Renzo Gracie vs. Wallid Ismail: The Beginning of Jiu-Jitsu’s Greatest Rivalry

Vale tudo became MMA, jiu-jitsu became professional and as a result of this natural evolution, almost all of the great rivalries that marked the history of both sports in Brazil were resolved. Today, former rivals face each other with great respect, aware that it was thanks to the wars they fought in the past that the sport evolved and reached its current level—with one notable exception. Renzo Gracie and Wallid Ismail is a rare case in Brazilian martial arts history of a high-level rivalry that only grew more bitter with time.

Curiously, that rivalry started on Aug. 5, 1993, three months before UFC 1. Event promoter Ricielli Santos decided to take advantage of the emergence of a new power in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Gracie Barra, and the natural rivalry that was emerging between its greatest representative, Renzo Gracie, and Wallid Ismail from Carlson Gracie, to promote a one-hour jiu-jitsu challenge between the two at the Flamengo gymnasium. The preliminaries featured five more superfights between representatives of some of the biggest jiu-jitsu teams of the time.

The First Faceoff

At that time, I was invited by Renzo to take the photographs for the fight poster. On a Saturday two weeks before the event, Ismail came to Academia Espaco Vital, where Gracie Barra operated, and there we took the shots. He arrived alone and despite all the tension in the air, he was very well received. In about 30 minutes I took some 70 photos of them in black-and-white and color. As Ismail was leaving afterward, Joao Paulo “Big Head,” one of Renzo's training partners, asked Wallid to pose with them. Nowadays it would be something extremely natural, but at a time when representatives of rival associations barely spoke on the streets of Rio, that idea didn't seem to sound good to Wallid, who agreed to pose, but it was clear by his face that he wasn't comfortable. In the following days, I gave the 50 best photos to Renzo as agreed. One of his training partners decided to play a prank using the picture where Wallid was posing among the rivals. At the time, the entire jiu-jitsu community used to go to an acai store in Leblon called Bibi Sucos and this friend of Renzo put up a poster there with a photo of Wallid and the members of Barra with the words “The new member of Gracie Barra.” The joke infuriated Ismail, who went imediately to Bibi to tear up the poster, and stirred up even more spirits for the dispute.

Wallid Passes the Guard Three Times

Located inside Flamengo, the most popular soccer club in Brazil, the Gymnasium was completely packed with almost 3,500 people divided between representatives of the main jiu-jitsu associations who carried flags and chanted fight songs. Before the hour-long fight between Wallid and Renzo, there were five fights between the four main academies in Rio (Carlson, Alliance, Gracie and Gracie Barra).

When Renzo and Wallid entered the tatami set up in Flamengo's gym, the atmosphere was one of war. To spice it up even more, the two spent a few minutes facing each other in the center of the dojo until master Alvaro Barreto started the fight. Renzo started better, attacking a crucifix and almost taking Wallid's back, but the Carlson athlete didn't let Gracie place the hooks and turned him over, passing guard and scoring the first three points to the delight of the Carlson crowd. Renzo managed to regain guard on two occasions, but Wallid passed his guard twice mroe, closing the score at 9-0.

Statements after the Fight

I talked to both men right after the fight. Gracie said, “Wallid only fought for the points, he didn't show any technique, while I put on a show of technique, since I got three chokes and an armbar while he couldn't do anything. I have no excuses for losing. I lost because I fought poorly tactically not looking for points. Now he wants to direct the challenge to my cousin Rilion who is 62 kilos [136.4 pounds]—that is, 20 less than him. That’s a cowardly attitude. I want to make it clear that Wallid for me is carrion and I'm going to eat that carrion.”

Even after winning, Ismail made a point of responding in kind, making it clear that the story between them had just begun: “Taking into account that Renzo said he was going to submit me, the fight was even easier than I expected, especially since eight points were not counted (from 4 full belly knees). I know why. Renzo's father is the president of the Federation. The vice president, Carlos Gracie Jr., is Renzo's uncle and teacher. The referee must have felt totally coerced and despite everything I managed to win by a large margin. Comparing with soccer, it was as if I had won 5-0 with four goals disallowed.”

Opposite Ways

Three months after that challenge, Renzo's cousin, Royce Gracie, would win the first UFC, opening up the MMA market for Renzo, Wallid and the entire jiu-jitsu community. Because they were on the same side, as representatives of jiu-jitsu, the rivalry went dormant for a few years. Two years after Royce's first victory, Renzo would fight in the WCC 1 tournament in Charlotte where he would beat three opponents in one night to win the tournament. Four months later Wallid would make his international vale tudo debut by submitting Denis Kefalinus at UVF 1 in Japan and, after two more victories in Japan, he would stamp his passport to represent jiu-jitsu in the under-200 pound tournament at UFC 12, where he was eliminated in the first fight by Japan’s Kazuo Takahashi on the same night as his training partner Vitor Belfort's victorious debut.

Meanwhile Renzo knocked out the almost 50-pounds heavier Oleg Taktarov in MARS and a few weeks later was invited to face Eugenio Tadeu, a luta-livre representative and Gracie archrival, in the main event of Pentagon Combat. Curiously, Eugenio was the same oponent that Wallid had defeated in 1991 at Vale Tudo do Grajau, in the historic 3-0 victory for jiu-jitsu over luta-livre. At Pentagon Combat, Renzo was clearly losing when the lights went out and a riot began and a riot began that led to the banning of vale tudo in Rio for four years. Wallid didn't miss the opportunity to skewer his rival in Tatame magazine. “Renzo didn't say I was technically limited, what happened to him? He was being spanked by Tadeu. I'm shocked. After what I saw Tonight, I think Eugenio even deserves a rematch of our fight at Grajau,” said Wallid, adding another chapter onto his cold war with Renzo.

Wallid Submits Royce Gracie

Renzo and Wallid would follow different paths until 1998, when UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie selected Ismail and three other black belts from his cousin Carlson to fight Royce Gracie in a gi challenge in a arena set up on Copacabana beach. Interestingly, Wallid was the fourth on Carlson Gracie's list of preferences after Mario Sperry, Murilo Bustamante and Amaury Bitetti, but he was the only one who immediately accepted the offer to fight without a time limit and thus ended up jumping to the front of the line.

Against all odds, Wallid put Royce out with a clock choke in front of 5,000 people. Known for his sharp trash talk when praising his accomplishments, Wallid knew how to use victory like no one else and took the opportunity to enter the American market with a cover in Black Belt magazine (“The Gracie Killer”). The marketing irritated the family and at the 1999 World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, Renzo's brother Ryan Gracie punched Wallid backstage, which later led to several other episodes with street fights, challenges on TV shows and much more. In 2007, Ryan Gracie died and the anticipated vale tudo fight between them ended up never happening.

With Wallid retired from the ring and starting to work as promoter of the most important Brazilian MMA show, Jungle Fight, and Renzo living in New York, leading the most successful Gracie academy in the world, everything led to believe that the rivalry between the two would die naturally. But on 2017, Brazilian television channel Combate produced a documentary about the 10 year anniversary of Ryan's death and Wallid was among the interviewees who testified negatively about Renzo's younger brother. It was the password to arouse the wrath of Gracie, who, seeking to avenge his brother, promised to beat Wallid in the streets.

In 2020, the two started a ferocious discussion on Instagram. Since Renzo had over 500,000 followers and Wallid more than a million, the daily discussion between them started to be one of the favorite subjects of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA worlds during the pandemic. Wallid posted daily memes of the “Carlson Lion” against the “Gracie Hyena,” and videos of his daily training for a possible professional vale tudo return against Gracie, while Renzo answered saying Wallid was a coward that didn't want to fight for real with him, once it was a matter of honor and he didn't want to give money to Wallid. The discussion started to get really tense, so as soon as flights were opened again, Renzo took an airplane from New York to Rio, doing a live waiting Wallid for two hours in a local academy to a closed-doors fight. Wallid, who always made clear he wanted to make the fight professional, didn’t showed up. Since then, the narrative calmed down. The two continued their wealthy lives, Wallid promoting his Jungle Fight and managing his athletes and Renzo leading his academy in New York.

Today, Renzo and Wallid are 56 years old. Thirty years after their first fight, there is no sign of the rivalry ending. Even always being in oposite sides, they continue to be seen as examples of great fighters who turned into wealthy businessmen of the fighting world. Since that world is like a small village, it would be no surprise if sooner or latter their stories cross again.
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