Great Masters: Helio and Carlos

The legend of the Gracie family goes like this: In 1917 a Japanese Judo expert named Mitsuyo Mayeada, or Count Koma, a man who claimed to be the victor in over 2000 fights and billed himself as the toughest man in the world, was traveling through Brazil, performing demonstrations of his fighting style, which was a combination of Judo, catch wrestling and tricks he’d picked up in his many fights all over the world. While performing in a circus, he befriended the owner, a prominent Brazilian businessman named Gastão Gracie who offered to help him get established in Belém.

When Count Koma noticed that Gastão’s oldest son Carlos had become fascinated with his exotic exhibitions of fighting prowess he offered to teach the boy and his brothers Japanese Jiu-Jitsu.  Carlos soaked up what the Count taught him and after four years he opened his own school to teach Jiu-Jitsu to Brazilians in the wild North Country where the Gracie’s lived.

The youngest of the Gracie brothers was thirteen-year-old Hélio, a fiery and determined boy but one burdened with a weak and sickly body.  He was asthmatic, weak, and subject to embarrassing fainting spells. His older brothers deemed Koma’s strenuous Jiu-Jitsu too dangerous for Hélio and only allowed him to observe classes. Perhaps, they calculated, his interest would fade and he would leave the fighting and training to his older, tougher brothers. Undeterred, Hélio sat in the same place watching the classes all day for two years.

He took in everything he saw and came to an intuitive conclusion that would change his life and alter the course of martial arts.  Much of what Count Koma had taught his brothers, Hélio deduced, required a speed of execution and athleticism he knew he’d never have, but certain moves relied instead on timing and technique, and these he knew he could master with enough practice.  He secretly began honing and refining these moves and the now 16-year-old Hélio created his own form of martial art.

One day when Carlos was late arriving at the school, Hélio saw his chance to unveil what he had been working on in secret. He jumped in and started teaching the class. When Carlos arrived he was surprised to find that a coup had taken place in the dojo.  All his students now said they preferred Hélio as teacher.  Not one to fight a rising tide, Carlos agreed and moved into a more business-oriented position within the school and taught fewer and fewer students, while Hélio became the new head instructor.

Not long after Carlos ran the following ad in a Rio newspaper:


Carlos was confident that the Jiu-Jitsu being taught by the Gracie family was the most effective fighting system in the world and if people doubted the claim the best way to prove it, he reasoned, would be to let anyone who dared to come fight it out with the Gracies. Over the next 30 years, the Gracie Challenge would become world famous and, it would be weak little Hélio who would fight the highest profile matches.  Fighting in gymnasiums, dojos, or packed auditoriums Hélio would defend the honor of his art against men like Sato, Kimura, Zybysko, and Santana. Hélio became a sports idol in Brazil and his well-cultivated myth and that of the Gracie family grew. Both Hélio and Carlos’ sons made the family business their own, expanding and refining the art of Jiu-Jitsu with each of the two brothers descendants contending that it was their ancestor who was, in fact, the true father of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.