Then Came Rorion

By Roberto Pedreira

How Rorion Gracie Revolutionized the Way Some People Think about Martial Arts Training in America and Reinvented Himself as the Bill Gates of the Grappling World in the Process  

      Legend has it that a traveling Japanese expert, Mitsuo Maeda, taught the rudiments of the Japanese version of jiu-jitsu to a Brazilian youngster of Scottish descent named Carlos Gracie, who taught it to his younger brother Helio. Together, they taught it to their legions of sons, grandsons, and nephews, and later to other Brazilians curious enough to want to learn and courageous enough to try.

      Gracie jiu-jitsu remained a Brazilian secret until the early 90s, not by design, but because no one outside of Brazil cared. One member of the extended family, Carley Gracie, the son of Carlos Gracie and Helio's nephew, had been teaching jiu-jitsu on a small scale in the United States since 1972, entirely without fanfare. Not a single article on "Gracie Jiu-Jitsu" (as it became known) appeared in any of the martial arts magazines during the 70s or 80s—none until the "boom" began in 1993. The first article on the subject appeared not in a martial arts magazine, but in Playboy, in 1989, devoted to Carley's cousin and Helio's eldest son Rorion who, like Carley, had been teaching jiu-jitsu to a few private students in the United States (in Rorion's case, since 1979). But unlike Carley and everyone else in the family, Rorion had a university degree (a law degree at that), and was ambitious. He wanted to parlay his family's jiu-jitsu into a worldwide martial arts empire. America was obviously the place to begin.

      The problem was that the ingenuous American public had a certain conception of what a martial art was, and Gracie jiu-jitsu wasn't it. Due in large part to the phenomenal popularity of Bruce Lee's 1973 opus Enter the Dragon and the plethora of puerile chop-socky imitations it spawned, the gullible gringos had come to associate martial arts less with self-defense and personal combat than acrobatics and gymnastics. (Movies made before the Bruce Lee era actually had more realistic fight scenes—watch Shane or From Russia with Love. Then watch any martial arts movie, and decide which fights more resemble the fights you’ve seen—or been in).

      The Brazilians also didn't do what people in the North thought martial artists were supposed to do. They didn’t shriek, growl, howl, sneer, or grimace. They didn't fly through the air to smash roofing tiles with their feet, or slice the tops off whiskey bottles with the sides of their hands. They didn't break bricks or blocks of ice with their heads. They didn't chop the horns off of bulls, knock horses out with reverse punches, extinguish candles with their ki power, walk across floors covered with rice paper without tearing it, or snatch pebbles from a blind monk's fingers. What the Brazilians did do was to easily subdue the martial artists who performed all these impressive but ultimately meaningless feats.

      Ignored amid the hoopla was the fundamental truth, succinctly expressed by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, that "boards don't hit back". In other words, everything depends on the context: where, when, why, how, (including rules, if any), and above all, who—the capabilities and intentions of the "opponent". But the Brazilians didn't ignore it. On the contrary, it was the cornerstone of their philosophy.

      Rorion had a problem. Jiu-jitsu can’t be sold using carefully choreographed demonstrations—the usual promotional method in the martial arts industry. Either the techniques don’t look impressive, or people don’t know what it is that they are seeing, if they can see anything at all. Techniques that look impressive in demonstrations are seldom the techniques that are effective in fights. Naďve potential students don’t know that, of course—to the contrary.

      Rorion, as always, had a plan.

      He put the word out that he and his younger brothers Rickson, Royce, and Royler were prepared to accept challenges from other styles. The challenge match would constitute a test, and the result would prove the superiority of one or the other. Reckless challengers came forward. Jason Delucia was so confident that he’d have Royce for lunch that he wagered $500 on the outcome (Jason says he respects Rorion for not letting him actually go through with the bet). Others took a wait and see approach (Erik Paulson says that while the Gracies are the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, when they first came on the scene with their open challenge, he found them “a little intimidating”).

      Rorion brought his video camera. The Gracie brothers prevailed. Rorion put together a set of instructional tapes, and promoted them with clips of challenge matches in Brazil and the above-mentioned in Los Angeles (Gracie in Action 1 and Gracie in Action 2). " Ninety five percent of real fights end up in a clinch and go to the ground", Rorion intoned in his voice-over, as Gracie "representatives" beat up "street lethal" Kung fu "experts" and Hapkido "instructors" and whoever else was foolish enough to show up and sign the waiver.

      The message was clear, and Rorion wasn't subtle about it: Buy the tapes, sign up for lessons, give us your money. Business was brisk, but Rorion had bigger plans. The stumbling block, ironically, was the fact that you have to experience jiu-jitsu to appreciate it. You just can't reach enough people if you have to invite them one by one into your school and actually beat them up. Even worse, instead of signing up for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu lessons, some might draw a different conclusion—avoid guys like this—and stay away. That, as Rorion said, would be the real tragedy.

      How to expose Gracie jiu-jitsu to thousands at a time, and to leave them with the intended impression was the problem. Rorion wracked his brain.

      The solution had been there all the time. "Vale tudos", or "anything goes" mixed styles matches had been popular in Brazil since the 50's and earlier. Rorion's uncle Carlson had been one of the top champions of the vale tudo ringue. Rorion himself and most of his brothers and cousins had also participated in vale tudos. Rorion simply promoted one in the United States. He called it The Ultimate Fighting Championship (known acronymically to fans as the UFC). The first in what has become a long-running series took place in 1993. Rorion's younger brother Royce (by no means the best fighter in the family!) represented Gracie jiu-jitsu against challengers from myriad other martial arts, including karate, kung-fu, judo, boxing, savate, wrestling, and one called "Joe Son Do" (a "style" invented by a Korean-American named Joe Son, who, taking a page from Rorion's demonstrably successful book, named it after himself. But unlike the Gracies, who ostensibly never lost, Joe Son never won.)

      The style-versus-style, elimination tournament format lent a carnival feel to the proceedings and was a large part of what made it a hit. (It might well have been inspired by the success of Jean Claude Van Damme's first movie Bloodsport, in 1987, a farfetched but supposedly true story of a mixed-martial arts tournament held in Hong Kong.) In addition to the inherent appeal of the format, it gave the fans more entertainment bang for their bucks. Each match was a contest between the individual athletes, and at the same time, another between the "styles" they represented.

      If Royce won, the merchandising possibilities would be limitless. (Rorion made sure to register the name "Gracie Jiu-Jitsu" and the Gracie logo, to be used exclusively by himself or under license.) Gracie Jiu-Jitsu would have what no other martial art had: evidence not merely that it is effective but that it is more effective than other styles. (Rorion wisely let viewers come to this obviously fallacious conclusion on their own. What he actually claimed was merely that martial artists needed to know Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in addition to their own style).

      Brazilians know that anything can happen in a fight and that the only way to never lose is to quit fighting before you do, or never start in the first place. Rorion knew that members of his family and other jiu-jitsu practitioners, being human, had lost fights before. But he also understood the psychology of the typical American martial arts fan, who yearns to walk down the mean streets of Any Town USA, kicking ass and fearing no man. After all, what good is a martial art if it doesn’t make you invulnerable? Rorion boldly proclaimed that “the Gracie clan can document an astonishing 70 years of unbroken victories”. He also included footage of his father Helio being defeated by Masahiko Kimura on Gracie in Action.  No one noticed the contradiction.

      Thus did Rorion Gracie change the face of martial arts in the United States. Consequently, a lot of Brazilians who were probably wondering what they were going to do for money are now earning it hand over fist in their own academies in the Estados Unidos. Even if, as one of them said, Rorion “doesn’t want none of us here.”

      A very wise man in many ways, Gene LeBell, said, “it doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as you can do it”. Rorion disagreed. It matters tremendously what you call it, particularly if you want to make money from it. There’s all the difference in the world between jiu-jitsu and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu®. 


Postscript, June 5, 2000


Subsequent to the writing of the essay above, an erstwhile pro wrestler belonging to the Nobuhiko Takada Gym, Kazushi Sakuraba, defeated two of Rorion’s younger brothers Royler (in Pride 8) and Royce (in Pride GP 2000). There was some controversy about how the first fight ended but no question that Royler lost the fight that actually happened (rather than the fight that might have happened if the referee hadn’t stopped it). Despite personally throwing in the towel, Rorion may be able to conjure up an interpretation under which Royce did not lose the fight to Sakuraba. It will probably require more ingenuity than even Rorion has to convince anyone that Royce won. 

Later that evening in Pride GP 2000, Mark Kerr unexpectedly lost to a pro wrestler named Fujita (also from the Takada stable), clearing the way for Mark Coleman (who had lost to Takada in Pride 5) to take home all the marbles.

Two points need to be made. First, Sakuraba defeated one of the best jiu-jitsu fighters in Brazil (albeit not in a jiu-jitsu contest) and his less talented younger brother, because he had assimilated basic jiu-jitsu concepts into his game. (He was taught by one of the greatest jiu-jitsu fighters of all time, the one who almost beat Rickson, Sergio Penha).  He did exactly as Rorion recommended, backing up his style with “the best grappling system on earth—Gracie Jiu-Jitsu”.  

The second point is that even after the IRS takes its cut, the marbles Coleman took home are worth a lot of cabbage. Kerr too must have been well compensated for his performance. Rorion made it happen.

Unfortunately, for Rorion, the chickens have now come home to roost—unless he has another plan up his sleeve that we mere mortals can’t begin to fathom.

Don't count him  out yet.  


Post-postscript, December 24, 2000    


Sakuraba (who is called the "Gracie Hunter" by the Japanese sports press) has since defeated Renzo and Ryan Gracie. He is the first and so far the only man to have beaten four Gracies. Negotiations are currently underway for a fight of the Millennium between Sakuraba and Rickson Gracie.

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Sobre a Derrota de Helio Gracie para Kimura Masahiko  


In 1951 Helio Gracie faced Kimura Masahiko in what would now be called a submission fight, at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Kimura was the greatest of Japanese judo champions and at that time, at 33, was not much past his prime. Losing to Kimura was not exactly a disgrace and none of the Gracies took it as one. As Carlos reportedly said after the fight (according to Historia do Jiu-Jitsu atraves dos Tempos, citing Rorion), "Helio nunca esperava derrotar Kimura. A razăo para esta luta era ver como Kimura poderia supera-lo tecnicamente" [Helio never expected to win. The reason for the fight was to see how Kimura would be able to overcome him technically]. Helio recently described his performance in the fight as “like a kid, helpless against Kimura” (on the Japanese documentary History of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu). Despite losing technically, Helio was reported by the sports press to have won moralmente [spiritually] and became a “heroi nacional devido a sua coragem e valentia" [a national hero due to his courage and bravery].  

Maybe this is what Rorion had in mind by “70 years of unbroken victories”. Helio lost technically but won morally. That’s not quite the same as being undefeated, but never mind. It’s a small detail. Another possibility is that Rorion does not understand the meaning of the word “victory” in English.  His uncle Carlson has a similar problem with the concept of defeat (“The referee gave him the victory; I don’t think I lost, so it wasn’t a loss for me”, Carlson says, describing his non-victory against Euclides Pereira). You can win in various ways (morally and technically, to name at least two) but the only ways you can lose are by being unable or unwilling to continue. As long as you are willing and able to fight, you haven’t lost. In fact, merely being willing is enough to avoid “defeat”, in this sense. Helio didn’t submit; his brother Carlos “jogou a toalha, desistindo do combate. Helio ainda queria lutar, quando o juiz mandou ambos ficarem de pe, pois năo havia percebido a manobra de Carlos” [Carlos threw in the towel to stop the fight. Helio still wanted to fight when the referee made the two fighters stand up, not having seen what Carlos did].  

This raises additional interesting questions. If Helio never expected to win, was Carlos instructed, or did he simply decide, to throw in the towel when defeat was imminent but before Helio actually had to tap, in order to create ambiguity about the outcome, to demonstrate Helio’s ballsiness by wanting to continue, but being forced to quit by the judges? In Brazil, meanings are negotiable and everything is open to interpretation

Notwithstanding Carlos’ alleged post-fight comment, that Helio never expected to win, I think we can assume that he somehow hoped it might happen anyhow. In that sense, the fight was win-win for Helio, or at least win-no lose, which testifies to his business shrewdness, obviously inherited by Rorion. If George Mehdi is right about the fight being partially “arranged”, then that proves Helio’s (or his family’s) brilliance to an even greater degree.   

Maybe also Kimura learned that fighting pays better with a certain degree of staging. He returned to Japan and became a pro wrestler, pretending to be knocked out by karate chops administered by obese former sumo wrestlers, and teaming up with Rikidozan to punish American wrestlers for humiliating Japan in the War (at least, that’s how the Japanese fans felt about it.)



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© 2000, R.A. Pedreira. All rights reserved.

Revised Dezembro 2001