In November 1993, Andy Pi sat in front of his TV in California and watched Royce Gracie prove that jiujitsu – more specifically Gracie, or Brazilian jiujitsu – was the most effective form of fighting in the world. With his street-fighting style and a measly weight of just 79kg, the Brazilian won the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) against masters of sumo, karate and boxing. Andy was enthralled, and after moving to Beijing, he started China’s first jiujitsu academy here in the capital.
With UFC making its Beijing debut this weekend, we spoke to the father of Beijing jiujitsu to hear more about the about the martial art that grew out of a family, and one that now represents a form of religion to him, carrying over into all aspects of his life.
When Andy arrived in Beijing in 1997, he had been training for a number of years with his first instructor, Rorion Gracie – the creator of the UFC himself, pictured above with Pi. Working as a project manager in IT, Andy probably wouldn’t have struck you as the kind of guy that trained in a martial art more suited to the street than a stylised sporting event but, as a lover of jiujitsu, Andy wanted to continue: ‘I started looking for a school, thinking that I could find one, but I couldn’t. A lot of people in Beijing hadn’t even heard of jiujitsu. I wanted training partners, so I just grabbed all my friends. I was literally the first person to start doing jiujitsu in China, for sure to start teaching it.’
The Gracie form of jiujitsu – a discipline born out of a need for smaller, weaker fighters to overcome more powerful opponents – was developed by Hélio Gracie, the father of both Rorion and Royce, and patriarch of a veritable fighting dynasty. To make a long, and fascinating, story short, Hélio refined the Japanese style his family was taught until the techniques could be used by anyone, on anyone, no matter their size or strength. ‘A lot of people go through their entire life without getting into a fight,’ Andy says. So then why train in an art all about self-defence, you might be tempted to ask. ‘Here’s the thing,’ Andy explains, ‘most people who train jiujitsu aren't even doing it for self-defence; because it’s not like they need to fight on the way to work or school. They’re doing it for self-confidence.’
Hélio Gracie in 1952.
‘Learning jiujitsu gave me a supreme sense of self-confidence because I was able to defend myself,’ Andy says with an unassuming air. ‘And when you’re able to stand up for yourself, you feel confident enough to stand up for someone else.’ Andy looks around the crowded coffee shop we’re sitting in, ‘I mean, it sounds silly, but I’m pretty sure no one else in this room could kick my ass.’ (For the record, that doesn’t sound silly at all.) Andy goes on to explain that the self-confidence and calm he feels in his life comes down to this simple fact: he knows that no matter what happens, he has the ability to defend himself and those around him. And whoop asses, if needed. There’s no need for fear or anger when you can be calm in that knowledge.
But training jiujitsu isn’t just about learning how to beat someone in a fight: it’s a martial art that uses efficiency and smart thinking to do the work one’s muscles might not be able to. ‘Jiujitsu is physical exercise and puzzle solving at the same time. You’re not just pushing weights – anyone can just push weights – but you’re pushing weights and solving a mathematical problem at the same time,’ Pi explains. Jiujitsu teaches practitioners to use their minds to solve anything that is thrown at them by changing grips, the body’s angle or the leverage of strength.
‘It’s like training in a situation where anything could be possible. And because anything could be possible, you prepare yourself. Other sports never prepare for anything, like someone sitting on your chest and bashing your face in. In fact, no martial art prepares for a guy to sit on you and bash your face in, but that’s the first thing that’s going to happen when a big, strong guy grabs you. A lot of martial arts teach kicking and striking, but it’s completely unrealistic – you need to be prepared for savagery. I’m not worried about the guy that’s so cultured he’s going to do a spinning kick to my face. The guy that knows how to do that is not going to pick a fight with me on the street.’ That preparation for anything is indeed what the Gracies sought to prove in their creation of the UFC and the assertion that jiujitsu was a better way of fighting.
Andy Pi and Rickson Gracie at Andy's old Beijing gym.
Training to be skilled enough to use your body in any situation represents what could really happen in the world. Anyone can learn how to do it and, as Andy says, once you learn how to use your body and strength efficiently, that carries over into all parts of your life: ‘If I want to learn how to control someone on the mat, then I need to train, I need to put in my time.’ But students must be efficient in their lives to have that time, as well as exercising self-discipline to train each day, instead of, say, partying. Learning and training jiujitsu, therefore, promotes the idea of continuous self-improvement, as you strive to be better both on the mat and in your life.
Andy teaches jiujitsu six days a week and tells of how it has impacted his life: ‘I love jiujitsu so much because I have genuinely received so many benefits from it. And because I’ve received so many, I think others can as well.’ There are more jiujitsu gyms in Beijing than in any other city in China, offering classes for all levels of students, but if you have a bad or mediocre instructor, Andy tells us, it can be near impossible to learn. ‘Jiujitsu is not intuitive; to take a person down requires technical training, which is not intuitive.’ Finding an instructor who can effectively convey the fundamentals is paramount.
Andy stands next to his first instructor, Rorion Gracie, with members of the Beijing Jiu Jitsu Academy.
When Royce Gracie stepped into the ring his brother Rorion created all those years ago, it was with a simple agenda: to show that jiujitsu was a superior martial art because its fighters prepare for everything. Indeed, Royce would go onto win three of the first four UFC titles, and though other styles have made their impact as the championship has developed into a more rule-heavy melange of mixed martial arts (MMA), Gracie jiujitsu and its fighters have left as big a mark as any on the UFC story.