Rickson Gracie stands at the center of the enormous Gracie Academy mat and begins to share. I choose the word share over teach because one gets the feeling immediately that the information he’s transmitting is the essence of his jiu-jitsu—the art that defines him. He isn’t phoning in a series of random techniques to amaze us, he’s letting us in on the very thing that makes his jiu-jitsu the envy of perhaps every world champion that’s rolled with him—he calls it connection.
I don’t know whose arm is around my neck, but I perform a technique I just saw Rickson demonstrate. I execute the move immediately and turn to find that my attacker is a broadly smiling Rorion Gracie. He pats me on the back and asks me to do it again. He’s noticeably enthusiastic about the material and our exposure to it. He’s pleased and I’m relieved when I repeat the movement correctly. There’s always pressure wearing a black belt and having a Gracie family member—a red belt no less—ask you to perform a technique. I thank him for his help, and when his back turns I scurry over to a group of blue belts that seem to have an odd man out. The technique was a way to lift an attacker who has reached around your neck from behind without committing his weight either forward or backward. Without the benefit of his weight falling into you, lifting is difficult. Rickson shows us to bend at our hips the way we would if we were sitting into a deep chair, and then walk backward to get our hips under our opponent’s center of gravity. In any other seminar, this might simply be a basic self-defense technique, but Rickson uses this to as an introduction to the idea that weight can be easier to move if approached from the correct angle. He’s talking about leverage—a word that is frequently tossed around in jiu-jitsu circles; but as Rickson calls black belt after black belt forward and none are able to lift their opponents the way he can, one begins to realize that the concept might be familiar to most of us, but perhaps not deeply understood.
Rickson whistles through his fingers and everyone stops to watch as he calls forward a black belt and asks him to keep his balance. Rickson then grabs his partner’s gi at the shoulder and tugs and pushes while the black belt falls forward then backward, clearly out of balance. The roles are then reversed and the black belt pushes and pulls, but Rickson’s steps forward and backward are small and balanced, and we begin to see how connection is the a relationship between the attacker’s base and our own. Soon it’s our turn to push and pull each other. We begin with basic judo grips on each other’s lapels, and when my partner pushes, my weight transfers to my front leg, and when he pulls it transfers to my back leg. Fair enough—anyone who’s wrestled or trained in judo will be familiar with the shifting of weight from leg to leg—but Rickson points out that when you’re connected, there is a certain tension in the arms as well as the legs, and that allowing that tension to disappear is to give up the connection you have to your opponent. Keep in mind that the goal here isn’t to teach you how to throw or avoid being thrown—not specifically—it’s to demonstrate the interaction between connected and disconnected. The first time I grab my blue belted partner, he’s easy to move. He reflects a bit on what Rickson said, and his balance becomes better and I have to push or pull harder to get him to step. He pushes me and I feel the sense of balance that Rickson described. I don’t feel it perfectly, but I have a better sense of control over my base, even as my opponent begins to pull and push with more intensity. There isn’t a good way to describe this technically—at no time does Rickson provide you with a set of instructions to follow—because Rickson is trying to convey a feeling rather than a sequence. When we are connected, we shift our weight in a way that doesn’t give our attacker anything to use against us. Rickson spends more time on this exercise than on any other, and with good reason, for it shows how being connected allows your base to remain independent of your opponent’s actions, while his lack of connection allows you to manipulate his weight and posture.
Rickson gathers us around and asks me to grab him around the waist while he pushes into me. I do the best I can, but he adjusts my shoulder so that it becomes the point of connection between my base and his, and suddenly I’m stronger. The difference wasn’t necessarily my posture, but the way the shoulder allowed me to connect to him more powerfully than with the broad surface of my chest. The shoulder represented a narrow point through which I could direct my “base” or my weight—neither word is appropriate, yet they are closest I can think of without using the word “energy”—a term I despise because of its mystical martial arts connotations. Like the pushing and pulling we did when we grabbed lapels, I am shifting my weight into my front leg when I’m resisting his push and transferring it to the back leg when I’m being pulled. Rickson switches directions quickly and tests my response time so that I remember to shift my weight immediately as the need arises. He reminds all of us that this isn’t something we can expect to do perfectly, as it requires a feeling for when the weight must shift, but that we can now practice shifting the weight more consciously.
Similarly, he shows us how sprawling to stop a double leg takedown requires the same type of connection. As Rickson sprawls, he walks backward but drives his weight into his opponent so that the attacker’s base is disrupted while Rickson’s is maintained. His opponent not only bears Rickson’s weight, he must do so from a broken and weak posture. Imagine sprawling, not only with the hips, but also with your chest connected to your opponent’s back so that you can move your hips out further and circle to the back more easily. The technique itself is useful, but it’s more important as another clear example of how Rickson’s idea of being connected is about inhibiting the opponent while improving your own ability to move.
We hit the ground for escapes from side control. Not really, though. Once again, the technique is secondary to the illustration of connection. Once again he asks advanced students, purple belts all the way up to black belts (plus one ambitious white belt), to escape from the modified kesa gatame of another black belt. None of them escape until a female purple belt from his association demonstrates the concept Rickson is looking for. Rickson then shows us how grabbing the lapel and connecting through your arm into the opponent’s neck creates a fulcrum that allows you to easily move your hips away while also preventing the opponent from maintaining control or following. Rickson emphasizes that the arm that blocks the opponent’s neck does not push, it simply connects, and the result is that it becomes a point we can use to move our hips away more easily.
For the next escape, the point of connection is your armpit, as you reach over your opponent’s back, toward his belt, and focus your “energy” (there’s that horrible word again) into your opponent’s shoulder so that you can escape your hips and slide onto your shoulder easily—while also preventing your opponent from flattening you out again. The key here is that the connection point works best against your opponent’s resistance because it not only blocks that resistance, it allows you to move more easily away from it. Picture this: your arm is out of position from the bottom of side control. Your opponent is on your right side, with one knee at your hip and the other leg sprawled back. He controls your head and his other arm is over your body, attempting to block your left hip. With your left arm over his back, you reach toward his belt and direct your weight into that connection between your armpit and his shoulder. Your right arm remains loose and straight. You then escape your hips, without bridging (a key point), and hide your right shoulder under you by simply sliding the right arm back. Do not bridge and do not bend your right arm—hiding the shoulder is a subtle shift of the arm so that it is not stretched along the mat, but instead it is pulled under your body. Hiding the shoulder prevents your right arm from blocking you as you try to turn into him to get to your knees or recover guard.
It is nearing the end of the scheduled time, so Rickson gathers us around to go over a submission. Once again he asks various black belts to try to armlock him from the guard, and each time he manages to show a moment in their attack where they are vulnerable to being stacked. Experienced black belts attempt the armbar in various ways, all performed correctly—according to common understanding—yet each is stacked before they can finish the submission. Rickson then shows how to shoot the hips up quickly, without swinging them in either direction, to bite onto the opponent’s back uncrossed. The bite of the leg into the back is the connection point for this attack, and it allows Rickson’s hips to remain elevated and his core to remain strong and unbendable. The technique appears to be unexploitable. He then bites heavily with one leg so that he can raise his hips further and pivot them so that the other leg can swing tightly over the opponent’s head. The movement is so tight and precise that he is able to demonstrate it without the use of his hands—in such a manner that, even without his hands, his opponent cannot retract his arm or defend by stacking. This is eye opening for everyone in attendance, as evidenced by top black belts, including other Gracie family members, excitedly performing the technique on one another until Rickson whistles for attention for the last time.
We line up in front of Rickson and Rorion. Rickson becomes emotional when thanking Rorion and reflecting on his “coming home” to the Gracie Academy. It’s an important moment in Gracie family history, and one is left to wonder what a force an already great family could become if all sides of the clan were to similarly reunite.
Immediately after the seminar, I receive a call from one of my heroes—Kid Peligro. “So tell me,” he says. “How was it?” His voice is filled an excitement that matches the kind I’m feeling after sharing the mat with someone I had wanted to train with since I first put my name on the five-year waiting list for privates ten years ago. My response:
“Kid, it was amazing. It wasn’t about techniques, it was about every technique. If someone wonders why a particular technique isn’t working for them, this seminar would have helped them find the reason. Rickson tried to put words to a feeling. It was like having Kobe try to explain how to cut to the basket the way he does—except Rickson found the words and the examples to actually describe that type of thing. My expectations were high, yet the experience surpassed them.”
None of what I said might be exactly true, but it’s all honest. We’ve always felt frustrated by the way people who’ve attended a Rickson seminar have responded to questions about it vaguely, but I was able to see why it’s almost unanimously the case. Rickson’s jiu-jitsu is the result of years of practice, a God-given capacity for understanding it, and enough love of the art to want to share it in the way he experiences it—through feeling not a list of easily imitable instructions.