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Honoring a Legend: The Legacy of Helio Gracie

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Imaging by the Valente Brothers, used courtesy of GRACIEMAG.

Today is October 1st, the birthday of Brazilian mixed martial arts legend: Helio Gracie.  Helio Gracie passed away on January 29, 2009.  Many readers might be wondering why I would write about him on his birthday instead of the day he died?  For a man who lived such an extraordinary life and had so many remarkable accomplishments, I think it is only fit that I choose to honor him on the day of his birth rather than the day he passed.  Let me be clear on why I admire Helio Gracie so much: mixed martial arts would not be what it is today if it wasn’t for Helio Gracie.

Many mixed martial arts fans barely know anything of Helio.  For most casual MMA fans, when the Gracie name comes to mind, they think of Helio’s famous son: Royce.  Royce Gracie is without a doubt the most famous member of the Gracie Clan.  Royce gained his fame by dominating the UFC while it was still in its infancy in 1993 and 94.  Brazilian jiu-jitsu was popularized by Royce as the world watched in shock and awe as he submitted fighters that were much larger and more powerfully built than he was.  The techniques that Royce displayed, such as, armbars, triangles, side chokes, etc…  would later become standard moves that all fighters would have to know in order to be competitive in the sport.  Due to his success at UFC 1, 2, 3 and 4, many fighters began to realize that learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu was necessary for survival in a mixed martial arts fight.

Most remember Helio from these tournaments as the small old man coaching his son from the corner of the cage.  What many fans don’t know is that Royce actually learned everything he knows from that small old man. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is often referred to as Gracie jiu-jitsu for a good reason; Helio Gracie invented it.

As a child, Helio was very weak, frail and possessed little to no athletic ability.  Due to his sickly physical condition, Helio was not allowed to participate in jiu-jitsu classes.  He could only learn by watching his older brother teach from the sidelines.  This would prove to be a testament to Helio’s genius and aptitude for martial arts.  One day, a student showed up to one of Carlos’s classes, and Carlos was running a bit late, so Helio taught the class.  Carlos didn’t arrive until the class was already over.  The student asked Carlos if he could continue learning from Helio, and Carlos obliged.  Now that Helio began teaching jiu-jitsu, he realized that many of the jiu-jitsu techniques he had learned were difficult for him to execute due to his weak body.  Helio knew that in order to be a successful jiu-jitsu practitioner, he had to radically rethink many jiu-jitsu techniques in a way that would compensate for his lack of physical strength.  Therefore, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, arguably the most important martial art for a modern mixed martial artist, is a product of Helio Gracie’s determination and ironically, physical weakness.

Helio modified traditional jiu-jitsu techniques to rely less on strength and speed, and more on leverage and timing.  Traditional jiu-jitsu combat philosophy is very offensive; the strategy is to overwhelm your opponent with force, eventually making them succumb to a submission hold.  Gracie jiu-jitsu is 180 degrees the opposite, emphasizing defensive elements of strategy; patience, calmness and efficiency comprise the essence of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  Helio revamped the guard and submissions that could be used from that position in a way to be more effective against a larger, stronger and more athletic opponent.  He developed techniques to neutralize his opponent’s strength and speed by “catching” rather than “forcing” a submission on him.  After a period of time, using the process of trial and error to perfect his fighting style, Helio wanted to prove that BJJ was the most effective martial art in the world.

The 155 pound Helio Gracie began to openly challenge fighters from other disciplines.  In 1932, he submitted professional boxer Antonio Portugal in half a minute.  In a grueling fourteen three-minute round fight, he fought American pro wrestler Fred Ebert to the point of doctor stoppage due to a dangerously high fever, which led to him to undergo an emergency operation the following day.

Helio’s most famous fights are two bouts that he actually lost.  He fought renowned judo practitioner Masahiko Kamura in 1951.  It is reported that Helio actually brought a coffin to the bout that he said was for Kamura.  Kamura easily overpowered Helio and threw him around like a rag for majority of the bout.  Eventually he obtained a shoulder lock on Helio now known as a Kamura.  Helio refused to tap, so Kamura twisted the arm further and the entire stadium heard Helio’s bone break.  Still, the stubborn Helio refused to tap, so Kamura twisted the arm even further, and there was the sound of the second break.  Even after hearing (and feeling) his arm break two times, Helio still refused to tap.  Helio’s corner eventually threw in the towel, and Kamura celebrated his victory.  He looked back at Helio, disappointed and in pain, but still maintaing a defiant expression.

His second most famous fight ended up being the longest vale tudo fight in history.  His opponent was one of his top students: Waldemar Santana.  Helio and Waldemar had a disagreement when Waldemar expressed his interest in pro-wrestling.  So, they decided to settle their disagreement in the ring.  They fought for almost three hours and forty-five minutes, and the younger Santana eventually won by knocking out Helio with a kick to the head.  Later, Carlson Gracie avenged Helio’s loss to Santana by defeating him August 3rd, 1956.

The appeal and popularity of these fights did not go unnoticed by Helio’s eldest son, Rorion.  Unknown to many, Rorion Gracie was once a co-owner of the UFC, and played a significant role in bringing mixed martial arts to America.  Before the advent of UFC 1, little was known about Gracie jiu-jitsu or its success as an effective martial art; many fighters in the U.S. still believed in the superiority of the stronger, larger and more athletic fighter.  Rorion saw this as an opportunity to bring Gracie jiu-jitsu to a virtually untapped market.  He set up UFC 1, placed his brother as the fighter to represent BJJ and Helio as his primary corner man.  Well, the rest is history.

Today, no matter what background of combat sports you come from, whether that be wrestling, boxing, or karate, (among many others) you have to know BJJ to be an effective fighter in mixed martial arts.  BJJ is the most essential part of the MMA ground game and no other single martial art is as important know, or as difficult and time consuming to learn.  It has drastically changed MMA and the way the world views the sport.  Prior to the inclusion of BJJ, MMA was not viewed as a real sport by many spectators; they considered it a senseless foray of brawling and barbarism.  Now that BJJ has become such a vital part of mixed martial arts and it is known all throughout the world, we know that that’s not true.  MMA takes real athletes, not just senseless brawlers, to take time to learn sophisticated techniques that take years of dedication and discipline to master.  This is all thanks to Helio Gracie.