Long before the name “Gracie” meant something in North America, it carried a lot of weight in Brazil.
I grew up in a fighting family. The Gracies invented the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and really put the sport of mixed martial arts on the map in my country. I didn’t just learn martial arts growing up, I was surrounded by it. It was passed down to me. Every day I trained with my brothers and cousins, figuring different ways to get better.
Growing up, people would want to challenge the family. My brother set up a garage where we would train, and every so often, guys would come in and say, “Hey, my friend’s a wrestling coach,” or “My friend’s a black belt in karate.” We’d tell them to bring them in to show us what they had. When the challengers came by, we’d have a sparring session. We’d fight our style, and they could fight however they liked.
The result was always the same.
We really could have hurt these guys, but instead of really beating them up, we just tried to dominate them in a calm, non-aggressive manner. We wanted to show them beyond doubt that we were superior. And most of the time, by the end of the session, the challenger became a student of ours.
Because of these sparring sessions, I was exposed to a variety of different fighting styles growing up. Of course, everybody claims to have the best style. That was, in fact, what inspired my family to try to find which style was the best. Enough with all the talk, we wanted this to be settled hand to hand. Get in the garage (or the ring, or the cage) and fight until somebody quits.
This was how MMA got its start.
My brother decided to bring this concept from Brazil to America, and it eventually led to him co-founding the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The first event was to be held in Denver, Colorado. There were to be eight fighters, all from different disciplines. And out of my all of my brothers and cousins, I was chosen to represent the Gracie family in the tournament.
To me, it was such a tremendous honor to be chosen. There are a lot of people who can fight in my family. Some of my brothers and cousins were bigger. Some were more experienced. And they all were very good.
But I knew that I was ready. I had full confidence I would win. I had spent most of my life training against different kinds of fighters with very different styles. At this time, it was still an under-the-radar discipline, but Brazilian jiu-jitsu prepared you for any kind of situation. There’s a reason that all these years later, basically every mixed martial artist has some kind of jiu-jitsu training.
I’d grown up competing in martial arts tournaments and the like, but UFC 1 was actually the first time I was in a sanctioned professional fight.
The truth is that I’m not a very aggressive person. My relationship with martial arts was never about fighting, it was about peace. Peace of mind and body. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. To me, martial arts is basically a religion, and my body is how I practice it.
My family knew I was skilled, but at the same time, I think they were somewhat worried about me because I never even got into street fights growing up. And here I was in this situation where I’d be matched up against a lot of guys who clearly had.
But on that November night in 1993, I wasn’t going to be stopped. Even though all the other fighters were bigger than me, I knew they were in trouble. They had no idea what I was capable of. No one there knew exactly how this new fighting tournament was going to unfold, but I absolutely knew how the night was ending.
With my fist raised, victorious.
Before the fights began, I could tell that all the guys packed in the locker room were pretty nervous. Quite a few of them were eyeing me. I was the smallest guy in the field by far, but I think that in itself was intimidating in a certain way. I figure they were thinking, “Man, that guy has to know some type of special trick to be able to stand over there without shaking.”
The reason I wasn’t nervous was simple: I knew there was nothing they could throw at me that I hadn’t seen before.
Well, almost nothing.
My first opponent that night was a boxer named Art Jimmerson. When I saw him climb into the cage, I was kind of in disbelief. The guy came out with only one glove on his left hand. No joke. I thought it was so strange because he couldn’t grab with that one gloved hand. It didn’t seem like an advantage at all, really. But clearly this guy thought he was going to try physically dominate me. My only thought was, My God, I gotta stay away from that left hand.
I knew he was going to try to unload on me. But I was ready. It was a simple fight, actually. I took him down, got on top of him, and he quit. He just quit. I didn’t do anything to him, and I was sort of surprised how easy it was to put him in a submission.
That was when I realized he’d probably never been put in a submission before.
I felt pretty good, but everyone around me — the fans in the arena, the other fighters, even my team — seemed very tense. As I was making my way to the cage for my next fight against Ken Shamrock, I had to stop my team midway and gather them together in a huddle. I wanted to help them calm down. I told them, “Relax guys, I’m at home.”
Here I was, about to go in the ring with a trained fighter who wants to hurt me, and I was calming them down. But it was true. Even though this event was new to everyone, I never felt out of my element.
Ken is a grappler. He’s just a fighter in general, really. Our strategy for him was pretty basic: shoot straight in. Forget the standing around and dancing. There’s no reason for that. I had to push Ken and force him to react. And that’s what I did. I knew my training had me ready for a fighter like Ken. He tried to grapple with me, but he was really playing right into my hands. When I got top position, I locked in a submission, and he tapped. Another first-round win. It was on to the finals.
The last fighter who stood in between me and becoming the first UFC champion was Gerard Gordeau. My strategy with Gerard was a little different. I took my time with him, looked for an opening. When it felt right, I wanted to shoot in and take him to the ground.
I followed the plan perfectly. Gerard wanted to keep the fight standing up, but when I noticed him shifting his weight, I went for a clinch.
A pain shot through my head as soon as I took him down. He’d bitten my ear. There were only two rules — no eye gouging and no biting — and he’d managed to violate one of them.
I ripped away from him and whispered, “You’re cheating.” He just gave me a look like, So what? I couldn’t believe it. That’s why I threw a couple extra head butts his way, and then locked in a choke. He tapped, and then I held it a little longer to prove a point. I had won the tournament.
And I’d proven a point. From the very beginning, this was a sport about skill rather than size.
Afterwards, there was no celebration for me. I don’t celebrate. There’s no reason to. I train to win. I expect to. My mentality is similar to that of a pilot landing an airplane. After he lands, is he going to come out and go dance and celebrate because he didn’t crash? Really? It’s his job to land the plane. My job was to win the tournament. And that’s what I did.
My next job? To once again defeat Ken Shamrock at Bellator 149. That’s what I expect to do, and that’s what I will do.
I’ve always been at peace with that fact that I’m a superior fighter, but I guess he’s been losing sleep for the last 20 years. Maybe he still doesn’t understand how a skinny, 170-pound martial artist was able to take out a 210-pound fighter full of muscle.
It’s been a while, so I suppose I’ll need to refresh his memory.
Gracie will fight against Ken Shamrock for the third time at Bellator 149 on February 19. The fight will be broadcast live on Spike TV at 9 pm EST.