The story of the Gracies; the family who laid bare the problems within martial arts, and single handily decreased the popularity of traditional non-combatant martial arts.

The fastest growing sport in the world is mixed martial arts (MMA). The concept of fighting without limitations, a primal and inherent concept that stirs up the basic survival instincts among us. 

MMA is however as an organised sport is relatively new, it was named only after the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. This championship was set up by one family. This family wanted to show off a martial art that they created. Their champion, the man who represented their family was Royce Gracie who weighed but 170lbs, and wasn’t even the best fighter in the family. That honour rested on Rickson’s shoulders, however, the family wanted to prove their art, the best in combat fighting, so they sent out Royce. 

The Gracie family did not create a martial art that could beat every other instead they built one that wasn’t afraid to escape from its own competition. The martial art they created was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s strength rested inside the limitations of other martial arts. Martial arts rarely ventured outside of their comfort zone, the Kung Fu ‘master’ would proudly announce his martial art the best and proclaim his lethal abilities. This was never tested, there was no sparing and the students bought in to these untested skills.

In the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s these martial arts became global businesses. Bruce Lee created a demand when people saw him use his traditional martial arts they believed he could really do that to people. When Jackie Chan would block every punch and knock out multiple assailants by flimsily throwing a flaccid wrist at their neck, people assumed martial arts experts could do this. The schools that taught these techniques were full to capacity and people spent years of their lives learning these techniques. By taking part in imaginary martial arts they became imaginary fighters.

Credit: Noaty

Then came the Gracie family, their martial art was not old, it was not steeped in tradition. This helped it, they tested it in combat the techniques that work were kept and the others were discarded. They created a mobile and current martial art based around grappling. 

helio gracie

Although the Gracie family invented the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, however, it was Mitsuyo Maeda that was their first teacher. Carlos Gracie and Hélio Gracie were taught judo by Maeda. It is contested who then went on to invent BJJ, however, it can be said that both the brother’s implementation of judo techniques and their constant sparing led them both to invent the sport.

Hélio Gracie was much smaller than his brother, this is often credited with the formation of BJJ which was founded upon the techniques being more of importance than size. BJJ it is often said that a smaller man can beat a bigger one. 

Hélio Gracie began fighting in Vale Tudo when he was eighteen. Vale Tudo is a Brazilian fighting competition that was the precursor to MMA, for all intents and purposes it was MMA. In Vale Tudo he would fight boxers, Judokas and freestyle wrestlers. He thought his children BJJ, each one going on to becoming great fighters in their own right. 

BJJ was different from other martial arts because of this. He and his children set up the Gracie Challenge which was an open invitation to practitioners of other martial arts to fight them. This was very rare amongst the traditional martial arts. The practitioners of Kung Fu, Ninjutsu and Tai Chi, who would argue the merits of their fighting styles over others usually cowered from fighting outside of their skill set. 

Over the years some challengers arose, however, many could be considered not self-reflective enough. They trusted their martial arts and they trusted their ‘masters’, they lost because of that trust. The rigid way of thinking led them to self-aggrandisement of their skills within the real world.

The Gracie’s furthered this Gracie challenge by planning the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. It was styled as a ‘no-holds-barred’ event. They yearned to show the world that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the best martial art. Their family won, the first two UFC’s. They proved the merits of the martial art created within their family. One of the interesting developments from this, however, wasn’t that Brazillian Jiu Jitsu was dominant. It was the way in which it dispatched other martial arts. They created a crucible in which the merits of each martial art could be tested. Some proved to be useful, others more so proved to be little more than imaginary skills developed in limited circumstances. The ones that proved effective would become morphed and moulded together into MMA. The Gracie’s may not have created MMA but they certainly created the place where martial arts could evolve into MMA, to create a sport that is the purest form of fighting.

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