In the annals of MMA pioneers, we are to first remember his cousin, Royce Gracie, who won three of this first four Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments and in the process changed martial arts. When it comes to invincibility, no one holds the myth together like his other cousin, the undefeated Rickson Gracie. Such legends were granted status long ago. However, it is time at last to acknowledge a king whose story is still ongoing. Equal parts magic and realism, Renzo Gracie’s MMA journey is linked to the history of the sport.
Another no holds barred tournament, the World Combat Championship, was underway in Charlotte, North Caroline, in 1995 and another undersized Gracie was expected to do big things. Unlike Royce, Renzo scrapped the gi and the passive guard style, entering the cage with white spandex shorts and an aggressive approach.
Judoka Ben Spijkers stood across from him in the opening round and curiously kept his gi on -- a move commentator Bob Wall called, “a tactical disadvantage.” After those words and a few legal headbutts on the ground, Renzo took Spijkers’ back and gripped a lapel choke. Spijkers tapped, but Renzo held the choke, forcing referee Cecil Peoples to step in. When he released and fell to his back, Renzo kicked Spijkers before rising to his feet and stepping on the back of his neck.
“I don’t know if that’s the sort of thing they are going to appreciate here,” said commentator Todd Christensen.
There are two sides to every story, though. Not known then was that Spijkers had allegedly spent the previous night prank calling Gracie to keep him from sleeping. The day before this at the weigh-ins -- where they first learned they would fight each other -- Spijkers shouted insults at Gracie during the faceoff.
“My common reaction, would be at least a head butt on the bridge of his nose,” Renzo said, recounting the incident in a Facebook post while marveling at his self-control.
In the next round, Gracie once again won by submission. This time, he was quick to let go of it and help his opponent off the ground. It was a similar story in the final, where he submitted 6-foot-3 James Warring. Renzo embraced the kickboxing champion in a hug, his chin resting on top of his forehead. As for Spijkers, Renzo’s only regret was not inflicting more damage, as he later learned that he allegedly assaulted a female flight attendant the next day.
“He hit a woman,” Renzo alleged. “If I knew it, I would have broken his arm so he would never commit a sin like that again.”
Like many of his family members, Renzo moved from Brazil to the United States to open a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy. He was taken in by New York, a city in which he likens walking the streets to “reading a book every day.” The choice was clear back then. Despite his duties of getting his academy off the ground and only having white belts with which to work, Renzo continued his winning ways into a Martial Arts Reality Super Fighting headliner, where he faced UFC 6 tournament winner Oleg Taktarov on Nov. 22, 1996.
“Alright, gentleman,” commentator Jim Brinson said, “set us up quickly. What are we gonna see here right off the bat? Blood?”
After denying Gracie’s attempts to bring him to the ground, Taktarov caught Gracie’s kick and tripped him to the mat. “The Russian Bear” hovered above with his hands down, as Gracie connected with an uptick to the chin. Taktarov staggered and fell backward. Seated but still stunned, he was met with Gracie’s charging right hand. “Who says they can’t punch or kick?” commentator Dr. Alan Brackup asked. When Takarov came to his senses, he felt his face, which was streaming with blood.
Like his other fighting cousins, Renzo soon caught the attention of Pride Fighting Championships, where a Japanese-Brazilian rivalry was reigniting. Leading the Japanese side was pro wrestling star Kazushi Sakuraba, who defeated Royce and Royler Gracie successively -- a feat that was supposed to be doubly impossible. Renzo, seen as a more modern and more complete fighter, was given the responsibility of placing the family back on top.
A close, back-and-forth contest ensued, but in the final minute, Renzo, believing he had done more, clung to a grounded Sakuraba to let the clock run out. It was then that the clever wrestler made his move and reached around for a Kimura -- a technique named after Japanese jiu-jitsu master Masahiko Kimura for the hold he used to defeat Renzo’s great uncle, Helio Gracie, some 50 years prior. Sakuraba got to his feet with the arm in tow. Renzo circled to escape, but Sakuraba followed. As they spiraled to the ground, Sakuraba landed on top of Renzo with free rein to mangle his arm. As his ligaments twisted and popped, Renzo watched and accepted the punishment for his error. The referee stepped in to wave off the fight with 17 seconds remaining. Sakuraba addressed the ecstatic Japanese crowd. With his brother, Ryan Gracie, holding his elbow in place, Renzo waited his turn.
“Many people make excuses when they lose,” he said. “I only have one. He was better than me tonight; and the only gift I can give to him is to say that he is the Japanese version of the Gracie family.”
It was a moment about which Renzo would be asked for the rest of his career.
“My whole life I wondered if I would or not [tap out],” Gracie told MMAFighting.com, “so what Sakuraba gave me was something I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
A photo of the fight hangs on the wall of Renzo’s academy, where by this time Brazilian jiu-jitsu was having its own surge in popularity and he had more than white belts with which to work. There was a dedicated purple belt named Matt Serra, whom Renzo made an instructor after telling him to quit his night duty job. Ricardo Almeida, a talent Renzo first spotted at age 13 in Rio de Janeiro, made the move to New York. Then there was the former bouncer, John Danaher. Before his Danaher Death Squad started turning the Brazilian jiu-jitsu scene on its head, he was testing new techniques that worked on everyone but Renzo.
However, as Renzo’s influence grew, so did his losses. It was one thing to defeat larger opponents with little to no understanding of jiu-jitsu, but it was another to face the new breed of fighters that now entered the sport. After his loss to Sakuraba, Renzo suffered a knockout loss at the hands of former Olympian Dan Henderson and then lost two of his next three. An aging fighter fading out of sport was presumably how B.J. Penn’s father saw Renzo when he called to offer him a fight with his son.
“That was the biggest insult in my life,” Renzo said in a video posted by MMAMania.com. He took offense on several fronts, and not just because Penn was at one time a promising student training under Renzo’s brother. “If I call someone to fight my son, I’ll make sure that he’s a tomato can. I don’t want my son having a hard day.” Despite recovering from an ACL injury, Renzo accepted the fight at once and did so with the simple motivation to “land [a] very good shot on his face, the round ugly face that he has.”
Renzo landed a few in the first round before taking Penn to the ground. In the second, however, Penn connected on the fatigued Brazilian. With the pro-Hawaiian crowd mocking Renzo by changing his name, he survived to see the final bell. The unanimous decision went to Penn. After the two men embraced, Penn turned to Renzo’s corner to shake hands. Rickson, Ryan, Almeida and Serra all passively obliged.
“It was like fighting myself, fighting our school, fighting everything that we represent,” Renzo said, “even though he couldn’t understand that.”
By 2006, stars like Penn were taking the sport to new heights and new MMA brands sprouted in North America to take their stake. They including the International Fight League, a team-based organization for which Renzo coached the New York Pitbulls. Like all promotions, the IFL could soon not resist putting together their most sellable fight, and paired Renzo with former UFC champion Pat Miletich, the coach of the Quad City Silverbacks. A “60 Minutes” crew caught up with the two as they prepared to fight each other and asked them to explain the sport to a skeptical public that was only beginning to catch wind of it. Renzo spoke with host Scott Pelley on the mats in his academy.
“For people to understand my sport,” Renzo said, “I understand it’s gonna take a little bit.”
“What’s to understand?” Pelley asked. “You’re choking a guy -- pounding a guy -- into submission.”
“The first impression is, ‘Hit him! Knock him out!” Renzo said. “But believe it, it goes far beyond that.”
Miletich echoed the sentiment, comparing boxing to MMA as checkers to chess.
“There is so much technique involved that, to be honest, when I see a good fight, I think it makes a Russian ballet look like uncoordinated body movements,” Renzo said.
“That’s a tough ballet,” Pelly said, “a bloody ballet.”
“Yes,” Renzo said, “sometimes, but the blood is the sauce of the whole thing. It’s not blood that’s coming out. It’s a little bit of pride that you are putting out.”
The segment concluded with the fight itself and Pelley providing narration: “Miletich seemed in better shape and was the heavy favorite. Gracie, the jiu-jitsu grappler, wanted to fight on the ground. Miletich defended against the takedown, but there’s a saying in this sport: ‘There are so many ways to lose.’ Gracie climbed the stronger Miletich like a tree and inch by inch improved his position, until he had his arm around Miletich’s neck like a boa constrictor. Tighter, tighter. It’s over.”
The segment then returned to the mats.
“People see fighting as an ugly thing, a thing that denigrates the human being,” Renzo said, “but in reality, they see fighting in everything,”
“Everything is fighting,” Pelley said.
“Everything is fighting, doesn’t matter what it is,” Renzo said. “You wake up in the morning to get out of bed, it’s a fight, believe it, so fighting is actually the best thing a man can have in his soul.”
Renzo’s in-ring fights were at last going his way, as he bested another two more former UFC champions, Carlos Newton and Frank Shamrock, in his next two appearances. Shortly thereafter, he was enjoying his student’s success, as Matt Serra knocked out George St. Pierre to win the UFC welterweight title. Before the fight, Renzo told Serra to “go forward and see what happens.” St. Pierre, who later trained under Danaher, would eventually come to seek his own advice from Renzo before his fights.
For years after, Renzo stayed away from the cage, until pride called him back once more in 2010. Just like the last time he tried to avenge Royce, it did not work out for him. Renzo faced former welterweight champion Matt Hughes at UFC 112. Despite not having done so much as a single chin-up in two and a half years, Renzo fared far better than Royce -- until conditioning failed him in the third round and led to a technical knockout defeat.
“You have to understand,” Renzo told Ariel Helwani backstage, “winning or losing, I was the happiest man in the whole world inside that ring. I had a great time.”
Helwani asked him about the possibility of a UFC return.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Renzo said. “Now that we have the belt at 155 [pounds] and at 170, I’ll probably go to 185 or 205.”
One of Renzo’s students, Frankie Edgar, had also fought at the event and upset Penn to capture the UFC lightweight championship.
“This little Italian guy from Toms River, [New Jersey], is one tough cookie,” Renzo said. “I knew he had a chance. I knew it. Whatever he lacked in size, he has extra in heart, and he proved that tonight.”
Renzo never did return to the UFC, but in time, the number of his jiu-jitsu affiliates had grown to over 50; another student, Chris Weidman, became UFC middleweight champion; Edgar beat Penn twice more; and the IFL, as well as most other major MMA organizations, folded before Renzo fought again eight years later. Yet not much had changed for him.
“In there, you learn a lot,” he told MMA Fighting ahead of his fight with Yuki Kondo in July. “I’m able to improve all those around me, not just as people but as fighters with technique, from what I’m going to learn under the stress and how I will deal with it. That knowledge and those memories, it’s a chance to live years in minutes.”
On a Saturday in Manila, Renzo made the walk down the aisle at the Mall of Asia stadium. Waiting in the cage was Kondo, another Pride and UFC veteran. One Fighting Championship “Reign of Kings” could have been a fitting end for Renzo, but he vowed that it was not a retirement fight.
After a round of inactivity, the referee penalized both fighters with yellow cards. During the intermission, Renzo’s concerned cornermen showered him with advice. “Shut your mouth,” he said. “Relax and watch. I’m ass whooping him right now.”
Renzo opened the second round talking to Kondo, moving forward and throwing heavy punches. He dropped to his knees, grabbed Kondo’s leg, moved to his back and then wrapped his leg around the Japanese journeyman before tripping him to the ground. It was a technical sequence that took about seven seconds to pull off and 51 years to master. As Renzo put it in his post-fight speech, what came next was “what my family has been doing for over a hundred years -- choking people.”
“I have to teach the young generation that actually when you are over the hill is when you pick up speed: 51-years old,” Renzo said. “If you believe you are old, you are old. If you believe you are just a young kid like me, then that’s what you’ve got.”