In an art with so many great practitioners, Roger has set himself in class all his own and put himself in the Pantheon of modern martial excellence. He joins fellow BJJ champion Braulio Estima, full contact Karate legend Masutatsu Oyama, and MMA all-time great Anderson Silva.
The great heroes of mythology often have prestigious pedigrees, connecting a hero to a towering mythological figure of the past. The Romans believed their mythical founder Romulus was the son of the god of war Mars, Julius Caesar traced his family line all the way back to the goddess Venus, and Alexander the Great, role model to all great men of ancient times, was rumored to be the son of Zeus himself. When it comes to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, there are few figures more steeped in legend or that cast a longer shadow than Rolls Gracie. Born March 28, 1951 Rolls was the son of the founder of the Gracie Academy, Carlos Gracie. Rolls didn’t just train under his father but also his uncle, the patriarch of the Gracie family, Helio Gracie and the black sheep of the family, Carlosn Gracie.
Rolls also traveled to New York to visit his mother and while there became exposed to wrestling and Russian sambo. Rolls came to believe that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu needed to continue to expand the techniques it contained and to learn from other arts. Rolls also believed that competition was the whetstone that kept a martial art sharp, and competed in Judo, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Freestyle Wrestling, and Sambo tournaments.
Many BJJ greats like Rickson Gracie, Royler Gracie, Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti and others credit Rolls for pushing BJJ to evolve and creating modern jiu jitsu. Tragically Rolls died at the too young age of 31 in a hang gliding accident. One of the only six men who received a black belt from Rolls was Mauricio Motta Gomes, who had recently married Rolls’ sister, Relia Gracie. Searching for a place to go after Rolls death, Mauricio began training with his brother-in-law Carlos Gracie Jr, the founder of Gracie Barra.
On September 26, 1981 Mauricio and Relia had a son, Roger Gracie Gomes.
Side Note: As he grew up Roger would go by his middle name rather than his surname, partially due to his close ties with his mother’s side of the family and partially for the value the Gracie name carries in jiu jitsu. Going by first and middle name is not unheard of or even uncommon in Brazil and thus he became known as Roger Gracie.
Roger began training under his father at a very young age and at 19-years-old he won his first IBJJF World Championship as a blue belt in 2000. Roger then followed is father to England to help set up a Gracie Barra school and London has become Roger’s home ever since. What followed was a meteoric rise as the next year Roger was promoted to purple belt and then won the 2001 World Championship. He then repeated the feat the next year at brown belt winning his weight class and also the Absolute division, defeating Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
In 2003, while still a brown belt, Roger qualified for the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Submission Wrestling World Championships, considered to the be the best no gi competition in the world. Roger had an extremely impressive showing when he defeated first Mairo Sperry and then Rigan Machdao, both respected black belts. Roger was eliminated in the semifinals by the eventual champion John Olav Einemo, but it was a very impressive showing none the less.
In 2004, Roger was awarded his black belt and took part in his first IBJJF World Championships at that level. Roger won his weight-class by defeating Rodrigo “Comprido” Medeiros. Roger then entered into the Absolutes. There Roger was matched with Fernando Augusto “Terere”, a multiple time World and Brazil champion, the first true BJJ superstar, and suffice to say that there will be a Gods of War article featuring Terere. Roger had faced a great grappler in Comprido but in Terere he faced a living legend and he rose to the occasion.
While a big victory for Roger, the talk of the 2004 Mundials was his Absolutes finals match with Jacare in a rematch of their 2002 finals meeting. This time Jacare got up on points early. In the later half of the match Roger was able to lock on an armbar from guard and break Jacare’s arm, but he refused to tap. Still up on points, Jacare was able to hold Roger off for the remainder of the match with only one arm.
It was a very controversial finish as many praised Jacare for his bravery or derided him for stalling, depending on their allegiances. Roger wouldn’t have to wait long for a second chance at Jacare as both grapplers had entered into the 2005 ADCCs. Both Jacare and Roger would win their weight classes and thus qualify for the Absolute division.
Roger’s first round drew MMA submission specialist Shinya Aoki, who Roger submitted with an ankle lock. In the next rounds Roger faced two of the best heavyweight BJJ grapplers in the world, Fabricio Werdum and Xande Ribeiro, both of whom Roger defeated by rear naked choke. That got Roger in the finals and a rematch with Jacare. In the end Roger would take Jacare’s back and lock in a rear naked choke while Jacare was standing.
At Mundials that year Roger again won his weight class, beating Xande for the gold. And then in the Absolutes Roger defeated Xande’s brother the great Saulo Ribeiro. After that match Roger and Jacare again met in the finals. It developed into a mostly standing grappling match where Jacare was able to use his superior Judo game to takedown Roger, and then escape back the feet with the points. Jacare again faced criticism as he penalized for stalling, but came away with the victory.
In 2006 Roger beat Robert Drysdale to win a world championship in his weight class, but then lost the Absolute finals again, this time to Xande. In 2007 Roger finally broke through for double gold as he again won his weight class over Drysdale and this time defeated Gracie Barra teammate Romulo Barral to win the Absolutes. In 2008, Roger beat Leo Leite to win his fourth straight world championship at Super Heavyweight. Roger again took silver in the Absolutes, losing to Xande.
At this point Roger was already considered among the best grapplers in the world and because of his consistent success, he was receiving all-time great recognition, but the 2009 Mundials is what put him over the top. Roger’s masterpiece, in this competition Roger won both his weight class and absolutes and defeated all his opponents by submission, a Mundials first. As if that wasn’t enough, Roger finished them all with the same submission, the cross choke from mount, one of the most basic choke holds in the entire martial art.
When Roger again won double gold in 2010 it became clear that he had accomplished all he could hope to in jiu jitsu and he turned to MMA to find a new challenge. Roger had dabbled in MMA twice already, once in 2006 with a Bodog fight and in 2008 with Sengoku. But after the 2010 Mundials, Roger officially shifted his focus to MMA.
Roger had just made his Strikeforce debut before the 2010 Mundials as an MMA Light Heavyweight, against former UFC Heavyweight Champion Kevin Randleman. Gracie surprised many MMA fans as he showed off better than expected striking skills as he out struck Randleman in the first round. Roger would finish the fight in the second round with one of the tightest rear naked chokes seen in MMA.
Roger has since focused on MMA, and has not appeared in a Mundials or ADCC since 2010. In that time he has beaten Trevor Prangley and lost to Muhammad Lawal, both in Strikeforce. While Roger’s MMA career will likely never reach the same heights as his competitive jiu jitsu career, his resume is still one any martial artist or fan can admire.
Roger Graice has won an unprecedented 10 IBJJF World Championships at the black belt level, 14 across when you include lower belts. He has done so not using more complicated, newer techniques but rather using the fundamental techniques taught to white belts in beginner classes. Since becoming a black belt, he has not been submitted in a competition. Roger’s place in the BJJ community is secure but there are many that want Roger to return from MMA back to the Mundials to again prove his dominance against a new generation of BJJ grapplers.
Regardless if Roger decides to stay in MMA or does make his return to Mundials to take on Rodolfo Vieria, Roger will be remembered as an all-time grappling great and a modern day God of War.
Roger Gracie BJJ Highlight (for those of you who stuck this out but don’t really like watching full grappling matches)
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