Being Comfortable With the Uncomfortable
Carlos Machado and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Way of Life
by Mark Jacobs • Photography by Darren Chesnut
When I look back on the way we did things when I was a white belt, I can say that now we’ve improved the whole foundation of jiu-jitsu so that my white belts are much better than we were. Athletes today are better in every sport, so jiu-jitsu is no different. But there have been quite a few upgrades in the mechanics and the teaching structure that make things easier and make students sharper. Students from when I started in the late 1960s wouldn’t last minutes with students of the same rank today. Today, they’re more conditioned, they cross-train in judo, they cross-train in wrestling.
“But I will say the core elements, the fundamentals — those have stayed the same.”
Carlos Machado, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu master who spoke those words, understands those core elements as well as anyone. His aunt was married to Carlos Gracie, eldest of the brothers who helped lay the foundation for BJJ. Through this family connection, Machado — and later his brothers Roger, Rigan, Jean Jacques and John — began training with the best jiu-jitsu people of the era. Among those they learned from were Helio Gracie, Carlson Gracie, Rolls Gracie and Carlos Gracie Jr.
Each instructor had his own style and emphasis, Machado said. For example, Helio stressed self-defense, Carlson and Rolls emphasized training for competition, and Carlos Jr. concentrated on the technical aspects of the game. The basics that Machado gleaned from each of them stay with him to this day.
While modern BJJ incorporates many new elements like exotic guards and intricate submissions, you can’t forget it has a core that should never be relinquished, Machado said. “There is a theory in jiu-jitsu that what starts as a crack in your foundation can become a huge hole as time goes by. What I mean is if you miss out on a basic move when you’re a white belt, you will have a crack in your knowledge. When you become a blue belt, you can disguise that crack by learning more techniques to cover it up, but the further along in rank you go, the bigger the crack becomes.”
He went on to cite an example: “If you have a poor escape from the mount as a white belt, that’s a crack. But other white belts may not have the skill to make you pay for it, so you can get away with it. When you become a blue belt, you may try to disguise your lack of skill at escaping from the mount by developing a better guard to prevent being put into the mount position. But you’re going to have more trouble the higher you go because a more skilled training partner will be able to take advantage of that crack.
“The mat reveals your strengths but also exposes your weaknesses.”
A day of reckoning always awaits, even for skilled black belts, when that crack in one’s foundation must be paid for, Machado said. “The black belt can do very well using his strengths, but if he’s ever put in a place where he has a weakness, he becomes like a blue belt. So I always bring my students back to uncomfortable places and refresh them on getting out of trouble.
“That’s something you should always work toward: being comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
Coming to America
Machado learned how to deal with uncomfortable situations early in his jiu-jitsu career. As part of the Gracie family — albeit with a different surname — he felt pressure to perform at a high level when representing the family in competition. His younger brothers, who followed him into the sport, were also expected to maintain the same high standards. The brothers became training partners and sounding boards for each other, coming up with their own ideas and eventually serving as their own coaches for one another.
In 1988 Machado first visited the United States while traveling with his cousin Rorion Gracie, who’d taught BJJ in Los Angeles for several years. Their destination was the annual Las Vegas convention that Chuck Norris organizes for his martial arts association. There, the duo taught a jiu-jitsu seminar, and Norris was immediately hooked. Carlos returned to Brazil, but his brother Rigan moved to America and began helping Rorion teach in his garage dojo and later at the first Gracie academy.
Not long afterward, Carlos and the other brothers joined Rigan in America. But then a dispute with Rorion led the Machados to open their own school in Southern California with Norris’ backing. The school was an instant success, largely because of the Machados’ thorough teaching method.
“We have a passion for teaching jiu-jitsu, and we want to make sure a student never leaves the mat with a question unanswered,” Carlos said. “If I don’t have the answer, I won’t budge till I find a way to give you a solution. I like to break things down so jiu-jitsu is so minute in detail that it becomes like a science. I think this makes students motivated because they see it’s such a fascinating art. It’s endless. You can do the same thing a thousand different ways, and you’ll never say you know enough.”
Although BJJ is all about details, Machado said that the core of the art revolves around simplicity and effectiveness. If a technique takes too long to get the job done, it becomes prone to failure. For beginners, having more than three steps to follow can make for an almost insurmountable challenge. Even for black belts, he said, the odds of succeeding with any given technique decrease when the move involves more than three steps.
“The more steps a technique has, the more chances you give an opponent to mess up the situation,” he said. “A fancy technique might be effective if you’re a world champion who can do it, but what good is it if you can’t pass that move on to your students because it’s too complicated? [That would mean] we’re starting to limit jiu-jitsu to people who have a lot of natural ability or those who can train way more hours than anyone else. A champion can do some of these moves, [but] they’re beyond the reach of the average Joe.
“I don’t believe in that. It’s not the jiu-jitsu [way]. That’s why I try to stick to simplicity and effectiveness. If you can limit your moves to no more than three steps, you will have a 90-percent chance of success with them.”
Walker, Texas Ranger
The success of the Machados has been nothing short of phenomenal since they moved to the United States. Several years after establishing themselves in California, Norris invited Carlos to visit Texas, where Walker, Texas Ranger was filmed. Norris then convinced him to move to the Lone Star State and open a jiu-jitsu school in the warehouse in which the CBS series was shot. To keep him busy while he established his school, Norris gave Machado regular work as a stuntman and fight coordinator on Walker.
“I’ve been beat up by Chuck Norris more than anyone alive — and killed several times, too,” Machado said, gleefully. “He’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had and is the reason I came to Dallas.”
Machado continues to teach at his Texas dojo and at events organized by the network of schools he and his brothers built around the United States. At a recent BJJ seminar in Las Vegas, for example, he guided more than 200 students, some of whom were complete novices, in the intricacies of the art.
“I came up with a theme: Big or small, sweep them all,” Machado recalled. “I tried to teach something that everyone could follow regardless of experience. We started with the butterfly guard and double underhooks as our premise. The butterfly guard is good for sweeping opponents, and the double underhooks allow for a lot more control. This blends well with both gi and no-gi grappling, so it didn’t matter if they were wearing a gi or not.”
Machado said the butterfly guard gives the user a distinct advantage when it comes to sweeps, but it also can be used to effect a submission or retain the guard. Like the best teachers in any art, however, he’s quick to point out one of the negatives associated with the position: It can lead to occasional problems in no-gi grappling because a sweaty opponent might be able to slip out of your grasp. This is one reason he likes to employ the double-underhook clinch from the butterfly guard — it allows for good control even without a gi.
Once you’ve established the butterfly guard and the double underhooks, Machado said, you can attempt to sweep — but you also can go for a submission, with the key to both being to first break the opponent’s balance. He calls it “picking the low-hanging fruit.” If you’re presented with an easy submission, take it, he advised. Otherwise, you might want to opt for a sweep. The key to sweeping from this position, he said, is head control.
“If I want to sweep a guy and I have his head and arm trapped, first I’ll usually pull him in the direction opposite from where I want to take him,” Machado said. “When he resists, I’ll move to the direction I really want to take him, rotating his head in that direction. When his head rolls, the rest of his body will follow.
“If you grab the ring in a bull’s nose, it will go where you want it to. It’s the same when you control your opponent’s head. Wherever you rotate it, he will go.”
One key to making such moves work is being more efficient than your opponent when it comes to energy usage. Machado went so far as to say that this may be the most important element of jiu-jitsu. His advice: Search out ways you can expend less energy than your adversary. When in the top position, put as much of your weight as possible on your opponent, which forces him to carry your mass and thereby expend energy. When on the bottom, even against an opponent who’s trying to strike you, don’t panic or let yourself get claustrophobic because that can disrupt your breathing and cause you to burn excess energy.
“In jiu-jitsu, you survive, then you equalize, then you capitalize,” he said. “After you survive, you can create space, rotate, escape — but surviving comes first, and breathing is No. 1. Stay calm and don’t waste your energy.”
All in the Family
Machado has dedicated his life to imparting lessons like that to his students, many of whom have gone on to become prominent competitors. One of them is Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Rafael Lovato Jr., a black belt under Machado. Another is UFC fighter Stephen Thompson, for whom Machado has served as BJJ coach. He holds a special connection with the latter because the martial artist is, in fact, his brother-in-law.
Machado began conducting seminars for Thompson’s father Ray at his South Carolina karate school 20 years ago. “He was already doing some jiu-jitsu training down there,” Machado recalled. “I had a student who moved there and began doing karate with him, and he arranged for me to do a seminar in 1997. It became a tradition for me to go there a couple of times a year and teach. Ray became my student, but I didn’t meet his daughter Lindsay till three or four years later because she was going to college at the time. I finally met her in 2000. She was pretty good at karate, too, and beat Stephen until he was about 15.
“Anyway, we just started dating and ended up getting married. I’ll tell you that in jiu-jitsu, you meet the most awesome people — even your wife, if you don’t watch out!”
Mark Jacobs is a freelance writer and martial artist based in New York. For more information, visit his website maworldreport.com. For more information about Carlos Machado, visit carlosmachadojiujitsu.com.