A Love Letter
From A Blood Letter
Written by Erik Rasmussen
Photography by Kenneth Cappello
“Ice Cream” Kron is sitting mat-side at Kron Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Culver City, California, where for the past five years he’s been the head instructor. His motto, “Keep cool under pressure,” is printed on the wall. He’s finished the first of the day’s training sessions. His wrists, fingers, ankles and knees, even his biceps, are taped. He’s surrounded by an array of liquids: bottled waters, sparkling and still; a recovery shake; Gatorade, roughly the equivalent in volume to the sweat dripping from his face and arms, gathering in pools around his toes. “If you only reward yourself for winning, then you have no value when you lose,” he says. “For me, the most important thing about Jiu-Jitsu is to gain a deeper understanding of the techniques, and through them a deeper understanding of myself. That takes away the emotional need to win, and to become a champion. The art becomes pure. I don’t have the attachment that I used to have. I did that my whole life. And slowly, it killed me. It took away from my soul, and I didn’t become my best. If I lost I thought, ‘Fuck, I let everybody down.’ And if I won, ‘Thank God!’ It was a roller coaster. My happiness depended on one day of competition. But the reality is, that didn’t matter.”
Though I didn’t know it then, I’d first seen Kron on another bootlegged VHS cassette — Robert Rapheal Goodman’s 1999 film, Choke, which documented Kron’s father, Rickson, preparing and participating in a full-contact combat tournament in Japan. In the opening scene, Rickson is in bed surrounded by his four small children when Kron, the youngest, attacks him with a surprisingly well-executed arm bar. In the film, Rickson goes on to win the tournament, submitting all four opponents via rear naked-choke. Hence the film’s title.
“When I was a little kid, I thought, ‘My dad is a great fighter. So I’m going to be a great fighter, too.’” Admittedly, Kron was more likely to be found skateboarding in the parking lot outside his father’s school than sweating it out on the mats with his students. “One day my brother [Rockson] told me, ‘put your energy into something 100 percent. You can do whatever you want. But right now you have the opportunity to learn Jiu-Jitsu from the best. You have the best resources.’ He told me that and then he passed away.” Kron’s about halfway through peeling the tape from his wrists. “Fuck man, I wanted to do this for my brother, because he’d be proud. I wanted to do it for my dad because he didn’t have my brother anymore to represent the family.”
Kron put down the skateboard and put on the gi. At 19 years old, he earned his black belt from his father. That was the last time they trained together. “My dad has the best foundation, and everything I have comes from it. But I had to find my own answers. I had to develop on my own, physically and spiritually. That’s the natural order.
“I was good at Jiu-Jitsu,” Kron continues, “but I needed to work harder. And not blame anybody for my mistakes. When I did that, I started to see results. I started to win. Then I started to get money and to get everything that I thought was important. But I realized it was making me more unhappy. So what made me happy? Do I have to attach myself to winning for my father, my brother, and for my grandfather? No, I had to find another way.” But ways have a tendency to find Kron.
A few years ago, Kron sat down to breakfast. Pancakes, maple syrup and coffee. It was a normal morning until he felt nauseated. “Sick to my stomach,” is how he tells it today. “I ran outside and started to hallucinate.” There, in the California sun, he collapsed. He saw moments from his life appear as pictures; his family, his trophies, his travels. All the while he’s thinking, “Oh shit, I’m going to die.” The pictures shrunk to little square frames, lined up, and stacked like an iPhoto mosaic, revealing a larger, singular image. “Don’t die! Don’t die,” he pleaded with himself. A light broke through the pictures, clear and bright and all-consuming. Then there was nothing. Kron was dead.
“I was gone for a long time,” he recalls. When he woke up, he was choking on vomit. A friend was kneeling over him, pumping his chest.
The science around the moment of death is fuzzy. When exactly does the mortal coil spring? What’s the point of no return? And then there’s the philosophical implications of “remembering” what-all happened after death settled in. What does the recollecting: the physical brain, or something immaterial? The immediate question concerning Kron’s personal death at the time was the same as yours or mine now: What the hell just happened?
“I still don’t know what caused that. If I had been in a car accident it would’ve been easier to [mentally] come back from,” Kron says of the experience. “I’ve climbed mountains. I fight to the death. It didn’t make any sense. I was just going to die at breakfast like that, on a normal day?”
His sweat is nearly dry now. He’s finished his recovery drinks. Once in awhile he stretches a part of his body that’s cooling too quickly. He doesn’t remember what happened on the other side of the light, but something in his mind had turned on — an epiphany, is how he describes it. “We’re all from the same energy, before and after life,” he says with considerably more enthusiasm than he’s had for any discussion about Jiu-Jitsu technicalities. “As a physical form, we have the illusion that we’re separate from each other. But we’re the same. Us, the environment: it’s one energy. You can live with this energy, or you can separate yourself in a duality, where you don’t care about the world or yourself — you just live for money, for this or that, and you self-destruct.”
Kron says that a few realizations upon returning from, well, whatever happened on that sun-soaked lawn outside his pancake breakfast, effected real changes in what he’s begun to see as an infinite journey. “I honestly don’t think I’m going to be here for long,” he says. “I realized I’d been living my whole life filled with resentment, carrying it with me every day. There were so many people who thought that I had a problem with them. And I didn’t, it’s just that our energies didn’t make sense at the time.” He describes a process of reaching out to those presumed scorned, ringing them on the phone. “Hey man, I’m sorry. I want to square things up,” he told them. “You don’t have to be my friend, just understand it’s all good. I love you.”
This, of course, was not what I’d expected from an interview with Kron Gracie. I’d come to talk about armbars and chokes, what sweeps he uses most frequently, and the tricks he’s got up his sleeve. How has the fight game changed since his father was king? And if he could fight anybody, who would it be? I’m a Jiu-Jitsu buff, and I wanting to geek out with Jiu-Jitsu royalty.
But the bigger questions — what really matters? What makes you happy? How much did you take advantage of each day? How much did you love? — these were the magesteria Kron was going to discuss, whether or not he was asked. Martial arts 101: play your game, not the other fellow’s.
“When I almost died that day,” Kron continues, “all I could think was, the love that you leave here is the only thing that matters.”
Kron loves love. Love is what he’s after. “I know what that is for me, and I know that it’s not going to be tricks,” he says. “It’s not going to involve things that will get me to feel low. Truth is, in the beginning we have great relationships because we don’t expect shit from each other. Keep it that way as you grow, it becomes natural. The moment we start expecting stuff, and trying to change each other, it becomes bitterness, and that grows, too. I’ve got girlfriends all over the world, and I tell them, ‘Love is free, and I’m loving to you, and I’m loving to anybody who is loving back. If I can give it, I will give it, but I’m not going to control you, and I’m not going to be controlled by you. I’m not going to become something that you want me to be, because I’m much more. I’m light.’”
It’s the same with women as with men, and with his Jiu-Jitsu students, Kron explains. “Relationships can be based on control and manipulation, or they can be based on love. If it’s real love, it’s easy. If it’s anything else …”
You can live with this energy, or you can separate yourself in a duality, where you don’t care about the world or yourself — you just live for money, for this or that, and you self-destruct.
For example, around the time his friend Nate Diaz inked a contract to fight in UFC 196, Kron had been drinking daily. He wanted to stay in the house and just not move. “I was super fucking depressed,” he says plainly. “Nathan called me up. ‘Dude, I’m fighting Conor McGregor.’ And I was like, boom, ‘I guess I gotta get out of my depression. Right now. And go train with him. I have to do it because I love him, and that’s the most important thing.’ It wasn’t difficult,” he says. “At that time you could have offered me $50,000 to do something and I would have said ‘no,’ but driving six hours north for nightmarishly hard training sessions was easy because I have that feeling for Nate.”
Kron is right, the love you leave behind matters. It’s what the world needs now. Especially when you consider, which Kron does, the state of environmental health and what that means to future generations, not just to Gracies, or to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s legacy, but to everybody. There’s a more concrete and objective component to what is actually “left” when Kron talks about love and the leaving of it.
Insofar as energy is eternal, Kron realized we are immortal. We’re put in this physical stage of life as if in a movie. He was put here through the conditions of the Gracie family, by what his grandfather, his father, and his brother left. “What’s really important is the environment. Oceans, the trees, those are parts of us,” says Kron. “I love my art. I love competing. I love expressing myself, but I can’t just do that, and then watch the earth get destroyed. What is my purpose if I become the best, if I become everything I want to be, but then my nephew and the next generation doesn’t have a next generation? If I can be good energy, that’s the least I can do. I was put in this situation to make a change,” he says. “It’s been coming for a hundred years.”
As Kron walks me to the door, shirtless, shoeless, with the tape’s adhesive still clinging to his arm, I could’ve been leaving a BJJ training session: unsure what exactly went down, controlled and submitted — choked out of my interview — and feeling the better for it.
“The last thing I want to talk about is Jiu-Jitsu,” Kron says.