Rickson Gracie

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.”

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America Meets Jiu Jitsu

His Jiu-Jitsu was founded on the principle that the weak can defeat the strong and what better way to prove this than fight against a larger, stronger opponent. He wanted to prove that any man, as long as he learned the closely guarded secrets of the Gracie system, could attain invincibility.

On November 12, 1993 Hélio Gracie watched from the crowd as Royce, the youngest of his seven sons, jogged to a steel cage at the head of a long line of family members. As they passed, Hélio met his son’s eyes, his leonine gaze steeling the young man’s courage. If Hélio, had an ounce of concern he didn’t show it. The old man’s aura of confidence was the fulcrum of a giant machine that, after this night, would get much bigger.

A man who left nothing to chance, Hélio ensured that all the variables were set for his son to be victorious. Royce’s first match was against a boxer, the most vulnerable of all the fighters in the tournament.  His older brother Rickson, who had much more experience and was known by the family to be the better fighter, was in his brother’s corner.  Most in the family thought Rickson should represent the Gracies in the tournament but Hélio was a man who knew the value of spectacle.

His Jiu-Jitsu was founded on the principle that the weak can defeat the strong and what better way to prove this than fight against a larger, stronger opponent.  He wanted to prove that any man, as long as he learned the closely guarded secrets of his system, could attain invincibility.  

To prove this to the Americans, to put the focus on the art and not the individual, Helio knew it had the slight and unassuming Royce and not the fierce-looking Rickson who made the point. The referee for the match was a trusted family friend and one of Hélio’s first and greatest students, João Alberto Baretto. João was a veteran of many such cage wars and was therefore one of the few people in the world qualified to referee such a no-holds-barred match.

 The fight itself should be an afterthought, knew Helio.  If Royce made no mistakes he’d win.  The Jiu-Jitsu Hélio armed his sons with over the course of their lives is flawless. The only way for Royce to lose is if he veered from the path; if human frailty somehow polluted the mathematical perfection of Hélio’s precise system of leverage, position, and form.  To those unfamiliar with it, his Jiu-Jitsu was an endless maze, an imponderable series of puzzles, a bottomless pit, and by the night’s end it would be a revelation.

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Levy

One of the really remarkable people I worked with in MMA  was the Brazillian photographer named Levy Ribeiro. The person that referred Levy to me emailed me in advance, ” When you meet him don’t be surprised. He’s really short;  a dwarf.”  And so he was. He was also a fine photographer and a big asset.

Levy loved MMA and its athletes. He’d been around the fight scene in Brazil for a long time and everybody knew him in the gyms. He was small and dexterous and could dart around in between the fighters when they trained in the close quarters of the cramped Rio gyms. I watched him move around the mats while 200-pound men hurled each other back and forth, crashing loudly. He’d get as close as possible, snapping pictures, occasionally darting out the way, just in the nick of time if a giant body came hurtling toward him.  He always photographed the fighters from angles that made them seem large and heroic and I really liked his work.

The fighters in Rio accepted Levy but the people in the street were different.  They’d gawk, point and snicker openly at him. He was unfazed, always plodding doggedly ahead, camera around his neck, impervious to the dozen petty indignities he surely endured on a daily basis.  I grew to admire him. He illustrated how in the taxonomy of courage, the grand gestures and scintillating victories of the fighters he photographed are classed beside the quieter tests of strength of men like him; private displays of valor known only to themselves.

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The Jab

The knowledge that you can knock a man out with one punch, that however far behind you fall in the fight, you can still pull it out with one shot can be dangerous in a fighter. It can lead to passivity in the early rounds and letting a match slip away. The Jab is different.  The Jab is commitment. The Jab is steady. The Jab is knowledge. The Jab is technique. You take control with the Jab. It makes life easy in the ring. The Jab is fundamental. The Jab sets up the bigger, more impressive shots. The Jab is simple. The Jab is your most important punch.    

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