production values, as an antedote to the rise of promotions such as the UFC, which many feel are now well removed from the core spirit of martial arts, something that Rickson quotes as his reasons for solely fighting in Japan during his “prime”. Take a look at this article which gives a pretty good overview of what Budo Challenge is all about.

I bought the DVD via the website and got pretty quick responses to emails to the producer, so there is an air of it not being completely dead, but almost three years on little else seems to have happened. I’ll review the DVD some other time, but suffice to say it’s a great spectacle for anyone that loves the Gi game.

Rickson joins Carlos Gracie Jr in Celebration

At the award of Carlos Gracie Jr’s Red and Black belt (8th Degree), in April 08, Rickson made an appearance as a guest speaker. This was a significant gathering of some of the best known names in BJJ and the promotion of a man who heads up the largest BJJ organisation in the world (Gracie Barra). Rickson’s presence was seen as significant by many because of a perceived “split” between those who believe that Carlos Gracie (Jr’s Father) is the true founder of BJJ and those that believe that Helio (Carlos’ brother and Rickson’s Father) forged what we now recognise to be BJJ. Such argument, if indeed any exists, is ultimately nonsense and was effectively buried by Rickson’s pesence at the ceremony, showing family unity between him and his cousins.

Rickson in Japan and launches the Jiu Jitsu Federation of Japan

Rickson holds a special status in Japan and has said in many articles he feels at home there amongst people who have a high appreciation of the martial arts. Because of his many Vale Tudo fights there in the 1990s, he is something of a celebrity in Japan and appears to spend a reasonable amount of time there.

Rickson has spent some time this year in Japan with one of his black belts, Takamasa Watanabe of Axis Jiu Jitsu running seminars with his son, Kron, which must be one of few, if not the only seminars or teaching he’s done recently.

Rickson (President) has also entered into a venture with Takamasa Watanabe (Director) called the Jiu Jitsu Federation of Japan. It seems that in addition to organising many tournaments, seminars and offering affiliation to clubs (for FREE and the list of current members is impressive), this organisation has, at it’s core, the desire to propagate the martial traditions that Rickson has spoken of many times and that are held in esteem in Japan, which is, afterall, where BJJ originated – almost a return to the roots.

Take a look at the website and you’ll get a better idea of what it’s about and here’s a little clip of Rickson talking about the federation:

Rickson slaps The Hulk!

Rickson makes a brief appearance in the 2008 film version of The Incredible Hulk, starring Ed Norton. In his short scene, Rickson plays a Martial Arts Instructor (a big stretch!) – confusingly labelled as “Aikido” in the end credits – teaching Bruce Banner a breathing method to control his anger. Quite how Rickson got this part (could be his famous breathing scenes in “Choke” caught someone’s eye), or whether this signals a wider interest in acting I do not know, but it’s still pretty cool that Rickson gets to slap the Hulk, thereby nullifying any arguments that he isn’t what he once was ;P LOL. Rickson beats the Hulk by Armbar! Here’s a clip (crumby quality but the only one I could find):

So there’s the best of what the internet has to offer…Still none the wiser, I decided to contact the Association Headquarters in LA and, as a member, ask simply “Where is Rickson?”.

I got this answer:

“Rickson pretty much living in Brazil, he spends only few times a year over here. He has a project for 2009 of seminars in the main cities of Brasil, US and some overseas. The Rickson Gracie Seminar Tour schedule is not available at the moment but we will post on the web. Rickson is not teaching in regular bases anymore or thus he has an academy in Brazil.” (sic)

I take the last part to mean that he doesn’t yet have an Academy in Brazil,
but may be wrong on this.

So there we go – there may well be more info out there or people that know stuff for certain, but this is what I’ve found. I’d be happy to hear from anyone that has factual information on where Rickson is and what he’s doing. Let’s see what happens in 2009 with the Seminar project. I’m planning a trip to the US in 09 anyway so if there’s a dovetailing of plans there that would be awesome, but we’ll see…

Rickson… where are you?!

Monday, 15 September 2008

I can see clearly now..

I’ve just had a pretty good weekend as things go. Saturday was an impromptu training session – just me, Dean T and Rick. We spent the time looking at one of the sweeps that we trained on Tuesday, but also the whole principle of inviting weight and re-directing and following weight. Dean also coached us to make it a training opportunity for both people – one practicing sensitivity and technique, the other just practicing movement and momentum.

I can’t quite remember what prompted the next part of the session, but I was struggling with one particular movement in trying to make our practice flow – that is kind of a backward roll – legs coming up and over the head to roll backwards. Having seen so many other people doing this, it’s an invaluable movement, but to me, there seemed to be two things stopping me executing. The first is a lack of core strength and the second, my perceived lack of flexibility in my lower back.

Dean took some time to coach me through the movement, using Rick as an “anchor”. With the right pointers I made pretty rapid progress with this movement, then, once I’d pretty much got it, Dean encouraged me to hold the position on my shoulders rather than follow right the way through. Once there, sort of just hovering over Rick, there were so many possibilities – I had controls with my arms, but was also able to use my legs and feet to block things – it was like a whole new world opened up. Being in such positions, I had Rick covered which forced him into various moves in his attempts to escape, which invariably gave me far more ammunition than had I simply followed the move through to the far more static mount, cross side or knee on stomach positions. It was amazing – on two separate practices I rolled effortlessly into a triangle and then an omoplata – positions I know but rarely, if ever, execute. It all just “happened” and I pretty much felt like I was doing nothing except waiting and moving with the energy created by my opponent. This is how Jiu Jitsu is meant to feel! I would never have thought that someone like me (I mean my level of competence, my size and restricted back movement) would ever be able to accomplish this sort of stuff! Before, I’d felt pretty much resigned to my “game” being using my weight, securing certain positions and then constructing opportunities for a few techniques which I know work for me. This was like coming up for air.

This was achieved with some great coaching from Dean – pointers at just the right moments, but far more important, encouragement which constantly raised my confidence to give things a try, reinforcement when things went well and the push to go “once more” each time to really drive home the feeling of success. It was also due to having Rick help me as my training partner – sympathetic and guiding in his own movements to give me the conditions I needed. Thanks to both of you.

I hope I’m right, but this feels like it could be the start of a new chapter in my training. I hope I can keep this feeling going – this style of training. I’m going to say now (easier said than done) that I know I’m about to enter a phase of making loads of mistakes and probably getting tapped every five seconds by less sympathetic training partners, but that’s OK. That kind of fits with how the BJJ learning curve seems to go anyway. Steep curves, drops, up again, plateaus, then another rise and so on…

So roll on training – I want more of this…I just hope I can get some consistency in keeping this going from one session to the next.

Yesterday (Sunday), I had my second Yoga class. More of the same stuff as last week, but focussing on different postures and mainly work around the shoulder area. This was bad news as my left shoulder has been a little “crunchy” of late and my trapezius muscle on that side feels pretty tight or like a nerve is trapped or something. Still, I gave it a go – tried the headstand (without success!) and the shoulder stand (which I just about did). Once again, I was surprised by how hard holding these poses works you – loads of muscle groups come into play and I worked up quite a sweat! I was keen to give everything a try and, with hindsight, I put myself under a lot of pressure to do things that, after only two sessions, I’d probably not be able to do after several. Even as I thought this I knew I was wrong to think this way, but seeing people around me, some many years older than me, some a lot less strong etc., doing things that I was not able to do made me even more “pushy” with myself. The teacher very kindly said to me afterwards “You’re game, but we just need to build up gently” – a kind way of saying don’t run before you can walk. I already knew she was right. So, I’m going to take my time, build up slowly and build my confidence. There were people there that have been doing Yoga for a while who were only just doing the headstand fully for the first time – why should I expect to do it on my second lesson?! Like I said in my last post about Yoga, I see this as a long term practice so have just got to take it slowly and as it comes.

It brought me back to thinking about this weekend’s progress in Jiu Jitsu. I’ve been training three and a half years or so now. In yoga, I’m like I was when I started BJJ – all enthusiasm and frantic tapping – metaphorically speaking. It’s taken a few years to get this far – and really that’s no distance at all, but I have made progress and am doing things I would never have thought possible even a few weeks back let alone a few years. You’ve just got to practice, keep applying and then when your body and mind are ready, things just “click”. You just have to trust in the process.

Monday, 8 September 2008


Another entry, but I thought it best to keep this one separate from the San Francisco post just to catch up on the last week.

We arrived back from San Fran on Sunday morning – not feeling too shabby as it goes, but jet lag was evident at times. I was faring pretty well although the kids were still on California time and if they’re awake, then me and my wife are awake so this delayed all of our recoveries somewhat.

Tuesday I got back to training and we were pretty much doing what we’d done just before I went away – practising certain movements, keeping the core connected, keeping the feet off the floor and then Dean T very skillfully wove these movements into the practice. We spent most of the time looking at escapes from cross side and knee on stomach using these principles of sensitivity to weight and balance and gaining leverage using the legs and the core. I love this stuff – it’s a tough route to take in Jiu Jitsu… a long term practice, but it feels right.
I found it good to get back to training, but the effects of jet lag were ever present and toward the end of the session I was very tired and everything teetered on the edge of cramp with every movement…maybe just a little too soon after getting back? I don’t know – there must be some stuff out there about dealing with jet lag and training etc…
Anyway, next session was due to be Thursday, but I’d agreed to take my parents to Heathrow and ended up getting stuck on the M25 on the way back so missed training. On reflection, I was still pretty tired so maybe it was for the best to have a rest, but I did spend the time in the car thinking through the movements we’ve been doing which I’m sure was useful.

As I’ve mentioned, Sunday I went to a Yoga class. Equipped with my £6.99 mat from Tesco (is there anything they don’t sell?) I arrived feeling a little sleepy and not at all bendy. Not unexpectedly I was the only man there (although I’m told there are usually a couple of others) but I was made to feel welcome. As I’ve said, the type of Yoga is Iyengar – the differentiator with this type I’m lead to believe is that postures are achieved and then held for longer than in other styles. I was pretty pleased with my level of flexibility in comparison to some of the people that have been doing it longer, but was surprised at just how tough it was! Like many other people I guess I thought that yoga was all gentleness and joss sticks, but half way through a few of the poses I got the muscle tremors and was desperate for the instruction to relax! After just one session I can feel a difference – my hamstrings and shoulders definitely feel like they’ve worked. I can see already that if I keep this up my strength, muscle tone and overall fitness will improve…no doubt at all. My objectives with Yoga…all driven by BJJ are: regain lost flexibility; strengthen my back; strengthen my core. I can see this as something that has longevity and many benefits, but we’ll see how it pans out – after my first session I feel very positive. The only thing I felt a bit strange about was the “Ommm” stuff at the beginning, but I guess I’ll get used to it – I still remember how odd bowing and “kihap!” was when I started martial arts.

If anyone reading this has thought about Yoga I’d say definitely give it a go. I was inspired to give it a try by Dean T and also watching Rickson in “Choke”, but also as I’ve read good things about it in relation to health and backs. I would say however, that I’ve also read about an upsurge in injuries form people trying to do it from books, DVDs and unqualified instructors. Having done this class I would definitely advocate finding a class with a qualified tutor. Getting the hands on corrections really is necessary and makes all the difference to the efficacy of the poses.

As I type this, I’ve just gotten another year older – I’m now 34. That’s not ancient, but I can feel time ticking on - things creaking that didn’t before. I’m still on my journey to my milestone blue belt and hopefully that will come to fruition next year. So I’ll ask the same questions as last year – older? Yes. Wiser? I think so. With Dean T’s help I’m starting to see how to train Jiu Jitsu in the way that it was intended and with it, practices, like Yoga, that are going to sustain me in the long term. I want to remain active and stay healthy right through to old age. Lots of damage has already been done with Rugby etc, but I want to limit this as much a possible and in achieving this, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to train and regularly beasting your body is sometimes fun, but a surefire path to niggling injuries. I want to train smarter, not necessarily just harder.

The heat is on!

I’ve been back from San Francisco just over a week now, so time to catch up before time and detail runs away…

After an 11 hour flight (United airlines – dreadful) we landed in San Francisco to temperatures in the mid to late 30s. After a short drive we got to our hotel in Walnut Creek. I love hotels – you can make a mess and every day the hotel fairies just come along and tidy up after you. I got straight to work on satisfying my passion for Root Beer and later found the hotel pool (a welcome relief as you’ll see) and Gym which was well equipped and usually empty.

We were in town for a week for a wedding – My Brother in law Jack was marrying Jen – a lovely girl from Walnut Creek. How Jack met Jen is a long and complicated story that I won’t tell here…

All week we were very fortunate to have Gene and Michelle – Jen’s parents, pretty much at our disposal as chauffeurs for the week – an unexpected but absolutely amazing bonus. With two three year olds in tow, I’m really not sure how we’d have managed without their help. The Bay Area’s transport is very good – cheap, efficient, regular and well connected, but getting around local areas, like Walnut Creek, is just so hard – streets are not pedestrian friendly at all – the car rules out there, and, on reflection, that was probably a good thing. By the end of the week, temperatures inland (where we were) had hit highs of 46°c so any opportunity of being air conditioned was gratefully received.

Looking at the schedules (visits to San Fran, family get-togethers etc), Tuesday was going to be my best bet to get to Eduardo Rocha’s place in Oakland to train. I had planned to simply go there by BART, but Jen and her parents looked horrified at this prospect and said they’d drive me. By all accounts, Oakland is not the sort of place you want to go on your own and start taking wrong-turns. I gratefully bowed to their greater local knowledge and accepted a lift.

So, I headed out for an “all levels” session, Tuesday morning 1000-1200, ready with Gi in hand and a huge bottle of Gatorade (why can’t you get the range in the UK [weeps]?) A few people were just turning up as I arrived and I introduced myself (rather obvious from my accent) as being the guy from England. The gym itself is a small space in what seemed to be like an office block, but it was clean, well equipped and airy. The guy taking the class that day was a purple belt called Jeremy Adkins – a really nice guy that kind of reminded me of BJJ’s answer to Henry Rollins – only with more tattoos…the most striking being one that completely covered his head. I believe Jeremy won gold in the open division at the recent Mundials and Pan Ams. We were joined by another Purple Belt called Butch (like he said I really was in the US now I’d met someone called Butch) a couple of Blue belts, a Couple of White belts and a lady Brown Belt who I think ran her own school somewhere.

So, after a reasonable warm-up, we got on with the lesson. Jeremy ran through the techniques in a clear, logical fashion, highlighting all the important details – his style suited my way of learning really well and I found the translation to practice pretty smooth. I trained with a huge guy called Scott – a white belt, at least 6’ 5” and the build to go with it. It’s always good to train new stuff with someone your own size (ish!). We worked on various moves from Butterfly Guard – here’s a quick summary of what I remembered:

Sweep 1 - I've done this one a few times before... Sit up to your opponent, scoot in close and slightly side on. Grab his belt behind him, scoop the opposite arm. Staying connected, fall to the side then kick your upper leg to sweep the opponent and take either cross side or mount.

Sweep 2 - Can be used if opponent pins your ankles. Simultaneously sit up and grab diagonally to back of tricep, posting out same side leg and post remaining hand out to side. Shift butt out to where hand was posted, simultaneously pulling the arm that you have hold off - this pulls the opponent forward onto all fours (this is a dynamic movement). Position hips up to opponent's, take an over and under grip, connect to your opponent and fall to pull opponent to his back then place in the second leg hook.

Pass 1 - In the butterfly guard, slide arm to hip (elbow by hip) and place head on opposite side under ribs. Place other hand on knee. Sprawl, flattening leg that hand is on, keeping that hand in position to prevent opponent from taking guard. Work way up to cross-side.

Pass 2 - Start as pass 1. Bring other hand (the one that would have been on the knee in Pass 1) under the leg to grab his belt. Bring other hand round to grab the ankle of his trousers. Bring weight up onto shoulder and walk around the legs, extending the leg you have hold of and take cross-side.

(Somewhere in Pass 2 (I think) I've missed a detail which involves switching a grip on the pants but need to run through it again to try and figure out where this is and how it works.)

After drilling these techniques it was time for positional training and here we mixed up training partners a bit. I found passing OK, but struggled on the bottom – everyone was very quick and precise. I was most impressed with a small blue belt – his sensitivity and timing were perfect and I struggled to do anything against him. Also, as if proof were needed that BJJ is effective for the smaller person against a larger opponent I got nicely tapped to a choke by the Brown Belt.

Then it was on to free sparring and this was solely with Scott. Scott was a strong guy and we ended up 2-2 from our practice and I was pretty pleased with how I fared as I tried to use the type of stuff we’ve been doing at home over recent weeks and was pleased with how it worked with such a big guy.

As we were practicing, Eduardo arrived so as we finished I had a chat with him – a really nice guy who genuinely opened his door to me anytime I wanted to train. My only regret is that my schedule didn’t allow any more than that one session, but I shall definitely be visiting Eduardo’s next time I’m over there. His accomplishments speak for themselves and his mettle is shown through the quality of his students – very technical and all great people. There are plenty of schools in the Bay area and some of them more well known, but I’m glad I went to Eduardo’s – I’ve no doubt it was the best choice. If you’re over that way look him up.

After downing as much Gatorade as my body could take, and whilst waiting for my lift, I was chatting to Scott and what was great, as with everywhere else that I’ve trained, was that we were both able to shoot the breeze about Jiu Jitsu, our hopes, ambitions, favourite moves, our philosophy on training and it’s always remarkable just how, even with so many thousands of miles between people, there is a commonality in Jiu Jitsu.

A big thanks to Eduardo, Jeremy, Scott and the rest of the guys for making me so welcome and allowing me another great Jiu Jitsu experience.

The week was amazingly hot but passed by so quickly. We visited Pier 39 which was fun and allowed us to catch many of the trademarks of San Francisco including an entertaining ride on the Cable Cars. Later in the week we also went to the Golden Gate Park – the Japanese Tea Gardens there were fantastic and a great backdrop to our trip as the photo below shows, although parts of the park were pretty run down and inhabited by drop outs and people who don’t seem to know that the 60’s are over. It’s also a pretty spread out city so getting used to the transport options is a good idea, but with kids it’s hard to fit a lot in to a day. Walnut Creek was fun – a charming little place if only it hadn’t been too hot to step outside of anywhere – one to investigate properly another time.

One major frustration on the trip was trying to get a drink on Jack’s Batchelor evening. Last orders in one very nice bar were 10pm, so, on to other late night bars only to not be let in…even with passports! They were really strict on ID – as if I look under 21!!! It was like the 1920s trying to get served alcohol in that place… or maybe a bunch of Brits just scared them… I don’t know. A passport gets you into their country but can’t buy you a drink. Marvellous.

Anyway, it was a great week – the wedding was perfect and I was so proud of my kids who were Flower Girl and Ring Bearer. A big thanks to Gene and Michelle – I’m pretty certain the week would have been a blur of sweat and tears if it wasn’t for them. Good times.