From Pioneer to Propagandist: Renzo Gracie’s history of hate

Last week, Renzo Gracie — a former PRIDE fighter and pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the United States — made headlines for his seeming…

By: Karim Zidan | 3 years ago
From Pioneer to Propagandist: Renzo Gracie’s history of hate
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Last week, Renzo Gracie — a former PRIDE fighter and pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the United States — made headlines for his seeming admiration for Nazi rhetoric.

Back in 2012, Gracie posted a tweet quoting Heinrich Himmler, a main architect of the Holocaust. He was then lambasted online, to which he pleaded ignorance by claiming he did not know who Himmler was. The tweet resurfaced in June 2020, and when confronted, Gracie once again claimed ignorance but defended his decision to post the Nazi quote by adding “I love the quote, biatch.”

Over the next few days, Gracie doubled down on his decision to post the Himmler quote, promised to watch a pro-Nazi propaganda documentary, and even attacked France and the supposed “soft generation” that voted for incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, “It’s not my fault that your grandparents let [Nazis] march through your country without a fight…now you pay,” Gracie tweeted at a French native who criticized him.

Gracie has since taken to his Twitter feed to defend his actions, noting that after quoting Himmler in 2012, he took pains to remove the sources from any future quotes he put on social media.

Whether or not Gracie is actually sympathetic with Nazi rhetoric, this is far from the first time that the controversial fighter has made some questionable statements that led to immediate backlash. Over the past few years, Gracie has made homophobic and misogynistic statements, peddled fake news and conspiracies, and has even praised police violence in the United States and his native Brazil.

A Gracie without Grace

Renzo Gracie’s history of controversies began in 1995 when the Brazilian legend was set to take part in the WCC 1: First Strike one-night tournament.

Though only his second professional MMA bout at the time, Gracie defeated judoka Ben Spijker with a lapel choke, then kicked him repeatedly before stepping on the neck of his unconscious opponent. Gracie received a warning from the referee but was allowed to continue in the tournament and eventually won.

Then in 2002, when Gracie was a more established competitor with a 10-3-1 MMA record, the Brazilian faced Shungo Oyama at PRIDE 21. During the bout, Gracie was visibly frustrated with his performance and spat on Oyama before losing a unanimous decision.

Yet despite Gracie’s lack of professionalism during bouts, he continued to develop an image as a “good guy” in the BJJ circuit — a label that has endured in spite of his toxic behaviour, which included a run-in with law enforcement in 2014.

Renzo Gracie, along with his cousins Igor and Gregor Gracie and four other men were arrested following a brawl at a nightclub in New York. The Gracies had reportedly shown up to the club and became furious when the bouncer, Craig Molesphini, who had previously turned away two of their friends. They attacked the bouncer, who suffered a fractured right arm along with various cuts and bruises.

“All of the seven men were fighting, doing MMA moves on the guards, some of whom were injured,” Molesphini told NYPost. “In my entire 14-year career, I have never seen anything like this.”

The Gracies got off with a slap on the wrist and no jail time. Renzo took a plea deal, accepting misdemeanour assault charges with a sentence of 10 to 15 days of community service. Igor Gracie pled guilt to misdemeanour assault and got 10 to 15 days of community service, while Gregor Gracie pled guilty to disorderly conduct and received one to three days of community service.

Speaking to Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour, Renzo Gracie claimed he would “never hit someone who chickened out” but spent two days in jail in order to stay with his cousins and friends. “I was in jail for two days, laughing. Enjoying every moment. I had a great time, to be honest,” Gracie said.

Photo by Bill Tompkins/Getty Images

While Gracie had unofficially retired from MMA competition following his UFC 112 loss to Matt Hughes, he continued in his role as the head instructor at the Renzo Gracie Academy in midtown Manhattan, where he trained the likes of former UFC welterweight champions Georges St. Pierre and Matt Serra, UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman and BJJ champion Rafael Correa. His academy has since grown to include affiliate institutes across the United States, Brazil, Singapore, Canada, Mexico, and Israel.

Despite his pioneering MMA career and successful BJJ business, Gracie would continue to attract controversies through his toxic statements and several longstanding political affiliations.

Gracie and the Strongmen

In 1993 — shortly after starting his MMA career — Renzo Gracie became the personal jiu-jitsu instructor for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

The two met at the San Diego gym where Gracie taught at the time and have been friends ever since. The Sheikh took Gracie along whenever he had to seal business deals, while Gracie taught the Arab leader how to submit opponents, eventually taking him from an average blue belt to a successful black belt.

Over the course of nearly two decades, Gracie has traveled several times a year to the United Arab Emirates, where he would stay at the Sheikh’s guest quarters and help him train. “It’s a pretty good deal. I eat like a king, then we go at it,” Gracie told ESPN Magazine.

Gracie’s affiliation with Sheikh Mohammed — arguably the most prominent Arab ruler and one of the most powerful men on Earth — has undoubtedly elevated the Brazilian fighter’s status, particularly during the early stages of his career. He has since acquired a taste for anti-democracy leaders similar to the Crown Prince, and has found a way to make himself useful to each one he meets.

In June 2017, Gracie took part in a BJJ seminar at the Akhmat MMA facility in Chechnya, which is owned by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. Gracie met with Kadyrov himself and later appeared on Chechen state TV to promote his government.

Gracie’s visit to Kadyrov took place shortly following initial reports that Kadyrov had authorized an anti-gay purge against Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community. More than 100 victims were abducted, forcibly disappeared, tortured, sexually assaulted, and put to death through extrajudicial killings. Gracie’s appearance on Chechen state TV just a few months following the reports was the latest example of how Kadyrov used sports diplomacy as a tool to rebrand himself as a sports fanatic instead of a violent authoritarian leader who rules Chechnya like his own personal fiefdom.

Renzo Gracie visiting Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA gym

By 2018, Renzo Gracie had aligned himself with far-right Brazilian populist Jair Bolsonaro, who would go on to win the Brazilian presidency despite his history of racist, sexist, homophobic, and fascist sentiments.

Bolsonaro has expressed an affinity for military dictatorships, advocated for a hard-line approach to dealing with criminals, including giving the police a “carte blanche to kill,” and opposes same-sex marriage, abortion, and affirmative action. He also displayed a penchant for homophobia and misogyny, and once informed a female colleague in congress (lawmaker Maria do Rosário) that she was “not worthy” of being raped by him.

During the 2018 election, Gracie was one of many UFC fighters and BJJ practitioners who expressed support for Bolsonaro, including (but not limited to) Wanderlei Silva, Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Rafael dos Anjos, Royce Gracie, Warlley Alves, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Thiago Tavares, Fabio Maldonado, Jacare Souza, and Darren Till. However, in the wake of Bolsonaro’s presidency, Gracie emerged as one of the most prominent supporters, and was even given a role as an ambassador for Embratur, a branch of Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism, in 2019.

Renzo Gracie seated behind President Jair Bolsonaro

Shortly following Gracie’s appointment, the BJJ legend once again made headlines after threatening to choke out Emmanuel Macron, the French president who criticized Brazil’s reactions to the Amazon wildfires. Macron called the fires an “international crisis,” which led to Gracie’s angry outburst on social media.

“The only fire going on is the fire inside Brazilian hearts and our president’s heart, you clown,” Gracie said to Macron in a video on social media. “Come over here you’ll be caught by the neck, that chicken neck. You don’t fool me.”

When asked about the outburst by Brazilian reporters, Gracie doubled down on his actions, claiming that the Amazon blazes were “false fires” before insulting Macron’s wife, Brigitte Macron, “I’ll ask you a question, is his wife pretty or ugly? Would you do her? If you criticize our country, get ready to listen to a load of bullshit, and also about your relatives. The fact that he is sleeping with the dragon does not make him a fire expert. She’s ugly, my brother.” Gracie said.

Since then, Gracie’s social media timeline has been filled with fascist apologia, homophobia, Bolsonaro propaganda and even xenophobic videos such as this one where he took part in slanted-eye racist gestures with his own grandson.

Gracie regularly bullies those who criticize him, and has been seen lauding the U.S. government for its use of police violence against protestors demonstrating against George Floyd’s killing.

In one instance, Gracie tweeted, “No more Police brutality???… be serious… Honestly they are being over patience… When I was growing up in Rio you did that to a police officer you would be dead.. Simple as that.. and the police officer was right.. Respect to be respected.”

The Brazilian native also suggested that Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old peaceful protestor who was pushed to the ground by New York police and suffered a head injury that left him laying in a puddle of his own blood, was a crisis actor planted in the protests.

Renzo Gracie is far from the only offender within BJJ’s founding family. Renzo’s great-uncle Helio Gracie — considered to be the godfather of BJJ and patriarch of the Gracie family — was also known for his nasty streak.

During an interview with Playboy’s Brazilian edition in 2001, Helio Gracie admitted that he once targeted homosexual men and attacked them based on sexual preference.

“I had a bad temper in my adolescence. [laugh], But I was also foolish,” Helio told Playboy. “At times I would challenge someone who wasn’t anyone to me there. On one occasion I was convinced that a citizen was looking at me strangely at the ball. I approached him closely and asked if he was a fag. From that moment he looked at me as if he saw me for the first time and I perceived that he was a clown.”

Speaking of sex, Helio went on to add, “I can say that I’ve never had sex with a woman without the purpose of reproduction. I also taught that to my sons and various grand-sons. None were fags.”

Yet despite Renzo Gracie’s consistent stream of controversies, he remains a beloved member of the combat sports community, and a living legend and pioneering figure in the eyes of many who continue to support him. He is a successful businessman and even has his own line of clothing at Roots of Fight. His continued acceptance within the combat sports landscape means that the underlying rot within the community — from homophobia to misogyny and fascist apologia — will continue to poison the sport.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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