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Tap Houston: A Sit Down With Royce Gracie ‘The Godfather of MMA’ – Part I

BRITT HOFFMANN, TAP HOUSTON
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Photo By Britt Hoffmann

Photo By Britt Hoffmann

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“If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill tap anyone.” -Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part II (1974)? He said that right?

Just as Michael Corleone took over for his father, Don Corleone, Royce Gracie took the reigns from his father, Helio Gracie, after his legendary performances in UFC 1-4 beginning in 1993.

*FYI – In Portuguese, the letter “R” is pronounced with and “H” sound on the front of words. “H’s” are silent. Your’re gonna want to remember that as you read on.

Royce Gracie’s older brother, Rorion, was the founder of the UFC which debuted November 12, 1993. Prior to that, their father, Helio, was the founder of Gracie Jiu Jitsu (now widely know as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) in 1925 after learning traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu techniques taught to his brothers by Esai Maeda beginning in 1914. Since then, the art of Gracie Jiu Jitsu has grown from a family way of life, to a major piece of Brazilian culture, into an international phenomenon that spawned today’s fastest growing sport in the world…MMA.

Jiu-Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie (USA) receives a $50,000 check after becoming "The Ultimate Fighter" by defeating Gerard Gordeau of the Netherlands int he finals of the Ultimate Fighter Championships in Denver, Colorado. (Far left: Helio Gracie; Center Royce Gracie; Far right: Rorion Gracie)

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie (USA) receives a $50,000 check after becoming “The Ultimate Fighter” by defeating Gerard Gordeau of the Netherlands in the finals of the Ultimate Fighter Championships 1 in Denver, Colorado. (Far left: Helio Gracie; Center Royce Gracie; Far right: Rorion Gracie) Photo By: Markus Boesch/Getty Images

Having begun training at a Royce Gracie affiliate, it’s been quite a different experience for me than most who decide they want to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA techniques. Believe it or not, though most people will tell you Gracie Jiu Jitsu (GJJ) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) are pretty much “tomato-tamahto” and while each originated with the Gracie Family, there is quite a difference.

What’s the significance in the difference? Well, because many don’t know the difference, when it comes to learning, some may chose to drink from the well, some from the  puddle beside it (if that makes any sense). They both come from the same place, but one is more pure than the other.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gracie in person at a seminar at Sugar Land MMA where he visited one of his hand-picked instructors, Chad Kight, to personally teach his students and evaluate their progress. Gracie does this about six months out of the year traveling the globe on seminar tours and teaching students and law enforcement self-defense techniques.

The discussion began by asking about the motive for creating the UFC, the house Royce Gracie built. Many remember the controversy this promotion triggered calling it “barbaric” and “human cock-fighting”. In life, the logic in an idea is often found beneath actions that cause emotional reaction of those that don’t make the effort to gain understanding. In this case, Gracie stated:

The goal behind it [UFC 1] was to show which style was the best. Everybody claimed that their style was the best, so the goal was to put them together and actually see who’s was the best.

His response was simple enough, which is typical of most Gracies you might speak with – simple and direct. Those in the Jiu Jitsu world know some history of the Gracie’s but that side of things seems to be fleeting knowledge today. Royce Gracie’s father, Helio Gracie, was who started the BJJ/Gracie Jiu Jitsu revolution in Brazil in 1925. Royce’s brothers, Rorion and Rickson have put GJJ & MMA on a global platform. So how has modern MMA changed the family’s progress in spreading Gracie Jiu Jitsu throughout the world? In a thick Portuguese accent, Gracie explained:

In the beginning it was more like a quest to find out which style is the best. Today what change is the strategy, time limit, of course they add that. It became and athlete against an athlete so all the standup fighters had to learn how to grapple, how to do Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Even the grapplers, like wrestlers, they had to learn submissions. They had to learn Gracie Jiu Jitsu and the grappler also have to learn stand up so it became more of an athlete who can deliver the strategy better.

Because of Helio Gracie’s small stature his objective was always “to empower the weak against the strong”. Since today’s MMA employs weight classes and time limits, I wondered if it helped or hurt the philosophy of self-defense in Jiu Jitsu versus Jiu Jitsu in MMA? Gracie added:

It helps Gracie Jiu Jitsu. I mean it helps because, without GJJ, if you only practice Karate, for instance, it’s very hard for you to win the fight. If you only do Karate, its good standing up, but they don’t have any grappling. So
without our techniques on the ground, they won’t be able to survive too long.

There’s a difference in Jiu Jitsu for MMA and Jiu Jitsu as a means of self-defense and this is part of the Gracie Philosophy. There’s even Jiu Jitsu specifically for tournament. Each is it’s own game. So you might aske, has modern MMA helped or hurt learning Jiu Jitsu as a means of self-defense? Gracie said:

It helps Jiu Jitsu. Look at the world today. 20 years ago there were no kids in America learning Jiu Jitsu. They didn’t know how to defend themselves. The UFC is like a dream to them. Instead of football or basketball, kids say, “I wanna be a UFC fighter!” But to get there, everyone must learn Jiu Jitsu so when they come to a Gracie school, they automatically learn self-defense before they ever learn anything about MMA. You have to start with the basics first.

This philosophy was demonstrated when Rorion carefully chose Royce over his brother Rickson who was the “family champion” at the time and, pound for pound, one of the best, if not the best of all time. Royce’s small frame was perfectly suited for demonstrating the effectiveness of Gracie Jiu Jitsu as he declares regarding Rorion’s choice:

He’s my brother. What can I say? He [Rickson] was the first champ. Then I win UFC championship but it’s no competition for the family. At the time Rickson was over 200 lbs. If he goes in and win, people will say it’s because he’s a big, strong guy and the art becomes lost. Why did Rorion choose me? You have to ask him. I was skinner then and fought all the bigger guys and submit them. That way people say, “Wow, that little guy beat the bigger guy with Jiu Jitsu. I want to learn that.” So know look what we have. The UFC is huge and everybody learns Jiu Jitsu.

Gracie (left) demonstrates self-defense techniques with  SLMMA owner, Chad Kight, using real world scenarios.

Gracie (left) demonstrates self-defense techniques with SLMMA owner and Royce Gracie Instructor, Chad Kight (right), using real world scenarios.

Casual fans or folks interested in learning the art might ask, “Who cares about the history? Why is that even important?” The takeaway from the conversation is that the Gracie Family does everything with the purpose of sharing the knowledge of Gracie Jiu jitsu and a healthy lifestyle. Within this principle is the consistent simplicity of fundamentals of self-defense.

The truth is, while many view the originally no-holds-barred promotion as a blood sport and human cockfighting, the message was the principle of self-defense using the art of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. So if you casually watch MMA or you may be thinking of joining a gym to learn Jiu Jitsu. The choice you make in choosing a school is more significant to the knowledge you end up with than you may think.

Look for The Godfather of MMA Parts II and III in the coming days. Royce discusses how to find the right gym, where to find  true Gracie Jiu Jitsu, who influenced his career, and his thoughts on transgender fighter Fallon Fox SI.com reported in early March. 

-Britt Hoffmann, Tap Houston

Royce Blue Belt

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