The Unlikely Heir

Unlikely Heir

By Jack Encarnacao Jan 27, 2011
Roger Gracie (left) | Dave Mandel/

Roger Gracie Gomes is a Gracie, but he did not grow up training in his father’s gym.

He did not know since he was a boy that he would compete in jiu-jitsu. He lives in England with his Polish wife, far from his Brazilian kin. He has never felt thrust into a position to defend the family name, which he has through his mother, Reila Gracie, who split from his father, Rolls Gracie black belt Mauricio Motta Gomes, when he was 5.

Everything the 29-year-old has done in jiu-jitsu, he chose to do.

“Every other Gracie who did well in the family, he had always trained in his father’s school, his father supported him a lot, pushed him for years,” Gracie tells in a telephone interview from his London home. “I never had that because my father never had his school. Even though he was a great jiu-jitsu fighter and was really good in his time, he never taught. It was harder in a way, but I got to make my own decision. It was, like, up to me to push myself more.”

When Mauricio Motta Gomes did open his own academy, it was in the United Kingdom, a world away from the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, streets where Roger grew up playing as much street ball as jiu-jitsu. Working with an English partner he met while in Japan, Motta Gomes built interest in jiu-jitsu from the ground up in the U.K. after opening his doors in 1998. Roger soon followed his father across the ocean, away from mounting pressure.

File Photo

Gracie will face Trevor Prangley
on Jan. 29 in San Jose, Calif.
“Your friends, friends of your father and family, your uncles, everybody everywhere you meet, the first thing they ask is, ‘Oh, how you training? How much you training? You train every day?’” Gracie says. “That’s the sort of thing you hear all the time. If you say, ‘Oh I’m not training much,’ [they say] ‘What? Why not? You’re a Gracie. You have to train.’ That’s the thing that every Gracie boy deals with his whole life.”

It was not until he was about 16 years old that Roger decided to forego college and devote his life to jiu-jitsu. Based in the U.K., he became a 10-time champion in world competition, in both the super heavyweight and open weight divisions. He is generally regarded as one of the best competition jiu-jitsu players there has ever been.

One of his father’s early students was Steve Finan, a former manager of the chart-topping U.K. pop act All Saints and a former business partner of American Idol provocateur Simon Cowell. Finan has watched Roger grow from a lanky young adult with a laser focus on jiu-jitsu to a developing MMA fighter, one just as quick to knock down a wrestler like Kevin Randleman
with a knee as he is to snatch submissions after being
taken down himself.

“When you’re part of the thing as it’s evolving, the one thing you realize is that these guys need experience, they need experience in every sort of area,” says Finan, who today serves as Gracie’s manager. “The rest of it doesn’t come overnight. You’ve got to do the fights. You’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to make sure you get into the habit of being professional about the training. I think Roger will just keep going forward, all the time. He always likes to push himself hard. He always likes to spar with the best there is.”

Last year, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre traveled to London to see a friend. He heard that the accomplished Gracie ran an academy in the city, so he paid a visit.

“I got my ass kicked pretty bad,” St. Pierre remembers. “I had to stay, and it started from there.”

A heady exchange of knowledge commenced, and a partnership was formed. Gracie helped St. Pierre train for his 2010 fights, and St. Pierre traveled to London this month to help Gracie prepare for his bout against Trevor Prangley this Saturday at Strikeforce “Diaz vs. Cyborg” in San Jose, Calif.

He’s a lot better
than people think.
He’s not only a
jiu-jitsu guy.
Roger, he’s a true
mixed martial artist.

-- Georges St. Pierre on Roger Gracie

“[Roger] is very good at bringing the fight where he wants it -- on the floor,” St. Pierre says. “He’s a lot better than people think. He’s not only a jiu-jitsu guy. Roger, he’s a true mixed martial artist.”

Working with the sport’s best wrestler was not the only chance Gracie had to spar with elite talent in preparing for Prangley. The son of retired Welsh boxing great Joe Calzaghe trains at Gracie’s academy and was drawn to a recent training session when word spread that St. Pierre was in town. The undefeated Calzaghe ended up offering Gracie his assistance and some tips to defend Prangley’s stout right hand.

Gracie anticipates Prangley trying to keep their fight standing. He has been stressing his stand-up defense and working a jab that will help him capitalize on his reach advantage -- a bit with Calzaghe but mostly with U.K. boxing pro Clay O’Shea.

“It’s not a miracle. I’m not going to get amazingly good in striking in a few months,” Gracie says. “But I hope it will be good enough to keep [Prangley] away, just taking my time and just waiting for the right opportunity to shoot and take him down.”

Continue Reading » Page Two: Against the Grain
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