As a child, Neiman Gracie didn’t need to look up to superheroes – when he wanted inspiration, he needed to look no further than his own family.
“Growing up, my hero wasn’t Spiderman, it wasn’t Superman. It was Royce [Gracie], it was Renzo [Gracie],” Gracie said during an interview on the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show .
Gracie recalls watching Royce run roughshod through the UFC using Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the promotion’s formative years and feeling the urge to compete in mixed martial arts.
“MMA for me was always the biggest focus. BJJ was something that I always like to compete, to do, but my dream was to fight MMA,” Gracies said. “I always watched Royce and Renzo and all my uncles and cousins fighting and I always loved it. I loved the ring. I loved the cage. This is something that I always wanted to do and I’m really happy that I’m representing.”
Later, he would get in fights with classmates in Brazil when Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba built a reputation for defeating members of MMA’s First Family.
“He [Sakuraba] was a big problem in my life because when he came in, they started with all the bulls--t about him being a Gracie Hunter and everything….I used to get mad, say ‘Shut up’ and we’d get into a fight. I got in a lot of fights because of those guys.
“My dream was to fight him, since I was a little kid,” Gracie added. “My biggest dream was to fight him and be the one to defeat him. Too bad I’m much younger than he is, you know?”
While a date with Sakuraba, who hasn’t competed since December 2015, is unlikely, Gracie is making strides in his own MMA career. He will bring a 6-0 mark into his co-headlining bout against Zak Bucia at Bellator 185 in Uncasville, Conn., on Friday night. That mark includes a second-round submission over Dave Marfone at Madison Square Garden in New York on June 24.
Gracie admits that he began to focus on MMA over jiu-jitsu very early on, and his ultimate goal is to capture a title in Bellator.
“People ask me this a lot. I don’t know what they think. I don’t know if they think I just want to do a couple fights, but my goal is to have that belt and to be a Bellator champion,” Gracie said. “I want to be a real champion. All I’m doing in my life right now is train, eat and sleep. I want to fight more often and I want that belt for sure.”
There are others in the family, such as former UFC and Strikeforce competitor Roger Gracie, who seem to enjoy grappling more than fighting. Neiman, however, would much prefer the cage to the mat.
“Roger, he loved fighting and MMA also, but I think his biggest love is competing in jiu-jitsu….With me, MMA was my biggest dream since I was a kid. It’s my biggest focus,” he said. “I don’t like fighting BJJ that much. I don’t like the rules, I think it’s boring. I love MMA, man. It’s a beautiful sport. I want to test myself and see what happens.”
Thus far, Gracie has defeated all six of his opponents by submission, including four under the Bellator banner. He hopes his bout with Bucia will follow a similar blueprint.
“I hope this is another one I win by submission. I respect my opponent like I respect everybody. He’s a tough guy, but I’m going to do what I always do,” Gracie said. “I’m going to try to take him down, take his back and finish him. I hope my game plan works.”