It would not be inaccurate to state that the genesis of all mixed martial arts in the United States, comes from one place primarily, and that is Brazil. The roots of it go all the way back to the 1920’s, as Carlos Gracie was studying jiu-jitsu, in his native country, under one of the renowned masters of the art, Mitsuyo Maeda. The entire Gracie family fell in love with jiu-jitsu, but it was Carlos’ brother Helio who created a variation of it, and by necessity, as he suffered from dizzy spells and had to gear it to his own physical limitations. He did so by emphasizing ground work, submissions and choke holds, and thus what became known as “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” was born.
Helio built a reputation, and a clientele, by promoting himself through challenge matches, many of which came against competitors who practiced a different form of martial arts. Just about anything was allowed, including punches and kicks, and for this reason the nature of the competition took on the name of “vale tudo,” which is Portuguese for “anything goes.”
It was Helio’s objective to promote his form of combat as the most efficient, and the matches were very popular with audiences. This interest magnified itself when Brazilian television began showing his matches in the early 1950’s, and he was ultimately able to successfully “brand” Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a superior form of fighting. It also got the ball rolling for the Gracie family and its identification with what was later called “mixed martial arts.”
Helio’s son, Rorion, carried the family name, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, into the United States. In Los Angeles, he taught hundreds of students, many of whom were in the entertainment community, and made videotapes of challenge matches he had in his own garage. One match that did not come off was a $100,000 challenge to world kick-boxing champion Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, but it did draw the interest of Playboy magazine, which published a story about Rorion and his Gracie Challenge. Many people took notice, including Art Davie, and advertising executive who came together with Rorion in a marketing project to sell more Gracie Jiu-Jitsu videotapes. That eventually led to the formulation of a promotion that was originally called “War of the Worlds” but was later renamed the “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” ostensibly to bring together martial arts of many different disciplines, but with an eye toward establishing before a more widespread audience that the Gracie brand of combat was superior to anything else.
The avenue would be pay-per-view television; the prospective viewership would be youthful, and perhaps those who were mildly interested in boxing, kick-boxing or wrestling but were looking for something different; some perhaps more extreme. Sports betting in venues like Las Vegas could also, over time, fuel interest among the mainstream. Since martial arts was also a participant activity, there was an audience to buy instructional materials from the Gracies as well. They set a date, got a venue (in Denver) and offered $50,000 for the winner. Most importantly, because Rorion had gotten older by this time, they needed a member of the Gracie family to carry the banner of both the family and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Originally it was supposed to be Rickson Gracie, who was one of Rorion’s younger brothers, but then disputes about business within the family began to develop, and subsequent to that, Rickson went off on his own (he later competed in PRIDE as well as Vale Tudo Japan, but not the UFC). Another brother, Royce Gracie, was then called upon to represent the family in the very first UFC event.
Royce went on to win the first UFC tournament, beating Gerard Gordeau in the finals, not to mention UFC 2, where he defeated Patrick Smith, and UFC 4, beating Dan Severn. Needless to say, he had brought Rorion’s vision, as well as that of Helio Gracie, to life.
The UFC (where Renzo Gracie continues the family tradition as a fighter), and the sport of mixed martial arts, were off and running. We have the Gracies, and the Gracies alone, to thank for it.