10th degree red belts are reserved for the true pioneers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Only a few have ever been awarded, and all to members of the Gracie family. This would be completely understandable and acceptable if the Gracie family had a monopoly on the spread of the art. However, there is at least one other man who truly pushed the art forward that is often left out of the BJJ histories.
Oswaldo Fadda (1921-2005), was a true pioneer of the art who learned Jiu-Jitsu from the same source as Carlos and Helio, and at around the same time. Mitsuyo Maeda, who had the nickname “Conde Koma” (Count Combat) is the Judoka who first began to instruct the Gracies. At the same time, he also taught a man named Luis Franca, who introduced Oswaldo Fadda to Jiu-Jitsu, just as Carlos Gracie introduced Helio.
Fadda was a poor man who lived in the slums of Rio. After receiving his black belt from Franca, he began teaching classes free of charge in unorthodox locations such as parks, the beach, etc. Because he was lacking funds, he had to advertise his school in the obituary section of the local newspaper.
As time went on, Fadda became well-known for his use of leg-locks. At the time, leg-locks were very looked down upon in the grappling martial arts, often being referred to ad the “dirty little thief” of submissions. The Gracie schools at the time even referred to them as “suburban” techniques, in order to imply that they were techniques for the poor and lower class individuals.
Eventually, Fadda issued a challenge to Helio Gracie’s school. He famously stated, “We wish to challenge the Gracies. We respect them as the formidable adversaries they are, but we do not fear them. We have 20 pupils ready for the challenege.” It was a bold statement for the time, and continues to be popularized. Helio accepted Fadda’s challenge and set up the matches at his own school.
Fadda’s team emerged victorious, winning 19 of the 20 matches. Most were said to be won by the use of leg locks. Witnesses to the events stated that Helio’s students would shout “sapateiro” at Fadda’s students when they would attempt a leg lock. It translates to “cobbler”, which was considered a poor man’s occupation. It is rumored that this is why reaping the knee remains illegal in competitions today; that it is a left-over rule made after the Gracie school’s loss to Fadda.
It is also said that Fadda and Helio also grappled, with Fadda being the first person to submit Helio. That said, the story is obviously disputed. The Gracie lineage denies that this ever occurred, while the Fadda lineage vehemently defends it as the truth. So take it as you will.
After winning the challenge, Fadda claimed to have ended the Gracie monopoly of Jiu-Jitsu. Helio stated, “All you need is one Fadda to show that Jiu-Jitsu is not the Gracie’s privilege.” It is said that the challenge was reissued, but the second time by Helio, with similar results. However, there is little information to support this claim. It seems likely (from the information I have been able to gather) that if a second challenge ever occurred, it was unofficial; but it appears as though that story is probably not based in true events.
As time wore on, the Fadda lineage grew weak. The Gracie lineage exploded with the popularization of BJJ in the United States. However, one of Carlson Gracie’s students, Pederneiras, eventually joined schools with one of Fadda’s Students, Wendell Alexander, to create Nova Uniao, which remains strong today. One of the most notable people with Fadda’s lineage would be Rodolfo Vieira, a four time world champion.
Today, though Fadda has passed away, he is without a 10th degree ranking. To many, myself included, it seems unfair that he be excluded from this honor. Fadda truly was a pioneer of the art. He brought it to those who were too poor to go anywhere else. He gave it freely. He defended it and promoted it wherever he went. Fadda deserves to have the honor posthumously bestowed upon him for all he has done for the art.