This Article originally appeared on BJJ.org. The entire archive of information is now available on OntheMat.comFrom Playboy, September 1989 (Vol. 36, no. 9)
Rorion Gracie is willing to fight to the death to prove he’s the toughest man in the west.
The toughest man in the United States holds no official titles and has had only one fight in years. He lives with his pregnant wife and four children, three small sons and a baby daughter, in a modest ranch house on a tidy little street of similar homes in Torrance, California. He is 37, tall and skinny at 6’2″, 165 pounds, and he does not look very tough. He looks mor like Tom Selleck than like Mr. T. He is dark and handsome like Selleck, with wavy black hair, a trim mustache and a charming, self-deprecating smile. He spends more time in the kitchen than his wife does and wears a woman’s apron. He has an idiosyncratic high-pitched laugh. He picks up a yellowed newspaper with an account of one of his father’s fights, adjusts his bifocals and reads. “”The most savage, stupid bloody desires of the audience were satisfied,”” he says. Then he laughs. “Heh-heh!”
“I never spank my sons,” Rorion says, “because my father never spanked me.” He spends as much time as possible with his sons. He drives them to their soccer practice in his station wagon. He spends the day with them at the beach.
Rorion once fought a kick-boxing champion and made him beg for mercy in less then three minutes. Before the fight, the kick boxer had stood in his corner of the ring and flexed his muscular arms. He cut the air with savage kicks. The crowd oohed and aahed. Rorion, skinny and stoop-shouldered, stood in his corner and waited. Two minutes and 15 seconds after the bell sounded, he was straddling the kick boxer on the mat in such a way that, if the kick boxer had not surrendered, Rorion would have “choked him out.”
Rorion has made a standing offer to fight anyone in the United States, winner take all, for $100,000. So far he has had no takers – for one simple reason. Rorion’s fights are fights to the finish with no rules. His fights are merely street brawls in a ring bounded by ropes. Kicking, punching, head butting, elbow and knee hits are all fair play in a Gracie fight. Only the accouterments of a street brawl – broken bottles, ash cans, bricks – are missing. The only purpose of referee serves in a Gracie fight is to acknowledge his opponent’s surrender when he taps the mat with his hand or passes out from a choke hold.
Rorion (pronounced Horion, in the Portuguese way) is a master of a kind of no-holds-barred jujitsu practiced by his family in Brazil for 60 years. Gracie jujitsu is a bouillabaisse of the other martial arts: judo (throws), karate (kicks, punches), aikido (twists), boxing (punches) and wrestling (grappling, holds). Its primary purpose is defensive; i.e., to render attackers immobile. Rorion believes that since most real fights end up on the ground 90 percent of the time, Gracie jujitsu is the most devastating of all martial arts, because it relies on a series of intricate wrestling-like moves that are most effective when the combatants are on the ground. All a jujitsu master must do is avoid his attacker’s kicks, punches and stabs until he can throw him to the ground and then apply either a choke hold to render him unconscious or a hold in which he can break his attacker’s arm, leg, back or neck. A jujitsu fight is like a chess match, in that the winner is usually the one who can think the most moves ahead of his opponent.
Jujitsu originated in India 2000 years ago, travelled to Japan (via China) three centuries ago and was introduced to Brazil through Rorion’s family 60 years ago, when a touring Japanese master taught Rorion’s uncle some basic moves. His uncle taught Rorion’s father and the two men grew enamoured of it, as only two small men with monstrous egos could. They took Japanese jujitsu a step further than their teachers by introducing techniques that required less strength than Japanese style and would make their family the most feared and famous in all of Brazil. Rorion’s father, Helio, once fought an opponent in the ring before 20,000 screaming spectators for three hours and 40 minutes, nonstop, before the police finally separated the bloodied combatants. In another ring fight, he so savaged his opponent with kicks to his kidney that many attributed his subsequent death to the fight. When a rival martial-arts teacher once accused the Gracie family of fixing its fights, Helio, surrounded by a taunting crowd, confronted him on the street. He had broken the man’s arms and ribs before the police arrested him. He was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for that beating, but the president of Brazil, a fan of the Gracie family, pardoned him within a week.
Rorion laughs and says, “Heh-heh! My dad kicked his butt.” He is sitting in the den of his tidy little house, sifting through the many newspaper and magazine articles written about his family, while his sons wrestle, jujitsu style, on the floor.
Rorion holds up a photograph of his father in a kimono taken when Helio was 34. He is small, slim man at 5’8″, 135 pounds, with slicked-back hair, an aquiline nose and a pencil-thin mustache. He is hip-tossing his older brother, Carlos, in an open filed. “That was the year my dad read a Reader’s Digest article that said a boxer beat a jujitsu guy,” Rorion says. “Heh-heh! My father offered to fight five boxers in one night. At various times, he offered to fight Primo Carnera, Ezzard Charles and Joe Louis. He put up sixteen thousand dollars and told Louis he’d fight with Louis having no gloves, just taped hands. No one took up his challenge.” Rorion shrugs. “Louis was on vacation and here was this little bee buzzing in his ear and giving him no peace. Heh-heh!”
Helio reigned as the self-proclaimed toughest man in the occidental world for 25 years. He fought 14 fights in the ring and lost only two of them, one to Japanese master Kimura and the other to a much younger man – in fact, his protege – when Helio, at 42, was out of shape. Helio is 75 now, the patriarch of a family of nine children, including seven sons, and 18 grandchildren. Rorion has a photograph of his father at 73, still fit, gaunt-faced, with his aquiline nose and menacing pale-blue eyes. He is posing in his kimono with three of his sons, Rorion, Relson and Rickson, in their kimonos. Father and sons are standing identically – legs spread, arms crossed at their chests, eyes glaring at the camera – underneath a seal of the Gracie Jujitsu Academy, which Carlos and Helio founded in Rio in the Twenties. Helio’s sons have all taught at the academy at one time or another. They are black belts. They are bigger than their father, darker, but the look in their eyes is only a parody of their father’s truly menacing look. Except for Rickson. He has his own look. Not menacing but devoid of emotion. The blankness of the supremely confident. Rickson is 29, as muscular as a bodybuilder, with a Marine’s crewcut, the high cheekbones of an Inca Indian and a square jaw. If Rorion is amiably handsome, Rickson is devastatingly handsome. Noted photographer Bruce Weber devoted 36 pages of his book on Rio (O Rio De Janeiro) to the Gracies and Rickson. Rickson as a baby being tossed high into the air by his father. Rorion and Relson as small boys on the beach, Rorion hooking his leg behind his brother’s before throwing him to the sand. Rickson, in bikini shorts, on his back on a mat in a ring, his legs wrapped around the hips of a muscular black man, also in bikini shorts, who is trying to strangle him.
“Zulu,” says Rorion. “A street fighter. He was thirty pounds heavier than Rickson. He threw Rickson out of the ring four times in their fight.” Rorion gets up to put on a video tape of Rickson’s fight with Zulu for the title of the toughest man in the occidental world. A grainy image flickers on the screen. Zulu is sitting astride Rickson, on his back. He trying to gouge out Rickson’s eyes. Rickson keeps twisting his head left and right to avoid Zulu’s stabbing fingers while, at the same time, he is kicking his heels in the sides of Zulu’s back where his kidneys are. Rorion laughs and says, “Heh-heh! After the fight, Zulu was pissing blood for weeks.”
The two men, locked in combat, roll toward the edge of the ring. The crowd surges forward. Hands reach out and slap at the combatants. The referee kicks at the hands, trying to drive the crowd back, while he grabs the combatants’ legs and pulls them back to the center of the ring. A rain of crushed paper cups descends on the ring. The referee kicks the cups out of the ring like a soccer player.
“Wild people, huh?” says Rorion. “Brazil is a violent country. Watch here.” Rickson stops kicking Zulu’s kidneys, locks his legs around his hips and rolls him over so that now he is on top. He unleashes a barrage of bare-fisted punches to Zulu’s face. Zulu tries to block the blows with his hands.
Zulu manages to roll Rickson over now so that his is on top of him, close to the edge of the ring again. Before Zulu can set himself, Rickson twists Zulu’s body so that Zulu is lying on top of him, both men facing the overhead lights. Rickson gets Zulu in a choke hold and squeezes. Zulu’s eyes begin to roll back in his head.
Rorion, smiling, turns off the video and says, “I used to change Rickson’s diapers. Now he’s the best in the world. Heh-heh!” It amuses him that he is the toughest man in the United States and yet he is not even the toughest man in his own family. “Rickson has never been beaten,” he says. “No on will challenge him after Zulu. It’s been three years. The Gracie family is the only family in history that will fight anyone with no rules. The Gracies don’t believe in Mike Tyson. Rickson issued a public challenge to Mike Tyson, but he has not responded.”
All the while Rorion has been talking. His three sons have been grappling on the floor, like monkeys, in a silent parody of their father and uncle Rickson. Their names are Ryron, Rener and Ralek. Nearby is his daughter Segina. Rorion has two daughters by a previous marriage in Brazil, Riane, 12, and Rose. Rorion believes that the letter R has mystical powers. He also shuns common names, like Robert, because they carry their own associations. “An original name has only the aura you give to it,” he says. It is a belief, one of many, that Rorion inherited from his father, whom he worships almost as a god. (Rorion’s other siblings besides his brothers Relson, 36, and Rickson are brothers Rolker, 24, Royler, 23, Royce, 22, Robin, 15, and sisters Rherica, 20, and Ricci, 12.)
Rorion’s beliefs were fashioned out of Helio and Carlo’ devotion to jujitsu, not merely as a martial art but as the cornerstone for a way of living that encompasses every aspect of a man’s life, from morality and sex to diet. Rorion, for instance, eats only raw fruits and, occasionally, vegetables, and only in certain combinations as prescribed by his uncle Carlos, a nutritionist. His back yard is a greengrocer’s market of boxes of apples, watermelons, bananas, mangoes and papayas he has bought in bulk. A typical Gracie meal might include watermelon juice, sliced persimmons and a side of bananas, and the talk around the Gracie dinner table between Rorion and his wife invariably concerns such questions as whether apricots should be combined with mangoes at a meal. His sons have only a passing acquaintance with foods other than fruits. They have had chicken maybe three times in their lives, and once, at a friend’s birthday party, they were given lollipops, which they began smacking against the side of their heads because they didn’t know what they were.
If the Gracie family’s belief in the efficacy of fruits and the letter R seems nutty, if harmless, then their devotion to warrior values such as courage, honour and chivalry borders on the fanatical. Gracie men do fight at the drop of an insult, with predictably savage results. When Carlos and Helio returned home one night and found a robber in their house, they offered him the choice of fighting or going to jail. He chose to fight. In minutes, his screams woke the neighbourhood: “Jail! Jail! Jail!” When Uncle Carlos fought, he was not content merely to beat an opponent, he also wanted to teach him a lesson, or, as Uncle Carlos likes to say, “He’s gonna get to dreamland all right, but first he must walk through the garden of punishment.”
Rorion laughs and shakes his head. “Uncle Carlos was a bratty little kid. WHen he saw a Japanese guy carrying heavy loads of laundry, he liked to trip him. Heh-heh! He was very aggressive.” When Carlos found opponents scarce for his ring fights, he advertised for them in the newspaper under the headline that read, “IF YOU WANT A BROKEN ARM OR RIB, CONTACT CARLOS GRACIE AT THIS NUMBER.”
Rorion Gracie first visited the United States in 1969, when he was 17. He bummed around New York, L.A. and Hawaii for a year. He worked in a restaurant and on a construction site, where he slept. “I was always the first one on the job in the morning,” he says. When his finances got precarious, he panhandled on the street. After years of being protected in the Gracie bosom in Rio, he learned to live on his own. “I grew a lot,” he says. “Trouble only comes to test our reactions.”
When Rorion returned to Brazil at the end of 1970, he went to college, got a law degree, though he has never practiced law, got married, had two children and then got divorced. In 1979, he decided it was time to cut the Gracie umbilical cord and return to the States for good to establish Gracie Jujitsu in the States.
“I felt there were more opportunities in America to spread the work of the Gracie myth,” he says. “I felt that in Brazil, the Gracie family had reached the top and I didn’t want to stay there and live off of my father’s fame.”
The Gracie myth in Brazil began with George Gracie, a blue-eyed Scottish sailor who settled in Brazil in the early 1800’s. His descendants were bankers, diplomats, rubber-plantation barons and confidants of Brazilian emperors. A different kind of fame commenced with Carlos and Helio, whose fights were the stuff of legends. Helio was the first jujitsu master in the occidental world to defeat a Japanese master, Namiki, in 1932. He challenged any and all comers to fight in the ring with him, without rules, to the death. He fought a man to the death, only to have him surrender after four minutes. A newspaper story the following day said that the man had chosen not to die and dubbed him “The Dead Chicken.” Helio fought Fred Ebert for 14 rounds of ten minutes each, until the police climbed into the ring to separate the two combatants, who had broken noses, lost teeth, welts over their eyes and blood streaming down their faces. The fan rioted at the halting of the fight. When Helio challenged a famous Brazilian boxer known as The Drop of Fire to a fight to the death, more than 20,000 fans showed up at the stadium. Only The Drop of Fire never showed, and overnight, the press dubbed him The Drop of Fear. Once, Helio dived into the turbulent, shark-infested Atlantic Ocean to save a man from drowning and was given his nation’s Medal of Honour for his heroism.
Finally, in early 1951, Helio choked to unconsciousness Japan’s number-two master, Kato, in a fight in Brazil that earned him a shot at Japan’s premiere jujitsu master, the toughest man in all the world, Kimura. The fight took place in October of 1951 before thousands of Brazilian fans. kimura, 80 pounds heavier than Helio, agreed to the fight only if Helio, who had a reputation for never surrendering, would promise to tap the mat in surrender if his position seemed hopeless. “kimura was a gentleman,” say Rorion, “and he didn’t like to go to sleep at night dreaming of the sound of broken arms.” The fight lasted 13 minutes. Kimura got Helio in a choke hold and noticed blood coming out of Helio’s ear. “You all right?” Kimura said. “Yes,” Helio said. “Good,” Kimura said, and grabbed Helio’s head and began to crush it like an overripe melon. Carlos threw in the towel.
The next day, Kimura appeared at the Gracie academy to invite Helio to teach at the Imperial Academy of Japan. Even though Helio wasn’t scheduled to fight, Kimura could not guarantee his safety in Japan, where the fans often threaten to kill non-Japanese masters to maintain their monopoly of that martial art. Helio refused the offer. None of the current Japanese masters have dared venture to Rickson’s home turf of Rio.
“The Brazilian youth had no idols before my father,” says Rorion. “They felt there was nothing important known about Brazil. My father gave them hope. Something to believe in.”
Rorion was 27 when he decided to come to the States to spread the word of the Gracie myth. He felt that the seed of Gracie jujitsu would flourish in the fertile soil of America, where men are bigger and stronger than in Brazil. He felt that American men could become a kind of master race of jujitsu warriors. Furthermore, he felt that men, and their women, too, were tired of their world image as the wimps of feminism. As proof, he could point to the popularity of such American movie actors as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris, who personified in their movies the kind of macho warrior that bore the striking resemblance to the roles assumed by Gracie men in real life in Brazil. Only the Gracie men did not need bazookas and machine guns.
Rorion moved to Southern California in 1979 and began to spread the word of Gracie jujitsu while trying to support himself in a strange country. He took a job cleaning houses. He met a woman whose husband was a movie producer. “You should be in movies,” she told Rorion. Her husband took him to Central Casting and soon he was appearing as an extra in such TV series as Hart to Hart, Starsky and Hutch and Hotel. Rorion left the housecleaning business and set up a jujitsu mat in his garage, where he began to teach students. The youngest was the four-year-old son of a movie producer and the oldest, a 75-year-old retired Marine general. When a movie producer saw his fight against Ralph Alegria, the kick boxer, he hired him as a consultant for Lethal Weapon. Rorion choreographed the final fight scene between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey in that movie. Then he met Chuck Norris and began to teach him jujitsu for his movie Hero and the Terror.
While he waited for Gracie jujitsu to catch on in the States, Rorion busied himself with his movies, his students, demonstrations for law-enforcement agencies and colleges and an occasional challenge from a beach bully. He issued a $100,000 challenge, winner take all, to a fight to the death. Finally, a few months ago, a producer called to tell him about a documentary movie he was filming on the martial arts. A kick boxer in that movie, who claimed he was “the baddest dude in the world,” had put up $100,000, winner take all, to fight anyone. Rorion accepted the challenge immediately and then told the producer, “First you better tell him who he’s going to fight.”
Rorion laughs and says, “I sparred a few times with him before. I was very gentle with him. I took him to the mat a few times, showed him some nice choke holds and he tapped the mat. Heh-heh.”
The next day, the producer called back and said that the kick boxer would fight Rorion only under the following rules: Rorion had to put up the entire $100,000, the fight would consist of ten rounds of five minutes each and the two combatants could not stay on the mat for more than a minute at a time. Rorion laughed. “But that is not a street fight,” he said. The producer never called him back.
In the den, Rorion passes his time browsing through the many books, newspapers and magazines with stories about the Gracie family. He holds up pictures of his father fighting Kimura and studies them. “See here,” he says, “the choke.” He memorizes that choke hold and the many facts of Gracie history: the names of long-dead ancestors; the dates of famous fights; the nicknames of vanquished opponents; Dudu, The Elephant, The Drop of Fire, The Dead Chicken, Zulu. He glances at his young sons in kimonos, wrestling on the rug. They grapple, silently, trip one another, tap the mat, stand, begin again. He looks outside to the garage, where two men in kimonos stand in front of the closed door. One man opens it to reveal a spotless, empty room with a grey mat on the floor. There is a photograph of a gaunt, mean-eyed old man, his arms folded across his chest, underneath a seal that reads ACADEMIA GRACIE. The two men step inside onto the mat. They are barefooted. They face each other, plant their legs wide, like crabs, and begin to circle each other like ancient warriors. They circle and circle, looking for an opening on this peaceful day on this quiet street in Torrance.