Gracie brings popular martial art to Prince Albert

Perry Bergson
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

For the Wayne Gretzky of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a certain level of anonymity makes perfect sense.

Royce Gracie -- whose first name is pronounced with an H rather than R (Hoyce) -- was initially surprised when he came to North America and saw his sport's low profile.

"It was more of a shock coming to America and people were like 'Gracies who?'" he says. "It's kind of Wayne Gretzky going to Brazil and people going 'Who is he again?' 'What does he do?' We don't have hockey in Brazil."

Decades later, it's fair to say that Gracie is more likely to be recognized in Prince Albert than the Great One would be in Sao Paulo.

He first competed in tournaments at age eight, moving to the U.S. at age 18 to help his brother Rorion teach classes in Torrance, Calif.

The Rio de Janeiro, Brazil native became a combat sports superstar in 1993-94 when he won three of the first four UFC events.

Back then, the fighters faced multiple matches in an evening as they worked their way through a bracket to the final. The 6'1", 180-pound Brazilian fighter was able to beat men far larger by using jiu-jitsu, which is a form of martial arts that utilizes grappling and submission techniques.

The martial art traces back to Japan, but it's the Gracie family that put their unique spin on it and had the idea to test it against other disciplines. 

UFC 1 was the result.

"I'm an average-sized person, 170, 180 pounds for the last 20 years," Gracie says. "Fighting guys like Akebono (Taro), 6'8", 490 pounds ... (fans would say) I like that guy, the guy with the pyjamas (gi). If he can do it, I can do it too."

It was a very different sport in the beginning.

There were no gloves, no rounds and no weight divisions. While today's fighter virtually always trains in several disciplines, back then many knew a single way of fighting.

"It was style against style," he says. "It was two different styles of martial arts. Today, everybody is practising everything. The standup fighters had to learn grappling. The grapplers had to learn standup. Today it's not style against style anymore."

There was also the preconceived notion that it was a barbaric spectacle, famously referred to as "human cockfighting" by former American presidential candidate John McCain in the 1990s. 

"At the beginning it was hard," Gracie remembers. "You had to educate people that fighters can stop the fight any time they wanted, that the referee can stop the fight, the doctor can stop the fight. So it was hard to educate people that it wasn't just two thugs getting in there and fighting. It's two martial arts people."

With the explosion in popularity of the UFC, there has been an accompanying boost in interest in jiu-jitsu.

As a result, Gracie now travels for seven months of the year putting on clinics.

He notes that if you combine all of the combat sports -- everything from boxing to karate -- they are near the top in global popularity. 

"Martial arts in general, all of them combined, is the second biggest sport in the world," he says. "The first one is soccer. So with the popularity of the UFC ... new kids growing up now want to be a UFC fighter. It's growing very fast."

Gracie tries to keep up with the UFC as much as he can. He likes to follow the guys who use strategy to win, citing fighters such as Anderson Silva, Lyota Machida and Georges St-Pierre (GSP), the Canadian superstar who is one of the faces of the UFC.

"You never know if he is going to shoot in -- that's what strategy is -- or stand up with you," Gracie notes.

He hasn't had a chance to train with GSP, joking "He's too good."

Gracie was in Prince Albert on Monday to teach a three-hour Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) session. Gracie may be a sixth degree black belt, but the seminar he teaches focuses on the fundamentals.

"I'm big on the basics," he says. "You have to know the basics, the foundation." 

During the seminar, he would show a BJJ move and then have the students pair off to try it themselves. He would wander around the wrestling room at Carlton Comprehensive High School, explaining the move in detail and maybe moving a student's hand or knee a couple of inches to show where it should be for maximum effect.

His list of students over the years includes celebrities such as Chuck Norris, Ed O’Neal, Guy Ritchie, Jim Carrey, Josh Duhamel and Nicholas Cage, but he also teaches American soldiers and law enforcement agents. 

In 2011, he asked UFC boss Dana White for another fight. Gracie, now 46 and with a record of 14-2-3, has since closed that door.

"You have to know when to stop in this business," says Gracie, who lives in California with his wife and four children.

In 2003, he was inducted into the UFC's Hall Of Fame with Ken Shamrock, who was also there for those early events.

So has he kept up with any of the other fighters that he built a sport with 20 years ago?

"They're not my friends, they're not my enemies, they're just opponents," he chuckles. "I don't keep in touch with them."

Organizations: Carlton Comprehensive High School

Geographic location: Brazil, U.S., North America Sao Paulo Torrance, Calif. Rio de Janeiro Japan

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page