One Hundred Years of arm bars
A family epic spanning the Gracie jiu-jitsu dynasty’s generations of
combat and betrayal,
from the Amazon to Hollywood to the UFC
Gracies Versus Everybody
Many years later, as he stood amid a haze of dry ice in a half-full arena in Portland, Oregon, Roger Gracie imagined the afternoon on the Amazon River when his grandfather Carlos Gracie was introduced to Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese judo master who would instruct Carlos and his brothers in the art of throwing a man to the ground, then using leverage to render him helpless and senseless. Roger had heard the story dozens, if not hundreds, of times, told over and over by members of his formidable bloodline: In that encounter, which took place shortly before World War I in the Brazilian rubber boomtown of Belém, the most powerful and influential fighting style in the world was born.
Gracie jiu-jitsu, as their version of Maeda’s teachings came to be known, was at once so technically precise and capable of such rapid evolution that it gave rise to the greatest family dynasty in the history of the martial arts. In the century that followed, three generations of Gracies took on champions of the arts of karate, boxing, kickboxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and other styles of hand-to-hand combat on the biggest stages they could find, and they consistently emerged victorious. In 1993, Rórion Gracie founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a way to spread Gracie jiu-jitsu to North America, inspiring the rise of mixed martial arts.
The question of whether the beauty and power of the family’s art was worth the tremendous cost it has extracted from the Gracies haunted Roger’s childhood, as it haunted the childhood of his mother, Reila. Like generations of Gracie black belts before him, the only way Roger knows how to answer that question is in the ring. As the grandson of Carlos Gracie, the grandnephew of Hélio Gracie, and the nephew of Rickson Gracie — who is widely considered to be the greatest champion of any style of martial arts in the past 50 years — Roger carries the burden of his family history with him wherever he goes, even if his aquiline features and soulful brown eyes seem more appropriate for a Byronic poet or an underwear model than a modern-day cage fighter.
Gracie jiu-jitsu can be understood as a physically brutal form of psychoanalysis. Weaker positions offer powerful leverage, dominant positions are revealed to be traps, and the price of clinging to one’s illusions is relentlessly exposed.
The global popularity of MMA, which has carried the DNA of Gracie jiu-jitsu to every corner of the planet, has also increased the burden on the family champions to live up to their habitual claims of technical and moral superiority. The last Gracie to demonstrate his preeminence in the ring was Rickson, who did so before a packed house at the Tokyo Dome on May 26, 2000, in a lavish spectacle meant to suggest the evolution of Japan’s martial arts past into the science-fiction-like future of global combat. Rickson’s opponent, a catch wrestler named Funaki, entered the packed arena through a brace of lit torches, dressed like a samurai and carrying a sheathed sword toward a silver structure that resembled a Funkadelic spaceship. Rickson followed Funaki into the ring, his face draped in a white executioner’s hood.
Photo: Getty Images
Perhaps because he was feeling overconfident, Rickson left himself open early in the bout and fell victim to a guillotine choke. Realizing he had made a terrible mistake, the Brazilian grabbed Funaki’s wrist and pulled down, keeping his opponent from completing the maneuver. Funaki then straightened his back, twisted Rickson’s neck, and threw him to the ground. Lying on the mat, the stunned champion failed to bring his hands up to protect his face, and Funaki stood over him, landing hard punches to both of his eyes. The blow to Rickson’s right eye broke his orbital bone. The Japanese fighter began to kick his prone opponent like a schoolyard bully, while the crowd roared in appreciation of the local hero’s dominance over the Gracies.
Funaki’s kicks were humiliating and painful, but they also gave Rickson time to recover. Blocking the kicks with his feet, and kicking back to keep the Japanese fighter at a distance, Rickson waited until his vision began to return. Gathering his strength, he tensed his body and leaped backward, landed on his feet, blinked twice, and then rushed at Funaki. Rickson fought back with a Homeric rage that made him appear to move with irresistible strength and speed through his opponent’s defenses. Flipping Funaki onto his back in the center of the ring, Rickson sat on top of him, caught his breath, and started striking him in the kidneys. He then grabbed the Japanese fighter’s arm, pulled it around Funaki’s neck, and began to choke him with it. As his opponent weakened, Rickson embraced Funaki from behind and wrapped his legs around his torso. Trapping Funaki’s neck in the crook of his arm, Rickson squeezed his forearm and biceps together. Funaki’s eyes widened, he thrashed for a moment, and then he passed out.
In postfight interviews, Rickson offered an unusually frank description of his approach to the art that his family invented, and which he practiced on a higher level than any fighter before or since. Professing his respect for the Japanese samurai philosopher Musashi, Rickson observed: “He lived a detached life, where his only aims in life were for the sake of fighting, the sake of winning, or for the sake of escaping death.” But Rickson made it clear that he rejected Musashi’s self-abnegating philosophy. Rather, he drew his strength from an ethic of absolute self-centeredness, which allowed him to feel and perceive every moment of his own existence with the greatest intensity and clarity. “If the center of the universe is not you,” he explained, “then you can’t say it is your life that you are living.”
Punch him in the fucking face!!
Somebody hit somebody in the face!!!
On this Saturday night in Portland, about three years ago, perhaps 10,000 paying customers have come out to watch a Strikeforce event — the MMA equivalent of a Triple-A ballgame. In this setting, fighters with extraordinary skills stand out, even if most of the customers are drawn to the sport for lizard-brain pleasures like the sight of human blood spilled on canvas, rather than the artistry of a perfect reverse De La Riva. At the edge of the area floor, behind a curtain, Roger Gracie throws tight combinations into the fog-machine-generated mist. Soon, the curtain will open and he will walk into the octagon, where most of the spectators will hate him on sight.
To understand the force and beauty of Roger’s jiu-jitsu, the first thing to understand is that, technically speaking, there is nothing to write home about. Roger gets around his opponent’s arms or legs, which is called “passing guard,” and then mounts him, usually winding up with an arm bar, cross choke, or other basic choke from the mount or side. Aside from his superior height for a light heavyweight, what makes Roger’s moves different from those I learned during my first year of studying jiu-jitsu is the quality and speed of his anticipation, the product of a chess master’s feel for the endlessly evolving possibilities that are either opened or closed by every tiny shift in positioning between the fighters as they join together in what can best be understood as a single ball of energy. In those moments, it’s like every strand of muscle in Roger’s body is fused with a superfast microprocessor that allows him to not only anticipate all the force vectors that may result from his movements and his opponent’s reactions, but also to anticipate the likely sum of those movements. The result of this processing ability, combined with his technical mastery of positioning, is often 10 or 20 minutes of stasis — two sweaty, grunting men locked together on a mat, which has to be, for the uninitiated, the single most boring sight in sports. Then, without warning, one of them will do something decisive that quickly forces the other to tap his open palm on the mat three times — the alternative being a broken arm, a dislocated knee or shoulder, or being choked unconscious.
A quick review of Roger’s encounters with the champions of his sport will show that he is almost always the one who makes the decisive move; against lesser competitors, he can achieve a winning position in less than a minute. His career-defining performance came at the 2009 Mundials — the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship — where he defeated nine opponents en route to another title as the world’s greatest jiu-jitsu fighter in any weight class. In that tournament, he defeated each opponent with the same move: a paralyzing choke from the mounted position that led the fighter to tap out. Roger’s performance was so memorable that 2010 was considered a down year for him at the Mundials, even though he won the title again — this time by compelling a mere five of his seven opponents to tap out.
Before his bout in Portland, Roger, bobbing, weaving, and hopping in the mist, looks like he is about to vomit from nerves and dehydration. The experience of raw, knee-trembling, paralyzing fear is not what separates great champions from average competitors. Rather, what distinguishes the best fighters is the ability to recognize the exact size and texture of every grain of fear and feel it fully and discretely, while also functioning physically at an elite level. Because fighters are obliged to live with a maximal amount of crippling fear to gain an advantage over their opponents, they rarely seem heroic in the lead-up to a fight. I’ve spent hours in the dressing rooms of both Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva before fights, and neither great UFC champion showed any sign of hyped-up aggression in those moments. St-Pierre, a tactically brilliant welterweight, barely talks, and he suffers from a hyperactive bladder. Silva, the deadliest striker in MMA history, lies on a couch with his knit black wool cap pulled over his eyes; when he gets up, his movements are so slow and his speech so blurry that he appears to have smoked three or four ounces of Maui Wowie.
Carrying around the Gracie myth puts extra weight on Roger’s shoulders and also makes him a more appealing target for opponents. And even though the Gracies invented MMA, probably 80 percent of the family’s trademark jiu-jitsu is useless inside today’s octagon, which is why Roger’s triumphant performances in the 2009 and 2010 Mundials went virtually unnoticed by UFC fans. To jiu-jitsu purists, Roger’s participation in a Strikeforce event is a disfigurement of his family’s technical, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual legacy; the fans in Portland root against him because he is martial arts royalty in a fiercely democratic sport.
Not to disrespect Rickson or anything like that, but come on — you’re 50 years old. Rickson wouldn’t last two minutes in the UFC.” — Dana White
Since its founding by Roger’s uncle, Rórion Gracie, in 1993, the UFC has gone from a one-shot promotional vehicle meant to prove the superiority of Brazilian jiu-jitsu to a billion-dollar combat sport whose global popularity rivals that of boxing. Now owned by two Las Vegas brothers, the Fertittas, in concert with a former Boston fitness trainer and fighting enthusiast named Dana White, the UFC blends Gracie jiu-jitsu with a mélange of punches, kicks, and holds taken from other martial arts. Today, the UFC is regularly watched by millions of pay-per-view customers and broadcast to 150 countries in 22 languages, an audience that is likely to continue expanding thanks to the seven-year broadcast deal the UFC signed with Fox in 2011.
As a rule, the UFC pays lip service to the Gracie family’s impact on MMA. “He is the man who started it all, and we all bow down and kiss the ring of Royce Gracie,” UFC president Dana White said of Roger’s uncle, who won the first UFC tournament in 1993 (and who remains the only Gracie to earn a UFC championship belt). While MMA may have its roots in Gracie jiu-jitsu, White believes that the sport has since evolved into a truly global fighting style. “There is no one fighting style,” White once told me, before a UFC title fight in Las Vegas. “You have to take a little piece of everything and use what works and throw the rest away.” By insisting that their highly structured art is superior to the ever-evolving style of modern MMA, White explained, the Gracies were guilty of hubris, which has condemned the family to near irrelevance in the future of the sport. When I brought up Rickson’s boast that he could defeat any of White’s champions, the promoter shrugged and smiled. “Not to disrespect Rickson or anything like that, but come on — you’re fucking 50 years old,” White answered. “Rickson wouldn’t last two minutes in the UFC.”
‘I Will Represent My Family’
Roger Gracie walks to the ring alone, without slapping palms, without touching anyone, as if even the slightest contact might cost him precious mental or physical energy. Inside the ring, his bald, red-bearded opponent, Keith Jardine, is jumping around like a crazed pirate. On the downswing of his career, Jardine is still dangerous, but in a way that matches up well with Roger’s strengths: Jardine’s wild striking style and shorter reach will require him to come inside, which will give the jiu-jitsu champion opportunities to get him on the ground. It’s worth noting, however, that Jardine is also a jiu-jitsu expert — though hardly of Roger’s caliber — and has never been submitted. Jardine is therefore a decent test of whether Roger, the current Gracie family champion, has a realistic chance of succeeding in the UFC.
Walking the final few feet to the ring, the heir to the Gracie fighting legacy seems lost in thought, nodding his head to a Jay Z song with one particularly apposite couplet: “Look what you made me do / look what I made for you.” The idea that it’s hard being a Gracie might cause the other fighters on tonight’s card to snicker, but it’s nonetheless true.
In 3 Steps:
One of the most basic and effective submission holds in mixed martial arts, the arm bar is a signature move of UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
The bell rings. Jardine opens his hands, inviting Roger to battle. When that doesn’t work, he runs straight at Roger, throwing unruly punches in what appears to be an attempt to overload Roger’s high-speed processor, to catch him with a blow from an unexpected angle. It doesn’t work. Jardine comes in close and Roger catches him, secures a body lock, and takes him to the ground. Applying tremendous pressure with his hips, Roger works his way into a position that allows him to trap Jardine’s right arm, and then he begins punching Jardine in the face. When Jardine raises his arms to protect himself, Roger torques his body so he is sitting astride the other fighter in a position known as full mount. Roger locks down his opponent’s legs, then uses his upper body to drag his opponent toward the middle of the cage, punishing any resistance from Jardine with elbows to the face. It’s a textbook demonstration of jiu-jitsu, whereby superior awareness and technique result in the steady accumulation of leverage, rendering one’s opponent ever more helpless.
Roger goes for a top triangle choke, grabbing for Jardine’s head as the beleaguered fighter edges toward the side of the cage, where the fence might limit Roger’s mobility. In a classical jiu-jitsu tournament, with no wire cage and no time limits, Roger would win this fight easily, but the rules of MMA are structured to reduce the advantages conferred by pure technical mastery. Bleeding heavily from his head, Jardine is saved by the bell.
Having been outfought in the first round, Jardine repeats his losing strategy in the second, rushing at Roger with a flurry of crowd-pleasing lefts and rights. Again, Roger takes Jardine down and tries to trap his arm. Jardine saves his arm, but at the price of exposing his back, which Roger takes. He hooks one leg in and around Jardine’s leg, and then the other leg, neutralizing his opponent’s lower-body strength and assuming a position of painfully superior leverage known as a body triangle. “Roll him over, Keith!” shouts one fan, but Jardine can’t. From that position, even the strongest fighter couldn’t generate enough force to roll Roger over.
As Roger tries to force Jardine’s neck into the crook of his elbow, Jardine manages to twist his torso just enough to escape the final hold and create a few inches of distance between their chests. Jardine uses that space to lean on Roger and push him backward against the fence. Roger is now too high on Jardine’s back for a decisive move, and the blood pouring from Jardine’s face and smeared over his neck makes it even harder to lock in a choke.
“Go, Keith. Kick some ass! Kick that pussy’s ass!” a fan screams at the start of the third round. Roger is clearly fatigued at this point. He seems content to wait for Jardine to rush in so Roger can execute another takedown. Having wised up, Jardine decides to stand and punch. He staggers Roger with a big left hook. Jardine waits perhaps three seconds too long and then hits Roger again. When he comes in again, Roger knees him halfheartedly in the ribs. With a minute to go, Roger hits Jardine with a nice jab, followed by a kick to the body, the last significant blow of the fight. The crowd howls and boos as the judges’ scores are announced: 29-27, 30-27, 30-26, in favor of Roger Gracie.
In the dressing room, the victor looks pale — exhausted but unmarked, like someone who had survived a bad stomach virus. I asked what his biggest obstacle had been during the fight. “His blood,” Roger said with a grimace. “I couldn’t stay stable.” The cage, the three-minute rounds, and the judges’ emphasis on crowd-pleasing strikes make MMA something less than the ideal place to understand Roger’s technical mastery of jiu-jitsu, I suggested. “Since I was a little boy, back then I knew,” he said. “I will step into the ring and represent my family.”
In 3 Steps:
One of the most basic and effective submission holds in mixed martial arts, the arm bar is a signature move of UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
Crusaders for a Pure Fighting Style
The Gracies’ belief in the absolute supremacy of their art has two distinct effects. There is something that reads like arrogance in the open advertisement that each of them can reduce you to utter helplessness thanks to a family birthright you can never obtain. But there is also a gentleness that comes from the family’s sense of duty to spread the gospel of Gracie jiu-jitsu. The tension between the Gracies’ fighting swagger and missionary zeal is what makes encountering the Gracies as individuals fascinating. “I deeply believe that each person has a purpose in the world,” Roger explained after the Jardine fight. “Mine is not to be an MMA fighter. It is my purpose to show the beauty in the sport.”
Other Gracies his age have made the opposite decision. Rórion Gracie’s sons, for example, refuse to fight in MMA competitions, because they believe that the rules make it impossible to demonstrate the power of the family’s jiu-jitsu. Rickson Gracie retired in 2000, after more than 400 bouts as a jiu-jitsu champion and 11 MMA fights, without suffering a single defeat and without fighting in the UFC.
There are dozens of Gracies, nearly all of whom are very accomplished and who hold deep and often opposing views of the family’s history. Reila Gracie, Roger’s mother, has written a book that provides by far the fullest published account of the family’s rivalries, affairs, early deaths, drug overdoses, special diets, and other unorthodox beliefs and practices. She wrote me an email after Roger’s fight against Jardine.
“Dear David, I hope you are well,” she began. “I knew you were at the last fight of Roger and interviewed him after the event. I do not have the courage to watch him fight live, but then I saw the video and I thought he was focused and played well. I wouldn’t want to be in the place of his opponent’s mother, because no mother deserves to see her son being beaten, but unfortunately the public likes bloody spectacles.” After discussing the technical aspects of the fight, she expressed her disgust with “these brutal shows” that “satisfy the savage and primitive side of human beings and financially are very profitable.” She understood why her son felt compelled to fight, but she hoped he would not lose his tenderness and integrity. “I’m glad to realize that you [are] still involved with this family called jiu-jitsu,” she ended.
When you have the confidence of jiu-jitsu, it is easy to be noble and generous.” — Rórion Gracie
Not long after that, I received an email from Rórion Gracie, Reila’s cousin and the founder of the UFC, who left Brazil to make a new life in the United States in 1978. By cross-pollinating the defensive techniques of Gracie jiu-jitsu with the striking tactics of Asia and the West, Rórion created a wildly telegenic spectacle that mirrored the evolving global psyche on its way to becoming the fastest-growing sport in the world. He is now the owner of one of the MMA academies that bear the Gracie name. I had trained briefly at Rórion’s academy in Torrance, California, and he had taken me to Brazil to meet a few members of his family and some friends of his father — his apparent goal being to convince me that it was his father, Hélio, and not Reila’s father, Carlos, who invented Gracie jiu-jitsu.
In his email, Rórion wrote: “David, in almost a century of teaching at the Gracie Academy, there has never been ONE single case where a individual who did not know jiu-jitsu ever escaped from the bottom of the ‘mount.’” Rórion focused on a moment in a UFC fight between Chael Sonnen and Anderson Silva, in which Sonnen had used great technical skill to pass Silva’s guard. “With the clock ticking, forty seconds later the bell rang and Anderson was saved!” Rórion wrote. “Not by his escaping abilities, but by the bell.” Sonnen abandoned jiu-jitsu in the next round and tried to fight standing up against Silva, whose uncanny striking ability made him, at the time, the most dangerous knockout artist in MMA. Silva promptly finished Sonnen. “Saturday night, UFC fans around the world were once again entertained by an amazing circus,” Rórion concluded, “which since I left is no longer aimed at presenting the world’s best fighter.”
The Gracies’ global influence began nearly a century ago in Brazil with the teachings of Rórion’s father, Hélio, and Hélio’s brother Carlos. Hélio was the jiu-jitsu master, while Carlos was the brilliant promoter who, beginning in the 1920s, passed on an eclectic mix of spiritual teachings to his clan. These included a highly restrictive diet that prescribes specific foods — like açai berry — in particular combinations, while proscribing others. The Gracie brothers worked out their theories at a family compound outside Rio de Janeiro — a grand weekend getaway with expensive linens and silverware that transformed itself every morning and afternoon into a spartan base camp for fighters. There, Hélio and Carlos instructed their 19 sons and nephews and pitted them against each other. The daily competition laid the foundation for the Gracie martial arts dynasty, but it also stoked a fierce internal power struggle over the right to define and control the direction and legacy of Gracie jiu-jitsu that continues today.
Photo: Estado de Minas
At the center of the war between the Gracies is Rórion, who served as Hélio’s assistant until 1972, when Rórion left Brazil for California. There, he met a man named Richard Bressler, who agreed to meet me one afternoon on Venice Beach. Bressler is lean and fit, with a rugged face seasoned by decades of sunshine, and he looked like a typical Southern California cross between a handyman and an actor. A black belt, he takes justifiable pride in being the first American student of Gracie jiu-jitsu.
Bressler’s involvement with the Gracies did not come about as the result of any prior interest in martial arts. He met Rórion through a classified ad that Bressler placed in the summer of 1979 for an old water bed. At the time, Bressler says, he was unhappily employed in his family’s fast-food business and drowning his sorrows in a wash of pot, quaaludes, and cocaine. When he met Rórion, Bressler was immediately struck by the Brazilian’s positive energy. He sold him the water bed, and also agreed to part with three sets of sheets for $15. On his way out the door, Rórion asked Bressler if he had ever tried martial arts. “He starts talking about his family from Brazil — they’ve been champions, the whole rigmarole,” Bressler said. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you come by for a free class?’”
A few days later, Bressler found himself in a two-car garage in Hermosa Beach with mats on the floor and a knife and club hung on the wall. At the time, Rórion had graduated from cleaning houses, his first job upon arriving in California, to earning $150 a day as an extra on television shows like The Rockford Files, The Love Boat, and Hart to Hart. The garage was small but meticulously clean, although Bressler admits that his drug-induced paranoia suggested to him that he might not make it out of the makeshift gym alive. Rórion presented him with a freshly laundered gi and showed Bressler three techniques. He told the Californian to lie down and mounted him. “He said, ‘OK, now I want you to escape,’” Bressler recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I hope this guy’s got good intentions.’”
Rórion demonstrated techniques for wrist control while watching his student’s face for indications of pain, and he was kind enough to massage Bressler’s wrist after almost breaking it. “Then he taught me how to flip him,” Bressler said. “I was paying ten dollars a half-hour to come in and flip a guy, choke a guy — I mean, beat somebody up!” When the class was over, Rórion gave Bressler a glass of freshly squeezed watermelon juice, and the Gracies’ first American student was hooked.
As word of an invincible new fighting style spread, Los Angeles–based martial artists, stuntmen, and actors began showing up at Rórion’s garage. Two of the first to arrive were John Saxon and Jim Kelly, both of whom starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. The tough-guy director-screenwriter John Milius brought in Ed O’Neill, a rugged character actor who had not yet been associated with the goofy-faced dad in Married With Children. “When Rórion said he wanted to teach me, I said, ‘No thanks,’” O’Neill recalled. “He said, ‘Just 15 minutes. Lie down, please, and I’m going to sit on top of you.” O’Neill grinned: “But I can’t get the guy off me. Then he said, ‘Can you hold me down for four seconds?’ I couldn’t. He said, ‘Ed, come on. Like a man.’ But it was always the same thing. So I wanted to know: How do you do that?”
To man his burgeoning Gracie jiu-jitsu empire in Southern California, Rórion soon brought his younger brothers and cousins onboard, including Rickson, Relson, Rolker, and Royler. He also came up with the idea of a no-holds-barred tournament in which one of the Gracies would take on black belts in karate, judo, sambo, boxing, kickboxing, and other martial arts to demonstrate the greatness of the family fighting style. The first such event, which Gracie called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was held in Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena on November 12, 1993. Funded largely by Rórion’s students, UFC 1 attracted 85,000 pay-per-view customers, most of whom had little idea what they were about to watch. To represent the Gracies, Rórion chose his younger brother Royce, who was by no means the most famous or accomplished fighter in the family. Looking more like an adolescent than a mature fighter, he expertly set up submission victories against boxer Art Jimmerson, wrestler Ken Shamrock, and kickboxing champion Gerard Gordeau in the space of only four hours. The second UFC broadcast reached 120,000 pay-per-view buys, and again Royce defeated all comers.
The early UFC events stunned martial artists in other disciplines and forced them to acknowledge the dominance of Gracie jiu-jitsu to the kicks and blows they had spent their lives mastering. “I was training with shit people,” Georges St-Pierre told me. “I saw Royce Gracie, I rented the videotape, and he inspired me.” The UFC had a similar impact inside Brazil, according to Marcelo Garcia, a five-time jiu-jitsu world champion. “I never heard about jiu-jitsu until the UFC came out,” he said. “I saw tapes of Royce Gracie, and from that I tried to find a way to learn jiu-jitsu. It was so efficient, how he was able to finish the fight without having to hurt his opponent.”
Rórion admits that much of the family discord has attached itself to him. Despite his success in founding the UFC, or perhaps because of it, he is not the best-liked member of the Gracie family. I asked him how Hélio felt about the UFC. “The old man was very happy with the way the thing exploded,” he said, and then paused. “I was handed a diamond and I promoted the heck out of it.” When I asked what it would sound like if he overheard his cousins and brothers complaining about him, Rórion answered immediately: “He took our birthright and he kept it for himself.”
A Martial Art Is Born in Belém
The story of how the Gracies created the most potent martial art the world has ever seen began in the heart of the Amazon in 1913, in a city called Belém, or Bethlehem, which is the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Pará. The Gracies were a prominent upper-class family from Rio de Janeiro, the descendants of a Scotsman named George Gracie, who was born in Dumfries, Scotland, on August 14, 1801. George arrived in Rio at the age of 25 with four friends, one of whom died of yellow fever, according to Reila’s biography of her father, Carlos. "A man of Calvinist upbringing,” she wrote of George, “he was handsome and poised, with a shapely face, straight nose, very light skin, blond hair and blue eyes.”
Adventurous and gifted, the Gracies were eager to seek out new worlds. George’s brother Archibald had already emigrated from Scotland to Manhattan, where he became a shipping magnate and a friend to Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. He advertised his wealth by buying a piece of prime property overlooking the East River, where he built a grand house that bore his name. In 1896, the house was sold to the city of New York, which made it the statutory residence of the city’s mayor. In tribute to the tasteful opulence of its builder’s conception, the house retained the name Gracie Mansion, by which it is still known today.
Meanwhile, George Gracie prospered in Rio, becoming a partner in the trading company of Stockmayer, Gracie, Hobkirk & Co., and later a director of the Bank of Brazil. He married Mariana Antônia de Malheiros, the daughter of an elite Brazilian family, and had a son, Pedro Gracie, who also became a successful banker.
In 3 Steps:
The reverse “ude garami,” commonly known as the Kimura, is a powerful shoulder lock that Masahiko Kimura used to defeat Hélio Gracie in 1951.
Pedro’s son Gastão was an aspiring diplomat who lived in Germany for 10 years. He spoke fluent German, Latin, Greek, and five other languages — none of which seemed to aid his career, which suffered because of his sharp temper, impulsive behavior, and lack of any appreciable aptitude for diplomacy. After missing out on a diplomatic post he badly wanted, Gastão returned to Brazil and embarked on a series of failed business ventures and tempestuous love affairs, in the course of which he fathered nine children, the oldest and wildest of whom he named Carlos. “I honestly did not have a moment of peace,” Carlos later remembered of his disorderly childhood. “My devilry got to a point that, even in my own neighborhood, I only felt safe when I ran through the streets along the streetcar rails. It was the only way of avoiding surprises from possible enemies.” During Carlos’s upbringing, the Gracies lived in nine different houses, and no two of his siblings were born at the same address.
Drawn to the jungle city of Belém by the Amazonian rubber craze, Gastão failed to get rich. He turned next to the manufacture of dynamite, which he stored in the house where his children slept. He also managed entertainers and ran the American Circus, which toured widely in southern Brazil.
On November 5, 1916, Gastão’s circus arrived in the port city of Manaus, where a member of the troupe, an Italian boxer named Alfredi Leconti, challenged a Japanese martial artist named Satake to a fight. As it happened, Satake was not the most distinguished Japanese martial artist in Manaus that day: He had arrived in town a year earlier with Count Koma, a Japanese judo master whose real name was Mitsuyo Maeda. Koma had fought more than 1,000 professional matches on four continents while suffering only two recorded defeats. As Satake fought Leconti, Koma watched from ringside, where he struck up a friendship with Gastão that would alter the history of combat sports.
Count Koma wound up in the Amazon after a chain of unlikely contingencies that parallels the emergence of Gracie jiu-jitsu as a global sport. The determined westernization of Japan by Emperor Meiji in the late 19th century led to the collapse of many aspects of traditional Japanese society, including the ancient art of jiujitsu, whose masters were forced to seek other forms of employment. Sekiguti Jiushin, founder of the Sekiguti style, wound up pulling a rickshaw in the street, while Kawanishi Iikubo of the Kito-Ryu style became a postal worker. “I am profoundly saddened by the agony that jiujitsu finds itself in,” lamented the jiujitsu master Tojuro Takeuchi, in a letter that is widely quoted by historians of judo. “A five-hundred-year-old tradition will likely disappear in my generation. Today, what we see in demonstrations is that the richness of the past is no more, they've reduced themselves to technicians and the poverty of those that remain is the general rule.”
In 1882, an idealistic young graduate of the Imperial University in Tokyo named Jigoro Kano conceived of a new fighting style based on traditional jiujitsu that he hoped might serve as a comprehensive source of physical education, intellectual training, and moral instruction for modern Japan. His interpretation of jiujitsu forbade traditional ground-fighting techniques like the ashi garami, a crippling joint lock that targets the leg of one’s opponent. Instead, Kano emphasized throws from a standing position. “When we talk about jiujitsu today, people often think of a technique in which one does only dangerous things, such as choking an opponent and bending his joints, or even, in extreme cases, killing him,” Kano later wrote, explaining what motivated him to create the ju-do, or “gentle way.” He was also determined to separate his new art from jiujitsu’s role as popular entertainment, which he saw as inherently debased. “There are also those who make jiujitsu into a sort of show,” he wrote. “They charge admission and have competitions at venues where sumo and acrobatics are held, so that people have become even more inclined to believe that jiujitsu is something uncultivated.”
Starting in a rented room at the Eishoji temple, Kano and his students founded the Kodokan, where hundreds of disciples would learn the high-toned art of judo, which they spread across Japan and then to the major European capitals and eventually around the rest of the world, where local variants soon emerged. In Russia, judo was transformed into the fighting style known as sambo, whose most famous student is Vladimir Putin.
Maeda, one of Kano’s finest students, made his way to Washington, D.C., where he and his companions arranged to put on a demonstration for President Theodore Roosevelt. The oldest fighter in the group, Tomita, insisted on personally representing judo in front of the American president, whose daughter Alice was wild about fighting and handpicked his opponent — a tall, powerfully built Afro-Cuban boxer named Bill Owens. The ensuing fight set back the cause of judo in America for decades. “Quick like a leopard,” one reporter wrote, “the black fighter completely dominated Tomita, who was literally flattened and unable to make any movement whatsoever, leading to his humiliating defeat in front of the President, his wife and daughter, members of the government, assembled athletes, reporters and members of the Japanese Embassy and expatriate community.”
In the hope of salvaging judo’s North American reputation, Maeda and Satake spent two years traveling across the United States, taking on more than 100 challengers and winning every recorded fight. They then traveled to Russia and continued west across Europe. In 1908, they reached Spain, where Maeda appears to have been given the title of Count Koma. As Maeda later told a European reporter, “An influential Spanish citizen, impressed with my victories, by my posture and my way of being, perhaps to be nice or without meaning to, gave me that title that later spread everywhere.” In 1909, Count Koma and his companions boarded a ship to Mexico City and then fought their way south, until they arrived in the Amazonian port of Manaus on December 18, 1915. The ensuing spectacle was recorded by a local newspaperman, who wrote: “Arriving today, aboard the yacht Pará, is the troupe of Japanese ju-jitsu fighters who come to delight the audience of the popular Politheama Theater. This troupe, led by Count Koma, world champion of ju-jitsu, will disembark wearing Oriental robes and be paraded through the streets in an automobile.”
The Count was eager to demonstrate his judo for the locals; he also appears to have coveted the fertile river basin as a future Japanese settlement. Gastão Gracie helped the Japanese fighter settle in Belém, a nearby city of perhaps 150,000 inhabitants. There, Maeda opened a martial arts school in a wooden hut on the grounds of the town’s rowing academy. (The successor to Maeda’s school in Belém is directed by the judoka’s great-grandson, Professor Alfredo Mendes Coimbra.) Grateful for Gastão’s help, the judoka taught a version of his centuries-old fighting style to four of the Brazilian’s sons — Carlos, George, Oswaldo, and Gastãozinho.
Hélio, the fifth and youngest Gracie brother, was judged too frail to receive active instruction, so he learned judo by watching his brothers practice. Abandoning judo’s showy throws, he modified Count Koma’s teachings to suit his lighter frame, creating a Brazilian variation that reemphasized wrestling techniques and elevated the mastery of mechanics over physical strength and agility. And so Gracie jiu-jitsu was born.
Carlos and Hélio Build a Dynasty
The Gracie family’s time in Belém came to an end with the discovery that their family was not the sole object of their patriarch’s affection; Gastão had started a second family with a woman named Ceasalina. The discovery of Gastão’s double life led to the collapse of his marriage, and the Gracie children returned to Rio with their mother, who proved to be mentally ill and unable to care for them. The older brothers left Rio to rejoin their father along the Amazon, where he was then running casinos. There, Carlos, the eldest, fell in love with a girl named Ilona, who caught typhoid fever. Sequestered from her fiancé and suffering the harsh effects of her illness, including the loss of her hair, she threw herself out a window and died, an event that helped shape Carlos’s lifelong distrust of women and later championing of polygamy.
Carlos left the Amazon and began working for the power company in Rio, but before long he became bored. Walking through town one day, he met an acquaintance named Donato Pires dos Reis, who had also studied jiu-jitsu with Count Koma. Their meeting led to Carlos accepting an offer to fight the Japanese armlock specialist Geo Omori, who had never lost a bout in Brazil. “Omori was the first adversary I faced in public, and the most difficult,” Carlos later told the journalist José Geraldo. The two men fought to a draw. A young spectator at the fight, Otaviano Souza Bueno, became curious about Carlos’s techniques and gathered a group of friends who formed the nucleus of a modest school that Carlos set up near São Paulo. The school failed, but the idea that jiu-jitsu might feed Carlos and his brothers had taken root. In 1925, Carlos moved back to Rio and opened a new school at 106 Rua Marquês de Abrantes. “If you want your face smashed and split open, your backside kicked and your arms broken,” one early advertisement read, “contact Carlos Gracie at this address.”
While it’s hard to know exactly what Carlos taught his students, it’s clear the evolving Gracie fighting style differed from Count Koma’s in its emphasis on defensive techniques over spectacular kicks and throws. Gracie jiu-jitsu experts pride themselves on simple, fluid movements that conserve energy and disguise a fighter’s true intentions as he or she transitions between positions, looking to isolate shoulders, elbows, and knees, which they position like levers over a fulcrum and then bend to the breaking point. “The jiu-jitsuman learns, bit by bit, to defend himself against all modalities of aggression,” Hélio explained to a reporter from the Brazilian magazine O Cruzeiro in a 1952 interview. “Aggression, therefore, ceases to exist for him as a disturbing ghost.”
The Gracies also prided themselves on never backing down from fights. When a capoeira specialist named Samuel disparaged jiu-jitsu in 1909, Carlos challenged him to a match that would go down in history as Brazil’s first public vale tudo, or “no holds barred” event, a direct predecessor of MMA. The bout was held in a makeshift ring at the Christian Association of Moços, where Samuel, a fighter known for his feline quickness, quickly took advantage of the absence of rules; he grabbed hold of Carlos’s testicles and squeezed so hard that the jiu-jitsu fighter was paralyzed. When Carlos refused to give up, Samuel finally loosened his grip, whereupon Carlos got him in an armlock, and Samuel then bit Carlos in the leg. Enraged, Carlos proceeded to batter Samuel’s face until it was bloody.
We are a myth ... A myth that has yet to be destroyed.” — Hélio Gracie
The Gracie brothers’ highly publicized triumphs made them the darlings of Rio newspapers, which eagerly chronicled their exploits. Carlos, a brilliant publicist, also cultivated contacts with the city’s elite, who knew the Gracie name and were captivated by the idea that a native adaptation of a noble Japanese art might allow high-born inhabitants of Rio to walk safely on the streets of the rough frontier city.
Some insight into Carlos’s methods of insinuating his branch of the Gracie family into Rio’s elite can be gained by examining the friendship he struck up with Oscar Santa Maria. An official at the Bank of Brazil, Santa Maria was also a dedicated spiritualist, and he invited Carlos to a session with a noted medium. Whether prompted by his own judgment or by a side deal with Carlos, the medium told the banker that Carlos possessed formidable psychic powers, bestowed upon him by an “illuminated spirit” from Peru named “Egídio Lasjovino.” To test the abilities of this spirit, Santa Maria would hide objects in faraway places and ask Carlos to locate them — experiments whose apparent success confirmed his faith in Carlos’s abilities.
In July 1931, Santa Maria helped fund a tournament between students from the Gracie Academy and capoeiristas from the Brazilian navy; the Gracies won, thus establishing the superiority of jiu-jitsu over what had been the favorite native fighting style of Brazil. The newspaper magnate Roberto Marinho of O Globo quickly became a jiu-jitsu enthusiast and made sure the Gracies regularly appeared in his pages. The Gracies’ fondness for challenge matches made them the darlings of Rio Esportivo, Ring, Jornal dos Sports, and other representatives of the sporting press, whose appetite for Gracie news was spurred by the family’s aura of invincibility and their habit of taking their fights outside the ring. After Oswaldo Gracie choked the Greco-Roman wrestling champion João Baldi unconscious in the first 58 seconds of their fight, Baldi told reporters that under different circumstances he never would have lost. George Gracie, then the family champion, found Baldi at the Bar Simpathya in the center of Rio. “Get ready, because you're going to get beat again, you chickenshit!” George reportedly said, before beating Baldi black-and-blue.
Yet cracks soon emerged in the solid front the Gracies presented to outsiders. George, the first family champion, began taking fights that Carlos opposed and questioning him in the press. “Carlos has no authority or competency to talk about jiu-jitsu,” George told a reporter. “Who created the sporting tradition of my family if not me, all modesty aside, with my triumphant career, with my series of victories?” Carlos’s answer was to turn his promotional energies to the ring career of his youngest brother, Hélio, who was willing to obey his brother’s strict instructions about training and fights. On February 2, 1935, Hélio defeated the Brazilian boxer Dudu, who outweighed him by more than 40 pounds, in spectacular fashion, cementing the alliance between the oldest and youngest Gracie siblings. The two would live their lives in tandem for the next 40 years, while excluding their brothers from the Gracie family myth.
When fighting alone failed to provide the resources Carlos craved, he formed an import-export company with Santa Maria, the banker. Carlos’s role in the company was to read the auras of prospective business partners and telepathically invade their thoughts, while Santa Maria provided capital. With the family’s financial future thus secure, Carlos turned his full promotional talents to Hélio’s career. He also initiated Hélio and their growing tribe of offspring into a rigorous diet of his own invention that emphasized native fruits like the açai berry while prohibiting foods, like chocolate, that he believed were unhealthy. The diet, which divided foods into six groups, encouraged certain combinations, like dried coconut with shrimp and rice, while banning yogurt with fruit, which Carlos believed to be deleterious when consumed together.
Photo: Newscom/Agência O Globo/Courtesy Reila Gracie Archive
A believer in polygamy, Carlos also taught his children, nieces, and nephews to practice “hygienic sex,” a philosophy that forbade sexual contact without the aim of procreation, including oral and anal sex. According to Reila’s biography of Carlos, he compensated for these restrictions with exercises that allowed him to maintain an erection for “however long was necessary,” with the goal of satisfying his partners. Carlos would also go high up in the Tijuca Forest and meditate for one hour right before sunrise to capture the cosmic rays surging over the horizon.
The Gracie diet, combined with Carlos’s idiosyncratic teachings about sex, marriage, and spirituality, further cemented the unique identity of Brazil’s most famous fighting family. In addition to marking the Gracies as a tribe apart, the practices and beliefs that Carlos inculcated in his offspring underlined his authority as head of the fighting family, even though he had long since abandoned the ring. The Gracies fought to prove the wisdom of Carlos’s theories, as Hélio told an interviewer from a Brazilian magazine: “My life began with Carlos Gracie. It was he who taught me, who guided me, who passed on to me a moral code, who instilled in me courage.” The strength of the bond between Carlos and Hélio was expressed in the book Introduction to Jiu-jitsu, published under Carlos’s name in 1948. The cover photograph showed Carlos trying to get past Hélio, their bodies forming a perfect triangle, which would later be incorporated into the official logo of the Gracie Academy in Rio.
One afternoon in late July 1951, Hélio, then 38 and at the very end of his prime as a fighter, received a notice from the newspaper Diário da Noite informing him that the “world champions of jiu-jitsu” were at the paper’s offices, and that he had 15 minutes to get there. The Gracies arrived to find a delegation from the Imperial Academy in Japan, led by Masahiko Kimura, then the top-ranked judo fighter in the world. Kimura, who was 10 years younger and much larger and stronger than Hélio, suggested that the Brazilian fight a younger judoka named Kato, who was ranked third. “Carlos, my guide in these matters, made me realize that it wouldn’t be bad taking on Kato first,” Hélio recalled, “as at least with him there was always a chance of success.” A headline in Diário da Noite underlined the stakes of the fight, in which the Gracies’ homegrown version of the Japanese martial art would finally be tested against the real thing: “JAPAN TO PLAY BRAZIL [FOR] THE PRESTIGE OF ITS JIU-JITSU.”
The Japanese delegation was apparently unaware that a local version of their fighting style, emphasizing ground combat — including the leg locks and other maneuvers that Jigoro Kano had scorned — had taken root in Brazil, and Hélio was quick to underline the differences between his family’s jiu-jitsu and Japanese judo for the Brazilian press. “The fight is decided on the ground,” he explained. “Judô is little more than sensationalized combat, with no practical effect.” Kato eagerly took the bait, responding, “In the name of Japan, I will beat Hélio Gracie in seconds, and will do so fighting on the ground, where the Brazilian says he is good.”
On September 6, a crowd of more than 50,000 Brazilians gathered to watch an undercard of fights featuring students from the Gracie Academy. Fifteen minutes before midnight, a skinny, pale-looking Hélio Gracie appeared, to the biggest ovation of his career. While he was thrown several times by Kato in the first round of their fight, which ended in a draw, the next day’s headlines called Hélio “triumphant,” and a rematch was scheduled for September 29, in São Paulo. There, Kato threw Hélio four times, but the Brazilian succeeded in getting the Japanese fighter into a stranglehold from which he was unable to escape. Exhausted and sucking oxygen from a balloon, Hélio could barely acknowledge the wild applause heralding the first time a Japanese judo master had been defeated by a Westerner. In a scene that would be at home in any martial arts movie, the burly Kimura then stepped to the center of the ring and challenged Hélio to a third match, in which he promised to defeat the Brazilian in three minutes flat.
The fight between Kimura and Hélio, which came 24 days later, was an obvious mismatch, and yet the Brazilian again acquitted himself well by surviving past the three-minute mark and well into the second round, when Kimura got him on the ground and made him lose consciousness. Awakening in time to realize his plight, Hélio recovered, only to fall victim to a reverse ude garami — now known to MMA fans as the Kimura — a vicious armlock in which the attacker grabs his opponent’s wrist while putting his opposite arm behind his opponent’s arm, then cranking up the captive limb to put painful, dislocating pressure on the joints of the shoulder and elbow. Seeing that Hélio’s arm was on the verge of being snapped by the Japanese fighter, Carlos jumped into the ring and smacked the mat three times, signaling surrender.
The Gracies were guilty of hubris, Dana White explained, which has condemned the family to near irrelevance in the future of the sport.
Gracious in victory, the Japanese champion appears to have been legitimately impressed by Hélio and his homegrown techniques. “I don’t know if it was him or his brothers, but he Americanized or Brazilianized jiu-jitsu,” Kimura told a Japanese reporter several years later. In his 1969 biography, Kimura added that what he was most impressed by was the Gracies’ ground fighting, which he thought was much like what the ancient Japanese jiujitsu academies used to practice. “If I were a specialist only in the tatiwaza (standing fight),” he wrote, “I probably would've suffered much more in defeating Hélio Gracie, the man that never gives up.”
Having proved himself, in middle age, against the greatest judo fighter in the world, Hélio retired to groom a new generation of champions at the Gracie Academy in Rio, where some hundred private lessons were given every day and the house stock of kimonos numbered 3,000. Among the regular students were governors, ministers, generals, the chief of the country’s intelligence service, and at least two military dictators, who removed all marks of distinction when they crossed the Gracie threshold and put on the gi.
From Hélio, the mantle of Gracie family champion passed to Carlos’s son Carlson, a sociable giant who went on to train generations of Brazilian champions. After Carlson, it was Rolls, a son of Carlos who was raised from infancy by Hélio and was beloved by both sides of the family. Rolls opened the family’s jiu-jitsu to other martial arts like wrestling and sambo; when he died in a hang-gliding accident in 1982, his place was taken by Hélio’s son Rickson. “We are a myth, if that is what people want,” Hélio proclaimed to the Brazilian writer David Nasser, with the offhand grandeur of the nobility that he, his sons and grandsons, his nephews and their children, and generations of his students had earned through decades of combat under the family banner. “A myth that has yet to be destroyed.”
In 3 Steps:
The reverse “ude garami,” commonly known as the Kimura, is a powerful shoulder lock that Masahiko Kimura used to defeat Hélio Gracie in 1951.
The War Between the Gracies
It’s impossible to understand the differing versions of the tribal myth that Carlos and Hélio created without spending time in Rio, a city of urban villages built around horseshoe-shaped beaches connected by long tunnels blasted through jungle-green mountains. The juxtaposition of blue ocean, white sand, and verdant mountains under bright sunshine gives the city a wildly musical charm that suggests an urban version of the French Riviera transplanted to the Amazon. Rio is also an exceptionally violent city in which mastery of some form of self-defense is often necessary, even for the wealthy. The city’s favelas are home to some of the most dangerous criminal gangs on the planet, and newspapers are filled with reports of spectacular political corruption, kidnapping, murder, and brutal crimes pulled off with reckless bravado. Two days after I arrived, the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel was invaded by an armed gang, who stripped guests of their valuables before escaping on city buses — which got caught in one of the city’s legendary traffic jams, leading to their arrest.
“He was a very insecure child,” he said, piloting the car toward the family’s country home outside the city. “He was always wondering, ‘Does this guy think I’m a coward?’ Then his brothers got involved. That’s why he became so passionate about jiu-jitsu.” When I asked him how, he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder: “When you have the confidence of jiu-jitsu, it is easy to be noble and generous.” I asked how the humility he spoke of could be reconciled with the Gracie family’s penchant for boasting that they can defeat all comers. He smiled again, then replied, “The reason we say that is out of conviction, not arrogance.”
As Rórion spoke, I felt an energy generated by the opposing poles of his personality — his real sensitivity to the needs of other human beings along with his determination to bend interlocutors to his will. Over the year and a half I’d known Rórion, these two sides of him began to seem like dual reflections of the family art, in which constant pressure is exerted on one’s opponent with the aim of exposing weakness and achieving a dominant position.
I asked why Rórion and his brothers and sons all carry unusual names that begin with the letter “R.” He looked at me earnestly and held out his broad palms. “Uncle Carlos believed that a person’s name has a certain influence on the individual,” Rórion said. “If your name is John or Anthony, you will have something in common with other Johns and Anthonys. So he believed that by putting a brand-new name on a child, you’d give them the chance to be something special and original, to fulfill their own destiny instead of the destiny of someone else. Furthermore, he believed that certain letters were stronger than other letters, especially the letters R, K, S, and C. I took it a step farther. My first boy has to be as strong as iron. And his name had to start with the letter R. So, from iron, I settled on ‘Riron.’” Coming up with the name, he said, took him six months, during which his son was nameless.
Photo: Courtesy of Reila Gracie
In Rórion’s telling, growing up Gracie contained its fair share of privileges and challenges. It also planted the seeds of a fierce family quarrel that began more than a decade ago and has grown especially intense in recent years. “This house here, which we purchased in 1952, had 21 bedrooms,” Rórion said, showing me a photograph of the family estate in Teresópolis. “We had 25 in-house telephones, which in the ’50s in Brazil, it’s unheard of.” The switchboard was ordered from Switzerland and allowed six people to talk to each other at the same time. The children woke up in the morning and rang the kitchen, and the maid would bring them breakfast in bed. “It’s like the stuff you see in movies,” he added. “The cooks had the long hats. First cook, assistant cook, the gardens, the whole thing.”
In the midst of luxury, the Gracie brothers and cousins were pitted against each other in daily training that sharpened their ground-fighting skills while instilling in them a keen sense of where they stood in the family rankings. “Everyone was sparring,” Rórion recalled. “There was a continuous sharpening of the blade. That competition was hard, but it made us as good as we are.”
The war between the Gracies became public on May 8, 1999, when Reila published an article in the Jornal do Brasil titled “The Gracie Family,” which attacked Rórion by name and accused him of playing on the vanity of his elderly father to promote his own interests. “Several years ago, my cousin Rórion, eldest son of my uncle Hélio Gracie, motivated by business interests and the outsized ambition to take possession, all by himself, of a legacy which belongs by right to every member of my family, tried to modify, through the press, the story of Brazilian jiu-jitsu using a false and distorted version,” she wrote. “Started by my father Carlos Gracie,” she continued, the art of Gracie jiu-jitsu had been maintained for 75 years by a line of family champions that, in her telling, included her brothers Carlson and Rolls and her cousin Rickson — but did not include Royce or Rórion. The article caused a rift in Brazil and within the family, which only deepened with the publication of Reila’s biography of Carlos.
Ostensibly revolving around which brother — Carlos or Hélio — was the true creator of Gracie jiu-jitsu, the war between the Gracies has split the family into two camps, each of which controls part of the organizational apparatus that sets the norms for what had been known as Gracie jiu-jitsu until Rórion had the term trademarked in the United States; since then, the family art has been generally referred to as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a name that has made it more difficult for the family to define its legacy. The sons of Hélio, led by Rórion, support the claims of their father, while Carlos’s children, led by Carlos Jr., who controls the International Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Federation, have attempted to largely write Hélio out of the family history while embracing a looser interpretation of the sport that has blurred the specificity of the family’s techniques.
In an exchange that took place several years ago on the FightWorks podcast, Relson repeated the version of the Gracie family story in which Hélio plays the central role, the same version Rórion popularized in America with the birth of UFC. “Everything I am doing, everything I learned, I only had one instructor: Hélio Gracie,” Relson said. “Nothing is better than to be Hélio Gracie’s son.” The next week, Renzo, a once-prominent MMA fighter whose career wound down with a series of embarrassing defeats, appeared on the podcast to contest Relson’s remarks and launch a withering attack on Rórion and his sons. “The ‘pure jiu-jitsu’ — it’s doing nothing but selling products on the Internet,” Renzo said, adding that the art had long ago moved on from Hélio’s teachings. “One thing I feel sorry about is Rórion’s kids,” he added. “They are very good kids, but their father feeds them nonsense. So, they could be unbelievable fighters, but they are going to end up as mediocre fighters, mediocre people.”
When I asked Rórion about Renzo’s attacks, he merely shrugged. “If nothing else, they should acknowledge that if it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t have the easy lives they have,” he said. “They should light a candle for Rórion every fucking Christmas.”
One story that puzzles me, I told Rórion, was why he chose Royce over his brother Rickson to represent the Gracies in the first UFC events. He repeats the story of how Royce’s average size and fighting skills made his victory more impressive as a demonstration of the power of the family art. Then Rórion smiled — there was more. “I also wanted to reward Royce’s loyalty,” Rórion said. When I suggested that rewarding Royce’s loyalty could have meant more to him than demonstrating the art of jiu-jitsu, he nodded. “Royce was the one who went through thick and thin for me,” Rórion said. “After he won, he told me, ‘I feel a little guilty wearing this medal because I know there are other people in our family who can do what I did.’ I told him, ‘Royce, the reason you have the medal is not because you’re the best fighter in the family. It’s to reward your loyalty.’”
In addition to its proven worth as a fighting style, Gracie jiu-jitsu can also be understood as a physically brutal form of psychoanalysis. Weaker positions offer powerful leverage, dominant positions are revealed to be traps, and the price of clinging to one’s illusions is relentlessly exposed. The ability to play on an opponent’s expectations while keeping one’s own mind open and responsive in the moment is crucial to achieving mastery at jiu-jitsu, but the art also demands a rare inner balance that even the most skillful champions can struggle to attain.
That the story of four generations of the Gracie family is also necessarily a story about unmasking illusions, mistakes, and deceit was brought home to me during a long nighttime drive I took with Rórion through the jungle-canopied road to his father’s old house in Teresópolis. When I asked him why his mother waited so long to have children, he hesitated before answering. “Now, I want this story to be told in the right way,” he said, turning away from the darkened road for a moment to look me in the eye. His mother’s inability to have children, he told me, threatened her marriage to his father. “So Uncle Carlos comes to her and says, ‘Let me find a way you’re going to have kids. They’re not going to be your children.’” Hélio found a surrogate mother for the children he wanted and Carlos made Hélio’s wife promise she wouldn’t try to identify the woman. The surrogate first gave birth to Rórion, then to his brother Relson, and then, two years later, to Rickson.
Photo: Courtesy of Rórion Gracie
The deception went beyond what might be understood today as the use of a surrogate, because Rórion knew his biological mother quite well. “I have to tell you that she worked at our house,” he continued. “She was my babysitter until I was 15 years old.” His mother, he said, never knew the identity of the woman who gave birth to the sons she presented to the world as her own. His father told him the truth only after the woman he’d thought was his mother had died, when Rórion was 42 years old. I asked what Rórion did after learning that his babysitter was actually his mother. “I called the woman who gave birth to me, and I told her, ‘I’ve always loved you, and I’m not going to stop loving you now, but I still think my mom is my mom,’” he said. “You should also know,” he told me, “that when my mom passed away, my babysitter was next to her in the hospital, at her bedside.”
As Rórion revealed the lie that shaped his life, I began to understand the naked psychological forces that account for the Gracies’ unusual inner strength and openness to suffering. It occurred to me that these were the same qualities that can make it impossible for them to say a kind word about each other. We shared the quiet of the car for a moment, watching the play of the headlights ahead, until Rórion broke the silence. “There is another part to this story,” he said matter-of-factly. “When I was 17 years old, my dad said, ‘Listen, would you like to have more brothers and sisters?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ He asked me, ‘How many would you like?’ I said 20. He told me, ‘Well, you don’t have 20, but you have four more.’ … It was like the floor was falling out from under me, but then my dad continued. He said, ‘Let me tell you one thing. I love your mom; I will stay with her forever.’ Then he asked me, ‘Do you want to go see the kids?’”
The mistress, who was the mother of Rórion’s brother Royce, had worked as a secretary at the Gracie Academy. She had eyes for Hélio, but she arranged to marry another man because she wanted children and thought it would be impossible to have them with Hélio, who already had a wife. “Then Uncle Carlos came and told her there was a way she could have children with the man she admired [Hélio],” Rórion said. “He worked out a deal with her family where she would get a house. This did not happen with my mother’s knowledge.”
Champion of a Fractured Tribe
Reila Gracie, the 19th child of Carlos, mother of Roger, and author of the most complete history of the clan, is a striking blonde with her father’s penetrating blue eyes. Her keen grasp of human desires and frailties might be understood as an emotional expression of Gracie jiu-jitsu. When I visited her in Rio, she opened the door to her apartment wearing sandals and jeans, looking like a flower child who had happily grown into a mother and wife. Her daughter Barbara joined us for a dinner of shrimp casserole, which Reila had cooked before I arrived.
When I mentioned that she is the first Gracie I’d met who did not follow Carlos’s system in naming her children, Reila smiled. Her own name is an amalgam of Keila and Leyla, she said: “He used to believe that R was a very powerful letter.” She married at 18 to Mauricio Motta Gomes, a student of her brother Rolls, in part to gain some distance from the family. When the marriage ended, she went to university.
Photo: Luiz Alphonsus Guimaraens
On the table in front of us was a copy of Carlos Gracie, Creator of a Dynasty, the biography she wrote that scandalized the family with its radical overturning of the Hélio-centric version of the family myth and with its determined airing of the Gracies’ dirty laundry. Her portrait of the clan, in all of its courage and outlandish strangeness, is also a moving account of the country that shaped them. “My family is a Brazilian family,” Reila told me. “The mix of races, the diversity of cultures, the strong presence of nature, and the religious heterogeneity.” Even the idea of the Gracies as a tribe, led by Carlos, with the children of the two brothers living together with their mothers, she explained, derived from Brazil’s indigenous culture, which Carlos and Hélio had encountered in the Amazon.
Reila took obvious pride in her son Roger, who had become the first family champion whose mother, rather than father, is a Gracie. Yet the central role she has played in recent feuds seems to have had less to do with any desire to claim the clan’s overall achievements for her own family line. Rather, Reila’s interest in the past seems to be driven by the hope of understanding how the Gracies’ collective and individual psyches were shaped and deformed by the family’s secret history. She prefers her father to Hélio in part because she sees him as a more benign and constructive presence in his children’s lives. When I asked her about Rórion, she replied without bitterness that Hélio always wanted Rórion to be the family champion, but he could never defeat Rolls. By inculcating such a strong spirit of rivalry among his children, she said, Hélio ensured they would continue to quarrel as adults. “With Carlos’s children,” she added, “this didn’t happen.”
Reila invited me to visit her and Roger in London, where he was preparing for a bout. Making weight could be a challenge for Roger, who admitted he’d struggled to stick to the family diet and told me what it was like to be a Gracie with a sweet tooth. “You feel that you’re kind of left behind,” Roger said, admitting that he was an overweight teenager. “You see everybody is ripped, and then there’s the chubby little one.” He laughed, remembering the old days: “Back then, when I was a kid, everybody used to live in Rio. My grandfather used to have a huge house, and every single weekend the family goes there, and the family would get together in the mat. You’ll see 20 cousins and uncles, black belts, running around the mat. You know, then you start getting the feeling that you belong there too.”
And yet Roger’s access to the family teachings had been incomplete. “As a kid, I always heard that Rickson was the best fighter of his generation in my family, that his jiu-jitsu was unbelievable,” Roger told me. “So I always wish that I could train with him. But I grew up with him living in L.A. I never had the opportunity to go there back then, and he never came to Rio. Even though he was my family, I was never close to him. I could have gained a lot training with him.”
The mentors Roger did have were not always inspiring. Renzo had been Royce’s successor as the family representative in the UFC. Although Renzo was welcoming to Roger, including the young fighter in his training camps and advising him on how to make a living in professional MMA, Renzo was seen by many Gracies as more of a showman than a champion. He never won a title fight, and Roger estimates that his cousin was physically and mentally unprepared for at least 80 percent of his bouts. “I can tell you why he wasn’t ready,” he said. “I was with him daily. I saw him going to bed at four, five in the morning, having to wake up at eight to train.”
Aside from the Gracies’ martial arts pedigree, I asked Roger if he would be comfortable passing on the family history of polygamy, broken marriages, and internecine strife to his 3-year-old son. “No, no, no,” Roger said. “That’s not me. I have a kid and that’s how I want to be — if I can — for the rest of my life. I don’t think I need to have five wives because they had. I found the person I love.” He struggled for a moment, hoping to explain what he fights for under the Gracie banner. “If I wasn’t a good fighter, and I had the mind that jiu-jitsu gave me today, I still would be the same,” he finally explained. “You know your fears, you know your advantage and disadvantage. Because your personality — everything that you feel — will show when you train.”
The Gracies’ greatest deception of all may have been perpetrated against the spiritualist banker Oscar Santa Maria, Carlos’s business partner who also helped to develop the Gracie diet. That collaboration led to a particularly comic interlude during World War II. Because telephone use was restricted in wartime Brazil, Carlos and Oscar were forced to maintain an intense correspondence totaling some 2,000 letters, some of which contained passages elucidating Carlos’s system of combining foods. The master warned his disciple that “rice doesn’t go with beans” and "bananas don’t go with honey.” In a twist that would be entirely at home in a Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie, Brazilian intelligence agents intercepted the letters and concluded they were coded messages between Nazi spies.
The letters also showed that Oscar had become entirely subservient to Carlos and his spirit guide, who was sometimes referred to in private spirit-language as “Egídio Lasjovino” and other times as “The Fountain” or “Our Friend.” Near the end of the war, Carlos codified his doctrines under the phrase “the Path.” Similar in some respects to the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, “the Path” gained adherents within the Bank of Brazil and other elite circles in Rio. The general tenor of these relationships can be gleaned from a letter sent by the journalist Eloy Dutra to Carlos: “The responses of the Grand Lama were reinforcements sent to this my poor spirit, already tired from the fight, and that would have fallen, I am sure, if it weren’t for the constant support of these Giant spirits that God sends … ”
Carlos’s financial success, reinforced by the popularity of Gracie jiu-jitsu, added to his credibility as a spiritual guide, which attained such heights that Carlos made Santa Maria’s fiancée Layr his third wife without significantly harming his reputation or disrupting the relationship between the men. However, in 1963, perhaps in response to additional requests for money, the bond between Carlos and Santa Maria finally snapped, and the banker sued Carlos and Hélio for larceny. In his lawsuit, Santa Maria accused Carlos of having made a fortune at his expense by taking advantage of his “profound sentiments of religious belief” and deceiving him into believing he had spiritual powers. A month later, Santa Maria filed another suit, claiming that Hélio and Carlos had stolen “almost the totality of his belongings through religious fraud.”
Events inside Brazil would cause further trauma to the Gracies. In 1964, the elected government was overthrown and replaced by a military dictatorship, and Robson and Rolls, two of the most famous fighters in the family’s second generation, were accused of selling weapons to left-wing guerrillas who opposed the junta. The brothers were kidnapped by the army and brought to a secret location, where they were stripped naked and interrogated. Rolls was soon released, but Robson, whose involvement with the guerrillas appeared to have been more serious, was detained at an undisclosed location, where he was kept in hot and cold rooms, injected with drugs, and tortured with electric shocks. While in custody, he tried killing himself several times by banging his head against the walls of his cell.
Meanwhile, family members frantically tried to pull strings with members of the Brazilian elite whom they had trained for decades, but to no avail. After being told not to expect to see his son alive, Carlos decided to pay him an “astral visit.” Lying down in a comfortable position, he attained a state between sleep and wakefulness in which he could see his own body from a distance, and then went searching for Robson, whom he found in a box. After his journey, he comforted the family with news that Robson was still alive.
Robson was finally released thanks to the intercession of a family contact in the security services, but even after he’d been granted his freedom, Robson was shuttled from apartment to apartment to prevent further arrests. His skin flaked off and he refused to describe his torture, having apparently been warned that talking about his ordeal would put him and his family in danger.
Photo: Newscom/Agência O Globo/ Jose Vasco
The physical and psychological armor that Carlos and Hélio had fashioned to secure their self-made tribe had failed to protect some of its most vulnerable members. As a result, the family began to fracture. In the aftermath of a broken marriage, Rórion left for California, drawn by the prospect of life away from the family’s tangled history; yet even in America, the struggles within the Gracie family continued to weigh on him. “Look, I loved my uncle Carlos,” Rórion told me. “He and my father were as close as the nail and the flesh of my thumb. But he spent the last 20 years managing the Gracie diet. I think he put on a gi twice for photographs.”
The generations-old struggle between Carlos and Hélio for credit over creating the Gracie fighting style is mirrored in the more contemporary conflict between followers of the “pure” jiu-jitsu that Rórion and his sons espouse and those who see the family art as a less-evolved precursor to modern MMA. One mecca for post-Gracie believers is Renzo’s jiu-jitsu academy in midtown Manhattan, a no-nonsense gym that smells like the inside of a sneaker with a top note of cheap hand soap from the bathrooms at the nearby Port Authority bus terminal. The school’s resident jiu-jitsu expert is John Danaher, a powerful, slow-moving man whose monkish tonsure and quiet demeanor give little hint of the extraordinary pain he can inflict.
Danaher is a cult figure among jiu-jitsu experts and MMA fighters alike, and his mastery of ground fighting has made him a favorite instructor of UFC stars like Kenny Florian and Georges St-Pierre. A native of New Zealand, he came to New York to do graduate work in philosophy at Columbia University, then discovered jiu-jitsu while working as a bouncer in hip-hop clubs uptown, where serious fights went to the ground. After more than a year of illuminating conversations about jiu-jitsu with Danaher, that is as much as I — or anyone else I have met — have ever managed to glean about his biography. He believes jiu-jitsu attained its highest degree of evolution once it left Brazil in the 1970s, thanks to the influence of Rolls.
“There is almost no similarity between the footage we have of Hélio and modern Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” Danaher told me. Describing its recent evolution as “a Precambrian explosion of knowledge,” he credited Rolls with creating the foundation of the martial art as it’s practiced today, thanks to Rolls’s openness to other fighting styles. The greatest practitioner of Gracie jiu-jitsu, he said, was probably Rickson. “Despite all the rivalries and contradictory viewpoints,” Danaher told me, “everyone seems to agree that Rickson was fucking unbelievably good, and was better than anyone inside or outside the family.”
In 3 Steps:
A useful countermove that can be applied from the bottom position. Royce Gracie submitted Dan Severn with one to claim the 'UFC 4' championship.
‘Fighting Like a Family’
The techniques of Gracie jiu-jitsu are an essential part of the history and practice of MMA and an important source of its legitimacy to more traditionally minded martial artists. If Rickson represents the most perfect version of the Gracies’ art, then the family member who represents its aesthetic degeneration is Carlos Jr., one of Carlos’s 13 sons, who controls the global apparatus that regulates Gracie jiu-jitsu — which he calls Brazilian jiu-jitsu. A short list of the tributaries of Carlos Jr.’s empire include Gracie Barra, the foremost jiu-jitsu academy in Brazil, which has branches in the United States; the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation, which sets the rules of the sport and sponsors its most prestigious tournaments; and Gracie Magazine, a widely read jiu-jitsu publication that appears in Portuguese and English.
Hélio’s sons and their children generally agree that Carlos Jr.’s technical knowledge of the sport is poor, and they hold him responsible for watering down the family art while organizing poorly run tournaments for his own enrichment. “It’s ridiculous to see where it’s at now,” Rickson’s son Kron told me. “To see jiu-jitsu with such a big base of competitors, with such a big base of fans, and with such a big base of media — I don’t feel like he’s giving back at all to the sport. All he’s doing is making it easier for him to make money.”
When I visited the Gracie Barra branch in Irvine, California, the first thing I noticed were two dozen cute kids in crisp gis preparing for an after-school lesson. Some arrived wearing official Gracie Barra T-shirts that read “organized like a team, fighting like a family” — a slogan whose double meaning is clearly unintentional. In the gallery of Gracie heroes on the walls, Hélio and his sons were absent: The succession went from Carlos to his son Rolls and then to Carlos Jr.
Photo: Newscom/Agência O Globo/ Paulo Alvadia
A gangly man with large hands and feet to go with the asocial demeanor of a surgeon, Carlos Jr. met me at the gym and invited me upstairs to its windowless conference room, where he drummed his fingers on the table and waited for me to inquire about his disputes with his cousins. I asked about the distinctive triangle tattoo that identifies Gracie Barra fighters, which bears a striking resemblance to the interlocking bodies of Hélio and Carlos on the cover of Introduction to Jiu-jitsu. By tattooing his name on his fighters, I suggested, Carlos Jr. was both dominating them in a very literal way and also attempting to create a new family to supplant the one he helped to fracture. “They all have their own desires, their own way to go, and their own way to teach,” he explained, speaking of his cousins. “So it’s better that everyone makes their own flag.”
I suggested that there is a difference between deciding to go one’s own way and rewriting history, and Carlos Jr. nodded. “The history here is Gracie Barra history,” he said. “It’s not a Gracie history.” He admitted it was wrong that Hélio was not yet pictured and said he plans to add a large portrait of him to the walls. “I know that,” Carlos Jr. said. “But what’s happened is, one action make another action, OK?” When Rórion came to America, Carlos Jr. said, he wrote Carlos out of the family history to make Hélio seem more important. “Hélio was a bigger champion than my father was,” Carlos Jr. explained. “But my father was the one who created everything. He created the mentality. He learned jiu-jitsu first.” Rórion, Carlos Jr. suggested, fell back on jiu-jitsu when he failed as a Hollywood actor: “When he saw how great the possibilities he can have in America are, he tried to control everything. But it’s too big for one person.”
Gracie Jujitsu in Signal Hill, California, near Long Beach, is located a few blocks down from a Chevron station, across the street from a nail salon and Foster's Family Donuts. It’s a far cry from Rórion’s well-groomed academy in Torrance. A banner reading “Neutral Grounds Brazilian jiujitsu” fills the window of the long, brick-walled storefront, and Brazilian and American flags vie for attention on a nearby wall, along with pictures of Gracie family members and a poster for a local Brazilian street carnival. As traffic rushes by the open storefront door, Royce, the only Gracie to win a UFC championship belt, sits on a folding chair, his legs spread wide beneath his freshly laundered white gi.
Carlos, he recalled, ran the spiritual side of the family, and Hélio was the master of jiu-jitsu. But the real fighter in the family, he said, was his mother: “My father would say, ‘Son, when you go to the fights, don’t hurt your opponents. Do them nice and easy.’ As soon as he walked away, my mother would come over: ‘Forget all that. I should be in your corner. Break their face. Make them bleed. Hurt them.’”
Because your personality — everything that you feel — will show when you train.” — Rórion Gracie
He laughed when I wondered whether members of his family would qualify by California standards as mellow. “Mellow nothing,” he said. “They’re all intense. They’re all oranges from the same bag.” He explained that Rórion made so many enemies within the family because he gave orders. “There’s a lot of chiefs in my family, and not enough Indians,” he said. “We are all free spirits, man. We all want to be the chief.”
Behind the scenes, he said, the war between the Gracies can escalate to the edge of violence. He nodded to confirm a story I heard of a recent conflict between him and Rórion’s sons. “It was three of his sons,” Royce said. “They came over to confront me about me talking to one of their students.”
I asked how he had responded. “You come to my house to confront me?” he said, looking every inch the former champion. “Excuse me? Get the fuck out.” He said that Rórion’s sons suggested, “‘Maybe we should train someday,’” which he took as a suggestion that he would shy away from a physical confrontation with his younger nephews. His eyes went wide at the memory: “Whoa whoa whoa whoa! It’s midnight! You want to train? Let’s fucking do it right now. Either on the grass, the cement; gloves, no gloves; grappling-style, MMA-style? With a gi? How the fuck do you want to do it?”
Then Royce returned to his Zen-like state. “Wrong person, man,” he chuckled. “All this calmness, all this smile goes from zero to a hundred in a second. I am a Gracie. I am Royce Gracie, man. Don’t fuck with me.”
Having seen his aggressive side, it occurred to me that Royce was the first Gracie I’d met who had allowed more than an hour or so to pass without choking me or twisting my arm, ostensibly to demonstrate some finer point of jiu-jitsu. “I can if you want,” he offered. Then he smiled and told a Gracie family story that ended with an unfamiliar twist. “Maybe about five or six years ago, Rickson said, ‘In the perfect world, you wouldn’t be a fighter,’” Royce said. “I was like, man! After all I done?” He paused, and then smiled, in a way that conveyed a very mellow pleasure in self-knowledge. “I went home, thought about it. Call him back a week later. ‘You’re right, Rickson. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be a fighter.’”
Rickson is the one member of the family whose opinions no one on either side of the Carlos-Hélio divide ever dares dismiss. I spent months trying to interview him, until we eventually started to exchange emails in broken English and Portuguese — yet he always declined to set a specific time and date for us to meet. From what I heard, he was leading an itinerant life, moving between an apartment in Rio, beach towns up and down the Brazilian coast, and training facilities in the jungle, where he conducts seminars and impromptu classes when the spirit moves him.
I finally received an invitation from Rickson to meet him in Rio. A week later, I found Rickson beachside in a T-shirt and sunglasses, sitting on a silver beach ball. When the most athletic and powerful fighter in the history of Gracie jiu-jitsu stood up, I realized he is 2 inches shorter than I am — a far cry from the linebacker types who now regularly compete in the UFC. Before long, however, Rickson, who is now 56, removed his shirt and unveiled the torso of a well-conditioned athlete in his twenties or early thirties.
Even when he was a child, Rickson told me, he felt like a champion. “You feel people treat you different, and [you] do the best you can to really fulfill that expectation,” he said. “So every Gracie starts to feel the pressure to be a Gracie.” Growing up, he idolized Hélio, his father, as a perfect general who could do no wrong. He was startled when I said Rórion told me the story about his biological mother, who had been his nanny. “My mother was putting herself in a situation because she’s in love, a terrible love of my dad,” he said. We talked for a while about his near defeat against Funaki, as well as his training with Rolls, whom Rickson agreed was responsible for bringing Gracie jiu-jitsu into the modern age.
When I told him I was struck by the lack of fear with which he approached even the most psychologically wrenching questions, he nodded. “The school is a very interesting learning ground, because it has no divisions,” he explained, sipping water from a coconut he had purchased from a nearby vendor. “You, me, the garbage disposal guy, the son of the sheikh. We all dress in gis. We all go there with bare feet. We all show ourselves in the most important way.”
When Carlos Jr.’s name came up, Rickson’s eyes sparked with anger. “He was never comfortable on the mat,” he said of his cousin. “When jiu-jitsu went out into the world, Rórion was the one who was responsible for this primal division. Now, as a result, the master representative of our family’s name is Carlos Jr. He is a nice guy, and he is totally inexpressive in the art form.”
In 3 Steps:
A useful countermove that can be applied from the bottom position. Royce Gracie submitted Dan Severn with one to claim the 'UFC 4' championship.
As men and women on the beach watched us, he sized me up, and then instructed, “Put your arm here.” I put my arm below his collarbone, and he pressed it toward my chest. Then he positioned my arm on the other side of his body, in a way that kept me from pressing in too close. That is what jiu-jitsu is about, he explained, flipping me softly onto the white sand. I rocked back onto my hips and brought my knees up into the guard position, and he smiled. He had taught me something.
We talked for a while about technique, the growth of MMA, and whether the world still had anything left to learn from the Gracies, until I felt comfortable bringing up his son Rockson, who died of a drug overdose in 2000. At the time, Rickson said, he had no idea how to deal with loss of any kind — he had never lost anything before. “It’s like you embrace a 200-pound block of concrete and jump into the ocean,” he explained. Behind his sunglasses, tears rolled down his cheeks. For three weeks, he said, he worked from morning to night, building a tree house from which he could look out over the ocean.
“I started thinking about what is the advantage in being alive and happy,” he said. “After Rockson’s departure, I learned that you leave nothing for tomorrow. What I have learned in life is that your mind is unbreakable. It’s weak to live under pain. Before Rockson’s departure, I would have said, ‘Hey, brother, be strong. Try to be comfortable in this loss.’ Now I would tell someone, ‘Fuck, go deep in the hills. Cry. It’s painful. You cannot just hide. You are a different person now.’”
He paused and looked out over the smooth surface of the ocean, glittering in the afternoon sun. “Life is totally changeable,” he said, summarizing what he had learned from his son’s death in words that might serve equally well as the Gracie family motto — or as its epitaph: “You need to be in control of your own insignificance. You have to be happy today.”
David Samuels has profiled Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, and other mixed martial arts fighters. This is his first article for Grantland.