Fighting the Good Fight
- Written byStefan Slater
In the 1970s, Rorion Gracie first introduced his self-defense jiu-jitsu to willing students in the South Bay. Two decades later, he co-founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship to showcase his craft, pitting his brother against some of the world’s toughest competitors. The outcome would forever change the public’s perception of martial arts. So how did a Brazilian family, a Torrance studio and television spark an international movement that reached the upper echelons of the U.S. military? First you win … then you win again.
He’s lean, with an angular frame, close-cropped hair and a square jaw—he’s a walking recruitment poster. But he smiles more often than you’d expect him to, and he exudes a contagious energy (nicknamed “Rener-gy” by academy regulars) that puts his students at ease. He’s a walking reminder that Gracie jiu-jitsu is built around self-defense, strategy and respect—and not unadulterated violence.
On my first day at the Gracie Academy in Torrance, I watched as two-dozen students—each one wearing a crisp white gi (a loose jacket and trouser uniform, tied with a cloth belt)—paired off to practice their techniques. I was only slightly nervous for the 9-year-old boy Rener paired up with. Seth Fiore, who couldn’t even reach Rener’s shoulders if he stood on his tiptoes, didn’t seem bothered at all.
Rener spoke in a clear, strong voice, and the students set about practicing. The clientele at the Academy runs the gamut: middle-aged parents, adolescent boys and girls, even the occasional NFL linebacker.
The grappling started, the pairs rolling around, trying different holds and locks. The sounds of feet stamping and hands and shoulders colliding with the mat echoed in the training room.
While the energy was tense, it was also controlled and focused. There weren’t any outbursts. No blood.
Rener would step away from Seth (who, to my surprise, was holding his own) to guide the other students, offering suggestions and tips. Then Rener took a knee at one point to talk to Seth, and the boy pulled a fast one and tried to pin him.
It didn’t quite work. Rener moved effortlessly, sliding out of the boy’s hold attempts. Seth was smiling the whole time.
Then it was my turn. “In a fight,” Rener told me, “whoever manages the distance, manages the damage that can be done.”
It made sense. But before I could even “manage” the distance, he pinned me down. I couldn’t throw a punch, and he was too heavy, too tall to throw off. I had no idea what to do.
He added (while on top of me) that most fights—most real fights—end up on the ground. With a quick suggestion from Rener, I shifted my body weight, grabbed his arm and used his height and weight against him. Within a second or two, I tossed him off, and I was the one in control.
“It’s self-defense,” says Rener. “You’re not out there trying to rip guys’ eyes out and break their throats. You really are utilizing their aggression.”
It’s the opposite of what I’ve always focused on in boxing. Instead of tapping into my own aggression, I’m using my opponent’s willingness to attack to stop the fight—quick and simple—without any unnecessary violence.
Despite the talks of real streets fights, proper holds and overt aggression, there’s one common theme that lingers in all of my conversations with Rener: a reminder to use reason first and violence last.
Though U.S. Special Forces members and mixed martial art (MMA) champions like Anderson “The Spider” Silva are among its practitioners, jiu-jitsu is a relatively nonviolent martial art. It’s a true self-defense art form, one that encourages students to use common sense and strategy to end fights before they even begin. That’s what makes jiu-jitsu stand out amongst the sea of notable martial arts.
Students at the Gracie Academy are taught to defuse tense situations with words first, resorting only to fighting once all other options have been exhausted. But once that fight starts, well, that’s when the jiu-jitsu practitioner shines. With the right leverage and a combination of holds, locks and grappling techniques, a smaller combatant can subdue a far larger opponent with minimal confrontation, making it an ideal form of self-defense for women and children.
With that said, military units (ranging from Navy SEALs to Army Rangers), law enforcement and MMA athletes throughout the world consider jiu-jitsu the cornerstone of close-quarters combat training. The popular Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) serves as a constant showcase of its potency. UFC athletes, no matter their size or fighting style, have to know some elements of jiu-jitsu in order to compete effectively.
Though it can be found throughout the world, jiu-jitsu’s heart and soul reside here in the South Bay. The Gracie family created the modern type of jiu-jitsu often seen in “the Octagon”—the UFC’s equivalent of a boxing ring, and their Gracie Academy in Torrance is the martial art’s bastion. It’s the center of all of their teaching and training efforts, and it’s also one of the largest martial arts academies in the nation.
Aside from calling it home, the Gracies share a deep connection with the South Bay. It was here that Gracie jiu-jitsu was first introduced to the United States back in the late 1970s, and since then they’ve been helping local residents learn how to better themselves both physically and mentally through studying the Gracie family’s art of self-defense.
From Brazil to the South Bay
Around 85 years ago, a young Brazilian named Helio Gracie developed a martial arts system that was based on traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu (similar to judo), which his brother, Carlos, was learning. He created this distinct martial art—one that the Gracies would collectively name Gracie jiu-jitsu—because the slight and often frail Helio needed a way to defend himself against larger opponents.
Following years of continuous experimentation and refinement, Helio developed a self-defense system that helped him overcome opponents who often outweighed him by as much as 100 pounds. In Brazil, jiu-jitsu’s popularity quickly rose.
Others challenged Helio frequently, and as his eldest son, Rorion, noted, they’d sometimes show up in the middle of the night, knock at his door, and ask to fight. “He’d roll out of bed, choke someone out and go back to bed,” says Rorion.
In 1967, the now-titled Grand Master Helio helped oversee the establishment of the first Federation of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, which was created with the idea of hosting recreational competitions. However, while Brazil was firmly locked in jiu-jitsu fever, the rest of the world—in particular the U.S.—was mostly unaware of the Brazilian martial art.
“There was this looming question of: What is the most effective martial art?” says Rener about the U.S. during the 1970s, when his father, Rorion, first arrived. “And, when got here, everyone was still in Bruce Lee mode.”
Rorion Gracie, now 61, was 17 when he first came to the United States. It was 1969, and he planned to visit California for a month-long vacation. But the trip hit a speed bump almost immediately after Rorion had all of his cash and his return ticket to Brazil stolen during his stay at a Hollywood YMCA.
Not to be discouraged, he decided to extend his vacation and gain some work experience while he earned back what he’d lost. Rorion spent several months flipping burgers at a White Castle, took a brief trip to Hawaii and promptly fell in love with the States. He returned to Brazil for law school, but he said, “All I could think about was America.”
Following graduation from law school in 1978, he returned to California with the intention of introducing Gracie jiu-jitsu to the American public. “I knew that if it happened in America, the whole world would hear about .”
He hoped to sway the martial arts world away from the Enter the Dragon mindset. However, Rorion was convinced that he would be successful in introducing the art because “it is indeed the most effective form of self-defense in the world.”
He established himself first by cleaning homes and eventually moving on to extra work for television shows, including Hart to Hart and The Love Boat. On Fantasy Island, he passed out leis when the seaplane landed.
Rorion rented a home first in Redondo and then in Hermosa on 3rd Street, and it was at the latter location that he built the first Gracie studio by laying down a few mats on the floor of his garage. Rorion then started inviting anyone and everyone to stop by for lessons.
Eventually, word got around the South Bay, and his pool of students gradually increased from a slight handful to dozens. Other martial artists stared coming by too, and many of them challenged Rorion, hoping to reveal jiu-jitsu’s inferiority to their self-defense arts.
He fought—and won—hundreds of those matches. “Most of the guys that came to challenge me became friends and students,” says Rorion.
For 10 years he taught in that garage, and to supplement his income, he released fight documentaries and instructional videos on VHS. But Rorion aimed for even more exposure, so he paired up with a student—film director and screenwriter John Milius (Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn)—to create a martial arts competition: the UFC.
“We came up with a tournament on television that would pit different styles of martial arts against one another,” says Rorion. When he explained the concept to others, he described it as being akin to the fighting video game “Mortal Kombat.”
“It was going to be a video game for real,” says Rorion, who adds that the fighting arena (later called the Octagon) was going to be a real-life version of the “thunderdome” from Mel Gibson’s post-apocalyptic film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
The first UFC (also known as UFC 1: The Beginning) aired November 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado. “I found the toughest, meanest, ugliest and most qualified guys I could get, and then I put my little brother, Royce, in to compete in the event,” says Rorion.
Royce was 18 when he left Brazil to live and work with Rorion, and he could often be found assisting his brother at the first Gracie studio. At 6’1” and 175 pounds, Royce was on the smaller side compared to the other martial artists, which included a sumo wrestler who weighed more than 400 pounds, a boxer and a savateur, among others. But this was part of the plan. Rorion wanted to show that with Gracie jiu-jitsu, Royce could defeat all of the other martial artists easily, no matter their weight, size or ferocity.
The event consisted of single-round fights with minimal rules and no time limits—and despite having to fight multiple opponents in a single night—Royce defeated the other martial artists and won.
UFC 1 was televised live on pay-per-view, and thousands across the nation witnessed just how powerful Gracie jiu-jitsu was, thus paving the way for the continued rise of the UFC (which is now broadcast in 30 different languages to more than 149 countries) and MMA, which incorporates elements of jiu-jitsu.
“My goal of demonstrating the effectiveness of Gracie jiu-jitsu to the world was totally fulfilled,” says Rorion on UFC 1. The first UFC was a hit, giving birth to the massive, multi-million dollar franchise that it is today and thus exposing Gracie jiu-jitsu to the martial arts world.
Royce would continue to have a successful career with the UFC, eventually becoming the first inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2003—to this day, he’s still considered to be one of the best grapplers in the world. Furthermore, thanks to his performance at UFC 1, Royce is singlehandedly responsible for inspiring an entire generation of UFC fighters, including Georges St. Pierre and Thiago Alves, to try their hand at MMA.
Following UFC 5 in 1995, Rorion sold his shares in the in the tournament and turned his focus towards the Gracie Academy and its training programs. Back in 1989, Rorion moved the academy to Carson Street in Torrance. (It was moved to its current location on Artesia Boulevard in 2007.) He, and eventually his sons, Rener and Ryron, focused their efforts on making Gracie jiu-jitsu accessible to the world.
We Want You
In 1994, the U.S. Army contacted Rorion after seeing the UFC and asked for assistance with creating a “close-quarters combat” training program that would prepare a solider for hand-to-hand combat in roughly a week. The Gracies reduced thousands of fighting techniques that they had been experimenting with for decades down to 36 key techniques. These moves, the Gracies believed, would cover everything the average soldier would need to know in order to be “street ready.”
This program, called Gracie Combatives, remained exclusive to the military for 12 years. It’s now available to the public, and it covers the same introductory techniques originally designed for the military. While the program is popular, some students—specifically women and children—need a more specialized form of training, which is why the Gracies created the Women Empowered and Gracie Bullyproof programs.
Nearly six years ago, Eve Torres was touring through the country as part of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE). During a road trip late at night, she stopped at a gas station and was promptly accosted by three men. She tried to ignore them, but “the more I ignored them, the angrier they got,” says Eve.
She eventually got away safely, but the incident influenced her outlook on her own personal safety. “I am a WWE Diva, and I’m supposed to represent this powerful woman in the ring. But I don’t know what I’d do if someone were to physically attack me. It was one of those eye-opening moments for me.”
Eve now teaches the Women Empowered class at Gracie Academy, which focuses on teaching women how to defend themselves during a physical or sexual assault. Because jiu-jitsu was designed to help smaller combatants overcome stronger, heavier opponents, the martial art proved ideal for female self-defense training.
Despite the serious nature of the class, Eve tries to make it as enjoyable as possible. “We encourage the women to help one another, and that’s the most important thing. This is not ‘Bow to your sensei.’ This is a collaborative environment where we’re encouraged to help one another.”
Jiu-jitsu can also be an effective method for combating bullying. Smaller children can defend themselves properly against bigger, older bullies without striking or injuring them.
“Bullying will not stop,” says Ryron on the growing national issue. He notes that there isn’t a simple way to address bullying. However, “if there is an answer, it’s that you need to empower yourself with a martial art.”
The Gracie Bullyproof program teaches children to confront their bullies with reason first, asking them to stop and leave them alone. Then, if a parent or teacher isn’t able to address the situation, the children are taught to use tackling and simple holds to stop the bully from continuing further confrontation.
“We teach kids how to fight fire with water, not fire with fire,” says Rener. “That’s what a striking art will teach a kid—more fire.”
The results, so far, have been positive. In 2011, Yahoo! Sports featured a piece on Martin Hendricks, who, at 12 years old, flew from Denver to Torrance with his mother just to take the Bullyproof course. He was timid and bullied often. But after taking the course, he gained the confidence to confront a peer who bullied him frequently.
His parents and his school supported his response, because he never struck the other child. When Rener asked why Martin didn’t punch the bully, he responded, “Because then I’d become the bully.”
Here in the South Bay, Michael Fiore signed up his son Seth, who was 2½ when he was diagnosed with autism, for the academy, because he was being picked on at school. “He’s not an aggressive child,” says Michael.
At first, Seth had difficulty being assertive in the general classes. But after taking the Bullyproof course, he’s now found the confidence to confront his bullies. He’s stood up for himself on several occasions, once even confronting two bullies head on.
Jiu-jitsu has become an integral part of Seth’s day-to-day life, and he can often be found training at the academy. “It’s not something I make him do; he just loves it,” says Michael.
“That’s the #1 most challenging thing for jiu-jitsu—keeping it playful,” says Ryron, who adds that his students are reminded to view jiu-jitsu as an enjoyable experience. Jiu-jitsu is not about violence; it’s about strategy and reason, which is why the Gracies believe it shouldn’t be viewed as a competitive sport.
In their opinion, practicing jiu-jitsu is a way for a person to center themselves through training and discipline. With jiu-jitsu, a person can learn to find a new level of respect for themselves and what they can accomplish.
The Gracie family has seen the popularity of their martial art increase substantially over the years. Their online university has more than 80,000 active members throughout the world, and they’re consistently opening more brick-and-mortar locations as well. They still provide training for military units and law enforcement, including the Torrance Police Department, but their main focus is to make jiu-jitsu as accessible as possible—especially for South Bay locals.
They encourage residents to try their martial art, and they firmly believe that due to its nonviolent nature, jiu-jitsu can help locals build the right kind of self-confidence—the kind derived from creatively and constructively confronting a troublesome issue head-on with reason … instead of outright force.
A guide to the family’s Brazilian Jiu-jitsu legacy
• Originator of Brazilian jiu-jitsu
• Patriarch of the Gracie martial arts empire
Son of Helio
• Ninth-degree black belt in BJJ
• Co-founded the concept for Ultimate Fighting Championship in early ‘90s
Son of Helio
• 11-0 professional record
• 400 jiu-jitsu tournament and freestyle wrestling victories
Son of Helio
• Only person to win ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship three years in a row
Son of Helio
• Mixed Martial Arts star
• Swept eight-man tournament at UFC in 1993
Ryron and Rener
Sons of Rorion
• BJJ black belts
Ryron: Taught more than 500 U.S. Army soldiers stationed at Camp Victory in Bagdad in 2008
Rener: Head instructor at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy and co-creator of Gracie University
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