Author: Tomislav Šulj
Translated and adapted by Michael Durgo
Jiu Jitsu is a defensive martial art, one of many ancient martial arts perfected by Japanese samurais in their closed, esoteric schools. The samurais actually borrowed the martial art from the Chinese and then developed and adapted, over the centuries, the inherent brutality and ruthlessness of that particular style of fighting to their own values and martial requirements. ”Ju Jutsu” (soft skill or gentle skill) is the original name for the Japanese styles of martial arts. What is today known as Jiu Jitsu encompasses a number of different varieties of techniques, some of them recognized as sports. It is safe to say that the most famous of these is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But, the original skill was strictly military in character and had no connection to sporting competitions, or whatever passed as such in different locales and time periods. It included both offensive and defensive techniques of combat.
As a military skill it started to develop in feudal Japan at the end of the 16th century, and then during the Sengoku period, which was marked by constant and brutal warfare. After the end of the feudal age, during the Meji period, the samurai skills became respected and valued. On the other hand, after the formation of the Japanese empire the samurai ethos was in stark contradiction to the new and modern perception of what the role of the warrior should be. Consequently the samurais were anathemized at the Japanese court and that inevitably led to conflict. The samurais were defeated and extinguished as a social class. Somewhat ironically, however, the samurai values, and especially their martial skills, continued to be lauded in the newly formed military institutions of modern Japan.
Jiu Jitsu, considering that it is geared towards accomplishing a goal solely through physical skills, is the basic premise of a whole myriad of martial skills and was the bedrock of the very complex system of training and way of life of the samurais. These skills do not only comprise martial values but also include elements of spirituality, philosophy, science and even art. Generally speaking, the Jiu Jitsu martial art developed directly out of Bu Jitsu, which is a common term for martial or military skill denoting a complex system of various special samurai skills. For example: kyu jitsu (archery), yari jitsu (spear), naginata jitsu (spear and sword), ken jitsu (sword-swordsmanship), iai jitsu (quick-draw sword technique), wakasashi-tanto jitsu (short sword), joba jitsu (horseriding), senjo jitsu (formations drill), chikujo jitsu (fortification), ho jitsu (musket), yoroi jitsu (armour), suiei jitsu (swimming in armour), jo jitsu (short stick), bo jitsu (long stick), hojo jitsu (restraining prisoners).
According to some sources, by 1876 there had been more than 240 000 samurais and 10 000 samurai schools. The numbers speak for themselves. Samurais were specialized through systemic methods of training and learning various special skills. Jiu Jitsu developed in Japan as a special way of unarmed combat, a highly complex martial art in which the emphasis is placed on methods to defeat, as efficiently as possible, an opponent without using weapons. Ante Vukadin, holder of a third degree black belt from the Black Dragon academy (the academy is devoted to preserving and teaching the skills of the ancient samurais) explains what this type of training represented in its original form: ”Unarmed Jiu Jitsu is a system of offensive skills, including throwing, punching, kicking, chocking, pinning, arm bars and shoulder locks. Of course, Jiu Jitsu also includes defensive techniques in relation to the mentioned skills. The scope of the martial art of Jiu Jitsu includes all combinations of combat techniques relating to fighting armed or unarmed, wearing armor or not wearing armor against opponents equally armed, equipped or unarmed and without equipment… Jiu Jitsu’s unarmed skill is mostly about throwing techniques, meaning using your body movements to unbalance your opponent before throwing him to the ground. The throwing aspect of the martial art became more important than the other techniques, especially kicking and punching, when samurais started wearing body armor. Throwing techniques were used defensively against direct attack, stabbing and uppercut kicks and punches. On the other hand, the body armor was heavy and that meant that the wearer could easily become unbalanced. Jiu Jitsu masters thought their students how to thrown armored opponents to the ground and follow up the move with a lethal attack aimed at breaking the opponent’s spine or neck. Of course, masters thought a large number of other techniques, especially chocking, as well as those the aim of which was to temporarily disable an opponent by ankle locks and armlocks. The idea was to avoid killing your opponents so that they could be tortured for information.”
This martial art has found its way to Croatia. Stjepan Grbavac has mastered the techniques of Jiu Jitsu in Australia. He is a holder of a seventh degree black belt. Before explaining how Stjepan Grbavac acquired the skills and how he developed the techniques further when training Croatian Special Forces soldiers, we have to explain by what unusual routes the original samurai skill found its way to Australia.
After the end of the Meji restoration the samurai class was extinguished. However, Jiu Jitsu became popular because people belonging to the lower classes, who had been forbidden from entering Jiu Jitsu schools and learning the martial art during the Meji period, wanted to learn Jiu Jitsu. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century the Japanese army and navy recognized the value of Jiu Jitsu and included Jiu Jitsu training in their academies. During the reign of Emperor Hirohito, before the outbreak of WWII, Jiu Jitsu skills were taught in the Japanese armed forces by members of various secret societies. A high number of high ranking officers also underwent Jiu Jitsu training. It is no wonder then that the Allies, at the end of WWII, proclaimed the Jiu Jitsu schools ‘nests of nationalistic passions’. General MacArthur, in his capacity as the military governor of Japan, banned the teaching of Jiu Jitsu. Some Jiu Jitsu schools continued to function, but illegally. Most of the schools were either closed or tried to circumvent the ban by teaching Jiu Jitsu techniques as part of other martial arts. It didn’t take long for the original, samurai Jiu Jitsu techniques to completely disappear in Japan. Today the Jiu Jitsu martial art, as used to be practiced by the samurais, lives only as part of the national folklore. But, in various forms the martial art was exported out of Japan. A man called Kam Hock Foe, a Chinaman according to some sources, is credited with keeping alive a form of Jiu Jitsu that resembles the original martial art more than any other technique purporting to be part of the original Jiu Jitsu that has been exported from Japan by various routes and by various people since the schools were banned. Kam Hock Foe was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1903. His nationality and other personal details are shrouded in mystery. Many people believe Kam Hock Hoe was actually a Japanese from a noble family and most probably an important figure in the efficient military intelligence agency of the Japanese imperial army and a pivotal figure in the agency’s activities in South East Asia before the outbreak of WWII. The theory is as yet unproven and based, for the most part, on conjunctions but it has to be pointed out that it makes more sense than all the others which, at the end of the day, are no less conjunctional. Hoe was often in the public eye on account of his fights the length and breadth of Asia in which he used free wrestling techniques. The techniques in question were not strictly part of the philosophy of Jiu Jitsu. As a fighter he was second to none, becoming a legend in his own time. His nickname was Panther Hoe and the outcome of some of his fights reflected the heralded lethality of the sobriquet; a number of his opponents did not make it out of the ring alive. In the 1930s he lived in Shanghai, Kyoto and Kobe, perfecting his martial skills and fighting. He was elevated to the pantheon of the most famous masters of Jiu Jitsu. Emperor Hirohito personally commended him for promoting and propagating the Japanese martial values. In light of the above and also given Hoe’s connection to Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, also a Jiu Jitsu master, it is hard to believe that the Japanese, in the period between the two world wars, would have lavished so much praise on a foreigner, let alone a Chinese person. In any event, after the Allies banned Jiu Jitsu Hoe had no option but to leave the country. He continued to teach, in secret, Jiu Jitsu, in Malaysia. The covert nature of his teaching activity in Malaysia also gives credence to the theory that Hoe was Japanese.
Many years later Rennie Graham joined the school. He would later teach Grbavac the art of Jiu Jitsu. Rennie Graham, at that time, was a keen student of martial arts. During one of his trips to Malaysia he saw a short and skinny Indian man, weighing no more than 50 kg, obliterate his assailant by using Jiu Jitsu. The man who attacked the tiny Indian guy was twice as heavy and athletically built. Graham was immediately hooked; he wanted to learn the skill. He joined Hoe’s, by that time, legendary school. Over the years Graham became Hoe’s most proficient student. Not only did Graham master the martial art of Jiu Jitsu but he also achieved a high level of skill in the techniques of resuscitation, massaging injured parts of the body and methods of speedy recovery after an injury. Rennie Graham returned to Australia and opened the Jiu Jitsu Black Dragon school – membership by invitation only. At the beginning of the 1980s Stjepan Grbavac, a young Australian-Croatian, joined the school. He achieved the levels of proficiency in Jiu Jitsu unmatched by any Caucasian student. I have no doubt that the story of the Jiu Jitsu Black Dragon school so far reads like the script for a blockbuster movie starring the likes of Steven Segal or Jan Claude van Damme. Grbavac’s story, however, differs from a typical Hollywood movie script in two crucial respects: Grbavac did not acquire his skills overnight; it took him years of dedicated effort to master the martial art and his story, unlike those of Hollywood’s ludicrous characters, is true.
Stjepan Grbavac was born in Australia. His parents were Croatian immigrants, seeking a better life in the land down under. He fell in love with martial arts at an early age. He trained a number of martial art forms and earned a black belt in karate. It was clear that he possessed a natural aptitude for martial arts. But, he could not find gratification in his rapid progress, successes in various competitions and accolades from his trainers. He was on a quest to find a martial art form which dispensed with such factors. He firmly believed that any true method of training martial arts must not be geared towards winning competitions but grounded in the pursuit of inner contentment and spiritual growth. One day an acquaintance of Stjepan told him about a somewhat mysterious martial arts school where the emphasis was not on traditional methods of sports training but on brutal conditioning routines. Grbavac’s interest was piqued. He knocked on the door of the gym and proudly announced that he was a holder of a black belt in karate. The door was slammed into his face. He was not dissuaded though. Sheer dogged determination and persistence secured him an interview with the owner of the school, Graham Rennie. Grbavac spent an hour and a half with Graham in a darkened room, answering questions, many of them of a personal nature. Grbavac could not make heads or tails of the atmosphere surrounding him in the room. There he was, in that darkened room, being asked tons of questions that had nothing to do whatsoever with martial arts by a weird looking man. Completing the sheer weirdness of the occasion were Graham’s students, standing by the wall in utter stillness and silence. Grbavac was completely dumbfounded by the strangeness of it all. Finally Graham Rennie informed Grbavac that he was satisfied with his answers. Grbavac was now officially one of Graham’s students. In a flash Grbavac realized that Graham, by asking seemingly frivolous question, had been putting Grbavac’s personality to the test to see if Grbavac was a true martial artist at heart. Grbavac physical prowess and successes as a karate fighter had absolutely nothing to do with the philosophy of martial arts, as understood and proselytized by Graham. Grbavac would see many a formidable fighter, way stronger and more physically able than himself, miserably fail at the interview.
The induction period lasted for months and Grbavac found it a grueling experience. From minute one he was under constant stress-inducing pressure, forced to do things nobody bothered to explain the point of. He was not even sure if he was doing them correctly. Nobody deigned to give him pointers as regards that either. Nobody was willing to communicate with Grbavac. The whole thing drove him crazy. Grbavac was tacitly ostracized and he figured the situation had something to do with the fact that he was the only Caucasian student there. Graham’s teaching methods were brutal; he would deliberately psychologically torture and physically hurt the students. Sometimes he would punch, kick or throw a student unconscious – only to revive him and put him, immediately after, through the ringer again. Grbavac was young and too curious for his own good. He liked asking questions. In a brutal and painful fashion Graham showed him the error of his ways. The lessons took a very long time to sink in. Only years later did Grbavac realize that he had been asking the wrong and essentially meaningless questions. He realized that it was all about figuring things out for yourself, adapting and surviving. The training was based on physical pain. Students learned how to defend from an attack by a cold weapon and became proficient in lethal hand to hand combat techniques. The lethality of the skills was one of the reasons why Graham Rennie insisted on a thorough and rigorous selection of his students; he accepted only psychologically stable applicants. Every martial skill the students learned was qualified by the historical context of Jiu Jitsu as a martial art; the emphasis of the qualifications inevitably being grounded in the history of warfare in general and that of Japan in particular. Grbavac could not understand why Graham placed so much emphasis on the military aspect of Jiu Jitsu and found Graham’s often repeated phrase ‘Remember this, one day you’ll find it useful’ ludicrous. Australia was not at war and its geostrategic position in the world was such that no sane person expected the continent to be in a direct danger from armed forces of a foreign foe. Grbavac in time learned everything about the samurai Jiu Jitsu, the difference between sports training and physical and mental conditioning for war. Finally he realized the Graham had all the while been indeed preparing his students for war.
Grbavac earned a seventh degree black belt, the highest obtainable level of competency, giving him the right to teach the techniques he had learned at the Black Dragon school. In 1987 master Rennie simply told him to stop attending practice sessions because he was a master in his own right and should strike out on his own, open his own school and make it all inclusive. Graham was reluctant as hell to be the first man to make the Jiu Jitsu skills available to everyone. He was determined to retain the exclusive nature of his school. To this day he has not changed his mind and continues to hand pick his students. Grbavac was, at first, unwilling to leave the Black Dragon school. He thought that he was too young to open his own school, he felt insecure and inadequate to break new ground by being the first master to teach the samurai Jiu Jitsu to everyone interested in learning the skills. But Graham Rennie was adamant. He did insist though that Grbavac forbear teaching the lethal aspects of Jiu Jitsu. Grbavac bit the bullet and heeded Graham’s advice; in 1987 he opened his own school in Hrvatski Dom in Melbourne and ran it, with Graham’s help, until 1991. The registered name of Grabavac’s school was the Black Dragon academy.
At that time, on the other side of the globe, in Croatia, the scene was set for an internecine war and Graham’s prophetic injunction ‘Remember this, you’ll find it useful’ achieved, at least for Grabavac, its full apotheosis. Grbavac, and most of the other Croatian students of the Black Dragon academy, decided to travel to Croatia and take part in the war and defend the land of their fathers. He had no choice but to close the Black Dragon academy because he was the only instructor. In the meantime Grbavac visited Israel and toured the training centers of the Israeli Armed forces. An Israeli man, who had met Grbavac in Melbourne and been impressed with Grbavac’s skills, made the visit possible. After Israel Grbavac returned to Australia. He did not tell anyone of his decision to go to Croatia and join the nascent Croatian army in its resistance to the Serb dominated Yugoslav People’s Army; not even his parents, Graham Rennie and his wife. His wife actually thought he was taking some time off to travel around Europe as a tourist. Grbavac simply wanted to avoid hearing from all and sundry that he was quite mad going off to war half way around the world without any prior military experience and leaving a successful business and his wife behind.
When he arrived in Zagreb he contacted the appropriate authorities and offered his services. Not long after his arrival he was sent to Kumrovec for an interview with the commanders of the Special Forces, namely the commanders of the Zrinski Battalion Ante Roso and Miljenko Filipović. Both commanders were former French Foreign Legion officers and immediately recognized the value of what Grbavac proposed and demonstrated. They engaged him as a martial arts instructor and promised him their unflinching support. The first training session came as a shock to the members of the Zrinski Battalion. ”Some 80 guys showed up for that session. We all thought we’d see a demonstration of some oriental martial art or something, no big deal. Grbavac told us in a calm, almost serene voice, that the training sessions would be hard, brutal and painful and that he would raise our threshold of pain and expose us to unimaginable stress levels. What he said we found interesting but we didn’t really take him seriously. He said we’d do everything in pairs, that he’d demonstrate attacking and defensive techniques and that every man in each pair would have to repeat the moves three times. He called out one guy and said he would demonstrate an attacking technique. All of a sudden he punched the guy and the poor fellow lost consciousness. Grabovac revived the man and told us to start practicing the move. We were shocked by that approach. During that first session Grbavac beat the crap out of all of us. That thought us to listen to him carefully. Never again did any of us approach a training session half-assed. We all paid attention and tried to do exactly what he told us to do. The incentive was to avoid being shown by him the proper technique. That was simply too painful an experience,” one member of the Zrinski Battalion remembered.
Many years later Grbavac confirmed the veracity of the above account. He told me how he mercilessly put the members of the Zrinski Battalion through hell, through the same grueling routines he had suffered at the hands of Graham Rennie. Grbavac stressed that the intensity of training at his academy in Melbourne was nothing compared to what he did with the members of the Zrinski Battalion or what the usual fare was at Graham’s school. During the critical year of 1991 Grbavac decided to increase the brutality of the training sessions. His goal was to train the Zrinski Battalion members to the peak of their physical and mental ability in as short a time as possible. Grbavac had done a similar thing with master Rennie for a client, a rich Indian man, once. The Indian man was obsessed with self defense because he had to carry large sums of cash over long distances on a regular basis. For two days Rennie mercilessly beat the living crap out of the Indian man. Then it was Grbavac’s turn. For the next seven days he attacked the Indian man unceasingly. But, the Indian man was able to successfully block every punch and kick Grbavac threw at him. In the two days of brutal conditioning the Indian’s psyche, under the constant rush of adrenalin, had developed an exceptional defensive reflex that became activated when his body was under threat of physical pain. Grbavac applied the same principle, with a number of modifications, of course, to the members of the Zrinski Battalion in 1991. Ante Vukadin remembers: ”His main goal was to condition the guys to be able to withstand pain and high levels of stress. Many times Grbavac told me that it was difficult and psychologically scarring for him to see us leave to the frontline because he knew that, regardless of how well he had trained us, some of us would return maimed and unable to practice martial arts anymore. For that reason he made the training sessions as brutal as possible because he wanted to have a clear conscience…he wanted to make us as prepared as humanly possible for combat. He had nothing but respect for the guys he so mercilessly trounced. He was honored to have a chance to train the Special Forces soldiers, guys who went on missions practically after training sessions. It is important to note that no one ever skipped a training session. To be sure, there were bruises, cuts, swellings, muscles were stiff and sore but nobody ever got seriously injured.”
Vukadin, as a member of the 11th Guards Brigade (the Tigers), had been captured by the Serbs in Hrvatska Kostajnica. When he was exchanged he joined the Zrinski Battalion. Grbavac did not cut him any slack on account of his recently being released from a POW camp. Vukadin colorfully describes his experience: ”I showed up for the training session, with about 80 other men. I take one look at them all and I’m confused; they’re holding their hands on their balls, they’re walking funny, they’re all silent and obviously alert, like rabbits afraid of being pounced on by a predator. I asked one man: ‘What are you walking funny for?’ Before I even finished the question a tennis shoe hits me in the head. There’s this guy in a black kimono, he threw the shoe. I have no idea what’s going on, so I continue walking, alongside the others. At length I asked the same man: ‘What did this guy throw the shoe at me for?’ At that instant another tennis shoe flies by, inches away from my head. Then I realized that I should keep my mouth shut. Grbavac punished my garrulousness severely: Every move he showed to the group he demonstrated on me. It was extreme…he throws me down, the whole world’s spinning, I kiss the parquet floor and he just says I’m doing it wrong. Now, this is my first training session after my release from the prison camp, and Grbavac forces us, when we think the session’s over, to do 150 squats. I’ve been in solitary confinement for quite some time so I’m completely out of shape. After a few training sessions I couldn’t freaking walk, every muscle in my body was sore and stiff. Then I went to the frontline and I didn’t see Grbavac in a while…I got wounded and he went back to Australia for a spell. When I finally did see him I asked him if I could train with the rest of the guys. Now, I had a few bullets lodged in my leg. He told me no problem…And it was the same story again; the first training session was pure hell. To round the session up we had to do rolls. So, I do one, two, however many and I start to throw up. Maybe it was something I’d eaten or more probably my centre of balance had somehow been damaged. I don’t know, but every time I did rolls I threw up and was completely physically exhausted. Sometimes I couldn’t even walk to the dorm after doing rolls. Before every training session I prayed to God: ‘Please, not rolls today.’ God didn’t listen. I threw up. The first time I threw up Grbavac told me: ‘There’s a bucket and sponge, clean it up before you leave.’ Ever afterwards I showed up for training with my own bucket and cloth. I have to point out that Grbavac was not cruel to me because he disliked me or anything, it was just his style. It was the samurai way. And the spirit of the samurai Jiu Jitsu is this: what can be done has to be done, regardless of how painful or discomforting it may be. I mean, that’s why we were there in the first place, to learn how to control pain…As far as the damned rolls, there was one period of time when we didn’t do them and then we started doing them again… and I didn’t throw up. I’ve never puked doing rolls again. I still hate doing them, make no mistake about that!”
During 1992 the war in Croatia entered a phase of fitful ceasefires and Grbavac went to Australia due to personal obligations and because his wife was about to give birth to their first child. He was back in Croatia at the beginning of 1993 and resumed training the members of the Zrinski Battalion. The Zrinski Battalion soon became the core of the newly formed the 1st Croatian Guards Corps (HGZ). Throughout 1993 training sessions were held in inadequate conditions; in gyms without exercise mats or even in concrete halls. He did not insist that the members of the battalion attend training sessions because the Croatian army had developed into a respectable armed force and the country was not in immediate danger of being overrun like it had been in the fall of 1991. Moreover, Grbavac was averse to the idea of obliging men who had seen a lot of combat, gone to hell and back again and been wounded to show up for his brutal training sessions. Ante Vukadin remembers those days: ”The battalion was being restructured, we received replacements and soon we became part of the 1st Croatian Guards Corps. Some men joined other units, other branches. There was no point in putting a veteran Special Forces soldier, who was not a desk jockey, through rigorous martial arts training. On the other hand, there were people like me who, despite being wounded, simply couldn’t do without martial arts training. The thing with Grbavac was, if you showed up that was it; you do everything everyone else does. To be fair, if someone was in the process of recuperating from a wound Grbavac told him he could use one of the three exercise mats we had in Rakitje. That was his idea of ‘cutting slack’. Ironically, when the situation improved and when we started training in normal conditions we didn’t really care; we were used to be thrown on and drawn around surfaces such as concrete, mud, grass, parquet floor, whatever. We kind of scoffed at the idea of using exercise mats. And when Grbavac told us that we’d have kimonos, showers and masseurs on call in case of injury we were truly stupefied.” At the end of 1993 Grbavac secured adequate conditions for teaching Jiu Jitsu. He got in touch with the famous K1 fighter Branko Cikatić who allowed them to use his gym in Zagreb. Ante Vukadin remembers the change but points out that the better conditions did not affect the intensity of the sessions: ”The gym was new but everything else stayed the same. We used to dim the lights, to condition our other senses for combat, not just eyes. When someone attacks you with a knife in the dark, then your eyes are useless, you have to use your other senses if you want to survive. Cikatić would often watch us train. Grbavac insisted that we, after each session, and in keeping with the humility inherent in the ancient samurai philosophy, clean the gym, despite the fact that Cikatić had people on payroll for that. Cikatić was impressed by the whole thing; our training methods, and our respectful conduct. It’s funny but he had initially thought that we were some kind of ”useless Judo guys”. Cikatić was so impressed by us and honored that we trained in his gym. He gave Grbavac permission to use the gym whenever he liked, 24-7, free of charge, and offered every other support, everything Grbavac might need, also free of charge.” There is no doubt that all Jiu Jitsu practitioners in Croatia owe a large debt of gratitude to Branko Cikatić. At about that time Rudolfo Barrio ‘the Argentinian’ Saavedra joined the 1st Croatian Guards Corps. He was a foreign volunteer from Argentina and former colonel of the Argentine army. He had served in the 4th Guards Brigade and participated in all the battles on the southern front. In the 1st HGZ he served in the capacity of instructor and set up the first commando training program in the Croatian army. Grbavac and Saavedra immediately recognized each other’s qualities and leaned heavily on one another’s arcane expertise in their respective training programs. ”I remember that the Argentinian was delighted with what he saw. He told me countless times: ”Stjepan, I’ve been searching for someone like you for years and now I can finally incorporate the skills you have into the commando training. The skills that you have are tailor made for the commando thing!” Grbavac remembers. He cannot emphasize enough how much respect he has for the Argentinian and his other students: ”Interestingly enough, all of my students achieved a high level of proficiency, but the three who achieved the highest level: Saavedra – fourth degree black belt, Ante Vukadin and Dinko Batur – third degree black belt, I perceived, when I started teaching the course, as useless. Rudolfo wasn’t exactly a young man when he joined and his body bore the marks of many wounds – his legs were filled with shrapnel. Before every training session he had to warm up and stretch for ages. In a sense he was actually proving that he had embraced the essence of the whole thing – there is nothing to prevent you from achieving something if you truly want it. Vukadin, when he joined us, had just recently been released from a Serb PoW camp and was recuperating from multiple wounds, I mean his body was a wreck. But he didn’t give up, he continued to show up even though his hip and spine were damaged…I told him that I’d understand if he quit…He didn’t quit and that’s the essence of the Jiu Jitsu philosophy. Those who had a physical disability to overcome succeeded while many others, young fighters, strong as bulls and extremely athletic, a joy to behold really, quit for one reason or another.”
Given the main characteristics of Jiu Jitsu and the circumstances in which Grbavac had to teach the martial art it was clear from day one how crucial that element really was in terms of conditioning the best members of the 1st Croatian Guards Corps for combat. On one hand Croatia was at war and Saavedra did not have enough time to implement fully his commando training program. On the other hand, the brutal Jiu Jitsu training promised to expose those members unsuited for the Special Forces in no time which was an extremely important factor in the prevailing conditions of urgency and shortage of everything. The Jiu Jitsu training saved a lot of time and money, both commodities in very short supply at the time. Saavendra’s approach to the situation was very practical: ”Those who cannot withstand the Jiu Jitsu training do not deserve to be members of the Special Forces.”
The Jiu Jitsu training and the commando training program were exceptionally demanding. There were two one and a half hour long Jiu Jitsu training sessions a day, and in the run up to the testing for black belt there were three such sessions a day. Of course, the students also had other duties and tasks to attend to and complete, like various physical activities or obligations connected to the officer school’s curriculum. Grbavac is of the opinion that the intensity of the training was on a par with that in the SAS and the Israeli Special Forces and has often pointed out that the members of the Croatian Guards Corps, unlike their counterparts in the SAS and the Israeli Special Forces, had to train during a 5 year long war. Vukadin agrees: ”Three times I didn’t show up for the black belt test, not because I couldn’t be bothered but because I was either wounded or on the frontline. Besides, the first commando training program was interrupted because the unit took part in Cinkar Operation, during which Kupres was liberated. We did 40 out of the 60 scheduled days of the program. The intensity of the program is such that many special forces soldiers cannot complete it. Most people, soldiers included, cannot even begin to imagine how mentally and physically demanding the program is. And after 40 days of hell we’re told: ‘Drop everything, get your gear, board the copters, we’re going to liberate Kupres.”’ Only the best members of all Special Forces units went through the commando training program, even though the first course was created solely for the members of 1st Croatian Guards Corps (the Zrinski Battalion). Members of other units, namely the 1st Croatian Guards Corps and Marine Commandos, alongside those from the 1st Croatian Guards Corps, went through the second course. Soldiers belonging to the military police joined the cream of the aforementioned units for the third course but the majority of participants still came from the Croatian Guards Corps. When organizing these courses Grbavac cooperated closely with Saavedra and calibrated the methods of training accordingly. However, he always included techniques of attacking with a knife and defending against such attacks in the program. During that period Grbavac felt that it was time for a change. For three years his training methods had been based on uncompromising brutality, which made perfect sense given that the country was struggling to survive against the numerically and materially superior aggressor. So, Grbavac decided that he should give a bit extra to his best students, show them that there was a lot more to Jiu Jitsu than the ”hysteria” he had been exposing them to for so long. He wanted to reveal the philosophical system of Jiu Jitsu to the students and thus impart the meaning of the martial art on them. Everyone he picked had gone through the commando training. They were all black belt candidates and now disciples of the more profound aspects of the skill and its concomitant philosophy. Grbavac chose only those soldiers who were, in his opinion, potentially better suited to everything Jiu Jitsu had to offer than him. These men later became instructors. The Airborne Battalion of the 1st Croatian Guards Corps also embraced Jiu Jitsu.
In 1995 Grbavac joined the 1st Croatian Guards Corps. The transfer did not happen on accident. Grbavac’s students, members of the Croatian Guards Corps, had been assigned, on account of their martial skills, to the security details of many important officials. Soon everyone was aware of the martial prowess of their instructor, who was also a native speaker of the English language. Grbavac was offered the job of chief of security of President Tuđman and he accepted the offer. He remained in the post until Tuđman’s death. During that stint he continued to lend a helping hand as regards training Special Forces soldiers whenever it was necessary and participate in setting up commando training courses. When the war finally came to an end the Black Dragon academy opened its doors to civilians. However, a recommendation from a soldier was mandatory. It did not take long for the instructors to realize that the old, brutal way of training was completely unsuited for the times. The training methods inevitably drifted towards sports, as opposed to learning how to lethally attack with a cold weapon and how to, equally lethally, defend against such an attack. The focus shifted to techniques similar to those we see today in UFC. ”We jettisoned some of the exercises and methods, and we modified others. We simply could not throw viciously civilians on the ground, poke them in the eyes, grab them by the hair…not during the first training session anyway. On the other hand, we knew that it would be irresponsible of us to teach people we didn’t really know those deadly skills. We couldn’t risk producing serial killers.”
When President Tuđman died in 2000 Croatia entered a period of change. Some of the changes that were made were long overdue but others were made for less obvious, and arguably, inexplicable reasons. The armed forces were crippled by size reductions, which, given the success in the war, made no sense whatsoever. The members of the Special Forces, including Grbavac, were affected by the reductions. The instructor Ante Vukadin experienced many difficulties during that time. He is very reluctant to talk about that period of his life. Eventually he immersed himself into the world of kinology.
Grbavac was also going through a rough patch. Ante Vukadin once told me, reluctantly and with obvious rancor, that Grbavac, a holder of a Jiu Jitsu seventh degree black belt, was sidelined to a desk job in the logistical sector of the Military Academy in Zagreb. Grbavac, in a way crushed by circumstances, stopped practicing Jiu Jitsu for a number of years. However, during one of many restructuring drives that were plaguing the army at the time, a high ranking officer from the University’s department of planning sought out Grbavac and engaged him in the department. Grbavac’s task there was to prepare annual plans for the presenters. To be sure, the task was as far removed from his area of expertise as his previous job but at least he had a chance to finally do something constructive and useful. In the meantime, he recovered his self-esteem during his participation in a course at the Military Academy of the Dutch Army where he achieved impressive results. Based on his performance there he was offered a job at the Academy when Croatia joined the EU.
The Croatian army really shot itself in the foot when it discontinued the Jiu Jitsu training. Ante Valadon recently told me: ”One of the Black Dragon academy’s black belt holders, a fluent speaker of the English language, was picked to complete the mountain warfare course at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in the USA. His martial skills were inferior to those of some of the other members of the black belt holders of the Black Dragon academy. His fluency in the English language was the clincher in the decision to send him to the USA, which is understandable. But, even though he was only average in the context of the Black Dragon academy, he was, hands down, the best participant in the course. People connected to the Black Dragon academy were aware that certain high ranking Israeli Army Officers had been practically beginning Grbavac to join them, despite the fact the Israelis have the extremely efficient Krav-maga system and excellent training facilities.”
Jiu Jitsu established its roots in Croatia and it is safe to say that it is thriving at the moment. Grbavac and the other instructors realized that what had been appropriate during the war was not suitable in peacetime and altered the training methods accordingly. Today, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is practiced in the Black Dragon academy. The president of the Jiu Jitsu Association is Mario Šarušić and the chief instructor at the academy is Dubravko Čolić. The members of the academy regularly achieve successes in international competitions. Grbavac, Batura, Vukadin, Saavedra and some other instructors from the army have their own academies and cooperate closely with other academies, organizations and clubs. One such organization is Croatian Sporting Association Subos which operates under the auspices of the University of Zagreb. Subos has been promoting, successfully, Jiu Jitsu in the Croatian academic community for years. The instructors no longer use military techniques in their training, but only sporting techniques. Vukadin points out: ”If we were to use the same methods today, somebody would call the cops on us. So, we do not train that way anymore. Sure, we, the select few, do engage sometimes in that type of training, but it’s not for the general public. The country is not at war and there is no need to teach those lethal skills any more, the paradigm has shifted since the war. But, if Croatia finds itself at war again, our instructors, and about a dozen of us who are proficient in the military version of the Jiu Jitsu martial art, will impart that knowledge on Croatian soldiers. But then again, who knows, maybe the original skill will die out because most people want sport, competition, winning medals and, by the same token, it is not in our interest to teach dangerous skills, especially if there’s no immediate need for that…I have to say that during the five long years of war not one us got injured during training to the point where we wouldn’t be able to go on combat missions. Sure, there were bruises, muscle strains and similar things, but, I repeat, no serious injuries. And the training sessions were extremely brutal. I am glad that some of the techniques of the military Jiu Jitsu are still being taught and practiced in the Special Forces. That is because some of the instructors are former students of Grbavac. I am proud to say that in all organizations and departments that are worth their keep in this country the most valued people are actually those who have gone through our academies and training.”
THE COMMANDER OF THE CROATIAN GUARDS CORPS ABOUT THE JIU JITSU TRAINING
Major General Miljenko Filipović served with distinction in the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment of the French Foreign Legion. When it became clear that the Serb dominated YPA would invade Croatia with the aim of forcing the Croatian government to cede one third of its territory to Serbia Filipović offered his services to the nascent Croatian army. He became the commander of the Zrinski Battalion and later the commander of the 1st Croatian Guards Corps. In the first phase of the war the situation on every front was critical and the Zrinski Battalion was in action, without respite, throughout the whole period. At that time Grbavac showed up: ”As a former instructor of martial arts in the French Foreign Legion I immediately recognized the value of what Grbovac was demonstrating. He made my life a lot easier because he took over as the main martial arts instructor and I could focus on my other numerous duties, which was of utmost importance because the combat missions were getting progressively more complex and dangerous. I knew the value of the Jiu Jitsu training. Of course, the training sessions were modified according to the wartime needs of the Special Forces… The Black Dragon version of Jiu Jitsu helped us immensely during that period in the sense that it gave our soldiers exactly what they, at that particular time, needed: a martial, or rather, warrior skill which enabled them to be aggressive and defeat the enemy and, equally important, to acquire and nurture a true warrior spirit. Through Jiu Jitsu the soldiers learned to find additional reserves of energy, willpower and strength when utterly physically exhausted and defeat the enemy. Sweat saves blood and tears is an age old maxim of warriors. It is really ageless and is applicable to every armed force in the world. Efficiency of any given unit as a whole depends of the state of physical and mental preparedness of each individual soldier. I can say with utmost pride that the members of the Zrinski Battalion, and later the 1st Croatian Guards Corps were always in peak physical condition, capable of accomplishing every mission. Time and again they proved that during the Croatian War of Independence.”
THE MANNER, PURPOSE AND MEANING OF JIU JITSU TRAINING IN CROATIAN ARMY
Ante Vukadin succinctly explained the method: ”There is no competition, and therefore no winners and losers in the military Jiu Jitsu training. Everyone does everything. Three times a soldier attacks, his partner defends. Then they switch roles. Again, no winners, no losers. There is no sense that one student is better than any other…Now, the instructor has to tread a fine line… he has to bring his students to the edge of what they can endure, physically and mentally, but he must never touch that line, let alone cross it. Pain tolerance and stress tolerance have to be built up gradually, regardless of whether some students start a course with higher thresholds to pain and stress than others. A good instructor knows his students and maintains the balance, keeping everyone at the same stage of progress… Once we held an exercise with Military Policemen. They had to hide from tracker dogs. Later we used the same dogs in the Jiu Jitsu training to put additional pressure on the students. We did the usual things: throwing, choking, defending against knife attack, defending against a choke…and I used the dogs to put the students under additional stress. I’d have a dog on a leash and I’d allow it to come very close to a guy defending against a ground choke. The idea was to induce the defender to get out of the chokehold as soon as possible and move away from the dog. With one student I let the routine go too far. The dog’s barking and my threats were simply too much for the guy to take. He did get out of the choke though, but then he pointed his knife at the dog and viciously yelled at me: ”Let the damn dog have it! Let the fucking dog on me now!” At that point I realized I’d gone too far. I ignored his outburst and calmly announced: ”Stop this, we’re moving on to another exercise” and I ordered all of them to start doing an easier exercise. Everyone completed it successfully, the training session ended and everyone left in a good mood. And that is exactly what this type of training is all about: to bring a man to the brink of what he can take. Again, the instructor has to be very careful to prevent the situations like the one I just described from happening but even if something like that does occur the instructor has to shift the focus and make everyone leave the training session content, with a sense of accomplishment.”
JIU JITSU THROUGH THE FATE OF ANTE VUKADIN
Vukadin was one of the best performing soldiers attending the first commando course (only 18 out of 44 soldiers completed the course). On the Jiu Jitsu course he was again among the best but due to unlucky circumstances he did not earn a black belt at that time. He did not show up for the first black belt testing because he was on a combat mission during which he was wounded. The second testing he missed because he was on the frontline and prior to the third testing he broke his leg in three places during a parachute landing fall. However, nothing could deter him. Despite his multiple physical disabilities he did not give up and attained a third degree black belt. He opened his own Jiu Jitsu school and teaches the martial art, just like Batur and Saavedra. ”Had I possessed the mental make-up of Jiu Jitsu in the besieged town of Kostajnica I would have never surrendered with the others. But, I was only 19 years old at the time… later I was wounded twice. Both times Jiu Jitsu techniques saved my life. The first time, we were attacking enemy bunkers on the southern front…I got hit in the leg, the impact actually dislocated the bone some 20 centimeters. As soon as I felt the pain the training kicked in – I rolled backwards and continued to execute backward rolls until I found myself in a ditch, protected from enemy fire…The other time a local criminal tried to kill me, in a public place. From the corner of my eye I saw this guy moving towards me, holding a gun and slowly raising it. Had I tried to run he would have shot me. I acted reflexively. I grabbed him by the throat but he managed to fire a round. It hit me in the ear. He made a step back and aimed at my face. I managed to grab him again and that bullet hit me in the hand, passing right through the palm. He kept firing… He fired 6 more shots. One hit my collar bone, another my groin area and the four others missed me…I kept executing rolls, trying to spoil his aim while he ran after me. When he finally caught up with me he took careful aim and I used that split second to punch him twice and throw him to the ground. So, rolls saved my life twice. But I still hate them. Anyway, I would not have survived that attack had I not used Jiu Jitsu techniques. I must have made about ten rolls and then I played possum, waiting for the guy to come near and waste some time to take aim. Then I used what I had learned and incapacitated him…”
REMEMBERING FRANJO TUĐMAN
Grbavac, as chief of security of Franjo Tuđman, shadowed the president everywhere he went. In the popular mind Tuđman is perceived as having been a heartless and cold person but the perception is wrong. Everyone working in the president’s security detail can attest that Tuđman was exactly the opposite of insensitive and uncaring. The president took good care of everyone in his entourage, including his bodyguards. He often interrupted his meetings to ask the body guards whether they were hungry or thirsty or needed anything. Tuđman was an emotional person. Vukadin, who was part of the security team protecting Gojko Šušak, has told me how Tuđman, when flying over Vukovar with Jacques Klein, could not choke back tears when he looked down on Ovčara – but his face remained glued to the window until he managed to suppress his emotions, lest anyone else saw his tears. After Tuđman’s death some people started propagating the theory that he had been hated by the Croatian people. But, the facts paint a different picture. Tuđman was never averse to pulling a fast one on his security detail so that he could be in direct contact with people. And people loved and appreciated him. During one of the president’s visit to Split the bodyguards’ suits suffered significant damage while trying to contain the enthusiastic crowd who wanted to get closer to Tuđman. The most interesting anecdote concerning Tuđman’s disregard for his own safety took place during Bill Clinton’s short visit to Croatia. Grbavac was assigned to Clinton’s security detail as coordinator. The security was extremely tight. Even the personnel of the American embassy in Zagreb were cordoned off. But, as soon as the plane landed Tuđman dispensed with protocol and walked to the crowd to shake hands and exchange a few sentences with people. Clinton, always quick on the uptake and sensitive to being upstaged, followed Tuđman’s suit, to the obvious chagrin and consternation of his bodyguards. Tuđman was a brave man, authoritative statesman and charismatic leader – qualities his successors conspicuously lack. During the negotiations on peaceful reintegration Tuđman traveled to Beli Manastir to talk to the leaders of Croatian Serbs there. When he showed up they all hung their heads, astounded by his bravery and cowed by his authority. In the meantime a large number of belligerent Serbs gathered in front of the building, shouting threats and insults to Tuđman. Tuđman stepped out of the building, confronted the crowd and started arguing with the most vocal of the protesters. He refused to back down, despite the frantic pleas from his bodyguards. Eventually Mile Čuk practically dragged him away to safety. Tuđman was never afraid to assert his authority on people way more important in the scheme of things than a bunch of self-styled leaders of crazed mobs. For example, when Tuđman told Jacques Klein that he intended to visit Vukovar by train Klein got all bent out of shape, trying to dissuade Tuđman from the idea, arguing that the train was bound to be attacked. Tuđman put a stop to further arguing by simply telling Klein: ”I am informing you of my decision, not asking for your permission. End of discussion, end of story.”