The Unlikely Heir

Against the Grain

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

Gracie frankly breaks down his shortcomings. That is a bit against the grain for a Gracie, who, as a tribe, are more known to spout a funny quip or pearl of wisdom to deflect discussions of their weaknesses. He’s far from there yet, but Roger believes that someday he will be able to impose his will as well in the MMA cage as he did on the jiu-jitsu mat.

In racking up a record number of jiu-jitsu titles, Gracie was particularly brilliant in his mount attack, lining up what appeared to be basic, fundamental chokes against top competition. Throughout his training life, Gracie was a natural on top, a position he noticed brilliant guard players had trouble defending. He worked obsessively on getting to mount, one of the hardest positions to achieve in sport jiu-jitsu. He finished his opponents in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 world finals with chokes from the mount.

“That, in my opinion, is what the fighters lacked,” he says of mount defense. “There’s a huge imbalance there. You’d see great jiu-jitsu fighters with great guards, very hard to sweep, but when you put them in [a position] to defend the mount, they’re not as strong. A lot of people you see, they get really good and suddenly they stop, you don’t see them improving more. And that never happened to me. I’ve never had to reach my peak.”

While a strong top game came naturally to Gracie, it was his ability to read opponents and walk through an opening that put him in a different category altogether. Gracie admits he finds it much harder to finish from the mount in MMA, so he is shifting, trying to find different patterns and consistent holes among MMA fighters.

One of his earliest adjustments was the decision to compete exclusively as a light heavyweight. Gracie’s first MMA fight, against heavyweight Ron Waterman in 2006, drove this point home.

“When you fight a guy much stronger and heavier than you, you have to play a defense game,” he says. “When I fought [Waterman], I couldn’t impose an offensive game. I had to play defense, because otherwise I would get tired too quickly. But fighting at light heavyweight, [opponents are] not [going to] be much heavier than me. I can attack a lot more. I can try to take them down.”

About four minutes into his MMA debut, Gracie secured an armbar from the bottom and submitted Waterman, a UFC veteran in his 20th professional fight. Gracie only fought one other MMA fight before signing with Strikeforce last year, defeating Yuki Kondo in Sengoku Raiden Championship, a promotion to which he is no longer tied. The Prangley fight will be the second bout on a three-fight Strikeforce contract for Gracie, who has the leeway in the deal that will allow him to compete in the 2011 Mundials in June. He plans to avail himself of the option.

“The same mind that I have fighting jiu-jitsu, I have fighting MMA,” he says. “S--t happens in your life, but I’ll be the best fighter I can. If I can’t be the champion, I’ll do something else.”

In the end, it’s
just a last name.
It’s whatever you
do that makes the

-- Roger Gracie on his surname

Gracie lives in London with his wife, whom he met in the U.K., and their 18-month-old son, Tristan. His father, who Gracie says lost interest in BJJ after his instructor’s 1982 death in a hang-gliding accident, moved back to Rio de Janeiro to care for a prematurely born son.

It has been a tough time for the Gracies. Royce Gracie lost luster after a decisive loss to Matt Hughes in 2006 and a positive test for steroids in his last fight against Kazushi Sakuraba. Renzo Gracie fell decisively to Hughes in his first UFC fight in April. Rolles Gracie was cut after one Octagon appearance, a meltdown of a performance against Joey Beltran in February.

Gracie is mindful of this, but, due to his upbringing and career track, he is not weighed down by it. At his academy in West London, a world away from his noted brethren, Roger Gracie Gomes is focused on making his own way in mixed martial arts.

“In the end, it’s just a last name,” he says. “It’s whatever you do that makes the difference.”
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