The story of grandmaster Carlos Gracie, the first Gracie to ever learn Jiu-Jitsu:
The Gracies’ first archenemy was no Japanese, but one tough native. In the early 1900s, little Carlos, grandson of a Scottish immigrant who had set up his home in Para, Belem’s capital, didn’t think twice before challenging a wide-eyed, sharp-nailed opponent. One would often see the kid play catch with an alligator that lived in the river nearby. Gracie would always take the edge: curious and owner of a keen sense of observation, Carlos had noticed the reptile couldn’t see under water, only swam in a straight line, and had to stick its head out in order to make turns. By simply getting out of the direction of the animal’s teeth, Carlos would always win.
This and many stories were rescued by daughter Reyla Gracie and will for the first time appear on the book where she wishes to tell the story of the man born September 14th, 1902, and the first family member to make contact with the martial art that, in all of the blooming century, would be bound to the name Gracie. Jiu-Jitsu, thus, was Carlos’s life (and vice versa) ever since his father, Gastao, trying to canalize the energy of the boy who seemed limitless, made him learn a new fight style with a Japanese friend of his, Mitsuyo Maeda, a.k.a. Count Koma. At 14, thus, Carlos began a saga that, to the whole world’s surprise, would pervade academies and rings across the planet. Or could anyone guess? “Out of all pupils Koma taught, and they weren’t few, as he used to travel the world teaching, only one fully understood the grandeur of that knowledge, adopting Jiu-Jitsu as a profession. I believe my father had, since the very beginning, a good idea of the thing he was learning. No wonder he created a school that’s been lasting 80 years,” says Reyla, who has been working on the book since 1999 gathering interviews, press clippings, books and documents on the subject.
Indeed, when Carlos became acquainted with Count Koma’s techniques, in 1916, the young Gracie was still a developing personality, much like Belem, which worked as an entrance to Brazil, with influence of European and Japanese cultures, and on the other hand was nearly wild, with Indians, woods and rivers where the fearless would play. “Jiu-Jitsu gave my life a direction”, Carlos used to say. Dedicated to the trainings and interested in the techniques, it didn’t take long for Carlos to stand out among the students. “Once, Count Koma needed a volunteer to demonstrate a type of choke, and Carlos offered himself. The professor declined and asked for another pupil, and afterwards told dad: ‘You are going to be a champion, and are not here to be choked,’” says black-belt Rilion, one of the 21 children of the patriarch. Despite Maeda’s constant travels, Carlos kept his training rhythm stable, by beginning to practise with another one of the count’s students, local entrepreneur Jacinto Ferro. “The astonishing thing is neither Ferro nor Loma set up an academy there, no pupil kept it up, and Jiu-Jitsu pretty much vanished from the state of Para. The person who took it back there, decades later, was someone who had learned at the Gracies’ school in South-Eastern Brazil,” Reyla recalls. With the family’s increasingly hard economic situation, the father took Carlos, along with younger brothers Osvaldo, Gastao, Jorge and Helio (the latter, 11 years younger than Carlos), to try and make a living in Rio de Janeiro, then Sao Paulo and then Belo Horizonte. At age 22, Carlos Gracie started to make a living out of Jiu-Jitsu. It was the time of challenges published on newspapers (“Want a broken rib? Look for Carlos Gracie,” one of them read), of the search for opponents, of the birth of mixed martial arts and of the suspicion by practitioners of other styles. “He didn’t look like a fighter, but like a chess player. He’d go to training in police academies. As they thought nothing of him, he had to demonstrate the efficiency of the art he believed in, that Jiu-Jitsu could do miracles and that he himself was a good fighter,” says Rilion. Sister Reyla adds: “Carlos was always against associating Jiu-Jitsu with violence. Of course, in the beginning Carlos would place the ads and challenge those huge stevedores because, in the 1930s, there was the need of establishing an identity. That was when such comments began: ‘The Gracies are invincible.’ ‘The Gracies settle businesses with their bare hands,’” she says amongst laughs. “But each historical moment is different. When, in the seventies, Jiu-Jitsu became a sport, there was no more need to prove anything. It’s like today, when fighting or not fighting m.m.a. starts being a personal choice; there is no longer the need there was in the times of my father and Helio, when they had to prove Jiu-Jitsu’s efficiency in the ring,” she concludes.
The influence Carlos had over his children and siblings was, therefore, much greater than fans can imagine nowadays. The old Gracie was a teacher, a strategist, a promoter, an idealizer and the clan’s creator – which Reylar intends to show in her book. “There is the man and the work. My father’s work was Jiu-Jitsu, family and nutrition, intertwined by his life story. The family is also a legacy he idealized, a product of his mind. Simply because the very project of making Jiu-Jitsu what it is today depended on the family, so that it would be possible to perpetuate the art,” says Reyla.
To Rilion Gracie, the ten years without Carlos indeed left a few gaps and many heritages: “One of the greatest heritages he left was the power of discipline and will. I never saw my father go by a day without exercising, and once he spent six months going every day to see the sunrise at Cristo Redentor [the gigantic statue of Christ atop a hill in Rio de Janeiro], where he’d meditate. Every day, never missed it,” the son recollects. “He was the family’s reference point, the nucleus, and in the 80s, at the end of each tournament, everyone gathered to evaluate each person’s performance, the rights and wrongs. I felt when he died that changed a little. And he never hit a child, nor said ‘Go, motherf., kick his ass,’ in front of opponents. He only let good things through. That’s priceless,” he says
Nothing, however, deserved the family’s gratitude more than the nutrition method elaborated by Carlos Gracie, for years, based on studies and thousand of experiments. After making his children, nephews and grandchildren listen to their bodies and eat exclusively what is beneficial to the organism, it’s no exaggeration today to say that the last half decade meant 50 years of success of the Gracie Diet, whose basic principle is to avoid the excessive acidity in the nutrition, which to its creator was the main cause of the organism’s deterioration and consequent malfunction of organs. Thus the diet endeavours to keep the meals’ PH as neutral as possible, balancing substances by using the right combination. Notwithstanding, reducing Carlos’ science to this would be disregarding much of his work – one of the things Reyla most worries about in preparing her father’s story: “He anticipated many of the much-divulged discoveries of today, like carotene’s beneficial role, a substance found in the papaya and the carrot, the concept of free radicals and orthomolecular medicine, not mentioning his pioneering role regarding the habit of consuming acai, watermelon juice, coconut water, vitamins,” she stresses. “And, when nobody spoke of nutrition, he noticed how useful it was to cut off red meat before Helio’s fights, since meat gives you explosion power, but not long term resistance. The proof of the efficient didn’t take long to ensue: didn’t uncle Helio fight a much younger Valdemar Santana for 3h40m in 1955?”
The interest for life and nutrition, like everything else in the descendant of Scottish, was not random. Together with growing suspicion toward traditional medicine, the specialist of the blooming art noticed the need to, with the diet, look after the main work tool, the body. Carlos Gracie, indeed, made four or five famous fights, the last of which against Rufino, in 1931, whose picture Reyla keeps with her life, and another one – pure vale tudo (or ‘no rules,’ if you will) – in Rio de Janeiro, against capoeira practitioner Samuel. “At one point Samuel saw himself with no choice but to grab dad’s testicles,” Rilion recollects. The most famous one, nevertheless, was another Japan vs. Brazil classic, held in Sao Paulo, in 1924. Against Geo Omori, self-proclaimed Japanese Jiu-Jitsu representative, Carlos made his most memorable fight. Nearing the end of the third three-minute round, Gracie gave the foe’s arm an inexorable lock and looked at the referee, who told him to go on. Carlos broke the opponent’s arm, but the latter paid no heed and gave an unfocused Carlos a takedown, before the end of the fight, which ended with a draw and mutual respect by the contenders, in a time when fighters only lost bouts by tapping or passing out.
Legend has it, however, that the most unforgettable scene was played by rooters from Sao Paulo, who threw their hats into the ring as soon as the Brazilian broke the foe’s limb. “He excelled at the armbar,” says a proud Rilion. “For one thing is to apply it when the other guy is unfocused, but Carlos would warn beforehand, ‘I’m going to beat you by armbar,’ and the opponent would shrink their arm. Then he developed a technique of getting to the arm when the adversary knew they were gonna be armbarred. The way I see it, that was the beginning of the perfecting of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, characterized by leading the foe to erring, where the weaker can defeat the stronger.”