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Brazilian Martial Art Becomes Popular and Controversial - 2002-07-31

To many foreigners, Brazil is known for soccer and samba. The latest Brazilian export however is in fighting. A family of Scottish descendants has reinvented the Japanese martial art, jiu jitsu, and turned it into a global fighting empire.

Feet hit the mat at the Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro. Fighters grapple, tussle, grab each other and try to subdue their practice opponents.

Above them hangs a picture of Helio Gracie, the self-proclaimed inventor of Brazilian jiu jitsu, even though half his family disputes this, saying it was his late brother who taught him. Despite his age, the 89-year-old still speaks with a hard bite from his ranch outside Rio.

"My style of jiu jitsu is unique," he said. "Others are nothing. I have more strength in one finger than you have in your entire hand. Who else does this?"

Helio Gracie and his older brother Carlos learned jiu jitsu through a Japanese immigrant when they were growing up, but they adapted the techniques to create a more robust form of the martial art. Helio then challenged fighters from all realms to test their brawn against his techniques ushering what is now known as ultimate fighting.

Murillo Bustamante is one of many Brazilian jiu jitsu champions who have thrived on the growing ultimate fighting circuit, which mixes and matches different types of fighters and puts them in a caged ring with almost no rules. Fights are mostly held in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Brazil.

Politicians seeking to ban this violent sport call it "human cockfighting."

Rick Moralez, a 20-year-old American, is spending the year in Rio to learn the Gracie jiu jitsu technique. He says he was amazed at how jiu jitsu fighters were able to defeat men twice their size, using speed and submission tactics.

"They came in with grappling that a lot of North America never saw. They made a big impact," he said. "I mean karate guys, tae kwan do guys, kickboxers - once they got taken to the ground they were getting destroyed pretty much by these guys."

One of Helio's sons, Relson Gracie, now teaches the sport in Hawaii. He says the Gracies are a fighting dynasty, because their techniques are so superior.

"I think for us, Jiu jitsu is the most effective system, the grappling, the submissions in the martial arts, that's a fact," he said. "This was proved generations ago with my daddy, my uncles, my cousins, my old cousins, my old brothers, myself, my young brothers Rickson, Royler. For generations, this makes us better fighters. We can protect ourselves on the streets and be safe in fighting another kind of martial arts, karate, tae kwan do, judo, wrestling, mui thai, I don't care jiu jitsu is better."

Many of Helio's sons and their cousins have their own techniques, videos, fan clubs, gyms in different continents. Gracies teach Hollywood movie stars, U.S. law enforcement agents, and victims of rape how to fight and build self-confidence.

Within Brazil, however, not everyone is a fan of jiu jitsu. In Rio, jiu jitsu fighters can be seen walking around with baseball bats and pit bulls, looking for street fights outside the gym. More and more of them bulk up with weightlifting and anabolic steroids.

Despite its growing popularity, Brazilian jiu jitsu does have its detractors. Gay rights activist Eugenio Ibiapino says jiu jitsu fighters often attack homosexuals.

"Many of these jiu-jitsu fighters once they are outside the gym they use homosexuals, transvestites and people who look different as punching bags. Many times, they are sons of politicians, judges and police so they are protected by authorities and it's the victims who always lose," he said.

When asked about this, the sport's grandfather, Helio Gracie, says he's fed up with negative reports about jiu jitsu in the Brazilian media and that he speaks only to foreign journalists. He says a Japanese television crew just paid him over $3,000 for one interview. But he says, if the report isn't positive, he refuses to give a second interview. And he repeats he can do with one finger, what other men do with one hand.