Passing the Torch: Luiz Palhares and the Gracie Jiu Jitsu legacy
Fight fans will remember that day, two decades ago, as if it were yesterday: November 12, 1993. Denver hosted the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship that day, and Americans were introduced to the dominant martial-art of the last 20 years. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was already 50 years old by that point, yet fighters tasked with countering it got played like cheap fiddles, over and over. What began in a little facility in Southern California has now become a global industry as big as anything of its type, ever, and Duval is helping to lead the way.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is, along with kickboxing and amateur-style wrestling, the foundation of MMA as a sport and as a distinct, uniquely American art-form with real, inestimable value. Its practical applications are obvious, in an increasingly unstable world; close-quarters combat is what civilians face on the streets, and if you’re ever in a situation where escape is not an option, BJJ will save your life. It’s being taught to police officers, football players, pro-wrestlers; even the US Military has sought to integrate BJJ into methods that are already pretty gosh-darned effective. The Gracies have started teaching it to kids as part of their anti-bullying stance, and women are embracing it in unprecedented numbers, to the point that women’s MMA is itself a multi-million-dollar business.
The State of Florida has one of the country’s biggest and best BJJ scenes, with Northeast Florida right out in-front. Most of the major cities (Orlando, Tampa, Miami) have good schools now, and smaller cadres are training everywhere else, especially at college campuses, YMCAs and such. Many people consider Luiz Palhares one of the very best Jiu jitsu teachers in the US today, and his skills will be on display when his Jacksonville Gracie Jiu Jitsu studio in Mandarin (founded 2007) hosts the 5th Annual Jax BJJ Open on Saturday, March 24.
A native of Rio de Janeiro, Palhares began training under the late Rolls Gracie from 1976-82, then continued his studies under his brothers Carlson and, since 1982, Rickson, widely viewed as the most dominant professional fighter of his generation. Palhares, 53, is currently a 7th Degree Black Belt; he’s taught in the US and Canada, as well as Paris, London and Belfast, and his students have included US Army Rangers, Green Berets and Navy SEALs. He was the multi-time champ of Rio, the 1998 Brazilian National Champion and the Pan American Champion for 2000, 2003 and 2004, all in the super-heavyweight senior division. In the big, wide world of BJJ, it doesn’t get any more authentic than Luiz Palhares. He’s worn the black belt for almost 30 years, and he earned it from the absolute best. His presence speaks directly to Northeast Florida’s growing international appeal.
SDH: What’s it like to learn the art-form in such an intense environment as Rio in the 1970s and ‘80s? Was it as tough as we’ve heard from legend (and the “Gracie In-Action” tapes)?
LP: The 1970s where a lot of fun even though they were intense, and I was fortunate to be present when the Gracie family challenged Karate, Tai Kwan Do and other martial arts styles to prove as Rolls did in the first 2 UFCs that jiu jitsu is the best martial arts to defend yourself. Also it was the same time that Brazilian women started to wear the teeny bikini, so it was tough to dedicate the hours we did. It was a very intense and dangerous environment.
SDH: Most fans never got to see Rolls Gracie, and even those of us who know a bit about the Gracie legacy know very little about him, but he was your first teacher. What was he like? How would he feel to see how far Gracie Jiu Jitsu has come over the past 30 years?
LP: Rolls was very important for the development of jiu jitsu because he was studying different martial arts such as wrestling, Sambo etc. and started to use the best techniques from these martial arts to mix with jiu jitsu. Besides this, he was one of the best competitors and one of the best coaches I saw in my life. He would be very proud to see jiu jitsu spread on all five continents. I’m sure he would be happy to know that all his students are traveling and teaching jiu jitsu all over the world.
SDH: What brought you to Florida, specifically Jacksonville? How long have you been here?
LP: I came to Florida for the warn weather, escaping from Virginia Beach where I was teaching the Navy SEALs and at a few schools. Since I was born and raised on the beach, I really missed that environment. I have now been living in Jacksonvlle for 5 years, opened two schools, one in Mandarin and the other one in Orange Park. Also, for more than four years I have been teaching at the JSO on a regular basis.
SDH: What are your favorite and least-favorite things about living here?
LP: What I like most about Jacksonville are the people and the beach. What I hate is the traffic.
SDH: Could you explain to readers the differences, if any, between the Jiu jitsu associated with the Gracies and the style you teach? How much variety exists among the approaches taken by the trainers you’ve encountered?
LP: I have been teaching the jiu jitsu lifestyle, the same way I was taught by the Gracies. Jiu jitsu is a type of martial arts that continues to develop and I keep up to date on these new techniques for my students. This doesn’t mean that I left the roots of self-defense and I always explain to my students that martial arts is also about friendship and loyalty. There is a lot variety among the trainers, but a big concern is the large number of inexperienced instructors teaching jiu jitsu.
SDH: Who are some of your favorite students?
LP: It’s difficult to answer who my favorite students are, because I am teaching my two sons and most of my students are friends including the kids. If I start naming some of them I’m sure to forget others. Some of my students have gone on to start their own schools all over the US and Europe.
SDH: How would you assess the Jiu jitsu scene in Florida, relative to other parts of the country? How many schools/students would you estimate there are right now?
LP: The jiu jitsu scene in Florida is over-crowded, which speaks to the success of the true jiu jitsu lifestyle. There are hundreds of jiu jitsu schools across Florida with tens of thousands of students.
SDH: If someone reading this wanted to begin training in Jiu jitsu, what can they do to prepare themselves before calling you? Does one need to be at a particular level of conditioning first, or can someone out-of-shape start immediately?
LP: Jiu jitsu was made for the weak, out of shape or regular people who do not have enough time to work out to defend themselves on the street. Remember jiu jitsu is not about strength, it’s about leverage and technique. Anyone who brings a copy of this article to either one of my two locations, or the JSO, can have one free week.
SDH: Who would you consider the top-five best Brazilian Jiu jitsu practitioners active today, and/or of all-time?
LP: I consider Carson, Royler, Rolls, Rickson and Helio Gracie all-time best jiu jitsu practitioners. Active today among my top best are Roger Gracie, Michae lLanghi, Lucas Lepri, and Rodolfo Vieira.
firstname.lastname@example.org; March 12, 2012