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The Gracies: A family tradition

11/13/2013
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Dana White: Evolution of Style

UFC President Dana White tells Todd Grisham how his style as president has changed since 2001.

The skinny kid wearing pajamas and a thousand-yard stare? He can't be serious.

This was the crowd underestimating Royce Gracie when he stepped into the Octagon for the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event on Nov. 12, 1993, in Denver.

They hadn't heard of Gracie, 26, barely 170 pounds soaking wet. They weren't aware of his family. They were ignorant to his style of fighting and, understandably enough, the piece of history that was about to unfold.

What they knew, based on a quick glance, was he didn't have a mark on his face, maybe not even a nick from shaving. In mere moments, wearing a karate man's robe held fast by a black belt, this unthreatening soul would be locked into a cage for anything-goes combat.

McNichols Sports Arena buzzed by the time Gracie made his way out. His was the third contest of a pioneering eight-man single-night tournament, which paid the winner $50,000 and, it turned out, much much more.

UFC 1 was literally kicked off by Dutchman Gerard Gordeau sending Teila Tuli's tooth flying like a meteor with a foot to the mouth. And it followed up with hefty American striker Kevin Rosier stomping the head of Zane Frazier.

Waiting to challenge boxer Art Jimmerson next, Gracie watched the carnage unfold on a television inside his locker room.

When Tuli took a foot to the face and the 400-plus-pound sumo wrestler fell where he stood, the consensus was worth chuckling about. They all agreed he should have known Gracie jiu-jitsu.

If the UFC rendered a monster like Tuli to tears, this Royce guy was going to be in trouble. Appearances, however, were designed to be deceiving. Chosen by his eldest brother Rorion for reasons that weren't limited to a slim build and fresh face, Royce was not the top fighter in his family. Another older brother, Rickson, cut a far more imposing figure, with a sterling reputation as a technician and street fighter.

Gracie loyalists had hoped to see Rickson raze the competition. But that wouldn't fit with what the clan, namely Rorion, intended to accomplish. The proliferation of Gracie jiu-jitsu -- a grappling art of self defense created, refined and tested in Brazil -- needed an everyman, much like its creator Helio Gracie, who dedicated a life to refining the skills that Royce was about to showcase.

"Until it came to America," Royce said, "the world never heard of it."


A lifetime of teaching

It's difficult to get a handle on the number of Gracies currently walking the earth.

There could be over 700, though most estimates sit at just under 300. The point is, Gracie progeny, with Scottish, Latin and Brazilian blood coursing through their veins, are everywhere.

"It's hard to keep track of those guys," Rorion said. "They're all over the place."

So, then, is their family business.

Of Gastao Gracie's 41 grandkids, 30 belonged to his boys Carlos and Helio -- who found time also to create, define and differentiate their jiu-jitsu from the Japanese system first exposed to them by Mitsuyo Maeda in 1917.

An army for the art, if you will. "I think they were planning on that," Royce said of his father and uncle.

Carlos studied privately with the famed judoka prizefighter, absorbing lessons that, with Helio's tweaking, innovation and care, have passed down through generations of Gracies and non-Gracies alike.

Amazingly, physical activity didn't agree with Helio when he was young. He was the last of Gastao's eight kids, and nearly died when he was born. Running up stairs sometimes led to fainting spells. As an adult he was slight, no more than 130 pounds on a 5-foot-7 frame.

Doctors determined it was best that when Carlos taught, Helio only watched. Observation proved to be one of the old man's great powers over the course of his immense life, which concluded in 2009 at the age of 95.

The story goes that after 16-year-old Helio substitute taught for Carlos, he'd never not teach again. In fact, improving and simplifying jiu-jitsu, creating principles and methodology around a grappling art that allowed a smaller person protection against a larger one, became driving forces.

As he got started on his quest, Helio realized that watching was different from teaching, and teaching is different from applying. He needed techniques that could work in the street for him, the frail man. Nothing less would do. Soon moves became more efficient. Entries made more sense. The results produced improved leverage and a better chance of subduing an attacker.

"Whatever he did, he was trying to do it the simplest, the easiest, the most practical way possible," Rorion said. "Jiu-jitsu was his thing but he imparted his ways in any way he could, yes, beyond the mat.

"Everything has to be 100 percent. I learned that from him."

Cutting grass. Peeling an apple. Building a fence. Keeping a clean academy. Offering suggestions to random people doing everyday acts. Even the way he drove reflected Helio's commanding personality.

The family owned a summer home in the mountains, and the patriarch drove up and back many weekends. He'd ignore traffic markers while driving in the middle of a two-lane highway if that was something he wanted to do. He also executed personal challenges, like if he hit the brakes five times down the mountain, the next trip he aimed to do it in four. He drove left-handed one trip, right-handed another, using only one side to shift gears and steer along the way.

"Stories are part of teaching because there are lessons in stories," said Rorion's first born, Ryron. "My grandfather was for sure the master of telling the most stories."

In commemoration of what would have been Helio's 100th birthday, six of his grandchildren -- Rener, Rhalan, Kron, Ralek, Kroyler and Ryron -- hosted a seminar and dinner in the grand master's name in downtown Los Angeles in early October. One hundred participants flew in from all over the world to share techniques and memories. More than 160 showed up to a dinner featuring the famous Gracie Diet, at $125 a head. Rorion's plan was two decades in and had been a success. Gracie jiu-jitsu had become big business over the course of Helio's life.

The ninth-degree red belt, Gracie jiu-jitsu's highest ranking, hadn't attended school beyond the second grade, and yet he grew into a cultured, confident, iconic figure, whose principles and influence cast a wide net around the world.

"People listen to stories about Helio but it's hard to put it together," said his second-oldest son, Relson. "It's hard to realize how much he did and how tough he is."

Teaching "became not only a passion for him, but like a disease," Rorion said. "He was just absolutely dominated by the desire of finding ways to make the student understand and execute the techniques better."


'That's how the West was won'

Richard Bresler is the first person in America to be taught Gracie jiu-jitsu.

Bresler had placed an ad offering a waterbed mattress for sale, and Rorion Gracie's roommate at the time left a message asking about it. When Bresler called back, Gracie answered and informed him that another mattress had been scooped up. But he was interested. Twenty minutes later Rorion was in Marina Del Rey, and, confident and likable, negotiated a deal for the mattress, plus $45 in sheets for a third of that price.

Walking downstairs Gracie asked the slender Bresler if he'd trained in martial arts before. Bresler said he had about three months of boxing lessons, but it was less than that. Rorion talked up the Graces as a family of champions.

"I'm thinking to myself, yeah, sure you are," said Bresler, who accepted a free lesson anyhow.

A year later, the first of October, 1980, Bresler used his credit to rent a house with Rorion in Hermosa Beach. This is where the teaching happened, the first U.S. territory flying the Gracie jiu-jitsu flag was a garage.

"The plan was to come back to American and establish jiu-jitsu for the rest of the world," Rorion said. "By that time I realized if something happened in America, the world would hear about it because jiu-jitsu had been in Brazil for the last 60 years and no one in America had any idea."

Rorion first visited the U.S. in 1969. He was 17 and had his return ticket and cash stolen while staying at the YMCA in Hollywood, Calif. The airline needed six months to issue a new ticket, and he had to call home to let his father know. He told the old man not to worry, that he loved the States so much that he had chosen to extend his trip.

"I hung up the phone and had no money to eat," Rorion said.

Gracie flipped burgers at White Castle. He panhandled. He slept under newspapers on the sidewalk. This was the real world, hard, but a chance to escape the Gracie umbrella with all its prestige and pressure in Brazil. He would visit America again before moving here permanently following law school in 1978. He felt if people knew jiu-jitsu, the world would be better. Confidence promotes tolerance, understanding and patience. He wanted to make people like Bresler, who was into Quaaludes and cocaine and going nowhere fast, aware this was a path to a changed life.

Weekends were busy enough at the garage that Rorion decided to quit his day job as an extra for television shows such as "Fantasy Island," "Quincy," "Love Boat" and "The Rockford Files."

"It got to the point I was teaching jiu-jitsu lessons from Monday at 7 in the morning through Sunday at 9 o'clock at night," he said. "That's 630 classes a month. All private, at $10 bucks a pop."

Rorion encouraged his students to find challenges for him. On random nights of the week people piled in to see a karate guy get dominated. It was like a baptism, and converts came out the other side eager to learn the ways of this effective art from Brazil.

"That's how the West was won," Rorion said. "One by one. Little by little."


The $100,000 challenge

A wall at the Gracie museum in Torrance features press clippings from Helio's bouts, some of which garnered front page national attention in Brazil.

Fighting is how the efficacy of jiu-jitsu was proved. Helio considered himself a teacher, not a fighter, though into his 90s he was said to be ready to go at the drop of a hat. Carlos backed away from training when Helio took over. By the time the elder brother was 36, he had taken off the gi for good. Instead, he shifted his focus to engineering the Gracie Diet and negotiating fights for his once-frail sibling.

From 1932 to 1967, Helio fought 19 times. He didn't win all of them, but, like his sons and grandsons, was fearless in pursuit.

Representing his father's style in a new country meant Rorion had to prove to locals that it worked. Martial arts in North America at the time was thought of mostly as something Bruce Lee did. Standup kickboxing, a term coined by Benny "The Jet" Urquidez in 1976, was the preferred method. So, it made some sense that "The Jet" was the first to face a challenge from a family he had never heard of before.

Bresler's brother had a connection to a karate studio, so a match was set. After some shuffling, the initial instructor fell out but Urquidez, a world champion, thought it would be fun to spar.

"I had no idea idea who Benny 'The Jet' was," Rorion claimed. "I'd never heard of him in my life."

The same was true for Urquidez, an all-time great kickboxer who claimed to engage in anything-goes fights all the way back in 1973. His mother was a professional wrestler and his father a boxer. He earned black belts in multiple disciplines, including judo.

Bresler broke it down and the fight was on. Urquidez wanted to know what sort of crowd would be coming. Photographers or reporters? No. OK, it was on for a Wednesday night.

Gracie drove to the West Valley YMCA with Bresler, Bresler's mom, who was behind the wheel, and his girlfriend, who would later become Ryron's mother. Rorion remembers arriving to see "The Jet" warming up, kicking a heavy bag. He met the kickboxer's brothers, all introduced as champions of some sort. On went the kimono, and Rorion was left to decide if they should spar on a basketball court or on mats.

"I said, 'I don't care,'" Rorion remembered, taking in a deep breath so he could laugh through the next sentence. "Do you want to land on the hardwood floor or do you want to land on the mat?"

They headed to the mat, briefly debated going half speed or full. Bresler recalls a less than noteworthy encounter, with not much more happening than hand waving. Rorion remembers sparring half a dozen times, doing what he wanted and earning Urquidez's respect. After, Gracie touted his art, not himself, and turned the tables on Bresler, setting up a sparring session for his first American student.

"I've never done anything like that before in my life," Bresler said.

Bresler answered the call, put on his gi, then stepped on the mat against one of Urquidez's purple belts. Quickly he pulled guard and went for a collar choke. Rorion waved him off, then told Bresler he didn't "want those guys to see anything I do."

Gracie and Urquidez flirted with the idea of a match a couple of years later. Gracie was supposed to put up $100,000 for a chance to win Urquidez's kickboxing title, but the terms weren't right, so he passed.

However, the infamous "$100,000 challenge" emerged from the deal's ashes.

"It never happened, but I thought about it and that was brilliant," Urquidez said. "Money cannot buy that kind of publicity."

Bresler, who teaches jiu-jitsu in Los Angeles and was the first person to teach me over a decade ago, was told to find the toughest guys he could. He had chances to negotiate deals for Rorion to fight Chuck Norris, going to Las Vegas for talks in 1988. He spoke with Bob Wall about getting Dennis Alexio to fight Rickson Gracie. None of those attempts panned out, and it wasn't until UFC 1 when the wind finally shifted in the direction Rorion hoped it would.


Looks can be deceiving

By the time Royce Gracie was 14 he knew what it was like to spar with fully grown men. Three years later, in 1984, he departed Brazil for Rorion's garage in Hermosa Beach. And less than a decade later, Royce represented the family for their most important showcase yet.

"Yeah, I knew it was going to be a big deal," he said of UFC 1. "If I lost it may change the course. But, I kept it under control."

He didn't look of someone who could be tough enough to handle a guy like Ken Shamrock. But he did, choking out the grappler in 57 seconds to advance to the finals against Gordeau. Before the championship contest, Helio offered words of encouragement and confidence. It took 104 seconds for Royce to seal the deal, locking in a rear-naked choke that history will note was held for a few ticks too long.

Ritz crackers and apple juice served as a makeshift post-tournament celebratory meal, then he went to bed, sore, he said, despite not taking a punch.

"If I lost I would have been surprised," Royce said. "I won. What would I have been surprised for? I trained."

Helio, the perfectionist, reveled at the site of one of his sons proving once again what they all accepted as truth: No art could beat Gracie jiu-jitsu. Said Royce: "His smile said everything."

After UFC debuted, the academy in Torrance experienced an influx of students. Group classes had rarely featured more than five or six students at a time. "All of a sudden it went to this acceleration of people wanting to learn jiu-jitsu," Bresler said. Classes increased in size from five to 25, and they stayed that way.

Showcase Gracie jiu-jitsu to America, the world will follow. That was the premise, and it worked.