Several weeks ago, Spike TV aired a program titled "Ultimate Gracie", which chronicled the career of MMA legend Royce Gracie and the origins of the UFC. A great portion of the show included the roots of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and the family bringing it to US shores in the 70's and 80's. Grandmaster Helio created the legendary martial art which features superior grappling and ground fighting, and his oldest son, Rorion, was the first member to bring it to the United States. Brother Royce then showed off its power to the mainstream by winning three of the first four UFC events in the mid-90's. With the explosion in popularity of MMA over the past several years, Rorion's sons are now responsible for the Gracie Global Training Program, whose mission is to make Gracie Jiu-Jitsu available to students all around the world.
I recently had a visit to Gracie Academy Headquarters in Torrance, California and I certainly did not leave disappointed. The place is very symbolic of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu itself. From the outside, the building is very suttle and quaint, much of it hidden beneath the trees and shrub that surround it. Inside, however, it's a virtual museum, rich with pieces of Gracie history and culture, brimming with martial arts décor, and numerous pictures of Grandmaster Helio adorning the walls. A line of fight posters featuring Gracie combatants chronicles the history of their jiu-jitsu in mixed martial arts, and a tablet on the wall detailing the family tree hangs proudly.
There are, of course, several training grounds on the premises. Some are large and for big classes. Others are small and meant for private one-on-one instruction. In one hallway, between the lobby and a dojo, was a string of instructional tools such as DVDs framed on the walls that really paint a good picture as to how deep the martial art is and how mainstream it has become compared to when it first brought mainstream at UFC 1.
Black belt, instructor, and Rorion's son Rener Gracie had just finished a class teaching youngsters when I got the chance to speak with him on everything Gracie. Check out my interview below to hear all about he and the family's thoughts on the roots of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, it's impact on mixed martial arts, their view of MMA today, and their plans to grow their martial art worldwide.
RK: So Rener, how did class go today?
RG: Did you see that class right there? Those aren't fighters. Those are people. Old, young, men, women. 10, 13, 14-year-old kids and sixty-five-year old men.
RK: How do you feel about that, knowing that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu can serve all those different demographics?
RG: Yes. Not every school can do that though. Most schools that have popped up since the MMA craze began are just little fight factories. Let me take you back a bit.
RK: Yeah, for MMA fans who didn't catch "Ultimate Gracie" or just aren't as familiar with the origins of the Gracie family or the origins of the UFC, fill them in.
RG: My grandfather created Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, or as some people call it "Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu", to empower the weaker guy or the smaller guy against stronger or more athletic opponents. In doing so, he created the world's most effective self defense system for smaller people. He fought his entire fight career in Brazil, from the 30's to the 50's, to prove that his new system could enable him as the smaller guy to defeat the giants that he worked. He gained an incredible following in Brazil and is recognized as one of the first national sports heroes in Brazilian history. My father was born into it, had been learning since day one, got his black belt, graduated from law school, and then decided to leave and then come over here because he knew that if this incredible art, that had gained such strong roots in Brazil, were to get worldwide exposure and accepted, it would have to first be known, understood, and accepted in America. So in 1978, with nothing but a black belt and a dream, he started to make it happen. He had it made in Brazil. What people don't know is the risk my father took in coming here, or the difficulty of the transition is something that hasn't really been talked about or publicized too much in that he was a celebrity in Brazil. The Gracie name was as elite a celebrity status as you could get over there, but over here, nobody knew what jiu-jitsu was, nobody knew who the Gracies were, nobody cared about ground game, grappling. Nobody knew and nobody cared. Everyone was in Bruce Lee mode. They were all into striking.
My dad came out here with no foundation or anything, but he knew what he had was good. He had to teach his class through his garage. No one would let him teach it in their schools. He tried to go to Taekwondo schools and even though they had space, they wouldn't have it. They'd go, "Oh, no we don't need that; our punches and kicks are too good." Sometimes that led to some challenge matches where they fought and he'd choke these guys and they couldn't accept it so he wound up not having anywhere to train. He opened up a place here in his garage in 1978 and began teaching people there for the next eleven years. Every person he met that was interested, he'd offer a free class to and it blew up on a very local level. The word got out. Law enforcement was training in his garage. Finally, the city found out and you can't conduct a business in a house like that, he didn't have a permit, so in 1989 is when he opened up Gracie Academy Headquarters here in Torrace, California and things have blown up ever since. In 1993 he created UFC and we wanted to put on television what we already knew that even though there are hundreds of martial arts out there, none could ensure the safety and effectiveness for a smaller individual against the larger opponent like our jiu-jitsu could.
RK: And not only that, but if you don't know Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, you're like a fish out of water once you hit the ground.
RG: Yup. People didn't know that and thought that ground fighting wasn't important. Number one, ground fighting is important in any real fight. Number two, in any real fight, there is really only one system that addresses that reasonably well. There were other ground systems that existed out there at the time, but the difference was that this is the only one that was specifically designed for the unathletic to prevail, and for people who aren't naturally gifted athletes. Wrestling's a great ground fighting system, but you gotta be a beast it's not for the weak. It's for the stronger or more athletic person to prevail. So we went out to prove it. UFC 1, 2, 3, and 4, Royce ran in there and did his thing.
RK: So your father sent in Royce to make a statement since he was the smallest brother, but who did your father actually think was the best?
RG: Well, Rickson was the obvious candidate, for technical and physical reasons. He had the strength and the technique. But then that wouldn't be as convincing a victory for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu had Rickson come in and demolished all of his opponents, which he would have. Royce going in, being the smaller guy and demolishing his guys, was the much more convincing argument and he couldn't have been more right. We're all here today because of that, and the inspiration it gave changed the perception of what fighting is and accomplished that. 1994 is when the US army contacted my father. They saw what happened in the cage at UFC and recognized what that could do for our soldiers, and that's when things really took off. Since then, the army has officially adopted Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and over 1.2 million soldiers are doing it worldwide. It's part of basic training for all soldiers in the army. I was just there, in fact, this past Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of this past week. I was summoned by the commanding general to go visit them, assess their current status, and give my recommendation. I gave my assessment of what could be done to be more effective and I met with a panel of generals, colonels, first sargeants and commanders. It was an incredibly effective trip that I was happy to be part of.
RK: Did Rorion ever talk about the family's plan to make Gracie Jiu-Jitsu that ubiquitous? It's known all over the world now and is actually a de facto standard in the army. Did your father ever talk about that, growing Gracie jiu-jitsu to that point?
RG: He always knew that it would only take people seeing what it was for it to get worldwide acceptance. He had no doubt. If he did have a doubt, he wouldn't have sacrificed all of the prestige and priviledges of his native land to come to America where nobody cared about who he was or what he did. It would be too much sacrifice unless he had 100% certainty the world would be changed by it. He didn't know exactly how it'd play out, but he knew that it would eventually reach the scale that it has now, known by virtually ever martial artist out there.
The Gracie family objective has really followed a three-phase model. Phase one was my grandfather developing this incredible system. Phase two was to show the world the necessity for that system and for my father and uncles to go out there and prove how special it was. And now it's time for phase three, to teach the whole world. That was the objective from the start, but you can't teach the whole world unless you can first create, and then create a need for. Phase two was very well-accomplished, mainly thanks to the UFC, and now everyone in the world knows you have to learn jiu-jitsu. How do they learn it though? There's no structure, no plan, no curriculum, no nothing, so my brothers and I have taken it upon ourselves to do that for the family. All my life growing up, I thought the UFC was the destiny, to fight professionally in the cage with the UFC being the final goal for a Gracie family member, until this larger objective took form. The goal of my father and my ancestors wasn't to go in there and show they were badder than other people it was to say, "Hey, look what we can do. If you want to learn self-defense, this is what you should do."
So when I was 11 or so and the first UFC hit, phase two hadn't yet taken effect and the world didn't know you needed Gracie Jiu-Jitsu for martial arts. So I'm 12, 13, 14, 15 years old thinking that my goal is to show these fighters out there that's what you need. Suddenly, I'm 19, 20 years old and every professional fighter out there is using it and I realized that was no longer the goal. So for me to come in there and fight Matt Hughes and these other guys, who are also black belts in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu wouldn't quite serve the same purpose. Sure there are other Gracie family members out doing it, but it doesn't serve quite the same purpose. So now, you see two guys trying to see who's the more athletic, who's got the best strategy, but they all know jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and kickboxing. So rather than become just another player within the MMA community and win today, lose tomorrow, my brothers and I got the fire within us to find the new mission, and that was to educate people. The whole MMA thing blew up the past ten years, but the accessibility did not. Everyone claims to be an instructor now and everyone sees jiu-jitsu as the cool thing, but there isn't any structure or curriculum that makes it accessible to non-athletic people because these are all fighter schools that are popping up. So our goal has been to gear things toward them because all the other schools out there are trying to make fighters and champions.
What percent of these guys are going to be fighting in the cage at some point of their lives? One or two percent at most, yet all of these schools are focusing on those guys, so for us, it's been to make it more available on a global scale. Two methods in doing this one, open schools all over the world, and two, create the most comprehensive educational system in martial arts. Gracie Combatants is an instructional DVD we have based on the program we put together for the army. GracieUniversity.com, we are in the process of loading every single technique of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu online too. Every move, every detail, so that you take every single class we've ever given as if you'd been taking classes in person for the past ten years.
RK: Did your family happen to catch the program "Ultimate Gracie"? If so, what'd you all think?
RG: It was great. Excellent.
RK: Joe Rogan made a comment on there in regards to watching Royce in those first UFCs, " and people started to realize that all these martial arts they've been doing for thousands of years were a complete waste of time."
RG: Joe couldn't have been more right.
RK: How do you feel about the maturity of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu since it started going mainstream not even twenty years ago? I mean, boxing has been around for a hundred years, but MMA is still fairly new, and only now are you seeing little kids busting out choke holds and kimuras.
RG: I think it will continue to grow, but unfortunately, due to lack of tradition in the general MMA practice, it's often going to be used for the wrong reasons. Some kids might be getting weapons without the respect or discipline that comes with it and that's a concern. But ultimately, I think it will do more good than harm and fall into the right hands earlier in life so that kids won't have to deal with being bullied. My grandfather always said, "If everyone knew jiu-jitsu, the world would be a better place," because everyone would have confidence and respect for the other person because they don't know what the other guy knows.
RK: Describe a Gracie family get-together.
RG: The whole family can't get together because it's just too big. Too spread out, too many lives, too many schedules. My direct family has lunch every day in the house and that's our big family meal. But our bigger get-togethers are always very positive . Lots of love, lots of choke holds.
RK: Awesome. You guys actually spar?
RG: Oh yeah, we gotta explore bro.
RK: How much has it evolved? Are you guys still learning new techniques?
RG: Yes, yes. The principles are the same, like energy, timing, leverage, movement, etc., but there have been many techniques that we've adapted, lots of times based on dealing with different body types, just like my grandfather adapted the techniques he learned for himself.
RK: To what degree does the family follow the big MMA shows, like UFC and Strikeforce?
RG: Not so much really. My brothers and I just started really following ourselves. We just recently started doing Gracie Breakdowns, which are basically YouTube-like videos where we break down what went down in big fights. They get a lot of views. We go over big fights where a submission was used. For example, Chael Sonnen against Anderson Silva, we try to show what Sonnen was doing, what Silva was doing to react, and so forth, so we can show the more casual MMA fan what's going on behind the scenes. By showing them the technique and beauty behind it, we hope to inspire them to take it up on their own.
RK: Does the family glow a little when you watch a big fight where a guy like Silva gets dominated for the entire fight and then turns around and finishes it with a Gracie submission? Even Fedor's reign just ended with a submission.
RG: Yeah, definitely. We broke that one down too. But even Chael's fight, for him to last that long and escape arm bars and triangles, his jiu-jitsu was on point too. Even if it isn't the focal point of what's going on at the moment, there's so much jiu-jitsu going on behind the scenes.
RK: Is the family happy to see how much MMA and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu has exploded in the past ten years?
RG: Yeah, it's been great, but it's also a little sad to see people watch it with the same disconnect that they have watching professional football. They can't really relate they just watch because it's fun to watch. That's what's changed. When they watched Royce in the first UFC's, people related. People would watch and go, "Whoa, I'm not a big guy, but neither is he. I want to learn what he's doing." The value is great, but it's just that disconnect that's the problem. But other than that, it's a great spectacle, great entertainment, and an overall big movement for jiu-jitsu.
RK: Were you guys surprised to see MMA become the dominant combat sport in popularity, even surpassing boxing now?
RG: No, not at all. My dad called it back in '93. It's more entertaining and more real.
RK: Do you think the big stars of MMA deserve to be getting paid boxers' salaries? Should Brock Lesnar be bringing in $20-$40 million for his fights, like Floyd Mayweather?
RG: If they're bringing in that kind of money, I don't see why not. The UFC definitely has that monopoly right now, so they can really control all those cards. But it'll get there, I think.
RK: Do you think in twenty or forty years, there'll still be just one promotion out there with 90% of the talent?
RG: Someone with a lot of money would have to come in and make a big investment in their fighters to pull them away from the UFC. If someone starts paying these guys what they're worth and attracts them that way, then it'll create competition with the UFC and they'll have to pay them more. But somebody would have to come in with big, big money.
RK: The stories of your father and uncles stepping into other martial arts dojos and showing them who's boss are legendary. Tell me one I haven't heard before.
RG: When my dad first came here and he was looking for a place to train, he went into a Taekwondo school. The guy who ran the school was Hee Il Cho, a bigtime, BIGTIME Taekwondo guy. My dad walked in and said, "Hey, I want to train. You guys need a good ground guy?" He goes, "No, we don't need that stuff around here. We kick." My dad says, "Well, your Taekwondo's good, but not as good as you think. The guy goes, "You want to test it out?" My dad says, "Yeah, let's do it."
My dad gets dressed and comes out. There are about thirty people in the room. They get to it and Cho is trying to line up that perfect kick, and as we've always done, my dad closes the distance and BOOM, takes him to the ground. He gets on top of the guy and the guy's going crazy. As my dad is mounted on him, he's holding onto Cho's throat with one hand to control him, sits up and says to the crowd, "See guys, this is a bad position to be in because I now have control, but he can't hit me and he can't get out."
RK: So he became the instructor.
RG: Yeah, at the moment. He was trying to make a point. So some guys come and pull my dad off and Cho goes, "Alright, now let's do this for real this time." My dad comes in, gets him in the clinch again, pulls him down again. Cho is going berserk. One of the assistants runs to grab a barbell so my dad dives off to tackle him and suddenly there are all these guys going nuts. Cho kicks my dad out and as my dad's leaving, five or six guys follow him out. They ask him, "What's that you did in there?" He goes, "Gracie Jiu-Jitsu." They say, "We've never heard of that," and he says, "You will."
My dad won all kinds of challenge matches after that. Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, all these bigtime kickboxing, karate, and Taekwondo guys always got choked out. It was never ego-driven; always just to educate. It makes sense to do now, but looking back, no one did it. You only saw it in "Bloodsport", but that was just a movie.
RK: Any last words?
RG: Again, our quest now is to take the average casual MMA fans and teach them the beauty of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. But you can't see it when guys like Brock Lesnar are using it and it's hard to relate unless you're in the cage with them. It was created to empower those who aren't the best natural athletes. And if you have any questions about it, go to GracieUniversity.com to check it out. There's a lot of beauty and value to it that you can't get just by watching UFC.
RK: Rener, thanks for your time. I'm sure MMA fans out there will get to reading about all of this.
RG: No problem.
To find a Gracie certified training center near you, visit www.gracieacademy.com. To look into their online curriculum, which features classes that can be taken at whatever pace you desire and includes a testing center where a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt will personally critique your performance and award credentials, visit www.gracieuniversity.com.