I do think it is completely unnecessary to bring politics onto the mats. Jiu-jitsu should provide escapism from the continued polarisation of our societies.
However, that may no longer be possible.
In the run-up to the Brazilian presidential election, a number of jiu-jitsu practitioners and elder statesmen of the art backed the far-right politician – now president-elect – Jair Bolsonaro. It is easy to criticise their outspoken endorsement of this abhorrent individual. One could certainly question their morals. Their support for this demagogue shows, at the very least, a willingness to normalise his hateful rhetoric. Nevertheless, they certainly have every right to share their political opinions.
With that being said, using one’s position within the jiu-jitsu community as a platform to espouse a political view is one thing, but, the act of awarding an ‘honorary’ black belt to an unworthy bigot is something else entirely. I say this in no uncertain terms: Robson Gracie awarding a black belt to Jair Bolsonaro was an affront to jiu-jitsu.
Unfortunately, I learned a long time ago that the universal principles of jiu-jitsu are highly negotiable. The respect, the trust and the vaunted notion of family can be jettisoned in an instant. Akin to all areas of life, hypocrisy runs rampant.
One thing that remained sacrosanct was the black belt. This was something that set BJJ apart from other martial arts. To receive a black belt was recognition that you possessed the requisite skill to perform the art at its highest level. It was incontrovertible proof of your determination, passion and work ethic; the accumulation of countless hours on the mats, across a span of years. The black belt was an illuminating symbol of your unique achievement.
Over the course of a decade, I have given everything to jiu-jitsu. I am fiercely proud of the brown belt I have earned during that time. It has been the most challenging undertaking of my life, yet, one that has rewarded me in innumerable ways. This one contemptible act cannot take that away, but I do feel it undermines it. Gifting anyone – let alone this man – the highest of all accolades undermines the entire system. It is truly ridiculous.
The jiu-jitsu community should not ignore this ignominious act. Even in the most charitable of readings, Robson Gracie made a huge error of judgement. This has set a terrible precedent. Despite his venerated status – one of BJJ’s few red belts – his decision needs to be critiqued by all those who have embraced the grind and earned a belt in jiu-jitsu.
I’m not just disappointed, I’m angry. We all should be.
Anyone who has followed this blog in its five years of existence – notwithstanding the last twelve months where it has lay dormant – will be acutely aware of the affinity I have with Brazil. I love that amazing country. It literally changed the direction of my life. An initial three-week visit in 2012 inspired me to leave full-time employment, and pursue jiu-jitsu. From there, I spent nearly two years living in Rio, the majority of which, I stayed with a Brazilian family who took me in and accepted me as an honorary member. I acquired another family on the mats at the Fernando Terere Academy. I was part of a brotherhood – I had sisters there, too – that could only be accessed by committing to all-out warfare. Every single day we renewed our bond by attempting to strangle one another to death. Some of my happiest memories lie on the mats and the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
With that being said, I was not blind to problems the country faced – I would literally have had to bury my head deep in the sands of Copacabana not to see them. My stay coincided with the worst recession in a century. In the past decade the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) pulled millions from poverty and presided over one of the fastest growing economies in the world. However, those gains were squandered by the very party that had achieved them. Political corruption was rife and everyone knew it. The disproportionate distribution of wealth was truly startling. Living in the Cantagalo favela, the home of my Brazilian family, I saw first-hand the poverty and the violence that many were forced to live with.
While I have not had the opportunity to return for two years, I have retained a deep connection to my second home. Thus, I have been glued to the coverage of Brazil’s presidential election – which has been getting an unusual amount of coverage from news outlets here in the UK. It shocked me to witness vast swathes of the country fall for the allure of a far-right demagogue. Last weekend when Jair Bolsonaro – leader of the ironically titled: Social Liberal Party – was elected president, I was honestly horrified.
In the Western press Bolsonaro has been gifted the moniker: Trump of the Trumps. Perhaps this comparison, with the buffoonish American president, is main reason this story has received so much coverage. Ostensibly, there are a number of similarities. They were both able to create populist movements under the aegis of being political outsiders – this is despite Bolsonaro serving in congress for almost three decades. They similarly side-stepped traditional media and spoke directly to their supporters – Bolsonaro’s chosen platform is Facebook. And each man has been lauded by their supporters for their willingness to “tell it like it is”. Furthermore, both threatened they would not accept the outcome of the election if it was unfavourable.
Brazilian author, Luiza Sauma described Bolsonaro as “Trump on steroids” – this description gets us closer to the truth. Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia – Bolsonaro has issued rape threats, infamously telling a journalist she was too ugly to rape. Trump’s rhetoric has led to the “Othering” of the LGBT community; Bolsonaro claimed he would murder his own son if he came out as gay. Trump claimed, asininely, that climate change was a Chinese hoax. Bolsonaro described climate science as “greenhouse fables”, and is prepared to carve up the Amazon rainforest selling off land to the highest bidder. Trump has polarised American politics; his detractors feel a visceral hatred towards him. His Brazilian counterpart is loathed, by some, to such a degree that they would attempt to murder him. He suffered a punctured lung and nearly died after being stabbed at a campaign rally.
Jair Bolsonaro is the latest in a line of right-wing populists that have recently risen to prominence. However, not only is his rhetoric more hateful than his contemporaries in Western Europe and the United States, he is far more dangerous. There are, in my view, two main reasons for this:
First, Bolsonaro is an evangelical ideologue – with a clear and unwavering sense of morality. Unfortunately, the morality derived from his religious conviction is one which is disdainful of the “Other”. He explains, “God above everything. There is no such thing as the secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change.” His willingness to marginalise minority groups is justified by these fundamentalist beliefs. Revealed knowledge allows him to denigrate homosexuality with zero thought for the human cost. His unbridled misogyny is spoken with the certainty of a zealot.
Second, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, makes no attempt to hide his authoritarian tendencies. He speaks favourably of the military junta that controlled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, championing Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a man responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of left-wing activists. Bolsonaro advocates an ultra-hard-line policy towards criminals, he believes the police should shoot to kill – this is a police force who last year killed a mind-blowing 5,000 people. He proposes loosening gun laws; arming private citizens as a means of combating record levels of crime. One of his most inspired ideas involves providing Brazil’s farmers with shotguns, which will allow them to defend themselves against –unarmed – protest groups who occupy their land. His plan to bring a number of ex-generals into his government appears to foreshadow the sign of things to come.
The combustible mixture of evangelical ideology and authoritarian demagoguery is one to be very afraid of.
Following the election result, I spoke with a number of my Brazilian friends – admittedly more affluent and left-wing cats – who were certainly angry but not in the least bit shocked. One friend explained to me, during the campaign, “the environment was anti-PT rather than pro-Bolsonaro”. The country’s most impoverished felt the economic crisis the most acutely, they blamed the Workers’ Party for their suffering, and voted against them in protest. Another friend explained that: many people were willing to overlook his hateful rhetoric because they believed that he could solve the endemic corruption and high-levels of crime that plagued Brazilian society. For those living in Brazil’s favelas, here was a man that promised to end the violence their blighted their daily existence, looking at it from their perspective, it is possible to appreciate his allure. This was the position taken by members of my Brazilian family – who were vocal supporters of Bolsonaro – they explained to me, simply: that all law-abiding citizens were in favour of him.
In victory he attempted to offer a conciliatory message, explaining: “This country belongs to all of us… Brazil is a country of diverse colours, opinions and orientations”. Going forward, will his rhetoric and his policies reflect this sentiment? One can only hope.
I am worried about my family. I am worried about my friends. I am worried about Brazil’s already marginalised minority groups. Perhaps most importantly, I am worried about the very survival of liberal democracy. A democratic system is predicated upon the smooth transition between elected leaders, if this fails, democracy is dead. Bolsonaro will be inaugurated on 1 January, at that time we will discover whether Brazil has a despot on their hands.
Canadian born black-belt, embedded resident of Rio, and renowned half-guard practitioner, Jake Mackenzie is a certified gringo legend of jiu-jitsu competition in Brazil, competing in around 200 tournaments since his debut in 2002. He is a multiple time Brazilian National Teams Champion representing GFTeam and a 2-time black-belt Brazilian National No-Gi Champion. Jake has an unquenchable thirst for jiu-jitsu competition and the lifestyle of travel and adventure that accompanies it.
I had a chance to pick the brain of this self-professed “jiu-jitsu nerd” on his experiences of competing in the cradle of jiu-jitsu.
When was your first experience competing in Brazil? What was that like?
My first tournament in Brazil was the 2003 Mundial in Tijuca Tennis Club.
I remember being super nervous because I couldn’t understand the names they were saying in Portuguese and I was so worried about not understanding my name when they called me. I ended up losing the first match, but I remember the energy and all the great matches at black belt! It was amazing to participate in three Mundials in Rio, I wish the IBJJF would bring the worlds back to Brazil at some point. But I highly doubt that will happen.
As a ridiculously well-travelled competitor – can you think of any nuances that separate competing in Brazil from anywhere else?
I believe the talent pool is still much deeper in Brazil, especially in states like Rio, São Paulo and Manaus. Every state you go to in Brazil has super tough guys to compete against, but, if you go to one of these hubs there is going to be several top level guys in each division. The major international tournaments are all outside of Brazil now, but all the guys that are winning are still from Brazil. Many of the best instructors live in California, NY, etc. But all them made their way and sharpened their skills in the jiu-jitsu scene in Brazil.
What is your most memorable moment or moments competing on the mats in Brazil?
I have had so many great memories over my career, but by far the biggest one that sticks out is the Brazilian National Teams Title in 2010. I had been training and competing for about 4 months at GFTeam and was selected to be one of the 5 competitors on their A squad for the National Team Tournament.
In the history of the tournament there had never been a three-time Champion at black belt. GFTeam had won 2008 and 2009 and was looking to be the first 3-time champion. Atos showed up with a killer team, Rafael Mendes, Guilherme Mendes, Davi Ramos, Ed Ramos, and Bruno Frazzato. Theodoro and Tanquinho ended up winning the first and third matches, but Atos took the second and fourth so we were tied 2-2. I ended up fighting the 5th and final fight and deciding the tournament. I won a great back and forth match against Ed Ramos. The fight was tied up on points and advantages until the last 10 seconds. I was able to sweep to the mount just as the match ended to get the advantage.
Given the size and prestige of the competitions that now take place in North America and even in Europe, is there any reason for someone to go out of their way to compete in Brazil?
Brazil is an amazing experience, every competitor should take the trip down and feel the energy and atmosphere of a tournament in Brazil. They have had jiu-jitsu so much longer than the rest of the world and the energy and heart you see at the tournaments is like nowhere else.
Have you seen any changes in Brazil’s competition scene in all the years you have spent there?
I have seen changes over the years, but I have seen a lot of things stay the same. There have been some big improvements to the scene in Brazil, but there are also problems that still affect the sport from pushing forward. Hopefully with the IBJJF and UAEJJF doing more and more big events in Brazil, the sport continues to progress and grow.
There is always talk (mostly from disgruntled losers) of discrimination against non-Brazilians, as an embedded gringo what is your take on this?
This happens very little in my opinion. I lived 10 years in Brazil and was competing almost 15-20 tournament every year. I have had rough calls in matches, just like any competitor but I don’t believe that it is because I am a gringo. I believe 99 percent of the people who complain about this don’t have a solid understanding of the rules. There is so much grey area in the rules and the refs in Brazil have so much experience, so they play rules very close to the book. I have refed in Brazil as well and every tournament as a referee I have learned new details or nuances in the rules that I never knew from just competing.
Can you think of any personal anecdotes of memorable things you have seen while competing?
I went to Manaus last year for the first time to compete at the state tournament. I was blown away with how strong jiu-jitsu is there, they had 3600 competitors competing over four days. I was completely blown away with the level of the competitors I saw there. I am absolute jiu-jitsu nerd and was a big fan of the scene there before competing there, but after going and fighting there I will need to go back every year to feel that energy and jiu-jitsu culture.
Finally, any do’s and don’t for a first-timer competing on the mats in Brazil?
Try to find your ring coordinator to see what mat you are on, and so he knows who you are. A lot of times the Brazilians can’t pronounce the gringo names properly and you might not here your name being called. As long as they know what you look like they can go find you. As far as that nothing really comes to mind. Just be as respectful as possible and be humble in victory or defeat.