BOOK REVIEW: Breathe by Rickson Gracie

Breathe: A Life in FlowBreathe: A Life in Flow by Rickson Gracie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: August 10, 2021

This autobiography of the phenomenal Brazilian Ju Jutsu practitioner, Rickson Gracie, begins with ancestral origins that include a Gracie who fought in the US Civil War through Rickson’s boyhood in Rio and his professional fights in Japan, and onward to how he reinvented himself after family tragedy and the end of his fight career. Along the way, he conveys lessons learned not only through personal experience and from his father and uncle, the founders of Gracie Ju Jutsu, but also through his studies with Olando Cani — a yogi and developer of bioginastica. While the book is overwhelmingly about a life in Ju Jutsu, Cani’s influence plays a crucial role as the yogi taught Rickson about breath control, and, among a huge pack of skilled Gracie fighters, that ability was pivotal in Rickson’s rise to the top. (The book’s title, “Breathe,” hints at the role breathwork played in Rickson Gracie’s legendary capacities for enduring, flowing, and keeping his head in seemingly unfavorable situations.)

The memoir is candid, offering insights into not only Rickson’s path to success, but also his failings (which, not unexpectedly given his single-minded obsession with Ju Jutsu and fitness, more often involved life as an impetuous youth, as a father, and as a person – generally – than it did his life on the mat.) The book also explores some of the fissures in the Gracie clan and how they grew under the pressure of the family’s mammoth success. With autobiographies, it’s always a challenge to know how true a picture one is getting, but Gracie’s willingness to self-critique makes this book feel truthful.

This book is fascinating and highly engaging. If you’re interested in martial arts, it’s a no-brainer for one’s reading list, but any reader who enjoys a memoir of a life intensely lived will find the book highly readable.

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How to Choose a Muay Thai Gym in Thailand

Tiger MT Beginner's Area. (The mats are up for cleaning to prevent Staph outbreaks.)

Tiger MT Beginner’s Area. (The mats are up for cleaning to prevent Staph outbreaks.)

So you’re going to Thailand and you want to learn a bit of Thai Boxing. Where do you go to train? This is the question under consideration in this post.

I just got back from two weeks of training at Tiger Muay Thai & Mixed Martial Arts on Phuket. This was my second experience training Muay Thai (MT) in Thailand. In October of 2012, I spent 6 days at the Muay Thai Institute (MTI) in Rangsit (a suburb of Bangkok.) The training at both places was awesome, but quite different. This got me thinking about what type of student would find each of these two places ideal. Both of these schools has a niche of students who would find it better suits their needs than the other.

First let me point out a factor that one might think is crucial that really isn’t so much, and that’s price. While I’ve only attended the two schools, I did quite a bit of web research and found that prices don’t range that widely. Particularly in Phuket, where there is a saturation of the market, everybody seems to charge around 3,000 Baht ($91USD) per week—give or take 500Baht. While 2,500 to 3,500 Baht ($76 to $106 USD) might seem like a big gap, there could be very reasonable explanations for why a gym is at the high or low end. Low cost gyms may be more remote, and thus have fewer customers. One should take into account that if one has to rent a scooter or take taxis or pay exorbitant rates for food, one might not be so happy with tuition savings. A gym at the high-end might offer more training opportunities beyond MT, may have more facilities, or may have more prestigious trainers (or just more trainers–period.) [Note: For what you pay you can probably get 24 to 28 hours of classes in per week.]

Now I suspect there are some who will say, “Hey, stop relying on the internet. Find out where locals train. There are gyms that produce winning fighters, but that just aren’t as fancy/web-savvy but are much cheaper.” This may be true, and– if one speaks Thai–that may be the way to go. However, the places that have glitzy English-language websites, usually also have trainers and staff that speak English and that can be a big advantage if one doesn’t know more than Su-was-dee-krap and Kob-Kun-krap.

Note: What I’m saying about price doesn’t necessarily apply to lodging and food. Some gyms offer accommodations and meal plans that may not be competitive with what one can do at local guesthouses and restaurants. Web research should tell you whether you are getting a decent deal staying at the gym. If you don’t mind Spartan accommodations (and I don’t) the baseline gym rooms often offer great savings. I stayed at the gym at both MTI and Tiger, and found it was a good deal (but, again, I don’t need TV, AC, or other luxuries–a bed, a fan, and my Kindle pretty much have me covered.)

Tiger had a meal plan, but I didn’t use it. However, I can’t say that I even looked at its price. I like to try as many different places as I can, and I ate at most of the restaurants and cafes on that strip. I will say there are a lot of cheap, tasty, and nutritious places to eat within walking distance of Tiger. My experiences with the restaurants on the strip were overwhelmingly positive.

So this brings us to what does matter. Some questions you should ask are:
-What is the typical student/trainer ratio?
-What styles are taught at the gym? (i.e. Only Muay Thai or other disciplines as well?)
-Are classes mixed abilities or are there skill level divisions?
-What does the typical class consist of for the level at which you will be training?
-What are the trainers like and how does that jibe with what you need?
-Where is the gym located, and how close is it to the services you’ll need?

Of course, the central question that undergirds five out of six of the questions above is, “What do you want to get out of the training?”

The MTI Gym from my room.

The MTI Gym from my room.

Student/Trainer ratio: How important this is varies radically depending upon what one wants from training. If one is going to class primarily for fitness, having a low student/trainer ratio may not be important. However, if you are looking to improve your technique, it matters greatly because you need attention to the minutest details.

I attended Tiger in peak season and MTI just before peak travel season. That said, I think I can safely say MTI probably always offers lower student/ trainer ratio. (I don’t think MTI’s student attendance is as tourism-cyclic as it has more Thai and expat students and relatively few foreign visitors at a given time. Tiger MT is probably very tourism-centric at the beginner level.) In Rangsit, there was often one trainer to every one or two students. The beginner’s class at Tiger had many students per trainer. However, Tiger offers four separate classes of Muay Thai (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Fighter), and as one moves up there are fewer students per trainer. So if you “test out” of the beginner’s class your ratio gets better.

One should note that at the extremes one may find a low student/trainer to be more a curse than a blessing. First, one will not have many different people to train with, and diversity of training partners is important to growth. Second, having eyes on you every second may become overbearing, particular if the trainer is fixing every tiny error. In such situations, one may never get into the grove.

What do they teach? The two schools I’ve attended were at opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue. MTI taught Muay Thai–that’s it and that’s all. If you just want to improve your Muay Thai, MTI is a great place for it. There’s not the distraction of tons of people coming through doing other things.

Tiger MT, on the other hand, taught about everything there is to teach. If you want to get into Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), they’ve got you covered with classes on MMA tactics, Brazilian Jujutsu (BJJ), and Boxing in addition to Muay Thai. On the other hand, if you’re a martial arts wonk, who likes to get into the evolution of the arts or understand the combat aspects, they also teach Muay Boran and Krabi Krabong. Muay Boran is the unarmed ancestor to Muay Thai, and Krabi Krabong is a weapons system.

Mixed abilities v. Tiered classes: If you are a rank amateur, an advanced practitioner, or a competitive fighter, you may be pleased with multiple tiers of classes. A beginner may be intimidated or uncomfortable training with advanced students. Advanced student may have a lackluster training experience when working with a lot of people who are well below their skill level. On the other hand, if one has a bit of confidence and fitness, one may find a mixed abilities class enjoyable because one gets an opportunity to pit oneself against more skilled or experienced training partners.

In reality there was not much difference between Tiger and MTI here, though it might look like there was. As mentioned, Tiger MT had four different classes for MT and these were held in distinct areas, but all the other courses (e.g. MMA and BJJ) were mixed abilities. At MTI, everybody was taught in one big gym. However, because there was a low student/trainer ratio, there were usually at least three or four distinct groups (sometimes groups of one or two) training concurrently and the gym was big enough for these small groups to not be in each other’s way.

Class schedule: There’s a widespread standard approach to Muay Thai teaching that goes: running laps, other warm-up exercises, drills / shadowboxing, rounds of bag work, rounds of focus mitt drills, rounds of sparring, and cool down exercises. However, the emphasis can vary tremendously from one gym to another. In particular, some schools will make great efforts to drill the basics before putting a student into sparring or teaching more complex tactics. Other schools have their beginners hit the ground running to a greater degree. Each of these approaches will appeal to a certain type of student. Some want to get into the meat of training by sparring as soon as possible even if their fundamentals are a bit shaky. Others are concerned about having solid foundations before building upward.

Of course, this is all a matter of degree. At every gym, beginning students are going to spend more time drilling than sparring—and that’s as it should be. One needs to learn the techniques well before one can have any hope of applying them in a quasi-competitive / competitive environment effectively. Usually the emphasis for beginners will be on getting the basic mechanics down, and intermediate students will spend more time pumping up the power and working on application.

Of the two places I trained, MTI took a like more time and attention with the nitty-gritty details of form and technique, and Tiger gave one a pretty broad experience from the get go, i.e. they got student into light free sparring right away.

What are the trainers like? I’m not just talking about their fight records or whether they were champions or not. Both of the places I trained at had trainers with very impressive fight careers. Also important is the trainer’s disposition. If you’re just trying to get fit and learn a move or two, an intense, scar-faced task-master who works you till you puke and kicks you till you collapse may not be for you. On the other hand, if you’re preparing for a fight or are just deadly serious about your training, the smiling old softy may leave you disheartened. Some students may want someone who is a stickler for detail, and others may want someone who will focus on getting them in better shape. Unfortunately, while you can probably get information about a trainer’s fight history online, you may only be able to get information about their disposition by visiting, trying the place out, or by talking to people who’ve trained there.

It should be noted that a common complaint about many MT gyms is that the trainers don’t seem to care. Students need to understand that they may have to be a little proactive to get the best relationship out of their trainer. Keep in mind that trainers are overwhelmingly extremely driven individuals. Often a trainer has had 200+ fights in their Thai-boxing career, and they still do their own training every single day even if they’re 40 or 50 years old. Plus, they have their own young fighters to train for competition. They will often have a very low interest in–or tolerance for–tourists who just want to half-ass the training as an alternative to jazzercise class. If you want to get their respect and prove worthy of their attention, you’ll need to gut it out day-after-day.

To put this more clearly, don’t whine about the trainer not giving a damn if any of the following apply to you.
-You join laps 20 minutes into class to avoid all the running.
-You leave early so you don’t have to do all those dreadful push-ups at the end of class.
-You take a water break right in the middle of a round of bag work.

Your trainer is someone who has probably:
a. trained until he puked
b. exercised until his muscles literally gave out
c. used the ropes to climb to his feet
If that was you, would you have a lot of enthusiasm for the half-assers?

Keep in mind, the most gregarious trainer may not be the one who’ll give you the best training experience. The guy who doesn’t say a word and seems mean as hell may take the greatest efforts to develop your skills. At MTI there was a trainer who smacked my arm every single time my guard was not perfect.

Location: I’m not just talking about whether it’s beach-adjacent or not. (Some may find nearby beaches or nightlife too tempting or distracting, while others may be into that.) There are a range of services you’ll want ready access to such as laundry, ATM, food of variety, taxi services / scooter rental, the occasional Thai Massage, and massive amounts of bottled water.

MTI was located in a Bangkok suburb. If you don’t mind a good walk, pretty much everything one might need or want was within walking distance via shopping malls, 7-Elevens, and even hardware stores. Tiger was in a less developed area, but it was on a stretch of road that was littered with MT gyms and fitness centers, and so all the essential businesses a foreign student would need were plentiful on that strip of road, and it was a short ride to Phuket Town for those things that long-term visitors might unexpectedly find that they needed.

If you are interested in martial arts, I’d highly recommend putting in some time at a MT gym while you’re visiting Thailand. It’s exhausting, but worth it. I hope this post will give you some food for thought about what to consider in picking a gym.