Back at my hotel the concierge hands me a small slip of paper that reads “Snr R. Gracie – Please call back.”
“Rickson Gracie,” I concluded. Rickson was the most famous Gracie and perhaps the only one more mythic than Hélio. He was the “champion” of the family and had taken up the mantle laid down by his father Hélio and his uncle Carlson. However, unlike both, Rickson had never been defeated. His record was 11 and 0 in sanctioned MMA matches but legend had it that he’d participated in over 400 street fights, Jiu-Jitsu, and Vale Tudo matches without ever tasting defeat. In the early 90s, while his brother Royce was fighting in the UFC, Rickson was busy becoming a sports icon in Japan. He’d parlayed his success into everything from a movie career to a successful school and private classes that cost thousands an hour. His two legendary victories over a fighter named Zulu helped resurrect Vale Tudo in Brazil after the outcry caused by João breaking his opponent’s arm on live national television.
When I met him he looked older than I expected but there was an aura of power about him. Many people doubted Rickson’s self-proclaimed 400 and 0 record but sitting across from him I thought , “It could be true.”
“In Brazil people are not inclined to accept something until you prove it,” he said. “Here people are more concerned with demonstrating power than respecting tradition and so we have always had the Gracie challenge, not to be bullies or the toughest guys in town but because, to sell our beliefs we had to be willing to confront anyone who disbelieved what we had to sell.” He leaned across the table. “And what we sell, “he continued, “is effectiveness. Effectiveness in fighting.” He let the point sink in before continuing. “The challenge was made to prove the point that we are willing to confront other styles and, over the last 50 years or so, in 95 % of the cases we have been successful.”
“In the beginning, the UFC was just a platform to show the dominance of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu against other styles.” It had been many years since a Gracie has had a high-profile win in the sport they helped create. I asked him if he thought, at least as far as the UFC is concerned, that Jiu-Jitsu was a victim of its own success. It was proven so effective that everyone adopted it, thereby negating its advantages. He didn’t answer the question directly but instead mentioned how the owners of the UFC changed the rules to make the fights more competitive and, he believed, at the expense of Jiu-Jitsu. “Standing the fighters up, gloves, reducing the time limits, all these little aspects make style a secondary component to the individual. How fast you are, how aggressive, how explosive…it is very hard for a fight to be decided in the first 3 or 5 minutes and a major aspect of Jiu-Jitsu is defense, defense, defense and then capitalizing on a mistake your opponent makes…when my dad fought he was 130 pounds. He would survive until he caught the guy in a mistake. How can you do this if there isn’t enough time?” He brings up his brother Royce in his fight against Dan Severn at UFC 4 in 1994, “Up until the moment Severn tapped out everybody thought he was beating Royce.” Even though Royce won, that match, which took place fifteen years agoit illustrated the problems Jiu-Jitsu fighters would have with solid wrestlers from then on, as was the case when Royce was defeated in devastating fashion by American wrestler Matt Hughes at UFC 60 in 2006. Hughes embarrassingly manhandled Royce before beating him into submission in the first round.
“I was surprised because I didn’t recognize my brother. I don’t know if it was his training or mental stress or whatever, but he didn’t look like himself. He made some very basic mistakes.”
Many people saw that fight not only as a defeat for Royce but one for his family’s fighting style as well. I ask Rickson if he worries that were he ever to be defeated it would be seen as similarly discrediting the discipline.
“I am basically at the end of my fighting career,” he says. “If I am lucky and they pay me what I want then I might have one more fight or I may just retire… But every time I compete I put everything at risk and if I were to lose, it would be because I made a human mistake or maybe got too old… It would be me being defeated, not Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu has already been proven. Today, to a certain degree, everybody fighting in MMA is a Jiu-Jitsu fighter.”
“Boxing is a fighting art, Karate is a fighting art. Jiu-Jitsu is a guide, a philosophy, a social movement,” says, echoing what Grandmaster Álvaro told me only a few days before. We discuss how fighting can be a powerful metaphor, something that the boxing media has been on to for years, but nobody has really picked up on yet in MMA.
“Fear, anxiety, hesitation—things that weaken a fighter in a fight—are the same things that can hold people back in life. It’s an interesting idea to explore,” I extrapolate.
“Exactly,” Rickson says, “if you could translate that to people then it would affect the audience in a much more profound way.”
“Well how do you do that?” I ask.
“I don’t know exactly,” he admits. “But today MMA is growing very fast and is this huge sensational sport but what is the message?” He says that he has little interest in mixed martial arts these days, other than for a potential big payday for one last fight— “bagging the elephant,” he calls it.
“I am in the business of building character not making fighters,” he says. “I pay the same attention to the shy guy getting bullied as I do to the guy who wants to be a fighter. I will make that guy more confident and help him regain his self-esteem. This is the priceless aspect of Jiu-Jitsu, this is the treasure. If someone says that I am just a great fighter I feel like my legs have been cut off. What I want to be is a great master.”
As I say goodbye to Rickson I realize that I have been guilty of this, of thinking of him only as a great fighter. He is more of a teacher and, to some extent, a salesman. João, Álvaro, and now Rickson are all selling the idea of the complete man. They are walking billboards for what Jiu-Jitsu can create: intelligent, striking, successful individuals who are deadly in combat. The inference is quintessentially Brazilian: if Jiu-Jitsu can make you invincible in a fight it can also make you invincible in life; the victorious fighter is a metaphor for the victorious man.