According to ancient Sumerian text (at least ancient Sumerian text interpreted by Zecharia Sitchin), there is a 10th planet in our solar system called Nibiru. On this planet exists a species called the Anunnaki, an advanced race of super beings that are more or less responsible for creating everything on earth known to humankind. If there were jiu jitsu on Nibiru, it would look a lot like Eddie Bravo's 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu.
That is, at least, how he came up with the name.
Almost everyone in the BJJ community has heard of Eddie Bravo and the 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu system, and chances are, you either hate it or love it. As history goes, Bravo gained international notoriety by being the first American to submit the legendary Royler Gracie at the 2003 Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling championships while still a brown belt. From there, he gained the platform to create the infamous 10th Planet system, and today there are over forty locations throughout the world. This feat has not been achieved without its obstacles, however, as the California native continues to receive plenty of criticism for his unorthodox approach. To say his approach goes outside of tradition would be an understatement.
I schedule to meet with Bravo at the HQ Brand Training Center on Pico Boulevard of downtown LA, the location that serves as the 10th Planet headquarters and where Bravo currently teaches. In the front of the facility sit some free weights and a few machines, much like they would in any other standard fitness gym, but the back quickly transforms into a complete fighting lair, outlined with brick walls and a series of Muay Thai punching bags hanging on one side, a full-sized cage and boxing ring on the other. I see a large black and blue 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu banner hanging over a rectangular cage where Bravo holds court. His students are sitting around the boxing ring waiting for their celebrity instructor to arrive.
The first thing I notice is the crazy rash-guards. They remind me of the "Bloco" jerseys sold in Brazil during Carnival, meaning they're completely random and ridiculous. Some have bright neon solar flares weaved in with galactic space pattern backgrounds or elaborate alien exoskeleton designs. Another has a smiling pot-bellied karate guy and the words "Joey Karate" at the top in red. Then there's the guy with the unicorn.
"I've like unicorns since middle school for some weird reason and nobody gives me shit about it believe it or not," says George Járguei, a 10th Planet practitioner who has been with Bravo for two-and-a-half years.
Tonight Járguei is wearing a dark blue and turquoise rash guard that has a marching white unicorn pasted in the center and a rainbow streaking behind it. Contrary to any assumptions one might make about him based on attire, Járguei hails from a rough part of East LA and has long-term plans to eventually bring a 10th Planet school to underprivileged kids in his neighborhood. Járguei, a former high school wrestler, found that his involvement in competitive sports kept him out of trouble growing up and chose 10th Planet for its seamless transition from wrestling. The environment of the school is also something he looks to pass on.
"I think the difference from this school and a traditional school is that it's very welcoming," Járguei tells me. "I feel like at the other schools, you can't roll with the higher belts, but here you have a personal relationship with the main instructor. Here, you roll with the master. [Bravo] is really cool about it. He's very open-minded. He's all about evolving systems, not holding them back."
Bravo shows up and the students begin filing into the cage, first cleaning their feet by stepping onto a plastic grass doormat floating in a tub of water at the entrance. Per tradition, session begins with a series of warm-up drills that students are required to master in a beginner's classes before being allowed to train with the famed instructor. Some of the movements are familiar, but most of them I've never seen before. Drilling starts soon after and students break off into pairs with Bravo yelling out a series of moves. I've trained a few years under traditional Gracie lineages, but listening to Bravo give instruction is like listening to a foreign language. I hear things like, "Give him the crippler!" or "Spiral out of the honey hole!", all of which make absolutely no sense to me.
Bravo is best known for his extensive use of the "Rubberguard" position, but has also gained attention for other positional innovations, such as "Crackhead Control" and the infamous "Douchebag". Traditionalists have accused him of renaming already existing positions and criticize the chosen names. 10th Planet defenders would argue that while the moves are similar to traditional positions, there is enough difference to distinguish them, and that the unorthodox names function as an operative strategy so opponents aren't clued in to what's being instructed during matches. Some might even argue that the criticism stems from how effective the moves have become over time.
The theory was tested when Bravo rematched Royler Graice at Metamoris 3, thirteen years after their first encounter at ADCC. Though officially declared a draw, most observers had Bravo dominating the majority of the match, making the bid that he had successfully evolved the system. The rematch rekindled an already raging fire within the community, most notably with an almost immediate confrontation with the Gracies. Bravo, however, has taken both past and present controversy in stride:
"Oh man, if [the Gracies] didn't say those things, I wouldn't exist," Bravo says when I ask his thoughts on the comments made by the legendary family. "The resistance is good I think, so I'm going to embrace it, instead of worrying about why or whatever. I just accept it."
But it is the claim, or even the mere attempt, of evolving the sport where traditionalists find issue, a fact that I've always found a bit odd since Brazilian jiu jitsu is more or less an evolution of the Japanese version. What traditionalists may argue in return is that they've retained many of the rituals from their predecessors, such as the Gi uniform, the use of ranked belts, and the practice of bowing; all of which Bravo has eliminated.
The first and perhaps most notable distinction of 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu is that there is no use of the traditional Gi uniform, basing their argument that it is more practical for MMA application. It's an ongoing debate as to whether or not no-Gi training is more effective inside the cage, but the original intention behind it was efficiency.
"It initially started off as MMA based jiu jitsu, like no-Gi, clinching style. I was trying to fill the holes that I felt there was in MMA with jiu jitsu," Bravo says when I asked about the 10th Planet origins. "We only have so much time to spend on jiu jitsu a week, no matter if it's 1992 or 2015. It's still seven days. It's like, 'What are you going to do with that time?'"
Bravo furthers the consolidation approach by modifying other traditions as well, such as combining the conventional use of colored belts with the rash guard. Járguei points out to me how rank is indicated by the color of the sleeve, but also tells me students are not always required to wear their rank. He points to a guy who is not a black belt wearing a black-sleeved rash guard.
"Eddie gives you a heads up and let's you know, but he doesn't come down on you about that," Járugei tells me. "Some people just like that color."
I try to imagine someone stepping into a traditional dojo wearing a black belt when their true rank is anything but, and every scenario I come up with just ends badly for the offender. But few conventional rules are enforced at 10th Planet. More students join in on the mat well after the class has started, totaling the class attendance at about forty. There is no waiting for instructor permission at the edge of the mat, no bowing when it is finally granted. Leaving class is done in a similar fashion. Like everything else unconventional about 10th Planet, Bravo has reason behind that as well. Sort of.
"I think you should bow, I think it's a good thing. I try to bow to everybody. I try to greet everyone when there's time. I don't know what's better, bowing to the mat or bowing to everyone personally. I don't know. We just don't do it. I don't know if it's good or bad. Is it good to bow? I guess it is. I guess it shows a moment of my service to mankind. It's not hard to do, just for a second as a ritual, show that you ain't shit. I see how that's healthy. Maybe we'll start doing that…"
Bravo pauses for a moment to think it over, then says, "But then you gotta enforce it, and then you're dick, you know what I'm saying?"
At certain points, speaking to Bravo is almost like listening to a monologue in his head that's being recounted out loud, and most of the time I'm just trying to determine whether or not he's high. I know that he's at least a little bit high since he took a couple hits from a bowl before our interview, assuring me that he'd give better answers that way, but I'm unsure as to how high he was before that. He continues the debate with himself aloud:
"If you wanna do it, do it…but should I force people to do it? You should force em…" Bravo pauses for another moment, then tries out the new rule on some imaginary students. "'Have some respect! Hey you! Go back! Have some respect! Go back in, bow!' It'll turn into that. I don't wanna do that shit. We're just here to fucking strangle each other," he laughs.
Class session ends with sparring. Eight 8-minute rounds. Bravo rolls the first four straight, then sits back against the cage with one of his students, an older gentleman that kind of looks like a humble war vet. I don't catch the entire conversation but I do hear something about a relative passing away from cancer. Bravo scrunches his face a number of times, and gives his condolences, cursing at the news in between. The concern feels genuine.
"Eddie doesn't talk as much smack about people as they say he does. They say he was really arrogant, but when I met him, he was really nice," says Marvin Castelle, a 10th Planet purple belt and a transplant from traditional BJJ. "He's never yelled at me, he never has an attitude with me or anything. He goes to all gyms and he's just so open-minded. That's why I like him. He accepts you for what you are."
Controversy aside, what is clear is that Bravo cares about his students and where they are headed. And as scattered his responses have been thus far, a part of me senses that there is an intended path in the 10th Planet system, evidenced by the faithful following he's amassed. However, the direction of that path is another matter worth discussing.
It should be mentioned that those who believe in the existence of the 10th planet are often thrown into the camp of conspiracy theorists. Nibiru is almost always mentioned with the Nibiru cataclysm (though some will argue their difference), which says that as the 10th planet nears the earth in the completion of its 3600-year orbital journey, the gravitational pull will cause a catastrophic shift of the north and south poles, leading to the extinction of humanity through a wave of natural disasters. This of course is all being covered up by the government. I never confirmed whether or not Bravo actually believed in the existence of Nibiru, but it wouldn't surprise me if he did.
"I always feel a need to get everyone to see things my way – the conspiracy theory way," Bravo says when I ask what he tries to pass onto his students. His eyes narrow as he continues. "I don't want to hang out with anyone who totally trusts the government. Like 'You fucking trust the government? You believe the shit you're seeing?' FUUUUUCK. 'You're out to prove the official stories are right? Oh you're one of those dudes?' FUUUUUCK. It's scary. I wish I could be like, 'Dude, you gotta wake the fuck up.'
I ask him if he feels he does that through his jiu jitsu.
"Maybe. Maybe I'm doing that. I don't try to, but I'm probably doing that. I just have a compulsion to wake people up. I've always had that. I don't know why I do that, but I feel like I have to."
So then the analogy becomes clear. Perhaps what Bravo is trying to teach his students is to question reality through a giant jiu jitsu analogy. The institution and the free will. Traditional BJJ is the establishment, 10th Planet the Jedi. A fine balance exists between conformity and individual expression. There is the danger of becoming an unconscious cog in a conformist system, but there is also strength in becoming part of a united front. Which side one falls on the debate often correlates with how one feels about 10th Planet. Perhaps the ideal is somewhere in the middle, and maybe that is the attempt of 10th Planet. Maybe all the rule bending is simply questioning on whether or not rules need to be there in the first place, because it's not that Bravo doesn't respect or understand the rules (he himself was trained under a traditional lineage), it's that he lets students decide them on their own.
Or maybe Bravo is full of it and he really is trampling on a sacred tradition. With 10th Planet hardly being over a decade old, it's simply too soon to tell. I do think, however, that these are things Bravo considers while moving forward.
"I think the best environment would be to let everybody do their own thing and hopefully that's cool. I think that would be the best way and that's what I try to do. I think that's better instead of trying to control everyone, trying to have everyone do the same thing, look the same way…" Bravo starts, then like before, begins to argue for the other side, "…but there's also something special about that too. That is another example of, 'It's about the team, it's not about me.' I could see the good in that. Maybe that's better…"
I prepare myself for what might be the potential of another monologue, and begin to wonder if this is yet another issue unsettled in Bravo's mind. Maybe in a few years we'll see students in mandatory 10th Planet rash guard uniforms, complete with a protocol to do the same things and speak the same words. But as he finishes his thought, it's clear that at least on this issue, he's got his mind made up.
"But I also see the good in everyone coming in and they got their own look and their own personality. You got your own and you picked up your own pieces of jiu jitsu and put it together in your own special way. There's something special about that as well."