Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s place in western culture has grown significantly over the last 25 years. What started as a self-defense art form to survive the tough streets of Rio exploded into an international phenomenon hosting major competitions around the world almost weekly. This amount of growth and longevity have produced standout practitioners that either through competition glory, innovation to the sport, or sheer perseverance have become iconic figures. But many of these masters of the craft may not be as recognizable to the everyday fan. One influential figure that is worthy of the spotlight is Renzo Gracie black belt Karel “Silver Fox” Pravec I had a chance to interview him recently in Tampa and got some rolling in afterward.
Upon meeting Karel in person, the first thing you notice is the odd duality of his appearance. His face projects equal parts “caring father” and the rugged facial lines of a man that has been involved in combat athletics for decades. Fully dressed in his “fight trainer” travel attire (jeans and a hooded sweatshirt), his engaging, almost sympathetic smile is the perfect counter-balance to his cauliflower ear, strong and mangled hands, and slightly pronated posture.
His personality is a fast-paced, no-nonsense North Eastern swagger, undoubtedly developed over 20 plus years of big city life in and around Manhattan. An MBA from Columbia and the accompanying corporate banking job make Karel’s level of sophistication and intellect undeniable.
But there is also a more humble and gentle persona. He grew up in Czechoslovakia until he was seventeen under communist-controlled East Europe during the 1970s. “When you have a repressive regime, it really makes you appreciate freedom of speech. Because when you have freedom of speech, you have everything else,” Karel recounted of his time there. His family fled the country to New York after his diplomat father was politically persecuted.
Karel’s martial arts training began in Tae Kwon Do, like most others’ did in the 80s and early 90s. But his attention shifted to jiu-jitsu after attending a seminar taught by Gracie family members Helio, Rorion, Royler, and Rickson in NYC in 1991. Then he began formally training with Craig Kukuk, America’s first BJJ black belt, before finally landing in the famous blue basement under legendary Renzo Gracie. “Renzo is the nicest person on the planet, he’ll do anything for anyone. Literally give you the shirt off his back.”
Training BJJ in the early 90s, pre the current UFC-dominated martial arts world, was a different experience, and listening to a few of Karel’s stories confirms it.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu was viewed as a rogue affront to the traditional martial arts world at that time. So new students didn’t come in to train like their favorite UFC fighter. To the contrary, most times they came to the gym to test the fighting skills they had spent years mastering against this South American Judo style. “I remember some guy stomping on my head, so I held the arm lock on him extra long. Then he threw up right off the mat,” Karel casually mentioned when asked about those early sessions. Back then, most live rolling included strikes. So proving jiu-jitsu’s effectiveness to doubting new students was a normal affair.
This is in stark contrast to modern, student-friendly gyms. Today’s schools are usually blessed with well-established intro curriculums and a more sport-centric training philosophy.
Coming up in the early days in American BJJ was like the Wild West, and Silver Fox lived through it. But his small frame and fatherly smile can’t completely hide the warrior within. His eyes twinkle while sharing stories of being the enforcer when an outsider walked into his academy to test their skills. “I believe anytime someone is test driving you, you have to do it [tap them out] three times,” says Karel. “First time, you know, it could be a fluke, second time maybe they slipped, but the third time removes any doubt.”
Spending the afternoon with Silver Fox was a truly enjoyable day. It doesn’t take long to realize his understanding of the art of grappling and MMA is at the highest levels. But it’s his genuine warmth as a human being that proves to be his most engaging attribute — a trait he displays crystal clear when asked about his thoughts on new students wanting to train MMA.
“I won’t ever tell a new guy that he should do MMA. I don’t care how good they would be at it. Too much damage. It’s not worth it,” he says. “If they come to me and ask, I’ll coach them because I want them to be ready, but I’ll never point them in that direction.”
Finally, when I rolled with Silver Fox, the same duality of his personality displays in his jiu-jitsu: a very flowing, open-guard style, relaxing and playful, but constantly leading into one aggressive submission after the next. He practices his art the same way he lives his life, smiling like a cherub-cheeked Zen Master, calm and welcoming, but always ready to prove where he came from if needed.
Silver Fox should be on every young grappler’s radar because he is a true representation of the best our art has to offer. A black belt tested enough to be able to demand others recognize him, but wise enough to know it’s not important that they do.