|Josh Lasich, Master Ricardo, and son Victor Pires|
It's easy to remember when I met Ricardo Pires. It was the first week in February 2010, the same week my father died. It was the usual bleak and blustery February day, Northeast Ohio's specialty. I attended the morning class.
At that time I was still a white belt. I found Ricardo Pires BJJ by accident while Googling for a seminar.
Instead of a seminar, I found Ricardo. I didn't immediately recognize him, partly because the website pictures didn't show him with a February morning beard, partly because he spoke English without an accent. But mostly his attitude was all wrong. Wrong, I mean, for my expectations.
I was expecting "I am the Great Ricardo Pires" and I was more than a little terrified, since I am naturally shy and was at that time very conscious of my lowly white belt status. Instead, I met a guy in a simple white Fruit of the Loom t-shirt who greeted me pleasantly while straightening something on the wall.
He was tactful. When he had us line up by rank, I accidentally went to the wrong end because in my home academy, we didn't line up and I didn't know which side was the low side. Ricardo directed me to the correct end by saying, with a sunny smile that seemed devoid of mockery, "It's warmer down there."
Everybody called him Ricardo which seemed natural to me, because in my home academy we all called my instructor by his first name too. It wasn't until Ricardo's partner insisted on being called "Professor" that I even knew that was a thing, and I certainly never heard Ricardo correct anybody who called him by his first name.
Now that I've been in the game awhile, it bugs me to hear white belts yelling "Ricardo" or "Pedro" or "Robson" across the mat as if they were calling their dogs. But at the time, I did it too because I literally didn't know any better.
As Ricardo later told me: "I don't want somebody to call me Professor, or Master or whatever, because I tell them to. If they call me that because they really feel it, then I like it. But I don't want people to feel like they have to call me that because of a sign on the wall."
And that's Ricardo Pires in a nutshell. But in a world where there are plenty of nuts in the nutshells, Ricardo is eminently sane, humble yet self-respecting, and usually cheerful.
When Pedro Sauer asked me years ago who I trained with, his face lit up with an almost incredulous smile.
"He's a good friend of mine," he said. "I knew him back in the day in Rio. He's a tough guy. And a funny guy."
I got the same enthusiastic reaction years later from Ricardo Liborio, who complimented me on my pronunciation of the name Ricardo. I thanked him without realizing until days later that of course, Ricardo was his name too. In my mind, there is only one Ricardo.
And I think it's the same for most of us Northeast Ohioans who had the chance to train with Ricardo for the all-too-brief time he spent in Cleveland. I am writing about my experience with Master Ricardo, not because I think it's unique, but because I think it's pretty typical. Typical, I mean, for Ricardo's students, not typical in the greater jiu-jitsusphere.
But I didn't know that back then. Since I was only a white belt when I met Ricardo, I felt like of course, all jiu-jitsu black belts must be smart, and funny, and humble, and really fucking good. I thought of Ricardo as the guardian of the portal to the real reality of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, where everyone and everything is awesome, and I thought that once you passed through that portal, there would be no going back.
Of course I was wrong. Not only was I sucked backwards through the magic portal the same day, the same hour that Ricardo gathered us all together to promote Mike Riedel and say goodbye, I've spent the better part of the past 8 years just trying to find that magic doorway again, let alone pass through it once more to that place in my jiu-jitsu journey where I was happy, and part of things, and where every day was a lesson in jiu-jitsu and an even greater lesson in life.
And if I can be a little personal - well, a lot personal - the tears are coming down as I write this, tears of pity for the person I was, who had yet to discover that not all black belts are like Ricardo. I thought that it was jiu-jitsu itself that gave him his mind and heart and I didn't understand that that's just Ricardo. There's one of him. Not two. We were blessed to have Ricardo with us for about the same amount of time it takes a comet to streak across the sky.
And then we lost him. He went back to Brazil, and from there to Fort Lauderdale, and someone else is basking in his sunny smile. Lucky them.
And the pity I feel is not self-pity, it's pity for the person I was and who I no longer am, the person who had yet to embark on the sea of nutshells, the sometimes ugly realities of the jiu-jitsu journey where there are, let's face it, a lot of assholes in the nutshells ("A lot," said Robson Moura when I said the same thing to him.) It's the same pity I feel for the 10 year-old me who had yet to learn that not every man was handsome, and smart, and funny, and humble, and THERE, like my father and my stepfather, the me who still didn't know that women are mean and men are unreliable, and they disappear, out of your inbox and out of your life, for absolutely no good reason I have ever been able to ascertain.
Because let's face it, the jiu-jitsu journey is very much like the life journey, and the even more insidious love journey, and the same discoveries and heartbreaks you meet up with in your life, chances are you will find them on the mat.
And if Ricardo's abrupt departure broke my heart along with a lot of other hearts, it feels, now, like a privilege to have had our collective heart broken by someone so unique who, among other things, gave all of us a very solid base in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Because yes, this is a touchy-feely kind of post, but I only get emotional about things that have value. Soppy Hallmark cards don't do it for me. I always look at the back and wish the person had just sent me a check for the 3.99 instead.
And that's why, with all his sunny smile and charm and humor, and all the fond memories I have of Ricardo, who accidentally started dancing when the Doobie Brothers came on the radio, and who moved with an entourage of family members and random Brazilians like a movie star, the main thing I remember about Ricardo is stored in my muscle memory, and not my all-too-fallible brain memory, and that's my jiu-jitsu. Because the core of my jiu-jitsu is the jiu-jitsu Master Ricardo taught me.
And it seems to be fairly effective. I'm not one of those people who think they're awesome. I think people think I do think that, just because I go everywhere and train everywhere, but it's the opposite. I'm just trying to get better. Even back in February 2010 when I met Ricardo, my motivation was that I sucked and I knew I sucked. I wasn't trying to not suck. Not sucking, at that point in my jiu-jitsu life, was too far out of my reach. I was trying to suck less.
And if I've succeeded at all in that endeavor, it's because of the jiu-jitsu that Ricardo helped me build. And if ever a black belt has earned his tuition money, it's Ricardo Pires when he was teaching jiu-jitsu challenged me the basics.
As my friend Gregg said, "He's going to end up paying you 135 bucks a month to stay home." When I told Ricardo that, he smiled and said, "Tell Gregg I'm thinking about it."
But if this is a touchy-feely kind of post, it's also true that Ricardo teaches a very touchy-feely kind of jiu-jitsu. It is quite simply a jiu-jitsu that you cannot see, you have to feel it.
Which doesn't mean it's the much-touted "invisible" jiu-jitsu, either, simply because Ricardo is not the kind of person to give his jiu-jitsu catchy nicknames. If you ask him if it's "invisible jiu-jitsu," I guarantee that he will look at you, smile with a smile that warms the room and takes away the sting, and say, "It's just jiu-jitsu."
To Ricardo (at least, this is my impression), jiu-jitsu is not about visible vs. invisible, any more than music or love can be visible or invisible. Jiu-jitsu simply is, and all that which is, can be felt. That's his world. And if you can't feel it, and your opponent can't feel you, you're doing it wrong.
We needed Ricardo, I needed Ricardo, and not just to set the standard for what real jiu-jitsu is in Northeast Ohio, although of course that was part of it. Because yes, there was jiu-jitsu in Ohio, kind of, but Ricardo came here and showed everybody how it's done in the real world. Something as simple as how do you know you've passed the guard? You know you've passed the guard when you're chest to chest. Not when you're hovering in the air somewhere, not when you're in Starbucks sipping a latte, you've passed the guard when you're chest to chest and in the drills, if you didn't finish chest to chest, if you were a millimeter from the guy's chest, you lost and the other guy won. Period.
And you'd be surprised how many people don't know that.
We each needed Ricardo for our own reasons, I guess. I lost my father and gained a teacher, all in the same week. Thanks, God, you're a pal. And I think every one of Ricardo's students probably has a story to tell, and as I said, I'm telling my story not because I think I'm the exception, but because I'm the rule. With the catch being that when you've had the opportunity to train with Ricardo Pires, you become, automatically, the exception.
For those who have had the opportunity to train with Master Ricardo, this list should look familiar. For those who haven't yet had the opportunity, this list might give you a glimpse into the magic portal that some of us have had the good fortune to pass through.
10 THINGS RICARDO PIRES TAUGHT ME
1. DON'T GET THERE. "Ricardo, how do I get out of (whatever bad situation)?" Master Ricardo (big smile): Don't get there! This was Ricardo's leitmotiv during his time in Ohio and he himself always gave credit for it to his teacher, Carlson Gracie. The next step being, "But if I get there?" According to Master Ricardo, Master Carlson's answer to that was, "If you get there, pray. And when you pray, pray with faith!" In Northeast Ohio, "Don't get there" is a kind of secret code for initiates. If you say "Don't get there" on any mat in Northeast Ohio, you're almost guaranteed that someone will pop up and say, "Ricardo!" It's our version of "Open, Sesame!" to that magic portal that we seek.
2. KNOW YOUR WEAKNESS - AND BLOCK IT. Master Ricardo said this while talking about the takedown. He was saying, basically, that although the takedown is great if you can get it, if you're not great at takedowns, then maybe pulling guard isn't such a bad idea. This is typical of Master Ricardo's pragmatic approach and is one that is easy to apply to all areas of life, love, and BJJ. We all have weaknesses. That's the human condition. And we can choose to ignore them, and pretend they're not there (and then get tripped up by them at inconvenient times) or factor them into our game plan. The Oracle at Delphi famously said, "Know thyself." Master Ricardo would add, "And block thyself."
3. FIND A WAY AROUND. This is about how we approach obstacles. According to Master Ricardo, the American approach to obstacles is (tendentially) to try to knock them down. The Brazilian approach, on the other hand, which is arguably the Brazilian part of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is to find a way around the obstacle. "Why try to knock down the wall," said Ricardo, "when there's an open door a few feet away?"
4. IF YOU CONTROL YOURSELF, YOU CAN CONTROL THE SITUATION. Anybody who knows Master Ricardo even a little bit knows that control is his thing. When I asked him if he had ever been called a control freak, he got a little tense, said no, and then relaxed and said, "Actually my wife says that to me a lot." But Master Ricardo taught me about a kind of control that he calls "good control." In our society, in our relationships, in our world, it is normal to feel out of control, and part of that is we are led to believe that control is a bad thing. We respond by micromanaging piddly details that don't matter. We all have that friend who won't pick up the phone when you call them and who will wait 15 minutes and call you, just because of their secret control complex. Master Ricardo teaches an out-of-the-closet kind of control where you take control from the get-go and retain control until your goal is achieved. "For me," says Master Ricardo, "if I have a certain objective, it's just the easiest way to achieve it." But what happens if you can't control the situation? Surely some things will be out of your control? "If you control yourself," says Master Ricardo, "you can control the situation."
5. IN THE PASS AND IN YOUR LIFE, BEFORE YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING YOU NEED TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE COMING FROM. This statement is so profound that you just have to let it percolate. I carried it around with me for years before I really understood what Master Ricardo was talking about and I can't really explain it now except to say that where you are coming from is directly related to where you are going. They are two halves of the same whole. Specifically, Master Ricardo was referring to how he discovered when he was already in his 40's that he was the descendant of slaves, and of how proud he was to learn that. And it's interesting, to say the least, that having descended from people who had absolutely no control except the control they had over themselves, Master Ricardo has become a true master in the art of control, including but not limited to his phenomenal side control. And back to the pass, once again it's about seeing reality with your eyes open, not kidding yourself, and dealing with that reality with a certain goal in mind but also with realistic expectations.
6. IT'S IMPORTANT THAT EVERY INCH YOU GAIN, YOU KEEP. This is once again relating to the pass but also to real life and it came up because I asked Master Ricardo if his passing style had changed over the years and if he saw a parallel in his life. His response was "Absolutely" on both counts. Master Ricardo described how in his early days, his passing style was much more athletic, stand up, sit down, move around, because he knew he could. Whereas at the time we spoke, he already felt like when he was passing, he had a strong awareness that he was going to have one chance and he needed to make it count. He related that to his business life in the sense that although he is by nature a risk-taker, he is much more aware now of the risk-benefit ratio and less inclined to take "risky" risks.
7. RESPECT IS GIVING 100% EVERY TIME. Respect is one of those words that everybody uses, especially in the world of martial arts, but nobody ever defines. Master Ricardo's definition is indicative of how he trains and, I believe, how he lives. It's not about perfection - although Master Ricardo is an avowed perfectionist - it's about giving everything you have. His dojo was one of the few I've ever trained in where there was no "playing" jiu-jitsu vs. "fighting." There was just training. Hard. And although physically strenuous, I enjoyed the lack of ambiguity. Nobody went crying to the instructor to complain if you tapped them and if they did, they were probably greeted with a blank stare. When I told Master Ricardo years later that I had been reprimanded for not "helping" lower belts, he got a puzzled look on his face and said, "But tapping them is helping them."
8. THE FINISH IS ALWAYS THE SAME. HOW YOU GET THERE IS UP TO YOU. In a jiu-jitsu sense, this is fairly self-explanatory. I have to confess that this tends to come to my mind more in a real life kind of sense, and of course the first step, and maybe the last step, and certainly the hard step, is understanding what the finish is. When I asked Master Ricardo what the finish was in real life, he smiled and said, "Whatever you want it to be. Whatever your goal is." And then he asked me, because I had quoted this back to him some time after he said it, "Do you remember everything I say?"
9. THE ONLY TIME YOU REALLY FAIL IS WHEN YOU FAIL TO TRY. As obvious as this may seem, it took me years to finally internalize it and believe it. Because in my heart of hearts, I hate to lose. To the point that I'd rather not compete, I'd rather not try, and fortunately or unfortunately, there are always a lot of valid reasons to not try, whether we're talking about competition or jobs or dating or whatever. I can say in all modesty that alibis are my superpower. It took me 8 years to finally get up the nerve to compete in a tournament, and it was only then, when I got choked, in public, right off my takedown attempt, that I really understood what Master Ricardo meant. I lost, but I didn't fail. In fact, the courage it took, at 49, to compete in the adult division of an IBJJF event and to lose was the same courage it would have taken to fight and win, and possibly even more. It wasn't the kind of courage anyone is born with. It was quite simply the desperate last resort of a heart that had run out of alibis. And if you disagree, good for you, because I'm not living my life to meet your standards.
10. STAY IN THE GAME. I can't even remember in what context this came up originally, but I cited it recently in a Facebook post which I think does as good a job as any of illustrating the point.
Love is like the submission. You can't look for it because it will elude you. You can't take it by force because it will resist you. All you can do is train and live your life and be ready to recognize it when it does appear. And then let it give itself to you.
And maybe the most important thing is what my teacher Master Ricardo Pires told me a long time ago: Stay in the game, Deborah. Always stay in the game.