Book review: Choque: The Untold story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil 1856-1949
Writer Roberto Pedreira delves into Brazilian newspaper archives in a quest to uncover as much verifiable information about the origin of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Along the way, he uncovers some uncomfortable truths that may alter your perception over who did what, where and when between 1856 and 1949. At 744 pages, it is a weighty volume and much of it consists of lists of names, fights and other accounts of raw data culled from newspaper reports and adverts. 240 pages are dedicated as an appendix and this includes numerous photographs and press clippings. It all adds up to an essential read for any self respecting BJJ enthusiast and sets the scene for an eagerly anticipated Volume 2.
Available from: Amazon in paperback or digital format
Pages: 744 (240 pages of which form the appendix)
Price: £10.68 book, £6.19 Kindle
Print version weight: 1.2kg
What was the actual truth to events that happened a long time ago? Reading Choque, this question popped up into my mind frequently. Clearly, if you believe what you read from the internet, the alleged story of how Brazilian Jiu Jitsu came to be born will yield a variety of versions - hardly any of them accredited to verifiable sources. There is of course the book by Kid Peligro called The Gracie Way. It is extremely interesting to re-read The Gracie Way in the light of the content within Choque - a subject that perhaps for another post.
I can't imagine how time consuming and laborious it must have been to wade through the dusty archives of Brazilian newspapers and interpret events that happened over 100 years ago. With no living witnesses who can verify events, Pedreira is left to interpret the newspaper articles and opinion pieces in his own way. A lot of reports were simply spin doctored press releases, some were more analytical, others were just adverts to promote a fight event. Throughout these scattered pieces of data, Pedreira picks up the story and charts the progress of the key players in Brazil who all contributed towards the sport that we know today. It's a pretty bumpy ride. A lot of preconceptions about who did what and when are overturned in Choque. Amidst the wealth of sports coverage, the drama and incidents all play out like a long-running TV soap drama.
About the author
I don't know anything about Roberto Pedreira. I don't even know if that is his real name. The only interview with him has since been deleted, but thanks to Wayback machine, you can read it here.
The version I have was printed in Great Britain under Amazon's own book publishing brand. The version in the US is published by CreateSpace, which is also owned by Amazon. The paper quality is good with print quality crisp. The paperback cover does curl easily, mainly because of the hefty size of the book, it's impossible to read without it suffering wear and tear. The typesetting and fonts used are rather simple and if I was being honest, it's not a pretty book to look at. But the content is what is King here.
The format chosen by Pedreira is to write in chronological order. Paragraphs are written with a recall of the facts as they would have appeared in the original newspaper article. Pedreira then fills in between with his thoughts on what may or may not have happened. Often, the author has to introduce certain key people and jump around with dates in order to explain a certain fact or event, but largely, he sticks with the year in question. Quite often, in subsequent chapters, Pedreira will repeat a fact or explain something that he has already explained before. I actually found this useful since there is so much to digest within each page.
Pedreira's writing is sometimes less that fluid but far be it for me to critique his writing for he has had work published in numerous English language magazines and is the author of the popular title "Jiu Jitsu in the South Zone" as well as probably being the very first BJJ blogger with Global Training Report which was established in the year 2000!
The difficulty with writing any historical account is the reliability of the source information. Pedreira's exhaustive research into the newspaper archives and examination of other written sources, eg the Carlos Gracie biography and the Playboy interview with Rorion Gracie suggests he has at least tried to cover as much ground as humanly possible. The skill of the historian is with the interpretation of the facts and here, Pedreira fills in the gaps with as much plausible speculation as he will allow.
By his own admission, many newspapers of the time (as they do now) tend to accept source reports and quotations from interviewees without much critical analysis. Like any good academic textbook, Choque is stuffed full of citations with the original sources. I doubt the basic reader (like me) has the time or energy to verify any of these sources so I'll have to take the author's word that these are all accurate and accountable.
There are a number of spelling errors littering the chapters. Some are intentional - as the author explains, newspapers at the time were rather lax about how certain words and names were spelled. But Pedreira himself misses out on many common English words that a decent proof reader (human, not a computer) would probably have picked up a lot better. Still, given the sheer weight and length of the volume, it's something I could overlook whilst reading.
As mentioned above, Choque is well endowed with citations and references at the back of the book. In actual fact, the appendix easily takes up a quarter to almost a third of the number of pages. The number of titles researched and referenced by Pedreira is ample enough to say he pretty much covered all the major press publications of the era. He even cites the Bible in one annotation!
Thankfully the appendix is not all lines and lines of references. There are numerous photographs and press clippings, though they're not very good quality scans, I presume this was mainly down to the condition of the original newspapers from which he copied them.
The appendix also contains a glossary of key Portuguese and slang phrases and words used within the book. There is a lineage guide and a list of all publicised ring fights. Unlike most academic textbooks, the appendix in Choque is a worthy read all in itself. Pedreira cites the publication he references and then adds extra notes. Sometimes he just cites the newspaper's text entirely in Portuguese.
Very brief key timeline of events
The first professional fighters from Japan to reach Brazil were likely Sada Miyako and Mme. Kakiara in 1908. Sada had his first professional fight in April 1909
Mario Aleixo was probably the first to teach jiu jitsu in Brazil in 1913.
Conde Koma (Mitsuyo Maeda) arrives in Brazil in April 1914.
Geo Omori (Omori jyoji) is first mentioned in 1928 as he begins a fruitful professional fighting career.
Carlos Gracie gives a brief newspaper interview about his jiu jitsu experience in March 1929. He 'fights' Geo Omori in a public demonstration of jiu jitsu in April 1929 (the result was a draw, which the author infers was fixed from the start).
Helio Gracie appears in sports reports in 1930, detailing his placings at swimming and rowing events.
Donato Pires dos Reis, the first (and only?) jiu jitsu instructor officially certified by Conde Koma, opens up his jiu jitsu academy in September 1930. Carlos and brother George are assistant instructors.
George Gracie has his first recorded fight in July 1931
In 1932 Carlos, George, Helio, Oswaldo were reported to have ambushed, attacked and beaten up a rival fighter called Rufino Santos. They are let off all charges.
Jan 1932 Helio has his first recorded ring fight
1938 first press reports of a promising young jiu jitsu fighter called Eduardinho Gracie - later to ne known as Carlson Gracie
Nov 1941 Conde Koma dies
Criticism of the Gracie Family
Pedreira doesn't hold back. On several occasions he describes Carlos Gracie in unflattering terms. In other sentences, he infers that Carlos was lying about many of the claims he made both at the time, and in later interviews.
"Carlos may have taken some lessons from Koma, but it is certain that he exaggerated. Conde Koma was not in Belem for the entire three year period that Carlos claimed he was Koma's star pupil."
Pedreira's assertion constrasts vastly with the chapter in The Gracie Way where Kid writes:
"Carlos trained with Count Koma from the time he was fifteen until he was twenty-one."
Here is another Pedreira put-down:
"One of Carlos Gracie's primary projects was producing new life, generally with the assistance of young girls from lower social classes than his own."
Younger brother Helio doesn't escape attention either.
"According to his own and other rather superficially authoritative accounts, Helio was a frail, sickly, clumsy boy. By January 1930, he seemed to be in reasonably good health and with average or better athletic abilities."
My personal view is that Pedreira is not being overly harsh, but simply attempting to re-assert facts over the many mythic stories about members of the Gracie family. In doing so, he is also honouring and giving credit to the numerous pioneers of jiu jitsu in Brazil who many readers may not have heard of before. And perhaps he is sending out a bit of a message out there to the BJJ population - don't believe everything you read!
This is not to undermine the achievements that Carlos Gracie and his brothers made. Without their exploits, jiu jitsu in Brazil might very well have taken a different path and we (those who train BJJ outside of Brazil) may never have found out about it in the same way. Crucially, Helio Gracie is singled out in the text as the sole fighter who refused to let go of his principles and take part in fixed fights - as would appear to be the case with the huge percentage of ring fights apart from boxing.
Pedreira briefly mentions Carlos’s unorthodox lifestyle – that he becomes some sort of spiritual guru, something he tried to keep secret at the time as it conflicted with the scientific methods of jiu jitsu. He is also arrested and found guilty of getting an underage girl pregnant and for this, he served time for one year. But if there is one Gracie in the book that could be called the star character, it is not Carlos. That honour belongs to brother George, for it is he who earned the most column inches in the Brazilian press as a full time professional fighter.
George openly admitted that many of his fights were fixed – with the growing movement towards more entertaining crowd pleasing lutre livre and catch as catch can fights, Pedreira explains how George simply moved with the times and adapted to whatever earned for him the best income and career path.
For much of the 1940’s, Helio found it difficult to get professional fights. The public and press were not impressed with his use of ‘real’ defence techniques which often led to long, drawn out, low-action encounters. That’s not to say Helio didn’t earn the respect from his peers as a great fighter, he most certainly did. Simply that the explosion of Pro wrestling meant entertainment beat any desire for promoters to offer genuine style versus style fights. Helio did find time to be awarded a medal for bravery - the story of him rescuing a passenger who fell overboard from a ship is entirely true.
The book ample covers the incident (there may have been others too) in which the brothers were accused, arrested and subsequently released for the gang beating of a person they disliked.
One major problem with the reliance on newspaper reports is the lack of technical jiu jitsu detail. Many reporters were not experts in the techniques so either did not know the names, or were inclined to dumb down the way they described the techniques for the lay reader. Without footage either, Pedreira tries his best to convert match reports into plausible BJJ techniques that we know today. For example, based on one photo, he suggests Helio played closed guard mostly while George played more open guard. Most matches were won or lost and described with various generic terms such as choke, arm attack, leg attack etc.
In Choque, it is evident by the sheer number of fights (fixed or otherwise) that George Gracie seemed to have an illustrious career as a ring fighter. Helio's exploits of course gets good coverage, Conde Koma, Geo Omori, Takeo Yano, Ono brothers etc etc... all the major names that played a huge historical role in the development of jiu jitsu in Brazil at the turn of the century are covered in detail. As I progressed through these accounts, there is a strong sense of how the combat sports evolved and separated. By the end of the book, in 1949, 'jiu jitsu' had distinguished itself as either the jiu jitsu that was practised by the Gracie family or Kodokan jiu jitsu as practised in Japan - now more commonly known as judo.
Not just about the Gracies
One noted founding father of BJJ is Luiz Franca but he isn't given a mention in the book (maybe I missed it?). Another is Oswaldo Fadda who is only first briefly mentioned in 1941. I personally would love to read more about them both from verifiable sources. Maybe neither jiu jitsu experts liked resorting to public call-outs and the glamour of professional ring fights, which would have earned them some newspaper column inches.
Apart from those omissions, the book does cover the big fighter names of the day, including boxing champions who toured and visited Brazil. Oddly, Pedreira inserts news snippets of random incidents that have nothing to do with BJJ into the text. I guess he uses these to set the scene and add background stories as an illustration of the climate in which the key characters lived in.
Wow! Just Wow! I mean if you, like me, first learned your Brazilian jiu jitsu history by reading about it on the internet and watching Gracies in Action, then it's possible you simply assumed that Carlos Gracie was a star pupil under Conde Koma and that he, along with his brothers were solely responsible for the development of BJJ as we know it today. Even Wikipedia, that font of all that is (maybe, sometimes, not always) knowledge states this (as of 1st September 2014):
"Maeda accepted Carlos as a student and Carlos learned for a few years, eventually passing his knowledge on to his brothers." [From Wikipedia]
Pedreira unlocks the doors of many an assumption based on his very thorough and extensive Brazilian newspaper research.
Choque is more than just a year by year account of names, dates, places and events - it so much more. The sum of these events depict the birth of something new, exciting and something that would spread throughout the world. Sure, Carlos Gracie is not painted in a flattering light. He was a publicity-seeking hype machine and he embellished the truth, a lot. He was also involved in some unpleasant incidents - gang beating a rival is not excusable in any scenario, nor honourable. But his ceaseless self-promotional activity, put into the context of the era, and heck, put into even today's marketing-spin heavy mass media, ensured that his vision of jiu jitsu became established as a legitimate combat system in a scene dominated by lutre livre, boxing, catch as catch can and luta romana styles of fighting. There was no internet, no social media, no email, none of today's easy to use tools to disseminate information. That he managed to get as much publicity as he did is a testament to his determination.
Pedreira closes the book with a nice chapter/epilogue essentially summarising the timespan and saying what comes around goes around. It sets the tone nicely for Volume two: 1950-1999 and I for one cannot wait for it to be published!