Global Training Report



    Revised Dezembro 2001

By Roberto Pedreira

      I had passed by the Mehdi Academia de Judo on R. Visconde de Piraja 411 in Ipanema more times than I could count. Sylvio Behring recommended that I meet Mehdi. So did many other people. “Mehdi knows  everything. He’s been here forever”, they’d say, or something like it.

       One late afternoon, I did stop in. The door was open. Mehdi was napping on the tatame. I rapped on the wall to let him know I was there, but he already knew. I told him that I lived in Japan and wanted to see how judo is practiced in Brazil. He liked that.

      Kastriot “George” Mehdi came to Rio on vacation from the south coast of France, near Cannes, in 1949. He decided to stay. He had studied judo before, in France,  and  wanted to continue. There was judo in São Paulo among the Japanese immigrant community, but in Rio, the closest thing to judo  was jiu-jitsu.

      The place to learn it was 151 Av. Rio Branco in the Central District. That's where Carlos and Helio Gracie had their large academy (for more about this academy see Robson).

      Mehdi enrolled.

      Carlos, Helio, Robson, Carlson, and the other instructors at the academy emphasized ground fighting because, they said, it was more effective and more realistic. In a street fight or self-defense situation, four things could be expected. First, the attacker would probably be bigger. Second, he would be attacking. Third, whoever was getting hit would probably clinch to avoid getting hit some more. And fourth, sooner or later, one or both people would fall down. The Gracie system was predicated on these four assumptions.

      Mehdi’s interpretation was different. The Gracies emphasized ground fighting because they "don't know how to throw". Why get your clothes dirty if you don’t have to, Mehdi says?

      Mehdi's view was that a good throw can make ground fighting unnecessary. And even if the fight goes on, you are going to be in a much better position after dropping or slamming your opponent onto the ground from five feet up in the air, no matter how you look at it. Ukemi or no ukemi, it hurts.

      A correctly executed throw is also beautiful to behold, Mehdi believed, whereas holding someone between your legs for the entire fight or match, while ok for a woman in a street survival situation, is unbecoming of a trained martial artist. Romero Jacare and Mehdi’s former students Sylvio Behring and Rickson Gracie, believe Mehdi has a point.

      However, when two fighters are evenly matched and the rules permit them to stay in the guard, it's inevitable that this will happen. It's a problem with the rules, or the officiating, rather than the techniques, Sylvio says. Mehdi agrees entirely. It’s the rules that make jiu-jitsu what it is and what it shouldn’t be. That’s precisely what’s wrong with it. That’s the point.

      It wasn’t only the Gracie’s emphasis on ground fighting Mehdi didn’t care for, it was the Gracies themselves. "Fighting and lying. I don't like. Judo should make a better person, not someone who fights in the street".  He mentions as an example of Gracie mendacity the time Helio announced that a French judo "champion" was learning from him. “He was just a beginner, not a champion”,  Mehdi says.

      (Anyone watching Gracie in Action 1 and 2 might have detected a certain penchant on Rorion’s part for exaggerating the skills and achievements of the opponents of his family and its “representatives”.  Rorion describes the guys who challenged him and his brothers (or accepted their challenge) in the USA as " experts", “masters”, "champions", or at the very least "instructors". In Brazil, the Gracies generally describe their challengers as palhaços (clowns).

      For Mehdi, the simple fact that the Gracie's call their style "jiu-jitsu" is evidence of dishonesty.  "It's all judo,” he says.

      (Mehdi may be right that all jiu-jitsu techniques are really judo. Jiu-jitsu guys don’t mind that their techniques came from somewhere else. On the contrary, they are proud of it—every retelling of the Gracie story begins with Carlos's encounter with Mitsuo Maeda. You can see most jiu-jitsu techniques on old Kosen Judo tapes. You won't see many of them in judo dojos however. And most crucially, what you won't see on these tapes or in old books is how to set them up. This is where the Brazilians have taken newaza to a higher level.)

      Mehdi gave up on Gracie jiu-jitsu and went to Japan immediately after the American Occupation ended in 1952. Among others, he trained with Kimura Masahiko, who defeated Helio the year before. He stayed five years as a student at Tenri University in Nara. Kimuras’s fight with Helio, Mehdi says, "was a joke". Kimura agreed to stall for 10 minutes, Mehdi says, to give the fans their money's worth and begin fighting after that. Mehdi imitated Helio's footwork in the match, exaggerating its awkwardness. Thirteen minutes into the fight, Kimura finished Helio with a shoulder lock, which the Brazilians now call "Kimura" in his honor ("don't call it "Kimura", Mehdi admonishes—it's ude garami").  There was some talk of fixing the actual outcome of the fight, but the Japanese embassy reportedly warned Kimura that if he lost he wouldn't be welcome back home in Japan anymore. A certain degree of choreography could be accepted but for Japan’s greatest champion to lose to a scrawny gaijin, that would be too much.

      As another example of the Gracie’s flexible attitude with regard to accuracy, Mehdi says Kimura weighed 80 kilos, not the 100 usually claimed (he showed me a picture of himself and Kimura at about the time of the contest; they appeared to be the same height and weight, and Mehdi is about 5'9" and 80 kilos. On the other hand, Kimura weighed 86 kilos for his final judo shiai in Tokyo in 1949. It is possible that he put on some kilos during the two years between the contests.)

      Mehdi, who received his 8 dan kodokan rating in 1979, is not just an "encyclopedia" of technique (according to Cleiber Maia, who owns black belts in both judo and jiu-jitsu and was a Brazilian freestyle wrestling champion). He was a successful competitor too, dominating Brazilian judo for years. Mike Swain visited Mehdi’s dojo just after winning the world 71 kg. Championship in 1987 (his Brazilian wife was from Rio). Swain was understandably confident. While practicing a particular throw, Mehdi corrected his grip. Swain rashly invited, or according to some versions, challenged Mehdi to show him in a randori situation. Mehdi threw Swain across the room and into the wall (this story was recounted to me by both Sylvio Behring and Cleiber Maia, although neither could recall who the American judo champion was. Mehdi provided that information along with a quotation from Swain telling Mehdi’s students that, “voces não sabem a sorte que voces tem em serem alunos do Professor Mehdi, com todo conhecimento e technica” [you don’t know how fortunate you are to have a teacher like Mehdi, with all his knowledge and technique].)

      Mehdi was reluctant to talk about the Gracies. It's no secret in Rio that he doesn't like them. Why write about the Gracies, when there are great Japanese champions to write about, he asks? Because I’m writing about Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I explained. “Why?” he asked, seeming genuinely puzzled as to why anyone would care. He was reticent about himself too, for the same reason. It isn't jiu-jitsu as such that he disliked, because he liked Marcello Behring. [Marcello was better at ground fighting than Rickson, says Mehdi.  Sylvio says it isn't true. "You have to remember, Mehdi loved my brother; he hated the Gracies"].

      Mehdi loves the Japanese "mentality". It's that just as much throws chokes, locks, and hold-downs that he teaches. As one of his former students, Mario Sperry said, “I learned so much from Mehdi, not just judo and jiu-jiutsu, but other things too, like honor and respect”.

      Maybe it's the Brazilian mentality he doesn't care for? He denies that. Brazilians are undisciplined (compared to the Japanese, who isn’t?), but he likes them. It's the Gracies themselves he doesn’t like, and specifically their “mentality”—lying and brawling. 

      He also thought it was ludicrous for someone with a mere black belt to pretend to teach anything to anyone. “In Japan a teacher needs 20-30 years of experience before he teaches”. I didn’t tell him that people actually teach jiu-jitsu with a blue belt, in some places. Not in Rio of course. That was the key. In Japan, teachers have 20-30 years  of experience because Japan is full of good judo players, just as Rio is full of good jiu-jitsu players. I also suspect Mehdi didn’t realize that a jiu-jitsu black belt represents six or seven or more years of study, while judo black belts, at least in Japan, are routinely awarded in less than two years, sometimes less than one.

      However little Mehdi may have liked Carlos and Helio and their brothers, he never objected to teaching their offspring and students. In addition to Rickson and the Behring Brothers, Carlson Jr., Mario Sperry, Murilo Bustamante, Wallid Ismail and many others have spent time on Mehdi’s mats. According to one jiu-jitsu instructor (also a former Mehdi student), Rolls Gracie himself learned judo from Mehdi.     

      And Mehdi shared a certain attitude with the jiu-jitsu community. He took it for granted that I wanted to train. Where’s your gi, he asked? I was cautious. The ju in judo means gentle but there’s nothing gentle about being dropped on your head or back from five feet off the ground. However, I wanted to get to know Mehdi better, and he seemed eager to have me participate in a class, so I did.

      Everyone told me Mehdi's classes were intense. The warm-up alone was enough to wipe you out if you weren’t in top shape.  I watched a class to confirm that. However, the class ran from 6 to 8:30, and was loosely structured. The first part, 30 minutes, was the "warm-up"; the second part was new technique (or review as the case may be).  The third part was traditional uchikomi (setting up the throw without actually executing it) and the fourth was randori (free sparring, or, the standing version of “rolling”). This is standard practice in every judo dojo everywhere.  That would take more or less an hour, but those who wanted to could stay longer and continue their practice in whatever form they preferred. They could also arrive whenever they felt like it and begin with whatever they wanted.  In other words, they could skip most of the warm-up if they wanted to.  Some people came late and left early.  The kids came early.  Mehdi was sitting on a bench chatting with me, shouting commands, and now and then getting up to correct a student's form. The warm-up was led by an adult with a black belt and a ponytail. When uchikomi began he put on a large mechanical knee brace.  "Judo injury?" I asked Mehdi. “Yes”, he said, “his shoulder too”. 

      I came a little late the next day, hoping to miss at least some of the "warm-up" (I planned to visit Alexandre Paiva’s academy later that evening and anticipated being invited to roll, as never failed to happen everywhere).  All I missed was 30 laps around the dojo, but that helped.  Mehdi introduced me to the class and said he was going to teach a special class in my honor, and asked me what I wanted to learn. I said, newaza, and especially the technique I saw them practicing the previous day, a choke counter to opponent's attempted seio-nage.  Mehdi also demonstrated a very painful choke (which Alvaro Barreto also showed me a few days later!) and a nice variation on Kimura (ude garami) that works even if opponent hangs on to his own belt.    

      What do you think? he asked me after. "Impressive, interesting", I said. "I like newaza", I elaborated. "Nage-waza is dangerous". I was thinking about his black belt assistant with the knee brace and bum shoulder.  "Yes", Mehdi agreed, "judo is dangerous. But I love it."

      I mentioned that I planned to fight in the Internacional de Masters e Seniors tournament later that month, and asked him for some tips on how to get off to a good start. He suggested some hiza guruma variations and practiced them with me. Cleiber Maia was right, and so was Sylvio Behring, Café, Mario Sperry, and Mike Swain. Mehdi knew a lot. 

      Interesting guy, this Mehdi.  



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© 2000, R.A. Pedreira. All rights reserved.  

Revised Dezembro 2001