Teaching the ‘gentle art’ of Brazilian jiu-jitsu
In 1993, Royce Gracie shocked the fighting community by winning the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship, which features mixed martial arts professionals going toe-to-toe in “no holds barred” matches.
Royce, a slight, inconspicuous man, used a fighting style — called Brazilian jiu-jitsu — that he had learned from his father, Helio.
Helio Gracie was brought up learning Japanese jiu-jitsu techniques, but found that he lacked the strength to go up against larger opponents. He persisted and found different ways to use leverage and other techniques, rather than brute strength and athleticism, to dominate fighters who were bigger than him. These techniques formed the basis of what’s now known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a style that has grown in popularity in recent years.
The sport got to Hawaii thanks to one of Helio Gracie’s sons, Relson, now a grand master in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Being808 recently sat down with Todd Tanaka, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who studied under Relson Gracie, to talk about the sport and its health benefits. Tanaka owns Relson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Team HK Academy in Honolulu.
Being808: So how did you get involved with Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
Todd: At the time, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal were really popular and my friends and I wanted to learn something, too. My friend Jared’s father was in the Secret Service and suggested that we try out Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
The part that attracted me to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was that it was a martial art designed for a smaller person to defeat a much larger opponent. My instructor also had many home videos of his family fighting other styles of martial arts to show us the effectiveness of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
Being808: What’s your background?
Todd: I started training back in 1990 with a group of friends in Relson Gracie’s garage. We took private classes from him twice a week. In 1996, I wanted to pursue teaching jiu-jitsu (so I went) to the Gracie Academy in Torrance, Calif., for their instructors program taught by Rorion Gracie and UFC champion Royce Gracie. While I was there I was lucky because their father Grand Master Helio Gracie was there instructing too.
In 2002, I opened up my own school in University Square, and I’ve been there ever since. In the last four years I have also opened three associations in Maryland headed by my friend Stuart Ramos, with one more on the way.
Most recently, I’ve become the only certified training center in Hawaii to teach the Gracie Combatives and Bullyproof programs.
I have also competed in several tournaments here in Hawaii, Ohio, and California. My last competition was in June 2011 at the World Championships in California. A lot of people are continuing to compete at older ages now, so if I get the bug again I just might step on the competition mat again.
As for now, I am totally focused on running my school and it makes it hard for me to put in the proper training required to compete. The current level of athleticism of the competitors is amazing and you can’t go in there unprepared.
Being808: I didn’t realize that Relson Gracie is now a grand master. Could you explain to us what that means and a little about the ranking system?
Todd: The grand master title is reserved for those who have earned their red belt; this is the highest belt that you can achieve.
Adults start off with a white belt and progress to blue, purple, brown, black, red/black, and red. Each belt has several degrees that you must earn before being promoted to the next. Kids’ belts are a little different; they start with white, then yellow, orange, and green. This is the traditional belt system created by Grand Masters Helio and Carlos Gracie, the founders of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. These days there are some newly added kids’ belts being used.
Todd: I model my teaching on the styles of Master Relson Gracie and his father Helio. That is, I teach in the “Simple Way,” which consists of three principles:
1) Street effective
2) Natural body movements
3) Energy efficient
These days, a lot of instructors try to produce the toughest competitor, which makes their schools look good. There’s nothing wrong with that. I would just rather teach the average person who wants to learn the art and better themselves. I do have students that compete and I totally support them on that, and they do great.
Being 808: What would you tell moms who are intimidated by these type of classes?
Todd: In every sport there is a chance of injury and that’s just part of growing up. What mothers see on TV is not what we do, though. That is mixed martial arts (MMA). Jiu-jitsu translates to “the gentle art” and is just one of many disciplines in MMA.
Every mom should bring her child to a class to see for themselves that it isn’t a bunch of kids punching one another. We teach kids techniques to submit their opponent as a better option than striking them.
Being808: What do you think of the future of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu? Do you see women and children fitting into this more now?
Todd: Yes, women’s and kids’ training is on the rise. A lot of young girls are starting to train because they have fathers that know the value of jiu-jitsu and are placing them in classes. So in five to 10 years, those girls are going to be teens and women and a new wave of girls are going to have all these women to look up to.
Back in the day, there were fewer women because the art was new. Now, even the UFC has women fighting in it and that has helped schools to gain more women.
Being808: Any instructor advice to parents who want to know when to start taking their kids to these classes?
Todd: My advice to parents is to place your kids in jiu-jitsu as young as possible. Do not expect anything from them, just let them enjoy the art and have fun. If they love it and you place the pressure on them to be good because you want them to be good then they will end up hating it and quit.
Being808: What can someone expect from a beginner class?
Todd: Our beginner classes have no sparring. The students work together on understanding the techniques and once they understand what’s going on, then they can spar. You can expect a safe, fun, and friendly experience.
Interested in learning more? Tanaka offers a free trial class. Call the academy at 277-1128 for more information.