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October 1, 1913 – January 29, 2009
Helio Gracie was regarded as the creator of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, also known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Until his death, Gracie was the only living 10th degree master of the discipline and is widely considered as one of the first sports heroes in Brazilian history; he was named Black Belt Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1997. He was the father of the world-renowned fighters Rickson Gracie, Royler Gracie, Royce Gracie, Relson Gracie and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) founder Rorion Gracie. Gracie was also a 6th dan in judo.
When he was just 16 years old, he found the opportunity to teach a Judo class(at that time Judo was commonly referred to as Kano Jiu-Jitsu or simply Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil). This experience led him to develop Brazilian/Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. A director of the Bank of Brazil, Mario Brandt arrived for a private class at the original Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro as scheduled. The instructor, Carlos Gracie (Helio’s older brother), was running late and was not present. Helio offered to begin the class with the man. When the tardy Carlos arrived offering his apologies, the student assured him it was no problem, and actually requested that he be allowed to continue learning with Helio Gracie instead. Carlos agreed to this and Helio Gracie became an instructor. Helio realised that even though he knew the techniques, theoretically in fact, the moves were much harder to execute. Due to his smaller size, he realised many of the judo moves required brute strength which did not suit his small stature. Consequently, he began adapting Judo for his particular physical attributes, and through trial and error learned to maximise leverage, thus minimising the force that needed to be exerted to execute a move. From these experiments, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, formally Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, was created. Using these new techniques, smaller and weaker practitioners gained the capability to defend themselves and even defeat much larger opponents.
In 1932 when he was 19 Gracie was involved in an attack on Luta-Livre teacher Manoel Rufino dos Santos. In an interview for Playboy Magazine he regretted that act with this statement:
“It was 66 years ago that I was involved in my biggest trouble. A famous fighter in Brazil [a former luta livre champion] Manoel Rufino dos Santos, said that he was going to show the world that we Gracies were nothing. It was at the Tijuca Tennis Club of Rio that I gave my answer to him. I arrived and said “I came to answer the declaration that you made.” He throw a punch and I took him to the ground, with two fractures of his head, and a broken clavicle, and blood spurting out. But it was a foolish act that I did. Today I would never repeat such a thing.”
Gracie was prosecuted and sentenced to two and a half years in jail. An appeal was made to the Supreme Court by Gracie’s lawyer Romero Neto and the sentence was upheld, as the court said “Today it was with Manoel Rufini dos Santos. Tomorrow it will be us.” A couple of hours after that decision Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas pardoned Gracie. According to Gracie, one of his students had a brother who was an ambassador and was very close to Getúlio, and he intervened in favor of Gracie. Gracie and Getúlio subsequently met many times and Gracie eventually taught Getúlio’s son Maneco.
Gracie had 19 professional fights in his career. He began his fighting career when he submitted professional boxer Antonio Portugal in 30 seconds in 1932. Also in 1932 he fought American professional wrestler Fred Ebert for fourteen 10 minute rounds. The event was stopped because Brazilian law did not allow any public events to continue after 2 AM. Fred Ebert sustained a severe beating throughout the fight. After the fight Ebert was rushed to the hospital and Helio went home with black and blue elbows resulting from hitting Ebert’s face. In 1934 Gracie fought Polish professional wrestler Wladek Zbyszko, who was a former world champion, for three 10 minute rounds. Even though the wrestler was almost twice Helio’s weight he could not defeat him and the match ended in a draw. After regulation time expired Helio proposed an immediate extra round to be fought and the bigger wrestler refused. Hélio defeated Taro Miyake, a Japanese professional wrestler and judoka who had an extesive professional fighting record and worked for Ed “Strangler” Lewis in the U.S.
Helio also fought several Japanese judoka under submission rules. In 1932 he fought Japanese judoka Namiki. Helio defeated the Japanese heavyweight judoka and sumo wrestler Masagoichi via armlock. The fight ended in a draw, but according to the Gracies the bell rang just seconds before Namiki would have tapped out. Gracie had two fights with Japanese judoka Yasuichi Ono after Ono choked out Helio’s brother George Gracie in a match. Both fights ended in a draw. Helio defeated the Japanese heavyweight judoka and sumo wrestler Masagoichi via armlock. Gracie fought another Japanese judoka Kato twice. The first time was at Maracanã stadium and they went to a draw. Afterwards, Kato asked for a rematch. The rematch was held at Ibirapuera Stadium in São Paulo and Gracie won by front choke from the guard.
In 1955, Masahiko Kimura (widely considered one of the greatest judoka of all time), at 38 years old, participated in a match in which he defeated Helio Gracie. During the fight, Kimura threw Gracie repeatedly with Ippon Seoinage (one arm shoulder throw), Osoto Gari (major outer reap) Kimura’s signature throw. He threw Gracie 3 times with Osoto Gari, Ouchi Gari (major inner reap), Uchimata (inner thigh throw), and Harai Goshi (sweeping hip throw). Kimura reportedly threw Gracie repeatedly in an effort to knock him unconscious. However, the could no do so due to Gracie’s amazing defensive skills. Kimura also inflicted painful, suffocating grappling techniques on Gracie such as kuzure-kamishiho-gatame (modified upper four corner hold), kesa-gatame (scarf hold), and sankaku-jime (triangle choke). However Kimura was not able to make Gracie submit even though he had claimed in the press that he would finish the fight with the first grip. Finally, thirteen minutes into the bout, Kimura positioned himself to apply a reverse ude-garami (arm entanglement, a shoulderlock). Gracie refused to submit due to his incredible flexibility. At this point, Carlos Gracie, Gracie’s older brother, interrupted the match because he knew that his brother liked to resist submissions. In 1994, Gracie admitted in an interview that he had in fact been choked unconscious earlier in the match, but had revived when Kimura released the choke.
As a tribute to Kimura’s victory, the reverse ude-garami technique has since been commonly referred to as the Kimura lock, or simply the Kimura, in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and, more recently, mixed martial arts circles. Even though Kimura erroneously claims in his book that he broke Helio’s arm, this can be easily disproven by the video of the fight and by reserching the press coverage of the time that show several pictures of Helio moving his arm freely right after the fight and in the subsequent days.
Kimura describes the event as follows: “20,000 people came to see the bout including President of Brazil. Helio was 180cm and 80 kg. When I entered the stadium, I found a coffin. I asked what it was for. I was told, “This is for Kimura. Helio brought this in.” It was so funny that I almost burst into laughter. As I approached the ring, raw eggs were thrown at me. The gong rang. Helio grabbed me in both lapels, and attacked me with O-soto-gari and Kouchi-gari. But they did not move me at all. Now it’s my turn. I blew him away up in the air by O-uchi-gari, Harai-goshi, Uchimata, Ippon-seoi. At about 10 minute mark, I threw him by O-soto-gari. I intended to cause a concussion. But since the mat was so soft that it did not have much impact on him. While continuing to throw him, I was thinking of a finishing method. I threw him by O-soto-gari again. As soon as Helio fell, I pinned him by Kuzure-kami-shiho-gatame. I held still for 2 or 3 minutes, and then tried to smother him by belly. Helio shook his head trying to breathe. He could not take it any longer, and tried to push up my body extending his left arm. That moment, I grabbed his left wrist with my right hand, and twisted up his arm. I applied Udegarami. I thought he would surrender immediately. But Helio would not tap the mat. I had no choice but keep on twisting the arm. The stadium became quiet. The bone of his arm was coming close to the breaking point. Finally, the sound of bone breaking echoed throughout the stadium. Helio still did not surrender. His left arm was already powerless. Under this rule, I had no choice but twist the arm again. There was plenty of time left. I twisted the left arm again. Another bone was broken. Helio still did not tap. When I tried to twist the arm once more, a white towel was thrown in. I won by TKO. My hand was raised high. Japanese Brazilians rushed into the ring and tossed me up in the air. On the other hand, Helio let his left arm hang and looked very sad withstanding the pain.”
In May 1955 at the YMCA in Rio de Janeiro, Gracie participated in a 3 hour 42 minute fight against his former student Valdemar Santana, with Gracie losing by technical knockout due to exhaustion. This fight is the longest uninterrupted MMA fight in history.
Gracie died on the morning of January 29, 2009 at age 95 in his sleep in Itaipava, Rio de Janeiro. The cause of death, reported by the family, was natural causes. “I created a flag from the art’s dignity. I oversee the name of my family with affection and nerves of blood,” were his last words.