Rickson Gracie: ‘MMA is different in the US, where the crowd just gets drunk and yells’

Rickson Gracie: ‘MMA is different in the US, where the crowd just gets drunk and yells’

In Rickson Gracie’s many jiu jitsu fights, he tried to avoid thinking about either victory or defeat. What was on his mind was something far more basic and far more important: Breathing.

While training in martial arts, Gracie learned to breathe using his diaphragm. Similar to the way singers and divers breathe, it results in deeper inhalations and exhalations than the chest breaths most people take. Limiting his pulse to 60 beats per minute during a grueling fight, he found it gave him greater endurance than his opponent. Reflecting this importance, Breathe is the title of his new memoir, co-written with Peter Maguire.

“It made a difference for me,” Gracie says. “I had much better access to my brain and heart, more capacity to think about growing a spiritual mind and my emotional needs and in my heart.”

Improved breathing also helped in meets that he called “very unpredictable, very intense.”

As Gracie noted, unpredictability has been part of his life ever since he was born into the family that has spread knowledge of the traditional Japanese martial art of jiu jitsu, popularizing it in an adapted form as Brazilian jiu jitsu or BJJ. His father, Helio Gracie, and his uncle, Carlos Gracie, played key roles in this. Gracie himself has enjoyed many triumphs, retiring with an undefeated record in jiu jitsu. Yet in the book, he also writes of the tragedies he and his family have suffered along the way, including the loss of his son, Rockson Gracie, which took five years to come to terms with.

“Something he left for me is that tomorrow might not happen, you better do everything today,” Rickson Gracie says. “It’s best for you so you don’t have regrets about tomorrow.”

Gracie had long thought about writing a memoir, but it took the Covid-19 pandemic for it to happen. With his seminars, classes and academies all closed, he put his energies into writing. Maguire is working on another Gracie-related project as a co-screenwriter on an upcoming biopic.

“Once I had to do the book, I opened my heart and decided to really tell everything,” Gracie says.

That includes the Scottish origins of his ancestors – they came from Dumfries to Brazil as well as to the US. One gave his name to the mansion residence of the mayor of New York. Gracie also details his experiences in the ancestral home of jiu jitsu when he fought in Japan. He writes of his admiration for samurai culture and its honor code of bushido, as well as other elements of Japanese culture. And if you’re interested in his fights, well, there’s plenty of that as well – including his 2000 matchup with Japanese wrestler Masakatsu Funaki at the Tokyo Dome. During that encounter, Funaki temporarily blinded Gracie in his right eye with a punch. Gracie did not disclose his injury. He endured a continuing onslaught of punches and kicks, but his vision returned, and he won with a rear naked choke that left his opponent unconscious.

He credits his win in that fight to the strategy of visualization he used beforehand.

“Something I always did in between fights, preparing for somebody, a normal practice exercise, is visualizing a situation with different outcomes I can pursue,” Gracie says. “The fight where I hurt my eye, I visualized maybe a thousand times winning the fight.”

After Funaki hit him in the eye, Gracie recalls, “there was an orbital fracture. One eye could not move. I could not see anything. My brother told me, ‘stand back.’ I was blind. I knew I could not stand back. The guy kept hitting me, kicking me in the legs … I could not say anything.”

“I had to pretend I was OK,” he says. “I had to hope for a better situation, had to have faith to get me the win in the end. I started using visualization … Forty-five seconds [later], my eyesight came back. I could see. I stood up again.”

Throughout his career, Gracie never thought of tapping out himself, despite the risks.

“I had to accept the fact that you could get choked or pass out,” he says. “I was not going to tap. It could lead to passing out, even death if the guy did not let go or kept choking you. Quitting, tapping out, was not an option. I had to accept it in a very spiritual way. Maybe it could be your last day, last fight. If it is, so be it.”

He explains, “In my case, I was representing my family name, honor, legacy … I did not see it as a sport requiring winning or losing a game. For me, it was honor, tradition.”

As the book details, the Gracie family’s involvement with jiu jitsu began when a traveling Japanese master, Hideyo Maeda, visited Brazil and started teaching the ground-based martial art under the name Conde Koma. His students included Gracie’s uncle Carlos, who subsequently taught it to Gracie’s father Helio, with the knowledge being passed down to the author’s generation as well.

“I was born and raised in a family with a very unique culture and lifestyle,” Gracie says, “being exposed to being a Gracie as a martial artist. I learned how to eat differently, to have different conditioning, how to respond to challenges in life.”

Gracie had many siblings and cousins who learned jiu jitsu alongside him. The book notes that Helio and Carlos Gracie fathered a combined 30 children with eight women. Rickson Gracie writes that his birth mother was actually an Afro-Brazilian babysitter named Belinha in his parents’ household, and when he first noticed his freckles, he thought it was his Scottish side instead of his Afro-Brazilian side. He expresses regret in the book about his father’s patriarchal view of women and encourages a different approach in his own children.

He also writes about the sometimes differing approaches to the martial arts that arose within the branches of his family, from those who were more inclined towards the UFC – such as his brothers Rorion and Royce – to those who advocated a more tradition-based approach in Japan, like himself.

The UFC championship debuted in the US in 1993, won that year by Royce Gracie, in an all-inclusive fighting format.

Rickson Gracie says, “[The UFC] pitted style against style, the idea of confrontation to see who is best not only in the boxing or judo arena, but in the octagon, where all the martial artists go in and one champion would be the one who is the best martial artist.” Yet, he added, “In the MMA event they created, the American audience is seeking for the entertainment, the big blow or movement, strong people showing off.”

By contrast, he recalls a fight in Japan at the Tokyo Dome with 70,000 people in the audience: “You can hear a beer can fall on the floor. Everybody is quiet watching the fight, different aspects – technical situations, sweeps, reverses … They have much more appreciation of the fight regardless of the entertainment aspect. It’s different in the US where they get drunk and yell.”

Today, he laments, the people taking up the martial arts are not “the ones who most need it”, namely people who are “not fighters”.

“Every average person could learn and enjoy the ability to deal with situations and come out victorious,” Gracie says. “The idea of the martial arts is transformative.”

He encourages people to turn off the computer, cell phone and social media and turn on to practicing the martial arts.

“It’s how to be really dealing with life, not existing behind a computer,” he says.

As Gracie explains, the martial arts are a way of “humanizing you,” giving “a better sense of compatibility, a better connection with people, a better capacity to breathe”.