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Book Review: The Toughest Man Who Ever Lived

Book Review: The Toughest Man Who Ever Lived

Anyone who loves jiu-jitsu or enjoys MMA history should know the name Mitsuyo Maeda. He’s the man who brought the grappling arts of Japan to the Gracie family in Brazil, helping set the foundation for what we now call mixed martial arts competition and the UFC.

But beyond listing his name in lineage, it seems little is known about him.

Sure, he trained at the Kodokan, the birthplace of judo — that’s verifiable. Maeda fought and wrestled, often using the nickname “Conde Koma” in bouts for which newspaper accounts are available. Accounts of jiu-jitsu history, from Renzo Gracie & Danaher in Mastering Jujutsu, to Roberto Pedreira in “Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone,” offer a little glimpse of the man, but little more.

The Toughest Man Who Ever Lived by John Murray and Nori Bunasawa (Innovations, Inc; 2007) tries to paint a more complete portrait of the jiu-jitsu legend who planted the seeds of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and modern MMA. More accurately, it offers one creative interpretation of Maeda’s life based on a combination of both available evidence and the authors’ imaginations. It’s “a carefully fictionalized account” according to its authors, complete with long entries of dialogue and round-by-round descriptions of Maeda’s bouts, and enough history to give it context.

It features an occasional photograph too, which helps things along, from the familiar glamour shots like the one above to the tombstone he shares with his third wife, Scottish-born Daisy May Iris Maeda, in Belém.

For this to work, we have to get some new ideas on the subject, and “Toughest” offers plenty.

Among them, it’s said that Maeda answered Gestao Gracie’s pleas to teach his son, “only after father and son promised not to teach what they learned to non-Japanese.” (So much for that!)

On the down side, it may be impossible to know what exactly Maeda taught Carlos in those days, and “Toughest” offers little help.

It’s the accepted myth that he taught the Gracie family something other than the judo of the day, and these are the secrets of “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” that Rorian Gracie marketed. Rorian Gracie would famously infer on the original “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action” tapes that today’s judo was a neutered and sport-oriented version of the art Maeda instructed. Others, like Brazilian judo legend George Kastriot Medhi, who trained several members of the Gracie family in the 1950’s to 1990’s and is profiled in Roberto Pedreira’s fine book Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, disagree and say it’s really all judo.

In these pages, we get to know Mitsuyo Maeda as a rough-and-tumble kind of guy who became known for applying his training to no-holds-barred contests rather than typical judo tournament rules. It’s verified that Maeda competed in several other grappling styles, particularly catch-as-catch-can in Britain, which obviously could have influenced his judo.

But as is in the case of Rorian Gracie’s marketing, sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s being written as conjecture, and what’s fact-based. Unfortunately in the case of “Toughest”, sometimes it is difficult gauge the accuracy of the authors’ research, for that matter — especially when strange mistakes pop up in the prose. The Brazilian wrestling style “luta livre” is misspelled “luta libre” in the introduction and modern boxing rules are described as “Marquis of Salisbury” later.

That said, as in the case of those classic “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action” VHS tapes, it’s entertaining enough.

“The Toughest Man Who Ever Lived” is an awkward work, but Murray and Bunasawa deserve credit. This remains the only attempt in the English language to try and offer detail on Maeda’s life beyond a few pages.

Sure, I’d love a more scholarly take on this legend. But as in the case of the meeting between Maeda and Gracie, it’s useless to ask “TMWEL” to be something it isn’t. More often than not, it’s a fun read. It fills in a few blanks and gets you thinking about what may have been the foundation of someone which certainly shook the foundations of the martial arts world. It’s overpriced at around $40, but I don’t regret buying it anyway. It’s a nice addition to a martial arts library.

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