An Ambitious Undertaking
When I heard that Jose Padilla, known for his work on Narcos, was producing a film centered around Mitsuyo Maeda, Rickson Gracie, and the origins of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I was genuinely excited. After all, BJJ has a captivating history, albeit one with different versions depending on who you ask. And that’s where the challenge lies.
Upon reading the film’s synopsis, a couple of red flags immediately caught my attention. Firstly, the film aims to cover a vast span of time, from Maeda to Rickson, potentially spanning a century. BJJ’s story is filled with numerous characters, making it hard to believe that a two-hour film will do it justice. If anything, this deserves an epic, six-season series.
The second red flag was the emphasis on Rickson Gracie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Rickson fan. He’s undeniably one of the most influential figures in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, often considered a “Legend.” However, it’s worth noting that the Gracie family is known for some historical revisionism. Over the years, disputes have arisen regarding the true credit for creating and popularizing BJJ, not just among outsiders but even within the Gracie family.
Will the Netflix film titled “Dead or Alive” have the courage to delve into the controversial aspects of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s history? Here are a few intriguing aspects to consider:
Maeda’s Forgotten Disciples
Mitsuyo Maeda, also known as Conde Koma among Brazilians, is credited with bringing a modified version of Judo to Brazil. His travels and challenge fights around the world resulted in the evolution of his Judo style, which eventually led Brazilians to refer to it as Jiu-Jitsu. While the Gracies are undoubtedly Maeda’s most famous students, it’s important to acknowledge that Luis Franca, often overlooked, was considered one of his top disciples. Franca went on to teach Oswaldo Fadda, who would become a rival to the Gracie family and eventually establish Nova Uniao, producing modern champions like Rodolfo Vieira. Unfortunately, history seems to have forgotten or intentionally erased many of Maeda’s other students.
The Gangster Image
The Gracie family built their reputation on their readiness to fight anyone, anytime. Senior members, including Helio and his sons, engaged in hundreds of impromptu matches, rarely meeting defeat. However, these fights often took place in the streets, blurring the line between challenge matches and street brawls. As a result, several Gracie family members faced arrests and jail time over seemingly trivial disputes. Additionally, instances of “dojo storming” occurred in both Brazil and the United States. These events gave rise to an alternate perception that the Gracies operated as a gang during their early days before gradually transitioning to a more legitimate path. Some argue that remnants of this mentality linger within the family to this day.
Legal Battles and Family Feuds
It’s no secret that the Gracie family experienced internal conflicts, resulting in legal disputes over the use of the Gracie name and associated trademarks. Even today, certain branches of the family have strained relationships with each other. That’s why you won’t find an annual Gracie family reunion, folks.
The Sting of Defeat
It’s understandable that the marketing machinery often downplays, or even ignores, the high-profile losses suffered by family champions. For example, the Fadda Academy reportedly dominated the Gracie academy in a school-versus-school tournament. Helio Gracie was knocked out by Valdemar Santana’s head kicks, and even Rickson himself technically lost to Ron Tripp in a sambo match, albeit through the rules of sambo, not by knockout or submission.
Regardless of the direction Netflix chooses for the film, my hope is that they steer clear of the shiny, idealized narrative that many of us have grown up with. True history is messy and doesn’t always have clear-cut heroes and villains. And honestly, we’re all adults here. We can handle the truth that perhaps some of the pioneers of this art had their fair share of imperfections. After all, they’re only human.