The massive tattooed wrists tighten around the New Times correspondent's neck, constricting both his windpipe and the flow of blood to his brain as effectively as giant human pliers. The reporter begins to second-guess his decision to make journalism his career, and, more specifically, the folly of sitting in on a class with Marcus Silveira, the Brazilian jujitsu master whose vice-grip pincers are currently strangling him. "I try to help people," Silveira had assured the writer when they first met. "When you reach some level in the martial arts, it's not about being the tough guy or the strong guy. It's about being the intelligent guy. It's stupid to use what you know to hurt people."
As temporary loss of consciousness or permanent loss of voice seem like real possibilities, the writer can hope only that Silveira is true to his word, and that he has no ax to grind with the fourth estate. The New Times staffer had stepped onto the mat in downtown Miami's Bayfront Health Club (where Silveira imparts his brutal brand of brawling wisdom) with no suicidal notions of seriously tussling with the six-foot-one, 250-pound, 30-year-old Silveira. He merely had hoped to make a respectable showing and not appear overly wimplike. But pride goes out the window when the scribe senses the cartilage in his Adam's apple popping. It is extremely difficult to capitulate verbally when one feels as though his larynx is being squeezed out through his ears. Fortunately Silveira has explained to his newest student the safety valve known as "tapping out" A patting your adversary with your free hand to indicate surrender, the jujitsu competitor's equivalent of saying "uncle."
The writer lucks out. Silveira holds no grudge against newsfolk, and releases the hold quickly when he feels the desperate tap on his shoulder. The martial artist's green eyes twinkle as he says, "You see, it's not necessary to throw a punch or make a pretty kick. You just have to know the techniques. It doesn't matter how big [an attacker] is or how strong. If you have the knowledge, you can defend yourself."
Silveira is willing to back up this conviction with hard currency. "I don't want to go on TV or radio and make a big challenge to call attention to myself, like I have no respect," explains the Rio de Janeiro native in a no-nonsense voice flavored with a heavy Brazilian accent. "That is a stupid position. But I believe Brazilian jujitsu is the best fighting style. I am willing to go into a ring with anybody to prove it. If you really believe you can put Brazilian jujitsu down, it's time to show yourself. Put some money together A a minimum of $30,000 because it's not fair for you to be spending so much of your time training for nothing A and I'll put up the same amount and we'll call my lawyers and put a fight together. No holds barred. Anytime. Anywhere. Anyone."
To date no one has taken up Silveira on his two-year-old challenge. "People call me all the time and leave messages on my telephone putting Brazilian jujitsu down, saying how they can beat it. But they never leave a number. They just talk and talk," he shrugs. "I was reading in a magazine about this shoot fighter who weighs 280 pounds. It called him the toughest man in Florida. He was talking about putting up $100,000. I called my lawyers and said, 'Let's put it together.' And right away he run from me like a chicken. But he's still out there talking about how his style can beat anyone. I believe if you don't know what you're talking about, the best position you can have is stay quiet."
Sgt. Carlos Hernandez, public information officer for the Hialeah police department and a black belt and instructor of Jeet Kune Do (the fighting style popularized by actor Bruce Lee), doubts that a rush of contenders will reach for the gauntlet Silveira has thrown down.
"I've seen footage of him fighting in tournaments in Brazil," Hernandez reveals. "Let me tell you, he is bad. Not only does he have size and strength, but he has amazing quickness and mental attributes. Very few of the martial artists I have met would I be worried about being in a real street fight with. But Marcus's style of Brazilian jujitsu is predicated on winning a fight, not who can break boards with their bare hands, or who can kick prettier. It's about beating the other guy, and they have plenty of tools to do it. That's Marcus's life. He eats it, he sleeps it, he lives it. He's a world-class fighter, probably the best in Florida, bar none."
Hernandez is so convinced of Silveira's prowess that he offered the Brazilian a bit part in Mortal Contact, a low-budget action movie shot in and around South Florida in August and September of last year. Hernandez produced the film. "You get to see Marcus in action in two fights," Hernandez enthuses. "But he plays a bad guy."
According to the cop/budding movie producer, in the past three years, Brazilian jujitsu has enjoyed an enormous worldwide surge in popularity thanks in no small measure to the dominance of its practitioners in a burgeoning no-holds-barred competition known as the Ultimate Fighting Challenge (UFC). "The Brazilians have been doing these all-out fights for nearly 70 years," notes Hernandez. "But prior to the Ultimate Fighting Challenges, only a few martial artists in this country had ever heard of Brazilian jujitsu."
Daniel Severn uses his muscular 260-pound frame to take down his spindly legged 180-pound opponent, Royce (pronounced "Hoyce") Gracie, and pin the smaller man's head against the base of the chainlink fence that encloses the 750-square-foot octagon in which they are battling. Severn and Gracie have reached the finals of the fourth Ultimate Fighting Challenge, a savage descendant of tough-man competitions; however, the UFC features a few distinctive, bizarro touches A such as the no-exit, chainlink "ring" A that seem as if they were inspired by the deadly cage battles depicted in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The rules are simple in ultimate fighting: There aren't any. (Well, okay, biting and eye-gouging are no-noes; other than that, anything goes.) Combatants kick, punch, head-butt, wrestle, choke, and knee each other into submission. No rounds.
No breaks (except bones). No standing eight counts.
Entertainment Weekly compares UFC to cockfighting, calling the competition a "brutal martial arts exhibition" in which "matches end with broken bones, profuse bleeding, and stone-cold unconsciousness." The New York Times labels it a "promise-of-blood sport." Don Hazelton, executive director of Florida's boxing commission, characterizes such free-for-alls as "barbaric and [per chapter 548.008 of Florida's state statutes] illegal. If you and I did what's in those, we'd be arrested. We [the boxing commission] fail to see where they are of any particular sports benefit."
But martial arts aficionados such as Carlos Hernandez take a different view. "It's a shame that kind of fighting is illegal in Florida," Hernandez opines. "It's made a huge impact in the martial arts world in the last two years because now you can see how one fighting style stacks up against another. It's been such a big explosion that maybe the boxing commissions are scared."
Ultimate-fighting competitions pit combatants from a variety of martial arts (as well as old-fashioned, plain-vanilla sports such as boxing and wrestling) against each other. A large part of the new-breed donnybrook's appeal can be traced back to the desire to
settle once and for all those childhood arguments over who would win a fight between a boxer and a karate expert (Mike Tyson versus Bruce Lee, for example). Of course, the prospect of brutal hand-to-hand combat and possibly even death A the latter expectation fueled by countless violent chopsocky B-movie videos starring the likes of a young Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport), Don "the Dragon" Wilson (Bloodfist), or big Lou Ferrigno (Cage) A cannot be discounted when analyzing ultimate fighting's appeal. Call it a case of life imitating (martial) art. (In a March 1994 article in the New York Times, UFC organizer Campbell McLaren actually is quoted as saying, "It may be good for the buy rate. But I don't want anyone to die." The article noted that "death did not visit any competitor in UFC I," and that as of that writing, the worst injury sustained by a UFC fighter was a broken hand.)
Two basic ultimate-fighting styles have emerged A punching and grappling. Punchers include boxers, kickboxers, Thai boxers, as well as practitioners of a variety of schools of karate, kung fu, and tae kwon do. Bruce Lee was a puncher. Jean-Claude Van Damme is a puncher. Steven Seagal is, more or less, a puncher. Grapplers are ground fighters, specializing in takedowns and choke and submission holds. Their ranks include students of judo, shoot fighting, Greco-Roman wrestling, and jujitsu. Grapplers do not become movie stars.
Daniel Severn and Royce Gracie are grapplers. Severn is a former Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling heavyweight champion, with more than 300 amateur and pro matches under his belt. He has the body of a National Football League lineman. Gracie, on the other hand, looks like a cross between Mario Cuomo and Adam Sandler, with the body of a CPA. When Severn grabs the trapped Gracie by the collar of his gi (martial arts robe) and throws punches at the smaller man's face, the natural impulse is to avert one's eyes. It seems almost criminal to have allowed the outweighed and apparently outmatched Gracie into the octagon with the behemoth.
Everyone packed into Tulsa, Oklahoma's Expo Square Pavilion to witness the fourth Ultimate Fighting Challenge seems to realize Gracie is done for. Except Gracie. A fourth degree black belt in "Gracie jujitsu," the fighting art developed by his uncle and his father (and practiced by Marcus Silveira), Royce Gracie appears about as calm as a human being could be with a beast like Severn squashing him.
To understand Royce Gracie's composure, it helps to understand his lineage. The Gracie name is revered in martial arts circles. Seventy years ago, according to legend, a Japanese count named Maeda Coma arrived in a Brazilian town whose mayor was Gaston Gracie, patriarch of the Gracie clan. The elder Gracie and Coma became friends, with the immigrant teaching Gaston's sons, Carlos and Helio, the art of jujitsu, which had been developed centuries earlier by samurai warriors. The two brothers became obsessed with the martial art, practicing constantly, refining it to reflect the realities of street fighting. Helio became so proficient he once challenged Joe Louis to a no-holds-barred fight, but the heavyweight boxing champ declined.
Helio and Carlos imparted the lessons they learned to their rapidly proliferating clan (Carlos fathered 21 children before his death last year; 92-year-old Helio still teaches the Gracie jujitsu method when he isn't serving as cornerman for one of his seven sons, such as 28-year-old Royce). "Carlos Gracie and Helio Gracie never lost a fight," contends police sergeant Hernandez. "Their kids and students have kept the tradition alive of challenging anyone to test their knowledge in a no-holds-barred competition. All these guys who say they can touch you in a pressure point and kill you, the Gracies have unmasked them. They dominate ground fighting, and 95 percent of real fights go to the ground. They're unstoppable. In the martial arts right now, they're it."
Despite his superior position and his grip on Royce Gracie's collar, few of Daniel Severn's blows find their mark. Gracie, although pinned beneath the giant's weight with his legs wrapped around Severn's midsection, makes himself an evasive target. The fight wears on. Three minutes pass, then five, then seven. Twelve minutes go by, and still Severn cannot put the tenacious, clinging Gracie away. Royce hugs his attacker like a desperate lover, countering Severn's every move, waiting for an opening. Suddenly, nearly fifteen minutes into the fight, he finds it. Still on his back, as he has been for the entire match, Gracie works his legs up from around his opponent's back to Severn's neck and shoulders. And just like that it is over. Severn, his head trapped in a leg-lock from which there is no exit save unconsciousness or surrender, taps out.
Chalk up a third Ultimate Fighting Challenge crown (and $64,000 purse) for Royce Gracie. Proud poppa Helio looks on impassively at ringside (cageside?). Just another day at the office for the Gracie dynasty.
Through the magic of pay-per-view and home video, in the past two years, millions of Americans have had the pleasure of enjoying the quiet giant-killer from Rio de Janeiro in action. Royce Gracie's cousin Rickson (pronounced "Hickson") Gracie has won similar fights in Brazil and Japan, and is considered a hero in his native land.
"I trained with Rickson Gracie a few years ago in California," Hernandez discloses. "Back in those days, only a handful of people knew about these crazy Brazilians and their version of jujitsu. Today Rickson is widely recognized as the best all-around fighter in the world. Been in over 400 fights and doesn't have a cut on his face. He's such a big star that you can hardly get in touch with him. He's always traveling to competitions or exhibitions. He's become like the Michael Jordan of martial arts.
"You'll never see two practitioners of Gracie jujitsu in the ring with each other in one of these ultimate fights," Hernandez continues. "They do it mainly to show the world that their martial art is the best. And Rickson Gracie knows Marcus. He says what we all know. Marcus is nasty."
Marcus Silveira came to Miami from Brazil in 1990 shortly after receiving a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu under the tutelage of Carlson Gracie (son of Carlos), whose Rio-based school is one of the best known in the world. Carlson Gracie was regarded by many as the fiercest fighter of the clan; his legend includes a no-holds-barred fight that lasted three hours and fifteen minutes A more than four times as long as a fifteen-round professional boxing match that goes the distance. Currently the Gracie name is the hottest moniker in martial arts, and Silveira possesses the only black belt in Brazilian jujitsu in the southeastern U.S. He is also the only certified instructor of the art in Florida.
"I'm the only one," Silveira asserts. "If you have something you call jujitsu, or you have something you call any kind of name that you think is better, then let's rock and roll. I feel honored when I see somebody, doesn't matter the style, when he's willing to step inside the ring and face the real situation. I get upset when I see some people, they don't know shit about it, and they start claiming they know. I can fight in any situation with anyone, any style. I want to see if they can do the same."
Many of Silveira's students (like Hernandez) hold black belts in other martial arts disciplines. Often they have devoted several years to honing their skills. Some have been humbled in street fights, others have witnessed or heard about the Gracies' amazing success and want to see the technique firsthand; but for whatever reason, they attend his class.
"I got over here karate people, judo people, shoot fighters, wrestlers," Silveira boasts. "I got every kind of wee-wee-wah-wah-woo-woo style. Everybody's here. Black belt karate guys come to my school because they're still looking for something. They already know, even if they got 200 students, if they fight somebody in the street, they gonna get their ass kicked for sure." Silveira himself has approximately 80 students. He offers classes Monday through Friday in the aerobics room of the Bayfront Health Club downtown, and on Saturday at the Miami Beach Police Athletic League gym. The ability to defend oneself does not come cheap; Silveira charges $100 per month and expects a minimum ten-month, 120-lesson commitment. While it is impossible to make blanket guarantees, the jujitsu expert reckons that most students should feel confident enough in their ability to defend themselves within three months, and skilled enough to qualify for a blue belt after ten. Although Silveira has only a handful of female students, his technique's ability to neutralize size and weight differentials would seem to make it a natural for women.
To the untrained eye, Silveira's classes do not look much like street-fighting lessons in progress. His students pair off and spend most of their time rolling around on the ground, trying to get into or break specific holds or locks. The takedown marks the only truly exciting part of the jujitsu fighter's repertoire, and it is usually accomplished in the wink of an eye. The rest of the time, they engage in a lot of clinching and clenching, grabbing, gripping, and grappling. You'll see the occasional flip or somersault, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Often Silveira's students look as if they're tenderly embracing. Only the sweat soaking their gis and the labored huffing and puffing give them away.
Glamorous it ain't. In fact, to the uninitiated, Brazilian jujitsu is downright boring to watch. Small wonder it was largely unknown outside of Brazil until the Gracie clan started proving their mettle on worldwide pay-per-view and videotape.
But don't let the absence of flying kicks or multiple-brick-bashing exhibitions fool you. Even lowly blue belts (white belts are for beginners, followed, in ascending order, by blue, purple, brown, and black) can defend themselves handily. Forget to tuck an elbow or extend a leg properly, and even a relative newcomer will make you pay. Silveira, clearly proud of his charges, revels in the tale of a 280-pound cop who dropped in on his class recently, intent on throwing his weight around. The instructor matched him up with a 160-pound blue belt and let them have at it.
"Everybody says, 'Hell, man, 280 pounds against 160? Is too much,'" Silveira fondly recalls. "I told the guy to punch, slap, squeeze, whatever. Thirty seconds later, the 160-pound guy was squeezing his neck, getting his arm, toying with him." Silveira's younger brother Marcello, who is smaller than Marcus but mongoose-quick and a black belt in Gracie jujitsu as well, has been known to humble an outsized opponent or two.
For all his cocksure confidence in Gracie jujitsu's dominance, however, Silveira is surprisingly low-key and soft-spoken when he talks about anything else. He may have served a three-year stretch as a paratrooper in the Brazilian special forces, during which time he had his brawny arms and legs embroidered with a patchwork of ferocious-looking tattoos, but Silveira is all soft coos and proud papa smiles when he cradles his infant son, Jeiko, in his beefy hands. The contradiction is striking; the conflicting images hard to reconcile. The doting family man (in addition to three-month-old Jeiko, Silveira and his wife, Grace, live with their two-year-old son, Joshua, and nine-year-old daughter, Jessica, in North Miami Beach) gently rocks his baby while he dispassionately discusses his prospects for participating in a no-holds-barred cage match to be staged by national cable network ESPN.
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"When people try to be nasty with me, I try to avoid problems," he notes. "I don't mess with nobody. I'm so quiet. I don't look for any problems. Thank God I never had any problem with anyone with my family, because that kind of point I don't even talk to you. I'm gonna send you straight to Jackson." Silveira never has had to put his knowledge to use to defend himself in a street fight or barroom brawl, although it did come in handy during his stint as a bouncer at the Kitchen Club on Miami Beach from 1990 to 1992.
"It was my first job in the United States," Silveira recalls. "I didn't hit people over there, but sometimes I had to put people to sleep. Is much better than punching. When you wake up, you gonna feel much better than if I punched you. Of course, I gotta know how to do it, because I can kill you. I can just cut your air, and you gonna die in about 30 seconds. But most of the time you just say, 'Hey, it's time to leave. No talk. Let's go.' And it works."
The toughest man in Florida turns reflective for a moment. "You gotta make some kind of agreement with God, you know? Like he let you have something in your life that if you gonna use it against people, you gonna have to pay back. I know the things I can do, so I try to avoid all the ways that I can. To take me to the other step like I'm gonna fight, you gotta really piss me off. You gotta give me a good reason. Otherwise I don't cut your face. I don't break your nose. I just put you to sleep. I got tools in my hands that I can be so bad to you or I can treat you nice. With the knowledge I have acquired I can do whatever I want."
Mortal Contact premieres tonight (Thursday) at 7:30 at the Astor Art Cinema, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables; 443-6777.