« The Circle » of the pioneers

BJJ : Stories and trivia of the French early beginnings

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They were 8 of them in the last century. They are thousands today. The number of BJJ followers has been steadily developping for the last 20 years in France. It all started in the « Cercle Tissier », near Paris, where those pioneers had invited Rickson Gracie. We are in 1995. The French lacked a guide. They docked to the international Brazilian Jiu Jitsu flagship. The French BJJ was launched. Flashback on and with the glorious elders of the European Jiu Jitsu.


By Ludovic Mauchien



September 1995 is a big date for the French BJJ. It corresponds to its 1st school start. They were a dozen, with all types of backgrounds, mainly Judo and wrestling. A few months before, they had attended Rickson Gracie seminars held in the « Cercle Tissier », in Vincennes (near Paris). They had discovered technical subtleties that whetted their martial appetite.

They thus decided to go further in the discovery of this new art, that revolutionized the planet throughout the 1st UFCs in 1993 with Mister Rickson himself. The 1st BJJ class in France was held in the same Academy that hosted him, the « Cercle Tissier », under the leadership of Guy Mialot and, above all, Christian Derval, the Academy owner, who is deceased today.

« My father had discovered BJJ by watching the 1st UFC’s with Christian Tissier (8th Dan in Aikido) », tells today Aurelien Broussal-Derval, Christian’s son. « He knew the Gracie style. He felt he was looking at something he already knew. He was always saying to me, as all the long time Judokas : « this is simply some Judo ». But when he saw Rickson working on the mat, my father saw that it was finer than Judo in postures, placements and, of course, submissions, and above all, in their making. He dearly loved working on the ground. He then realized that he was missing something very important ».


1996, a squad of fearless go to Brazil…


History has started. Under Christian Derval initiatives, the group grows. As soon as the following summer, a squad of fearless chooses to go to Brazil for a few weeks. The French needed to see, to watch, to learn, to understand, to grapple… During their stay, they even participate to the 1st World championships held in Rio. Once they come back from Brazil, they are even more motivated by improving their Jiu Jitsu.

September 1996. 2nd French BJJ school start. The pioneers are in the starting blocks. Christian Derval, Guy Mialot, Eric Lavigne, Thierry Rijvas, Daniel Quoniam, Gilles Arsene, Thierry Richevasse, Gael Coadic, Mathieu Nicourt, Aziz Cherigui, David Giorsetti, Patrick Bittan, Jovan Zerjal, Alain Nagera, who are the very first pioneers, will then wave Rickson Gracie Academy’s flag.

But, in France, they are quite forsaken. They however need to assimilate techniques, to structure their learning. In order to do so, in 1997, Christian Derval invites Elio Soneca, a running world champion.

With the freshly founded federation, he organizes the 1st national championships. Almost 200 people are registered ! The fighters’ profiles are very wide… « It was the very beginning, nobody was really coming from BJJ », remembers Patrick Bittan, today’s highest ranking Jiujitsuka in Europe (4th Dan). « There were some Judokas, some guys from Pancrace, some wrestlers who broke our neck, and some boxers… It was the very beginning of the UFC. To practice BJJ in France, you had to go to the « Cercle Tissier ». We were 40 of us to train. Each of us came with his martial knowledge. Everyone wanted to pass the lock, the choke, the new technique that we had just learnt ».


« We were the 1st to beat the Brazilians »


In 1997, French are already battle-hardened. In the summer, the team that lands in Brazil is sharpened. « 15 of us left for Rio with Guy Mialot », tells Patrick Bittan. « We were staying at the 1st Alliance Team, with Fabio Gurgel, Jacare, Ricardo and Leo Viera, Terere… We stayed there for 2 weeks. We trained 3 times a day, on morning, afternoon and evening. Each randori (training fight) was war. We were learning on the job : open guard, half guard… It was like : « what is it ? What is that ? ». We lived in Spartan conditions. We slept on tatamis. We had cold showers… And, in addition to learn a sport, we had a big challenge : to fight Brazilians in Brazil during the World championships. 2 or 3 of us won their 1st round, which was incredible at that time. We were the 1st to beat the Brazilians. This trip was a great, great human adventure ! ».

In France, things evolve very quickly. Soon, some 20 academies are created alongside the « Tissier Circle ». The National championships host more and more people, still with various martial profiles.

Thanks to the hosting of several champions’ seminars in France (Paolo Caruso, Roberto Traven, Jacare, Romolo Barros, Rickson Gracie’s right-hand man…) and the now annual trips to Brazil, the French Jiu Jitsukas have been improving very fast.

A new generation is already showing up. The Fernandez brothers, Emmanuel and Frederic, Laurence Cousin, David-Pierre Louis… Everybody works alongside, goes to Brazil to train with great experts and champions. But, mainly, their progress is slowed down because of a lack of informations and method.


« In 1998, in the US, at Rickson Gracie’s »


« At that time, everything was locked », reminds Patrick Bittan. « Internet didn’t exist and the Brazilians didn’t want to share a lot of things. In 1998, I decided to go to the US, in Rickson Gracie’s Academy ».

On the whole, he is going to stay around 18 months there. Through the classes and the tournaments, he learns a lot. He takes many annotations and writes as much as he can about his learnings.

« As soon as I was coming on the mat, the Brazilians stopped training. They leaned against the wall and started to talk together. I was not a Brazilian… So, I decided to write in a notebook each technique I learnt and this, everyday. I was even writing my feeling. I had to pick up ideas. I had to bring back a technical program. I was lucky that I could write all the belt programs ».

Back to France, he shares all his writings and drawings with Christian Derval and the federation. The French now get a tool to polish their BJJ, to better catch up their art. But things get hotter with Rickson Gracie. The French BJJ becomes orphaned from any international references. Not for so long…


Behring, the Brazilian reference for French BJJ


Aurelien Broussal-Derval, who of course belongs to the story (he is now 1st Dan in Judo and 3rd degree in BJJ) tells : « Patrick Bittan presented Flavio Behring to my father. They both hit it off. They had the same vision of BJJ, which was one quite martial. And, also, Flavio was one of the few Brazilians that was open to a technical program which corresponds better to the European way, more characterized by Judo. But, when he showed up at the « Cercle » with his Sean Connery’s face for his 1st seminar, I hated what he offered ! It was not my Jiu Jitsu at all. It was only self defense. It was old BJJ.

We quarrelled a lot with my father about this. He was telling me that he was working on changing Flavio’s perception. That’s what happened. Flavio redirected his classes to answer our needs. He was the Brazilian reference we expected. He is one of the 1st students of Helio Gracie ! ».

At the dawn of the XXIst century, the French BJJ is now well launched, even if no one has yet got his black belt. We will have to wait the year 2001 to see the 1st Europeans to receive the prestigious distinction, Christian Derval, Patrick Bittan and Alain Nagera. Thierry Rijvas and Jovan Zerjal will follow them in 2002, Aziz Cherigui and David Giorsetti in 2004. But this is another story.