Rener Gracie together with his brother Ryron, is the creator of the controversial Gracie Online University. He is Rorion’s son and grandson of Grandmaster Helio Gracie. Gracie University was launched after the death of Helio Gracie.
Gracie University has more than 119,000 active students (source)in 196 countries offering tailored self-defense programs for men, women, and children. At an average cost of 35$/ month, that means an estimated massive total annual revenue of between 10 to 50 million dollars (since not all members are paying- there is a free trial).
With the growth of Gracie University, the controversy is mostly about the fact that they deliver a ‘technical blue belt’ to members who learn over the internet and send in footage of them drilling the techniques. This is the only BJJ website that actually delivers belts in the mail. Many prominent members of the BJJ community have publicly criticised Gracie University: Rickson Gracie,Royce Gracie, Kron Gracie, Murilo Bustamante, recently Royler Gracie and Robert Drysdale who recently stated on his instagram that Rener and Ryron were dragging Helio Gracie’s legacy in the mud.
Rener Gracie answered his haters including his uncles and Robert Drysdale as posted on his Facebook profile , and was at first upset with the accusations, but when he saw that he actually had even more new students sign up to Gracie University as a direct result of the negative PR, he was satisfied:
I was upset, and my initial reaction was to prepare a lengthy response to refute all of the myths and misconceptions about Gracie University (like the idea that GU students don’t actually get on the mat and train as much as anyone else), but when I logged on to Gracie University this morning, I noticed that new student enrollment was more than double the daily average. Over the last 48 hours, 174 new students, from 28 different countries, have began the jiu-jitsu journey with us.
As a result of this, Robert Drysdale wrote an open letter to the BJJ community on Tatame Magazine, denouncing Gracie University and online belt testing:
The Abuse of a Legacy and the Future of Jiu-Jitsu
The first Jiu-Jitsu gym I ever set foot in to train had a portrait on the wall of one of the most influential figures in the development of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil wearing a blue belt. Helio Gracie was protesting what he considered to be the easy grading and downfall of Jiu-Jitsu standards. The picture that hung there served as both a reminder of the effort “discipline and motivation” required to pursue the journey and the high-standards its practitioners should uphold. I never had the opportunity to meet Helio, and although I do not believe in heroes or saints, I suppose it’s fair to say he was a tough man who saw himself as an ambassador and guardian of the art he dedicated his life to.
Jiu-Jitsu has changed dramatically since then. Leaving the technical advancements aside, perhaps the greatest change it has gone through is the over-commercialization, bordering on trivialization of what, above all, should serve as an educational device based on “tough-love,” commitment, discipline, and quality of technique. These are the lessons that enrich the journey and make Jiu-Jitsu the life tool that it is. The question is, can these lessons be learned off the mats, while lying in bed with a laptop computer? According to Rener and his brother Ryron, the answer is: yes, you can.
The followers of the Gracie University will never learn these hard lessons. All that is required of them is that they memorize a few moves, film them and send them over for approval. That is, assuming an expert is actually doing the “approving” over at the Gracie Academy. Whether they’re actually learning anything that resembles Jiu-Jitsu is a different matter altogether. For those of us who have earned our belts the hard way, Jiu-Jitsu is above all, about failure, defeat, and frustration followed by a strengthening of character required to rise above these challenges and come back stronger the next day. This strengthening of attitude is a far more important lesson than the technical value of Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art. They are the essence of Jiu-Jitsu as a life teacher for overcoming difficulty.
This is not to say that you can’t learn anything online. Ideas can be shared, perspectives created, and suggestions taken that can improve a skill set that is being developed inside a gym, mainly by the hard lessons of getting repeatedly beaten on the mats. It is, after all, inside the gym where all the real work takes place, like Helio did, “through keen observation and lots of training while using trial and error to pursue perfection”.
The problem lies not in the instruction itself, however difficult it may be for a beginner to verify its quality, but the lack of any selection process. Under this system, anyone with enough time and money on hand can become an “expert”. Never mind the actual knowledge, character, and discipline that cannot be learned or tested through a computer screen or on a cell phone.
Just imagine if other professions were all held to the same low standards of filming a video and emailing it to a professor, whom you’ve never met, for approval without ever having acquired any practical knowledge. Think of a doctor who has done all his learning online and has no practical experience whatsoever. Should that doctor be allowed to practice and operate on patients? If not, shouldn’t Jiu-Jitsu practitioners strive for similar standards? However more important the field of medicine may be, we shouldn’t trivialize the grading and promotion of an art like Jiu-Jitsu.
Another question that arises is the personal nature of Jiu-Jitsu. Perhaps it’s most endearing quality, is its adaptability to our own individual talents, abilities, and limitations, both mental and physical. This is all lost when a “cookie-cutter” approach to Jiu-Jitsu is being taught. With enough time and experience on the mats, students should develop a style that suits their pre-existing abilities and traits. To have an online system as your sole teacher without that practical knowledge and guidance of an expert is to cripple and limit the potential and uniqueness of your own Jiu-Jitsu. An online system can only serve as a guide; it cannot teach you these invaluable creative lessons.
To make matters worse, Rener tends to brag about the spike in sales on his website following the barrage of criticism his website has received from his own family and other true practitioners of the art. Make no mistake; Rener takes pride in promoting people through the internet. To which I can only reply that one should not underestimate the lack of critical thinking by people who have an immense appetite for quick rewards following no work at all. To make matters clear, no one here disputes the profitability of selling out, regardless of the industry you pursue. But that’s not what’s in question here. What’s in question is the future of the art and its standards.
It is also instructive, and certainly not a coincidence, that the grandchildren of the late Helio Gracie waited for his death to launch a global campaign of prostituting his legacy and that of his family. A legacy built on sweat, blood, and sacrifice. Something no one will ever be able to understand behind the ease and comfort of a computer. They insult not only the memory of their grandfather, but also the sacrifice and dedication of hundreds of thousands of practitioners worldwide who understand perfectly well the effort and discipline necessary for being awarded a mere blue belt. These practitioners, who can proudly say they live the “Jiu-Jitsu lifestyle” and who are the real heirs to a legacy, are all responsible for safeguarding the standards of the gentle art and have more than just a right to critique online belt gradings. They all have an obligation to discredit the Gracie University and it’s mockery of Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art. As practitioners we all bear some weight for maintaining and elevating these standards and continuing to make the road to a black belt ever more arduous. Helio would agree with us.
By Robert Drysdale