There’s one family’s name, and one martial art attributed to them, right at the heart of mixed martial arts history.
That name, of course, is Gracie — and that art is Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Rorion Gracie helped found the Ultimate Fighting Championship — an event his brother Royce dominated. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Rickson Gracie earned acclaim at PRIDE FC and Japan Vale Tudo in Japan.
Renzo Gracie was another important figure of the 1990’s — and today, two of his students are among the head trainers for UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman and contender Frankie Edgar. Carlson Gracie’s disciples founded American Top Team and Brazilian Top Team, two more of MMA’s most dominant camps. Roger Gracie, pictured above, continues to compete in MMA and BJJ. Last week, Neiman Gracie won his second MMA bout for World Series of Fighting, while Rener Gracie helped corner Ronda Rousey to victory in the UFC.
So yes, we know their influence, old and new.
How much do we really know about the history of the family, and the creation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
We know what was told by Rorion Gracie himself, in marketing his original “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” instructional videos. We know what Renzo Gracie’s side of the family has told, in the documentary The Gracies and the Birth of Vale Tudo.
A wealth of information on jiu-jitsu’s history in Brazil was unearthed recently by Roberto Pedreira. Pedreira’s book, Choque, collects newspaper accounts of jiu-jitsu and other challenge matches from 1856 to 1949 in Brazil to offer a whole new look at the art’s development.
“Choque” is a Portuguese word for an athletic competition — in this case, a “ring sport.” Pedreira’s research shows that ring sports have a heritage which may surprise his readers: jiu-jitsu, along with catch-as-catch-can wrestling and luta livre, existed in Brazil before the Gracie family, and developed outside of their influence.
The book chronicles many different mixed-rules bouts which entertained crowds in Brazil. Mitsuyo Maeda, alias Conde Koma, was an early star. Others followed, like Geo Omori and the Gracie brothers: Carlos, Helio, Oswaldo, and George — the most active fighter of the original brothers, but sadly, seldom talked about today. Another Gracie brother, Gestao Jr., was an instructor.
The oft-told origin story of Carlos Gracie training under Maeda, and then teaching his brothers, is called into question in “Choque.” Could Maeda have even been in Belem, where Gracie is said to have learned, for the full three years of training which has been claimed? Pedreira finds it unlikely — and believes Gracie (mostly) learned under a Maeda student instead.
The story of the first Gracie Academy is told as well. Pedreira describes Carlos as originally an assistant at Maeda student Donato Pires’ academy, then taking over instruction. Among other finds, Pedreira questions the old story of an old newspaper article offering prize money to anyone who can come to the academy and beat Carlos Gracie: what has been called the original “Gracie Challenge.” He finds no evidence of it, and notes: “Jiu-jitsu marketing in the 1930’s emphasized health and spiritual benefits, not assault and battery. One wonders how Carlos Gracie’s target client base of the families of rich kids would have reacted to it.”
Carlson Gracie at age 7, then known as Eduardo or Eduardinho, makes a brief appearance in “Choque.” Apparently a few pics of him doing jiu-jitsu were in the newspapers, with his father, Carlos, boasting that the lad had “the calmness of George Gracie and the agility of Helio.”
Gracie family’s problems with the law are also chronicled in “Choque,” including a few street altercations and one stint in jail for Carlos — a result, per Pedreira, of an affair with an underage student.
“Choque” may surprise many fans, but still, anyone reading its pages will see the family’s influence in the fight game honored as well.
As a book, Choque is dry. It follows year by year from 1847 to 1949, essentially listing every reference to the ring sports Pedreira could find. It’s expansive nature makes it nearly impossible to read for pleasure. It will also be a challenge for anyone to confirm his sources, though widely annotated.
But it’s a great buy for anyone looking for another glimpse at martial arts history. It’s a bit of scholarship where we’ve previously mostly seen advertising. If you’re curious about this great art’s (and MMA’s) history in Brazil, you’ll find it worth a look.