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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Problematic Politics

Scally Mag Team

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Scally Magazine looks at the problematic politics that surround Brazilian jiu-jitsu and why it is important that the left challenge certain views in the sport…

“Shut up and train! I picked up another hobby…BJJ!”

This tweet from Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people protesting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and was later acquitted of any wrongdoing in court, is the latest example of how those revered by the right, and those who hold right-wing views continue to appropriate the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

This is not cynical. Rittenhouse didn’t find BJJ by accident. BJJ has a problematic and toxic culture that attracts many people from the right and those who have exclusionary views on race, gender, and abuse.

Combat sports more broadly is attractive to those of a right-wing persuasion as they are fundamentally steeped in violence and machismo; two of the many aspects that appeal to such people. Popularised by Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC, this form of ultraviolence and entertainment has seen BJJ become embroiled with, and seized by, right-wing factions for political violence. European far right-researchers have suggested that white-supremacist groups have actively used MMA and BJJ training to prepare for political violence in some parts of the continent.

In the US, the most prominent and dominant BJJ player, Gordon Ryan, who boast hundreds of thousands of social media followers, has expressed repugnant views around the women who stated they were abused by Jeffery Epstein. Ryan has also expressed racist views and systemic racism denial in many different social media posts including a post that states “being a different skin colour other than white doesn’t give you an excuse to be a lazy shit bag- fact.” Ryan faced little to zero criticism and continues to receive huge sponsorships as one of the best in the BJJ game.

BJJ and its ties to right-wing ideology and unsavoury contemporary political thinking do not start with the likes of Gordon Ryan and Kyle Rittenhouse; the connections with BJJ and right-wing ideologies and thought processes are historic.

The Gracie family from Brazil are often portrayed as the family who brought BJJ to the US and popularised it through spreading the sport across the North and South American continent. Hèlio Gracie, along with his brothers, are considered the founding fathers of the sport (although this is contested by some) and Hèlio’s portrait can be seen hanging above the mats in many BJJ gyms across the world to recognise and pay homage to the family and their contributions. Despite the somewhat uninformed worship of the family from many lovers of the sport, the Gracie family has a darker history.

The murky past of the Gracie family and Hèilo’s links to the fascist movement have been uncovered in research by Leandro Pereira Goncalves from Federal University of Juiz de Fora. The research shows that Hèlio had ties to the fascist integralist movement in Brazil in the 1930s. Furthermore, the feelings for fascism in the family don’t stop at the 1930s. In 2012, Renzo Gracie tweeted a quote from one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, Heinrich Himmler, that read “My honour is my loyalty.” Renzo is the man who trained the coach of Gordon Ryan, John Danaher. The connections and links are clear, and it becomes easier to understand the problematic cultures within BJJ.

Closer to home in Liverpool, Dean Garnett, owner of Aspire Academy, appeared on the popular local ‘Leg It’ podcast in September 2020 and expressed his conspiratorial views on air including his anti-vaccine stance. He was also a member of the anti-lockdown protests during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, tweets from popular UFC figure Paddy Pimblett have unearthed his anti-immigration stance which he has recently doubled down on. If these people are gym owners and role models for people trying to access the sport, how can those from marginalised communities or of a different political stance on the left feel comfortable participating in a sport that has a culture that will make many feel excluded?

Some will argue that there are different people that train BJJ from all walks of life and politics are often left at the door. The first part of this argument may be true, but there are many cases where exclusionary politics are not left at the door where BJJ is concerned, and this can problematise the sport for many people.

Maybe politics shouldn’t be left at the door. Maybe those on the left should organise and create a space of inclusive politics that reclaims BJJ from the right and is not exclusionary of marginalised communities. Afterall, there is no good reason why people should feel like they cannot train in a space free from fascism, racism, sexism, and transphobia. More broadly, one of the issues the left has faced politically is the lack of effective and collective organisation against less subtle right-wing ideas and it could be argued that this is reflected in how the right continues to appropriate BJJ.

In Liverpool, Crank Free Jiu-Jitsu has recently opened its doors and aims to create an inclusive environment for people to train in. Crank Free is a club that is explicit in its politics of solidarity and anti-racism and operates using an invite and referral membership process to create a protective environment that aims to filter out anybody who holds views that problematise the BJJ experience for people from marginalised communities.

This form of grass-roots organisation that achieves practical and material forms of solidarity through the medium of BJJ in an inclusive environment is the type of movement that can achieve incremental gains in the face of two-party politics that doesn’t do enough to unsettle the status quo and improve the well-being of those who are marginalised on a grand enough scale. For an alternative approach to BJJ to thrive and survive there needs to be a sustained and bold approach to conversations around the morality of the popular figures and establishments who spearhead the sport, alongside a courageous and continued consideration from those on the left about the difficulties that those who are ostracised face when accessing BJJ.