In 1993, a skinny Brazilian named Royce Gracie not only won the very first UFC tournament, but he also changed the way we forever perceived fighting.
Twenty years later, there’s still nothing particularly remarkable about Royce Gracie when you look at him. He’s the same slim, unaffecting figure at 46 years old that he was at 26, back when he somehow emerged as the face of the gladiator bloodsport known as the UFC. In 2013, only the obstacles in front of him have changed.
These days, Royce is a man of schedules. Right now, he’s in North Carolina, doing a week of seminars sandwiched between stops in Missouri and Canada. After Canada, he’ll head back to his home base in Los Angeles for a couple of days before trekking down to Brazil. People—all over the globe—love Royce Gracie.
In fact, people love anybody who can hollow out adjectives (like “skinny” and “small”) and recast them as glorified nouns (like “icon” and “pioneer”). In 2013, people—companies, dojos, academies, you name it—want Royce to pay them a visit. Come behold the greatest everyman the fight game has ever known.
And like most athletes who transcend their sport, Royce remains in great demand after retirement. At one time in his life, he refused to lose against giants nearly double his size. In a roundabout way, defiance made Royce not only a star but also a living curiosity.
On this day, he rises before the sun is up in Raleigh-Durham and drives straight to Charlotte, where he pulls in at the Charlotte Police & Fire Training Academy in a Kia, just as pedestrian as you please. He walks up, shakes hands with his longtime friend and student Steve Hall—the only Royce Gracie black belt in the Charlotte area—and the event is in motion. Royce is ushered without ceremony into a classroom where 40 or so cadets are waiting to hear him speak. In a flash, he’s doing just that. He’s telling them stories and answering questions. Some of the trainees followed the sport of MMA back when it was a barely legal underground spectacle. Some, just like so many on the UFC’s current roster, rented the VHS tapes.
Many are staring at him like he’s Zeus come down from Mount Olympus.
And if Royce is Zeus, then his late father, Helio, was Cronus from the first generation of Titans. The difference is that the Gracies don’t belong to mythology, even if it’s tempting to categorize them that way. In one sense, Royce is just a dude. And Helio, who in 2009 passed away as a temple of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—and whose own brother Carlos learned jiu-jitsu from Otávio Mitsuyo Maeda and brought it to Brazil—couldn’t even do a pushup.
“But he had leverage,” Royce tells the class. “He was strong because he had the right leverage. You’d spar with him, and he’d grab your wrists, and you’d be like, ‘Goddamn, he’s strong.’ As an old man, 70 and 80 years old, you could feel his leverage, but he couldn’t do a pushup.”
Royce just happened to be the Gracie who got thrown into that first big martial arts gumbo back in 1993 at UFC 1. He was a live chapter to Helio’s biography. Royce’s brother, Rorion, was one of the promotion’s founders, back when togas, electrical fences, and alligator-infested moats were being discussed. The whole thing was based on brutality, both figurative and literal. Although it was only 20 years ago, that first UFC feels like something from Jem “The Gypsy” Mace’s day of crude bare-knuckle combat—only, the UFC’s earliest versions had far fewer rules.
Royce was the one who entered the eight-sided cage that night 20 years ago. And Royce—virtually expressionless—was the one who was left standing at the end.
That’s when he changed our perceptions as to what happens when real life martial artists cross one another. In 1993, Jean-Claude Van Damme represented our most updated (and absurd) martial arts notions. People liked to fantasize that what we saw with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris was the apex of the art. They didn’t envision it being the smallest man in a Brazilian chain, who headed toward the cage looking like Daniel Larusso in his gi.
“When we first came to America—when [my brother] Royler came to America, people didn’t know what Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was all about,” he says. “When I got here many years later, people still didn’t know. If you opened up Inside Karate or Black Belt magazine, they would not talk about grapplers at all, in general.”
By late 1993, Royce became his own editor. He beat every guy put in front of him from UFC 1 through UFC 4. He made the fight game horizontal. It was him showcasing the concepts of leverage, come beast or behemoth.
“I had fights that lasted seconds,” he tells the class. “I had fights that lasted one hour and 45 minutes. If the guy didn’t make a mistake, we’re going to fight forever until somebody loses.”
Hall tells Royce they’ve got to bounce. People are waiting on him at the Futrell Airfield. It’s there he’ll board the helicopter “Snoopy 1” for a joy ride around greater Charlotte, the city where Gracie once fought Ken Shamrock to a 36-minute stalemate at UFC 5.
The police are only too happy to return the Royce Gracie of 2013 back to his familiar heights.
1993. Twenty years ago, MMA was the Wild West, filled with wrestlers, brawlers, judo practitioners, opportunists, pugilists, mercenaries, karate masters, sumos, grapplers, shysters, and jiu-jitsu players.
The face of the original UFC should have been somebody like the muscle-bulging Kimo Leopoldo. It should have been the colossus Dan Severn, or the yoked Ken Shamrock, or a Texas-sized concrete mixer like Don Frye. That the face was someone…somewhat less extraordinary…confused many people and raised suspicions.
“That was the UFC,” Royce says. “It shows that this thing’s for real. Actually, the first UFC in Denver, a lot of people thought it was fake, that it was set up. The second one, everybody still thinks, ‘Well, it might be set up.’ The third one, people thought, ‘Hmmm.’ The fourth one was the one that sealed everything. People saw what Dan Severn did to the other opponents, and then I came in and beat him, and people were like, ‘Wow.'”
What happened was Severn, all 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds of him stuffed into a pair of pro wrestling trunks, crashed through his first two opponents that night in Tulsa. The All-American wrestler from Arizona State was too much man for Anthony Macias and Marcus Bossett, finishing them both with chokes without breaking a sweat. Royce, who weighed 180 pounds (generously), had done the same to Ron van Clief and Keith Hackney, only it took him longer to do it. Even though Gracie had won two UFC tournaments in the past, Severn was supposed to be the climate changer. He was the 800-pound gorilla.
Then Royce happened.
In another bare-knuckle, no-time-limit fight, Severn got Gracie down immediately and kept him there for the next 15 minutes. It felt like the mismatch people suspected it would be. In fact, Jim Brown, the former football great who worked as one of the original commentators for UFC events, shook his head when asked what Gracie could do to turn things around in a bout scheduled for infinity.
“With 14 minutes gone, it feels impossible that he can do anything,” Brown said. Then, after a pause, he added, “…but [Royce] has the heart of a lion, too.”
About a minute later, the ever-patient Gracie, biding his time with Severn in his guard, began to sink a triangle so surreptitiously that most, including the commentators, didn’t think anything of it. Then he lifted his hips and constricted. Then came the slow wooden taps of Severn.
“I knew there was no way he was going to submit me,” Royce says. “There was no way. I knew he only knew wrestling, he was a strict wrestler. So he had no submissions. I just knew how to play a defensive game. So, I just put him into guard and waited for the right time.”
That was the cymbal crash of a career that had already been filled with triumph. At UFC 1, on Nov. 12, 1993, at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Gracie went about beating some of the great characters of the game. First it was Golden Gloves Champion Art Jimmerson, who fought with one glove to protect his jab hand, and ended up submitting only two minutes into the fight (that 2:18 of fight time was the entirety of Jimmerson’s MMA career). Then it was Ken Shamrock. Gracie coolly handled Shamrock’s pressure before clamping onto his neck and tapping him out.
That set up a fight in the finals with Dutch karate master, Gerard Gordeau, who’d scattered Teila Tuli’s teeth all over the media table earlier that night. Some four years before Mike Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear, Gordeau wrote the book on fight game cannibalism.
“As soon as I took him down, he took a bite of my ear and pulled it with his mouth,” Royce says. “I just looked at him like, what are you doing? And he just gave me that look like, so what. I was like, okay, and I put a couple of head butts in his face. That’s why, at the end, I held the choke a little longer.”
Gracie took home the modest bounty that dangled over the whole spectacle.
“If you fought and lost in the first round, I think you got $1,000,” he says. “If you won the first round, you got $2,000. But if you won the second fight in the semis, you got $7,000. And if you lost the second fight, you got $3,000. It was something like that. And if you won first place, you got $50,000, and second place got like $10,000.”
Money aside, the Gracies were on the map. Helio saw his craft stand up against the fiercest competition of the time.
At UFC 2, Gracie did it again. This time, he took home $64,000 for beating Minoki Ichihara, Jason DeLucia, Remco Pardoel, and Patrick Smith, who was a taekwondo specialist. At UFC 3, Gracie rolled through Kimo, tapping him with an armlock in the first round. He was so dehydrated afterward that he had to withdraw from the bracket.
After beating Severn at UFC 4: Revenge of the Warriors, Gracie traveled to Charlotte for UFC 5, where he faced Shamrock a second time. At that point, Gracie had a target on his back. And Shamrock, knowing the minefield he was about to run across, fought to smother him.
“He stalled,” Gracie laughs. “He was sitting on me. His father was yelling at him do something, ‘Don’t just sit on him, what the hell’s going on?’ But he stalled.”
That fight ended in a draw, after the newly instituted 30-minute time limit and six-minute overtime. Shamrock, playing it safe, didn’t make a mistake. After that, Royce left the UFC with an 11-0-1 record, all of his victories coming via submission (which is still a UFC record). He would continue to fight in Pride, where he met Kazushi Sakuraba in 2000 in what was one of the longest fights on record. With no time limits, the bout went 90 minutes, in which both fighters had moments where they nearly finished the other, and both nearly killed themselves in the process.
“That was a long fight,” Gracie says. “I remember sitting down, and it got to the point where I was like, ‘Okay, let’s see who’s going to go farther.’ Both of us where done for the next fight, so forget the next fight. It was six rounds of 15 minutes with two-minute rests in between.”
With a broken leg and nothing left in the gas tank, Gracie’s corner threw in the towel. It was one of only two losses he’d ever face in MMA. The other came against Matt Hughes at UFC 60 when he was nearly 40 years old. By that time, Gracie has already inspired thousands of people, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in America was everywhere. He was a vanguard. Royce Gracie had already left his mark on the game.
1973. In the Gracie household, with older brothers Rorion, Relson, Rickson, and Royler Gracie, there was a hierarchy in place for the younger brother Royce. The elders were respected. If there was a problem, “we stuck to the mats,” Royce says. “[Helio] encouraged that.”
As for his mother, while there was ultimately a pacifist message behind the fight game that Helio encouraged that spoke to restraint, Veara has some fire in her blood.
“She is tough,” Royce says. “My dad would say, ‘Do not fight, do not beat your opponents, win with technique, but don’t hit them.’ And as soon as he walked away, my mom would be like, ‘Forget everything he says. Beat him up. I want to see some blood. You have to knock some teeth out. Your father is getting old, he doesn’t know what he is talking about anymore.’ I’d say, ‘Alright, mom. I’ll try.’ She was the mean side of the old man.”
At eight years old, Royce began to take up the “family business” of jiu-jitsu. Today, he is a 6th degree black belt, though since Helio passed in 2009, he wears the navy blue belt, the same as his father (despite being a red belt).
“My father thought it was wrong that people would win fights and be awarded black belts, so he went back to the navy blue belt,” Royce says. “He would put the red belt on if you asked him for a picture, but besides that, he never really did.”
2013. Two days prior, Royce jumped out of an airplane at Fort Bragg. Today, he took a leisurely helicopter ride around Charlotte, from the race track to Lake Norman to downtown, where the Carolina Panthers football team could be seen practicing in the stadium. Later, he’ll teach a seminar at Hall’s school. He’s a man on the move.
And these days, Gracie can walk around with his sunglasses and ball cap and few people think anything of it. On first glance, he’s just some guy of “average size,” as he says. That is, if he’s by himself. If he is with an entourage, then people connect that within the phalanx is the unassuming man who put Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu into the American lexicon.
“Most people, if they think they recognize me, are like, ‘No that’s not him,'” he says. “I say to my son, ‘Just don’t answer, don’t look back if they yell Royce. Just don’t flinch.’ If you look back, that’s it. If you don’t move, ‘See, I told you it wasn’t him.’ That’s what I hear behind me.”
As for the current landscape of the UFC, the Hall of Famer likes the cerebral fighters, the ones who use strategy, like Georges St-Pierre and Cain Velasquez. He likes the hard-to-solve puzzles, the fighters who are full of nuance and surprise, like Jon Jones. He likes fighters who go in there with a mindset not so different from his own. And as for those above mentioned names, with their big sponsors and big paydays, and all the exposure that the fight game gets now compared to those underground first days when he stood as the skinny guy going against the pantheon of Goliaths?
Any regrets that he came too soon?
“No, not at all—fighters, they come and they go today,” he says. “It’s the turnaround. Even the guy who makes five million dollars, the next week there’s a new champion, so he’s gone and nobody knows. What I have is forever. I’m the first one. There’s no money that can buy that.”