Gracie Jiu Jitsu

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by Dennis Seid // photos by Lindsay Pace Daffron 

At 56, Larry Pinson has no problem rolling with people half his age or even younger.

The owner of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Pinson is no stranger to martial arts, having studied and practiced various styles since he was a teen. But jiu-jitsu is relatively new to his arsenal, which includes taekwondo and hapkido.

Pinson started studying jiu-jitsu about 11 years ago after coming to the realization that, despite his finely honed skills in kicking, striking and blocking an opponent, there was an element still missing.

“I realized that if I was taken to the ground, I wasn’t prepared for that,” he said. “If I happen to have to defense myself standing up, that’s not a problem, but if I get taken to the ground where a lot of fights end up, what do I do? I knew I needed to prepare myself, and to teach others to prepare themselves.”

Pinson glides smoothly across the mat with one of his students, CJ Gann, at a recent demonstration. Switching to side control, full mounts, rear mounts and applying various chokes and submission holds like a rear naked choke and a kimura lock. 

In taekwondo and shotokan, sparring demonstrates what a student has learned; in jiu-jitsu, it’s called rolling, as most of the moves are done on the ground.

Not that anyone would want to knowingly mess around with a three-time taekwondo world champion in sparring and forms. 

But whereas traditional martial arts use the “empty-handed” techniques to strike with the hands and feet, jiu-jitsu – which has its roots in judo – is oriented toward grappling on the ground. That’s where knowledge of joint locks and pressure points come into play, and where an opponent’s size is neutralized.

“A Brazilian, Helio Gracie – who weighed about 140 pounds – developed his style of jiu-jitsu to give himself the ability to defense himself against bigger, stronger and more athletic,” Pinson said.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is the term often associated with Gracie jiu-jitsu and vice versa, was developed from Kodokan judo ground fighting fundamentals. Several Japanese learned the art, including Takeo Yano, Mitsuyo Maeda, Soshihiro Satake and Isao Okano. Brazilian jiu-jitsu came to be its own defined combat sport through its adaptations of judo.

Maeda left Japan in 1904 and visited several countries giving demonstrations and accepting challenges from wrestlers, boxers, savate fighters and various other martial artists, and he arrived in Brazil in November 1914.

Three years later, Carlos Gracie attended a demonstration by Maeda and decided to learn judo. Maeda accepted Carlos as a student, and Carlos passed his knowledge on to his brothers. But it was his brother, Helio, who further developed Gracie jiu-jitsu as a “softer, pragmatic adaptation from judo” focused on ground fighting.

“Helio decided to take the same techniques and modified them based on leverage for a small person to be able to use them,” Pinson said.

Mixed martial arts has its roots in jiu-jitsu. In fact, the very popular Universal Fighting Championship was born from Gracie jiu-jitsu.

After gaining popularity in Brazil, Rorion Gracie – Helio’s eldest son – moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s to expand Brazilian jiu-jitsu to America. The Gracie family promoted their style of fighting through popular contests in Brazil known as “Vale Tudo” ever since the early 1920s. Rorion co-founded a similar event, Vale Tudo in America, in which different martial arts styles were tested against each other. This event, better known as Ultimate Fighting Championship, was seen as an event for fighters to promote their fighting style. The first UFC event was in 1993, and Rorion’s younger brother Royce participated. Royce was much smaller than all the other competitors, but dominated all four fights that night. Royce’s victory attracted many martial artists, especially in America, and its popularity grew worldwide.

Royce went on to win the first, second and fourth UFC championships, thus cementing the reputation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the Gracie family.

“Everybody wanted to learn jiu-jitsu after that,” Pinson said.

But, he noted, Gracie jiu-jitsu differs from the sport jiu-jitsu now seen on TV and live events. While striking is a larger component of sport jiu-jitsu – the “ground and pound” often seen – Gracie jiu-jitsu focuses on self-defense.

“It’s using different techniques, natural body movement and leverage to be able to control somebody and defend yourself,” he said. “It’s not about getting in a fight. It’s about teaching you different ways to get out of a situation. It helps you to gain control of them and eventually submit them and make them give up.

“Studies show that 90 percent of fights end up on the ground. They might start standing up, but they won’t finish there unless somebody gets knocked out. So eventually, it ends up on the ground. Then what do you do? That’s where jiu-jitsu comes in.”

jiu-jitsu isn’t necessarily complicated. While there are more than 600 moves that can be applied, there are 36 basic techniques that are critical. All it takes is time, dedication and plenty of practice.

“It’s better to know it and not have to use it, rather than not know it and have a need for it,” Pinson said.

It is an effective equalizer when needed.

“It teaches you perfect the techniques to force your opponent to burn energy while you preserve yours, and when your opponent runs out of energy, you can defeat your opponent with any armlock or a choke,” Pinson said. “It’s very reliable and highly effective.”

Classes are offered for kids as well as adults at various times throughout the week. Instruction for kids ages 5-7 is available under the “Bully Proof” program. For this age group, students are taught through the “Gracie Games” which teaches them jiu-jitsu through games and play. The next age group is for ages 8-12 and falls under the Junior Grapplers program. Here, every technique taught in the higher level combative program is taught with the exception of the choke holds.

“Once they turn 13, we introduce them to the adult program, and they learn everything the adults learn in one-hour group classes,” Pinson said.

There’s also an invitation-only Black Belt Club for kids who show exceptional interest and understanding in jiu-jitsu, and they’re taught more advanced techniques.

Pinson said jiu-jitsu is ideal for women, and many of the more than 60 students at his school are female.

“It’s very important to be able to defend yourself in any situation,” he said. “It’s one of the most powerful martial arts I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this nearly my entire life.”

One of the school’s longtime students Gann, 20, has been a student under Pinson since he was 4, starting with taekwondo before gravitating to jiu-jitsu after a few years away. 

“When I turned 12 or 13, I really didn’t have an athletic outlet and I turned to Mr. P and started doing taekwondo again and jiu-jitsu,” he said. “The person I am now is because of jiu-jitsu. It’s given me confidence, and it’s become my outlet, my escape from everything else. Mr. P is not just an instructor, but a mentor, and in many ways, a father.”


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