Capoeira is the only martial art created by slaves, and in its more acrobatic version, it looks like a precursor to break dancing. Groups would gather in a roda (circle) with instruments, in particular a berimbau (a single-stringed musical bow). Two players would face off in the center of the circle and begin a ritualized dance that led to a contest of sweeping kicks and gymnastic flips, the goal being to outmaneuver one's opponent. According to legend, the circle served to shield the combat training from the eyes of the slave owners, who, if they came closer, would find the fighters pretending to be dancing.
It is a beautiful art, but one better suited to shorter, more muscular frames than mine, so I wasn't crushed when several attempts to arrange a lesson ended in failure. I turned instead to Brazilian jujitsu, which has its own fascinating history.
In pursuit of its colonial strategy, imperial Japan exported hundreds of thousands of workers across the world with a special focus on South America and Brazil, where at least 190,000 settled between 1908 and 1941. The vast majority were agricultural workers, but a few cultural ambassadors were also dispatched. One was Mitsuyo Maeda, an expert in traditional Japanese judo and jujitsu who had developed a style that focused on ground fighting and submission holds, and he promoted it through open challenge matches. His most prominent Brazilian student was Carlos Gracie, whose descendants would blow the collective mind of the American martial arts community with the dominance they displayed in the early years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Japan's impact on Brazilian culture can be seen in Rio's dozens of judo and jujitsu schools, which are very popular with middle-class Brazilian teenage boys.
I decided on a school in Barra Shopping, about 20 miles from the city center, because it's one of the biggest malls in South America, roughly equivalent in size to Rocinha favela, and a little window-shopping always cheers me up after being on the receiving end of a good thrashing. And, let me tell you, when I walked into the jujitsu class in Companhia Athletica's vast health-and-wellness center, the eyes of six Brazilian teenagers lit up like slot machines. Here was an honest-to-goodness American that they could tie into painful knots without any fear of repercussions.
Before I go on, I suppose I should dispense with a common misconception. Brazilian jujitsu has been called the "gayest sport" in the world by none other than the writing staff of Emily's Reasons Why Not in the show's first—and last—episode. This is no doubt because Brazilian jujitsu's two most important positions—"the guard" and "the mount"—are, according to the Kama Sutra, "missionary" and "cowgirl," respectively. However, Brazilian jujitsu can't be the most homoerotic sport because that honor belongs to pankration, an ancient Greek (natch) Olympic sport in which two contestants fought each other in brutal no-holds-barred matches while completely naked. Furthermore, when your arm is being bent to the breaking point or your neck is being choked to the point of unconsciousness, sex is the last thing on your mind.
As Luis twisted me into the kind of stress positions employed by interrogators at Gitmo, my mind focused on how much better I used to be at martial arts before the injuries and the Big Macs. Clawing at Luis' arm as his grip tightened around my throat, I briefly played with the idea that my situation was not unlike Ronaldo's, minus the fame, the tens of millions of dollars, and the talent. After tapping out, I mentally apologized to the big guy for making fun of him.
When class was over, I wandered around Barra Shopping, watching the charming, stylish, beautiful, friendly, and completely unselfconscious Brazilians buy their luxury goods. I imagined them rushing back to their apartments overlooking Ipanema Beach. And I changed my mind about something. Up until that moment I had been convinced by A.A. Gill's argument that Italian males had won life's lottery, but no longer. If I ever decide to lead a good and productive life, and upon my death God asks me what I want to be reincarnated as, I will tell him, "A wealthy Carioca, preferably a footballer."