Ashton Kutcher is going to demonstrate his jiu-jitsu. It almost sounded like a gag. On the surface, and I’m just being straight here, it seemed like a scenario the writers for Two and Half Men might have cooked up for his show. First off, even the word jiu-jitsu is funny, like some made-up Hollywood version of a legit martial art. Add to that Kutcher himself. Sure, he’s the highest-paid actor on television, a social-media juggernaut, and a hypersuccessful tech entrepreneur, but let’s not forget this is also the perpetually grinning dude who created the MTV prankfest Punk’d, which earned him the honor of being the least-trustworthy man in Hollywood. That guy doing jiu-jitsu? Seemed like a put on, or maybe a scene for an upcoming movie. But that was before I saw Ashton Kutcher put a 250-pound Brazilian man into an elevated choke hold.
He’s still got him there. We’re on the roof of a photo studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where a makeshift platform lined with workout mats has been set up so Kutcher can demonstrate his fighting technique. It’s a nice day for it, for sure, sunny and smog-free, with such heightened visibility you can see the Hollywood sign to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, as if the city has shrunk in scale. But all eyes are on Kutcher and the man whose neck he is presently gripping: Rigan Machado, an eighth-degree red and black belt and former world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which I now appreciate is a very real fighting style. In fact, it’s a favorite of MMA fighters—those who can learn it, anyway, because it’s also one of the trickiest to master. Machado has been training Kutcher for two years. Still, when the actor tells me his master could “kill us with his pinkie,” I know he’s exaggerating: Dude might also have to use his thumb.
Kutcher, 36, first discovered jiu-jitsu while shooting an ad campaign for the fashion brand Colcci in São Paulo, Brazil, a few years ago, when one of his local security guys suggested it as an alternative to the actor’s morning run. Kutcher was a pretty good high school wrestler growing up in Homestead, IA, and he figured his grappling skills were decent enough that he could hold his own. “So I said, ‘What the hell—I’ll do it.’ And I just got my ass handed to me, over and over,” he says. From that moment, he was hooked. “If I go and spar with a guy and I fail, I’ll come back and double down on how I train. I might lose to that guy again, but I won’t lose that way again,” he says. “The weird thing is that I don’t get that much joy out of winning, I just hate losing.”
These days Kutcher has committed so fully to his training that he’s reluctant to do fake moves for the photographer. Elbows and kicks might look great on film, he says, “but people who know will know that they’re seeing a bunch of B.S. that’s not really jiu-jitsu.” So after the next reset, Kutcher decides that he and Machado are gonna keep the sparring authentic—or at least as real as it can be with a British photographer in salmon-colored shorts hovering nearby and yelling “smile on the inside!” In the case of jiu-jitsu, keeping it real means taking the fight to the floor, which is where the sport really lives. “Wrestlers are always fighting to stay on all fours, but in jiu-jitsu that’s actually one of the worst positions you could be in,” says Kutcher. “You’ve got to learn to relax and give up your back to the mat.” The idea is to use the ground as an equalizing force, nullifying the natural advantages of a bigger, stronger opponent. “The first thing I’m going to do in virtually any fight is run,” he says, “but it’s nice to know that if someone comes to take you on, you’ll probably be OK.” Jiu-jitsu is a fighting style built for the underdog, and that’s a role Kutcher likes to play.
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