Star-Bulletin Sports

Sunday, May 20, 2001


Maggie Terry, top, and husband Ivan Terry practiced
their jiu-jitsu moves earlier this week. They've been
taking lessons for about a year.

Art, technique,
self-defense add up
to Brazilian jiu-jitsu

Students learn how to use
power to protect themselves at
Relson Gracie's academy

By C.R. Dudley
Special to the Star-Bulletin

If you saw Fredson Alves in a store, you would see his soft features and black eyes.

You would notice his medium, unassuming build.

If you talked to Fredson Alves, you would recognize his Brazilian accent, his quiet manner and easy smile.

Fredson Alves does not command your attention with false bravado.

But if you fought Fredson Alves, he would twist you into a knot and wait for you to cry mercy before letting you up. Then he would probably shake your hand and hope you had a better time of the rest of your day. You would be surprised, a bit shaken, but none worse for the engagement.

Fredson Alves is a Gracie. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu Gracie. A real, live, black-belt-wearing jiu-jitsu Gracie.

Fredson Alves is in Hawaii visiting his cousin, Relson Gracie, who owns and runs Relson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, 844 Queen St., near Ward Center.

Who are the Gracies? The Gracie family is arguably the most famous clan of martial artists in the world.

Instructor Relson Gracie (bottom) spars with
one of his students.

Relson was the undefeated Brazilian national jiu-jitsu champion for 22 straight years. His younger brother Royce is undefeated in Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments.

Jiu-jitsu is an intimate art, perhaps the most intimate. Fighters often find themselves on their backs with an opponent on top of them, sweating, grimacing, tugging, pulling. If the martial arts are a system of codified violence, then jiu-jitsu is the most true to form.

"Most street fights end up in a clinch on the ground," said Todd Tanaka, the academy's manager.

"Here we teach you to be comfortable on the ground. You want to defend yourself and get out of the fight. Most guys don't know what to do once they're on the ground. They end up being brutal, throwing punches. In jiu-jitsu, we teach you to end the fight as soon as possible. We teach you how to make your opponent submit and then you can ask him, are you sure you want to fight?"

Two forms of jiu-jitsu are practiced in the islands.

Immigrating Japanese brought a highly structured form to Hawaii starting in the 1920s. Bruce Lee incorporated some of this form into his Jeet Kune Do through contacts with friends from Hawaii.

In 1988, Relson Gracie brought the more fluid Gracie style, one built around leverage and technique as opposed to strength.

"(Brazilian) jiu-jitsu is five or six martial arts together. That's the good part," Relson Gracie said. "It takes over the other martial arts because you have self-defense, judo, Aikido. It's a combination."

Hemingway said that there are three endeavors worthy of being called sports -- bull fighting, auto racing and boxing. Bull fighting is man against beast. Racing is so simple at its root -- win by being first -- and so deadly in its possibilities that it deserves the writer's recognition.

But boxing is problematic. There are many rules, gloves, and any number of unnatural configurations. Of the fighting sports, jiu-jitsu comes closest to its real-world counterpart, the street fight.

Relson is a powerful figure. At 48, he's built like an athlete in his 20s. He speaks quickly and to the point. He organizes his charges according to ranking and works through techniques that seem overwhelming in their simplicity. One often asks, why didn't I think of that?

But there is a dominating power to these grabs and holds and twists. There is unmitigated strength in the person able to control a situation that disintegrates into two humans locked in violent struggle.

The power is such that the U.S. Marine Corps teaches jiu-jitsu techniques to its elite fighting forces.

The power is such that it allows potential rape victims ways out of even the most compromising positions.

It is a primal, intensely alive power unfiltered by fancy stances and conformity to a strict, regimented set of moves.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is fight or flight distilled to its sweating, gnashing, bloody essence.

"We teach real self-defense," Tanaka said.

"Relson is never going to tell someone that they should go fight in one of those no-holds-barred tournaments. Jiu-jitsu is about getting out of fighting."

Because of the awkward positions much of jiu-jitsu training takes place under, the style is particularly suited to women's self-defense.

"Women should really get into this," Tanaka said. "Ladies don't feel real comfortable rolling around on the ground on their backs, but they need to know what to do if they find themselves in that position. We teach them strikes and defensive moves to keep them off the ground and get away, but we really concentrate on teaching them how to get out from under an attacker. We teach them real-world self-defense."

An all-women's class is planned. But women are welcome to take part in the regular sessions. Many have already completed their first level.

Couples regularly learn jiu-jitsu together.

"The blue-belt level is all women really need to learn to keep an attacker off," Tanaka said.

The blue belt is generally awarded after 40 classes.

Other belts are awarded according to Gracie's recommendation. Belts for adults are white, blue, purple, brown, black, black/red and red. Relson Gracie is a black/red. His father is a red.

A free introductory class is offered on Saturdays at noon. Gracie is the only Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor in the islands certified to teach children.

Class times and skill levels vary.


What: Relson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy
Where: 844 Queen St., near Ward Center
When: Free introductory class Saturdays at noon. Beginning classes are offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:30 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday classes are also now offered in Aiea.
Costs: Membership is $60 per month and up, which includes free unlimited mat time for working out. A ghi (not necessary for introductory class) runs from $75 to $150
Information: Call 589-2524
Web site:

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