Back in 2004/2005, I lived a while in the city of Petropolis, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. In my privileged position as the one and only gringo, I had the unique right to pass freely around all of Crezio’s associated gyms in the city. One of those was the ‘Academia’ of Crezio’s father, Crezio Chaves- the eminent ‘Crezao’.
He had been one of Helio Gracie’s first Vale Tudo fighters. Many of Helio’s senior students had been the more affluent members of society – Doctors, lawyers, High ranking military and police officials. Crezio senior though, he was from the streets. He’d boxed for his regiment in the Brazilian armed forces. He was a natural fit for the task of challenging other martial artists and street fighters to the no-rules matches that became known as ‘Vale Tudo’, the precursor of modern MMA, in order to prove the efficacy and efficiency of Jiu-Jitsu. From time to time he would erect a boxing ring in the town square, and challenge anyone brave enough to attempt to defeat him publicly.
Crezio Chavez in action in the 1960’s
When I met Crezio senior he was in his late 60’s, yet he still cut an intimidating figure in spite of his relatively short stature. He stood like a military man – back straight, shoulders back, and no matter how much taller you were he maintained a convincing illusion of looking down at you from above.
I would train in the morning with the young guys. Each day, on the other side of the tatame would be the fraternity of Crezio senior, a group of old guys in their 60’s and 70’s. They’d take their time tying on their red and black belts, the coral belt of a ‘Mestre’. I don’t recall them ever acknowledging the young lads on the other side of the mat with even a look. As we occupied ourselves attempting to maul one another with gusto, they’d drill the old chokes and locks and sweeps, slowly and deliberately, with great attention to detail.
Afterward you’d see them on the street below the academy, dressed smartly in the chic, light coloured suits of South American style. Shaded from the sun by Panama hats and the umbrellas of the cafe tables, drinking espresso with a cool water, reading the morning papers. I don’t recall them ever speaking much to one another, I imagine they must have heard all the stories a hundred times. They’d finish their drinks, shake hands before tucking their newspapers beneath their arms, and walk home without the aid of a stick or frame like many their age. They all stood in the same fashion as Crezio senior, august and proud. They were easy to admire.
I’d come from Elswick in Newcastle’s West end. Thanks to the collapse of heavy industry back in the 80’s prospects were poor, unemployment was high, and life expectancy muted. I was surrounded by sights of men, much younger than these, looking thoroughly defeated by life. Whatever hardships and tragedies had befallen them had broken their spirits, and men of 40 looked hoary and haggard, with bowed backs that strained to hold up their beer bloated kites. I was determined not to join them – not to let life get the better of me.
I had hoped prizefighting would liberate me from economic poverty, which it did not. The study of martial arts though, did liberate me from mental poverty.
I had been determined that wearing the gi was a waste of time with no relevance to fighting MMA, but my teachers had insisted that I must wear the gi, at least until purple belt, in order to properly grasp Jiu-Jitsu. Although I resented it terribly at the time, I am wholly thankful that I was made to persist. Gold gets old, as the cliche goes. Championship belts that meant so much at the time lose there lustre and languish in cupboards, and the trophies now gather dust when the fighting is all done. The black belt though, retains it’s meaning indefinitely, and must be defended every day.
Ultimately it is not the gi itself that I mean to praise. It’s longevity that I applaud. The kimono could be the vehicle for that, but any kind of regimen might do. The old gi vs. no-gi debate will never abate, and frankly, it’s dull and worn out. If you like it – train it. If you don’t, just don’t. The point is simply this – we’re all too familiar with tragic stories of former prizefighters that can’t maintain discipline in retirement. While the entire notion of rank belts is often maligned both within, and in martial arts that function purely as sports, it overlooks one of the important parts of the nature of the hierarchy. The necessity to maintain one’s self respect and self discipline.
From time to time people ask me “do you still love it after all these years?”. Often you’ll hear relative newcomers, incessantly and zealously declare how much they love jiu-jitsu. Without meaning to condescend, I find it terribly sweet. It’s hard to state without sounding supercilious, but I really do enjoy hearing it. Truly though, what they are feeling is an infatuation with Jiu-Jitsu. If you’ll permit the analogy, it’s rather like a courtship versus a marriage. Now if you’ll pardon the vulgarity, it’s rather easy to feel constantly exuberant while it’s all lingerie. It’s a little harder once you’ve seen the dirty knickers.
While the revelations of new techniques are coming thick and fast and your power is growing exponentially, maintaining your ardour is a pretty simple task. Regardless of your stage of development, you’re perpetually painting the metaphorical Forth Bridge of your technique. It is of course easier when there’s less distance to traverse. Inevitably there will come a point when your physical abilities cease to increase, and then retrograde. Maintaining your powers begins to take more time than is left over to increase them. For the dilettante it may be traumatic, but for the professional it’s a crisis. Particularly in a sport like MMA where the young positively devour the old, and the old Lion is dethroned as a matter of design in order to crown the new king, the aged player must consider their place in the order of things. It creeps unseen for a while, then comes upon you at an alarming rate in fighting sports. Coming to terms with these realities is another matter, but the question remains, do you really love Jiu-Jitsu? It’s a question that can’t truly be answered while you’re ‘living the dream’, but only posthumously, when perhaps those dreams didn’t come true.
When I weigh up the penalties of the arthritic fingers, indurate neck and vitiated knees against the perquisites of a career that gets ever less relevant, and more distant in the rear view mirror, I look to my recollection of the venerable old men of Mestre Crezao’s academy.
Crezio Chaves and his black belts, circa 1960. (The mural behind was a variant of the classic Archimedes quote “Give me a lever and the place to stand, and I will move the world.”)