Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s Greatest Champion
by Jose Fraguas
Published by Masters Magazine
From a sickly child to a feared jiu-jitsu champion taking on all-comers, Helio Gracie’s belief in himself and his system of fighting enabled him to turn his life around and not only help himself, but also help others.
Helio Gracie, the father of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu system, was born the youngest of five brothers on October 1, 1913 in the Brazilian city of Belem, in the State of Para. A sickly child, Helio suffered from an inexplicable weakness that resulted in severe fainting spells. Due to this problem, he was forbidden from engaging any kind of physical activity. By watching his older brother, Carlos, teach every day, Helio memorized every single move shown at the class. One day, when Carlos missed class, Helio had the opportunity to teach one of his students. The man was so impressed with Helio’s teaching skills that he asked Carlos to let him keep training under the “young guy.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Helio Gracie modified the Japanese version of jiu-jitsu, challenged other fighters and never hesitated to step onto the mat and put his system to the test. The was the beginning of the famous “Gracie Challenge,” which put their grappling style of combat to the test against all fighters from the striking arts. It wasn’t until his son, Rorion, created the Ultimate Fighting Championship, that the Gracie method of jiu-jitsu became known around the world. Son Royce Gracie, shocked the martial arts world by winning the UFC three times, and another son, Rickson Gracie, a legend in his own right, went to Japan to repeat history and defeated Japan’s best martial artists using the techniques his father developed.
By fighting all-comers, and standing up for what he believed, Helio earned a reputation as a man of honor, skill, and bravery that endures to this day.
How did you start your jiu-jitsu training?
My older brother Carlos learned the art its Japanese version, from a Japanese immigrant named Esai Maeda, who taught him the art out of respect for my father, Gastao Gracie, who had helped him get established. Maeda was a fighter who had studied judo, sumo, and several forms of wrestling. A little bit later my brother Carlos began to formally teach. I watched the classes but I wasn’t allowed to participate due to my physical condition. I used to sit there every single day, memorizing all the moves in my mind. One day, Carlos was late for a private class, so I just walked up and told the student I’d teach him that day.
What happened afterwards?
Carlos came and said to the student, “OK, let’s get started.” But the man said that I had already taught him. He said that he was very happy with me and he would like to have me as instructor from that day on. That man turned out to be the President of the Bank of Brazil!
Why weren’t you allowed to teach at first?
As a child I was always sick and very small for my age. When I attended school I used to experience fainting spells. I guess that I was very allergic to the school! The school forbade me from engaging in any kind of physical activity because the family doctor said that I was a physically deprived child.
Did they find the problem?
Yes, they found out that I had a problem in my nervous system. Pretty much everyone in my family suffers from this, but I had it the worst. This is why my brother Carlos developed the Gracie Diet.
How were your days at the school?
I didn’t attend very much and I wasn’t a good student. I was smaller that the other kids and I had a real smart mouth, so I used to get in trouble very often.
When did you start to modify the techniques?
Well, it was not that I intentionally wanted to change anything. I lacked the physical power to make some techniques really work, so I began to adapt what I had seen to my own physical limitations. It was something very instinctive.
So you didn’t change for the sake of change?
No, I had to make things work for me. Sometimes I’d find myself in a situation, using the technique the way it was taught to my brother, Carlos, by the Japanese teacher. But I couldn’t get it to work because the classical techniques would require a lot of strength. So I had to find a way to make it work using leverage, not muscle strength.
When you began to think about improving the whole system?
Pretty soon, I realized that what I was doing was something that anybody could do. The techniques that I was developing would work for anyone, not just for me. At that point I decided to devote my life to jiu-jitsu.
Did your health improve?
Yes, very much. I guess the correct diet and the right exercise made me healthier. But also, and this is very important, I began to get rid off the mental complexes that I had as a weak child. I was not insecure anymore and I became more confident and outgoing as I began teaching and helping other people to improve.
Do you think martial arts training can change people’s lives?
Sure it can! I always say that when you can handle a physical situation you are more confident. When you are more confident and secure, you become much more tolerant of others because you don’t need to prove yourself. It’s like if you win the lottery – you don’t have to worry about money anymore so you’re happier. If you know how to defend yourself properly you don’t have to worry about being victimized. It clears your mind to concentrate on other things.
Isn’t this a direct contradiction of the famous Gracie Challenge?
No, because the Gracie Challenge was a way of improving our system and letting the people see how good the techniques were. It was not a personal thing, or an ego trip. If you really look at it from the right perspective, the challenge was very much for ourselves because it put us in constant difficulty and we had to develop new techniques and strategies to deal with other systems. It never was a personal thing.
You challenged the great boxers, Joe Louis and Primo Carnera, correct?
Yes. I wanted to prove the effectiveness of the system. I personally had nothing against them. They were just big men and big names and I was sure that I could take them.
Didn’t you once fight for three-and-a-half-hours straight?
Yes, they were going to enter it in the Guiness Book of World Records, but they finally decided against it because they felt it would push people into fighting to beat the record.
How did you became so famous in Japan?
I don’t know. Maybe because of my many fights in Brazil.
How you come to fight Kimura?
Kimura was considered “the toughest man who ever lived,” at that time. He heard about me and decided that he wanted to fight me. I said, “Fine, let’s go.” In Japan, they have a tradition that the top guy doesn’t fight challengers unless they defeat his best student. So I had to fight Kato, who was Kimura’s top student and 40 pounds heavier than me.
I defeated Kato. I choked him into unconsciousness. All the Japanese were shocked because no foreigner had ever defeated a Japanese jiu-jitsu champion before. So that gave me the chance to fight Kimura.
Was he good?
Yes, he was very good. In fact I never felt I could win because he was over 80 pounds heavier than me and greatly skilled.
Why did you fight him then?
Because I always enjoyed fighting against the odds. Kimura was so sure about his victory that he said if I lasted for more than three minutes, I would be considered the victor. And I did. I lasted for 13 minutes and I was still fighting when my brother Carlos threw in the towel because he was afraid that the arm-lock Kimura had would shatter my arm.
What did Kimura say afterwards?
He was so impressed that invited me to Japan to teach at his academy. But I kindly refused. I was very honored but I couldn’t leave my family and go.
What is your teaching and martial arts philosophy?
I firmly believe in helping people. That’s why I departed from tradition, because I wanted to find better and easier ways of doing the things. I’ve seen a lot of instructors throwing the students when in fact the students are paying for throwing the instructor. No one learns being thrown!
Do you teach women?
Yes I do. Women are more concerned about self-defense and don’t train to fight men do. But even that is changing now.
Are you happy with the great popularity the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu these days?
Yes I am. I’m so very proud of my sons. Rorion worked very hard in the United States to promote jiu-jitsu. Of course, Royce and Rickson also did a great job and they have great reputations as fighters and teachers..
Is it true that you wear a blue belt?
Yes, this is out of protest for all the so-called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and Brazilian jiu-jitsu masters. Everybody is a black belt or a master in jiu-jitsu these days. But there is a big difference in the way my system is taught in the Torrance Academy and the way others teach their own version of jiu-jitsu. That’s why we registered Gracie Jiu-Jitsu name. The way, the art and the values I developed during my whole life as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu can be taught correctly. Other people might have the arm lock or the choke and that’s fine. Anyone can train the way they like but I only endorse the teachings at the Torrance Academy and legitimate affiliated schools.
Do you still teach?
Yes, a little. I know my sons are spreading the art around the world and I’m very happy that my work is appreciated by those who want to keep the knowledge alive for the future generations. If teach it the right way, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu can make you a better person and make you happier with yourself.