The Gracie Way
When it was announced that Royce Gracie was returning to the UFC in 2006 to meet then-welterweight champion Matt Hughes, the jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts worlds were abuzz with talk of the man who dominated the early UFC’s with his then-mysterious brand of grappling known as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. But for all the praise being thrown in his direction at that moment, Royce would not accept it.
“The legend is my father,” said Gracie of Helio Gracie, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 95. “He’s the man who created this whole no holds barred deal, who came up with the concepts. I’m just a fighter; I’m just doing my job.”
But Jiu-Jitsu was never a job for Royce, Rickson, Rorion, Royler, or any of the siblings that bore the Gracie name. It certainly wasn’t a job for Helio, who instead saw his art as a way of life.
Born in Belem do Para, Brazil on October 1, 1913, Helio was a frail teenager who was forbidden to take part in the jiu-jitsu lessons his brother Carlos was giving at his academy because doctors thought they were too strenuous. But Helio watched his brothers and memorized every move they made on the mat. And in a stroke of fate, he one day filled in for Carlos as an instructor, and students soon requested to be taught by Helio, who not only refined the techniques, he added to them, eventually becoming the most proficient jiu-jitsu master in the world, and patriarch of the most prominent family in the art.
He was no stranger to fighting either, with his epic battles against Yassuiti Ono, Kato, Masahiko Kimura, and Valdemar Santana, all important touchstones in Gracie family lore.
Of course, it wasn’t until 1993 and the launch of the Ultimate Fighting Championship that the Gracie name and Jiu-Jitsu finally exploded on the world scene, and with that notoriety, fans have seen Jiu-Jitsu become an important ingredient in the arsenal of any successful mixed martial artist. Put simply, if you can’t fight on the ground, you won’t last long in mixed martial arts or in a real fight for that matter.
But despite the Gracie name being almost synonymous with Jiu-Jitsu and with anyone bearing the name being a target for those wishing to test the system out in a fight, Helio never pushed his sons where they didn’t want to go.
“My father never forced me to do anything,” Royce Gracie told me in 2006. “He just said, ‘learn it, and if you want to use it, use it, and if you don’t, don’t.’ When the time came, I stepped into the Octagon and that’s what I chose to do. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid and it’s just a part of my life, it’s part of my family, and it’s just what I do.”
It’s also become a part of mixed martial arts, meaning that the loss of Helio Gracie is a loss for the sport.
Rest in peace.