For the next five days (including today) I will be breaking down who I believe are the most important and influential people in Brazilian MMA history that have ultimately lead to the success of the current crop of fighters in the UFC. The obvious post would to be kick it off with a Gracie, but the question comes down to which one? Do I talk about Carlos and Helio creating a revolutionary system based off the principals of judo? Maybe Carlson, who defended the family name after Valdemar Santana bested Helio in a three hour and forty minute long battle?
Or do I go the obvious route and talk about the Gracie family in MMA? Even then, should I focus on Royce, Rickson, or Renzo? They all found success and were an integral part in maintaining the Gracie family stranglehold on the sport. After much thought and deliberation, I felt that I would be remiss if I only focused on one piece of the overall Gracie puzzle. The family has done so much inside and outside of the cage and are perhaps the most important figures in MMA history, period.
For some quick history on the Gracie family, they were first introduced to grappling when Mitsuyo Maeda became the personal judo trainer to Carlos Gracie. When Maeda moved on to a different part of Brazil, it was Helio who would alter the judo stylings to create a style of grappling that focused on leverage manipulation and didn’t favor a bigger fighter. The brothers saw a need to market their discipline and created what has become known as the “Gracie Challenge” where they offered a cash reward to anyone who could best them in vale tudo (no holds barred) bouts. They would also get into random street fights to prove their style of combat was the best in the country. Which leads us to the fight with Valdermar Santana.
Gracie Jiu Jitsu had become big business in Brazil. Valdemar was a student at the Gracie academy who had a falling out with Helio. After creating his own school, a fight between Helio and Santana was announced. The loss to Santana would cause money to walk out of the Gracie Academy and into Valdemar’s school. It would be Carlos’ son who would defend the family name and honor against his former friend whom he considered a brother. In the six fights between Valdemar and Carlson, it would be Gracie who was victorious four times. The other two fights ended in a draw.
With his new fame, Carlson became the face of the Gracie family. No longer needing to fight in the streets, the family was able to focus on growing their business and martial art. The unspoken policy at the Gracie academy was that the basic techniques were taught to anyone but the more advanced information was only held for the family. A disagreement over this caused Carlson to split and start his own school. Where Helio’s school withheld information, Carlson was open and honest about the family martial art.
Carlson’s fight team set the gold standard for early fight teams. Comprised of a who’s who in Brazilian MMA, Carlson trained the likes of Allan Goes, Murilo Bustamante, Mario Sperry, Wallid Ismael, and Ricardo Liborio. He also is credited with introducing a young Vitor Belfort to the world of Jiu Jitsu. Years later his students would split from him of finances. Bustamante and Sperry would create the Brazilian Top Team. Ricardo Liborio would become the leader and head trainer at American Top Team in Florida.
On the other side of the family, plans were being set in motion to spread Gracie Jiu Jitsu to the rest of the world. It would be Helio’s son Rorion who would make the move to the United States and set up the Gracie Academy in Torrence, California. An article in Playboy magazine entitle “Fight” which claimed that he was the baddest man on the planet caught the attention of some Hollywood types. One thing led to another and Rorion was introduced to the Art Davie and John Milius, who wanted to reintroduce the “Gracie Challenge” in the form of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. For Rorion, the event would serve the purpose of proving his family’s art was the best in the world.
In order to do this they needed a representative. The logical choice was Rickson. He looked like a fighter and sported an unofficial record of 400-0. For Rorion though, he didn’t want any excuses so he chose the much smaller Royce to be the face of the family. The event was revolutionary, even for its time. Most fans expected Art Jimmerson to run through the field. He was a boxer afterall. However, when he was defeated by the skinny man in white pajamas, the combat sports world would forever be changed. Royce followed the win up with submission wins over Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau. He was officially the baddest man on the planet. He would repeat this twice more, picking up wins over Patrick Smith, Kimo, and Dan Severn along the way. These accomplishments would make him the most recognizable name in the early years of MMA in the United States.
After being turned down by Rorion for Royce, Rickson packed his bags up to try and find success in the land of the rising sun. He would compete in the early Vale Tudo Japan events, which were also set up as one night tournaments. He would win the 1994 and 1995 events in a much more violent way than his brother Royce. While the scalps are not as recognizable, Rickson quickly developed a following who deified him as the greatest fighter in the world. He would use this adulation to fight at the very first PRIDE event against Japanese hero Nobuhiko Takada. This matchup is often credited as the most important fight in JMMA history. Had it never come together, it is very likely that PRIDE would never have existed in the first place.
Despite the fame of Helio’s sons in MMA, it would be his nephew who truly found long term success in the sport. The son of Robson Gracie, Renzo is not celebrated in the same ways as his cousins. He never built up a mythical record nor was he recognized as the “skinny man who fought in his pajamas”. Despite this fact, he too can be considered the best and most influential Gracie in MMA history. His aggressive style of grappling evened the odds when he was fighting far more talented and larger opponents such as his win over Oleg Taktarov. Entering the Rings King of Kings 99 tournament, he picked up a win over Maurice Smith. Later in his career, he’d defeat legendary fighters Pat Miletich, Carlos Newton, and Frank Shamrock (yes, he was on his way to a win). Maintaining a longer run in the sport than any other member of the family, Renzo belongs in the same consideration as Rickson and Royce.
The family’s contributions to the world of mixed martial arts are awe inspiring. It truly is impossible to justify one person in the family as the definitive most important or influential. It is much better to view them as a whole, a family who were as good at marketing as they were at fighting and a family that have created a legacy that will remain in the history books. Join me tomorrow when I cover the career and contributions of Marco Ruas.
About the author