The Gracie Family and the Birth of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Part Two)

Part Two: Rorion Gracie’s First Trip to the United States

Last week, we discussed Mitsuyo Maeda, Carlos Gracie, and the beginning of sport Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil.

While his family was developing the sport, Rorion, the eldest son of the legendary Helio Gracie, grew up training under his father and with his cousin Rolls Gracie. Rolls Gracie’s mother lived in New York, and told Rorion stories of life in New York and America as a whole. Rorion set his mind to make it there.

Legend has it that a stolen plane ticket, vagrant traveling, Chuck Norris (yes, even Chuck Norris learned a thing or two from the Gracie family) and a number of fast food jobs eventually landed Rorion Gracie in California, teaching a steadily growing number of students out of his garage. According to these stories, he rented a locker during a visit with family, and the locker was broken into. His plane ticket home was stolen and, to prevent fraud, the airline would not replace it for six months.

Rather than scurry home to Brazil, Rorion took any and every job he could find. The Gracie family details how hard Rorion worked along the way. He taught BJJ to every person he met, including actors like Chuck Norris. The Gracie family responded to his success by sending a handful of higher-level students as well as some of his brothers, including 18-year-old Royce Gracie.

Together, Royce and Rorion Gracie would change the face of martial arts forever.

Rorion worked on the set of several major motion pictures, advising and training actors in BJJ (in particular, the Lethal Weapon movies). Along the way, he met Art Davie. Together, they decided to create a multi-discipline competition. Rorion in particular wished to create the ultimate competition to prove grappling’s dominance in fights. In an America still enamored with Bruce Lee and his unbelievably quick striking, building a ground game was often the last thing on anyone’s mind when preparing for a fight. Rorion aimed to change that.

In the meantime, Carley Gracie had been training US Marines based at the US consulate in Brazil. In 1972, he trained Marines at the base in Quantico, Virginia. Carley Gracie’s relationship with the US Marine Corp would eventually lead to the development of the Gracie Combatives military course, but that would not happen until 1994, after UFC 1.

We know now that it was Royce Gracie who would dominate UFC 1, shocking the martial arts world and bringing Rorion’s dream to fruition. Yet it was almost not Royce, but Rickson Gracie, who represented the family at UFC 1. Rickson Gracie, with his large frame and imposing features, would simply not make the impact that the smaller Royce Gracie could, as a veritable David facing down multiple Goliaths.

Rorion Gracie and Art Davie’s Ultimate Fighting Championship was not the first sanctioned MMA match in America – that title goes to Gene Lebell vs. Milo Savage in 1963. This match went largely unnoticed by martial arts experts despite Lebell’s finish via Rear Naked Choke, just like the one Royce secured on Gerard Gordeau in the final round. UFC 1 was, however, the most flashy, and therefore made the largest impact. Rorion based the event off of the already popular “Gracie Challenge” fights he had been conducting largely out of his garage. In essence, challengers would agree to be videotaped in exchange for a cash prize if they won, which, of course, Rorion, Rickson, Royce, and many others would make sure they did not.

Of course, like the Gracie Challenge fights, UFC 1’s no-holds-barred, submission or knockout only, tournament-style competition was not built to last. It was a spectacle, and exactly what the Gracies needed to prove their dominance. In 1993, it caught the attention of martial artists everywhere, finally answering the age-old question: who wins, a striker or a grappler?

Royce Gracie proved the answer to be the grappler.

Next week: From the UFC to ADCC, the Beginning of Mainstream BJJ

Rachel Dows

Rachel is a 20-something year old writer and martial arts enthusiast. She works at a desk job all day to afford to be able to spend the majority of her free time at the gym, where she is a blue belt in BJJ. She also sometimes goes outside to run, hike, and enjoy living in small town USA.

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