A Life of Karate & BJJ with Eric Silver
With the Rolled Up series, I shared my experiences with so many legends of the Jiu-jitsu world. Recently a made a new friend and I thought I should share our conversation with you, the Budovideos family. Eric Silver has had a lifetime of martial arts training in both Wado Ryu Karate and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu under Rickson Gracie. Now he runs his own dojo which you can find at Zanshin Dojos Nashville.
Budo Jake: You’ve been in the martial arts world for a long time. What got you started in Karate and how did you end up getting involved with Jiu-jitsu?
Eric Silver: Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu television series piqued my interest in the 1970’s but kung-fu wasn’t taught where I lived in North Carolina, so I started training in judo in 1971 with Dr. Claude Chauvignet. In the late 70’s I joined a karate club run by Judge Lawrence McSwain. Very hard contact and very little protective gear was common back then. We had a guy named Jay Bell who hit like Chuck Liddell. He left me in a heap many times sparring, but that was how 70’s martial arts typically were.
I started Wado-Ryu karate in the early 80’s and hold a 6th dan in that style today. I trained in Japan and Europe as well as the US, but it’s also very big in Brazil. Before I started jiu-jitsu, I was training in Wado-Ryu in São Paulo. My primary teacher was Koji Takamatsu, 9th dan, who sadly passed away recently. In 1994, a friend from karate told me about a seminar in Atlanta, Georgia with some Brazilian guy named, Rickson Gracie. I wasn’t very interested but my friend coerced me to go. It was like being at a magic show. The things he could do didn’t seem humanly possible. In fact, my very first roll was with Rickson and lasted all of six or seven seconds before he tapped me. After the seminar, I asked him how I could train more with him. He gave me his business card and I said, “Tell me when you’re available and I’m there.” I ended up being the second representative of his association and one of the first people to teach Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the mid-south.
BJ: I know so many people who left their previous martial art after finding Jiu-jitsu. You have kept both lineages alive in your dojo. Why is that?
ES: I’d been training for 23 years before meeting Rickson. He always encouraged me to keep doing karate because it’s part of who I am. Interestingly, Wado Ryu karate was founded by Hironori Otuska who was a Japanese jiu-jitsu master before he studied karate with the Shotokan founder, Gichin Funakoshi. So Wado-Ryu’s foundation was jiu-jitsu and even has grappling techniques in some of the kata. The current master was a collegiate style wrestling champion in Tokyo, so he also really emphasizes using body weight and connection.
Rickson’s constant emphasis on base greatly improved my karate. When I started training with him, he was still fighting professionally. Sometimes we’d start sparring from our feet and he’d tell me to do whatever I wanted. I’d get one kick off, he’d deflect it and have me down. His understanding of distance and timing is impeccable in ways that are hard to explain. You have to feel it to get it. He’s like Robocop, the way he calculates and knows when and where everything needs to happen. And he’s open to learning and trying new things. Once I showed him a couple of striking techniques that I thought worked well with jiu-jitsu and free-fighting and he started practicing and incorporating them. He doesn’t dismiss what works well.
BJ: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from all your years of Karate?
ES: I never participated in any sports before martial arts. At my first karate class, the instructor showed me three blocks, then told me to go to the corner of the gym and practice them 500 times. When he asked if I was done, I said, “Yes.” He asked me again and I repeated, “Yes.” He said, “Yes, what?” I replied, “Yes, I’m done.” He said, “Drop down and give me twenty pushups and next time answer, ‘Yes sir.’” I came from a musical family, not a fighting one, so that type of discipline was new to me. My karate dojo in Nashville in the 80’ had a very competitive, kill or be killed mentality. It was hard but gave me heart and a fighting spirit. Simply put, it toughened me up.
BJ: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from Rickson Gracie or Jiu-jitsu?
ES: I always tell my students that jiu-jitsu or any martial art should be a method that helps you make better decisions and gives you the tools to deal with the outcomes of those decisions. In jiu-jitsu, karma happens pretty much instantly. You’re very much accountable. Make a bad move and you have to fix it or maybe tap and try again. Or, you win and then you have consequences of that and defend yourself again. Rickson teaches how to deal with what you’re dealt, to practice a lot so that you have the best possible response to whatever situation is in front of you. Or sometimes, on top of you!
I wasn’t a quick black-belt. I trained with Rickson sixteen years before he promoted me in 2009. He just handed it to me one day and said, “Here, this is yours.” No party, no celebration. I got the point like, when the conditions are right, certain things happen. Then you continue on your journey. I always enjoyed the process. Even when he said I was doing something wrong or that I could do better, it motivated me. He helped me understand that uncomfortable positions and situations are inevitable, but how we deal with them isn’t.
Training with Rickson was different for me coming from my karate background. He’s a perfectionist but as tough as he is, undeniably one of the best ever, he’s gentle and relaxed. He never hurt, intimidated or bullied anyone in class. On the mat he’s a teacher, not a drill sergeant. We could take breaks, drink water or lay out if we were injured. That’s a cornerstone in my schools (Zanshin Dojo) today. Everyone knows they’re safe, among friends and should leave class feeling lifted up, not beaten down.
BJ: Brazil’s a beautiful but sometimes wild country. I’m sure you have some interesting stories from Brazil!
ES: Well, I’ve been working and living in Brazil for a long time, so yes. When I’m there I live in São Paulo, but spend a lot of time in Rio, too. Once I was flying to Rio to do some classes with Royler Gracie. I meant to leave at 8:30am and went to what’s called the “Ponte Area” to get my ticket. I was a little late so I had to book another flight which took longer than usual. When we were finally on the runway about to take off, I asked another passenger what the delay was. It turned out that one of the 8:30 flights had crashed on takeoff and there were no survivors. There were no smartphones yet and at the time I didn’t speak Portuguese, so I had no idea what had been going on. My friends in Rio were all watching the news and saw a passenger list from the plane that came down. There was a passenger named something like ‘Enrique Silva’ which they thought was me. That was a tense day.
The density and intensity of those cities is something that most Americans have never experienced. People work hard, party hard, you get stuck in traffic for hours, I’ve even driven up into a shooting. But martial arts have always been a haven where I’ve made some of my closest friends and find solace. When I started training at Vila Da Luta, Demian Maia’s old place, I was a bit apprehensive about going into such a big competitive gym as an American black-belt, a Rickson Gracie black-belt at that. But they took me in like family from day one. I stayed there three hours the first night, talking to the old timers and visiting Americans. I trained a lot with my friend, Valdir Reis, another “magician,” and Wagner Mota, Demian’s jiu-jitsu coach. The guys there were really interested in my training and techniques since many Brazilian jiu-jitsu players have never seen Rickson. He’s a legend they’ve only heard about. One day I paired up with another black-belt and we started to roll. I grabbed his gi at the wrist and collar and he smiled and said, “Helio Gracie!” I didn’t know I was considered old school, but if that’s the case, I’ll take it!