Rivalries: Royce Gracie

By Brian Knapp Jan 31, 2021
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Royce Gracie forever altered the idea of what modern-day martial artists were supposed to look like. When the lanky Brazilian marched to the Octagon in his trademark gi for his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut, few outside of his inner circle could have imagined the lasting impact he would make in a matter of hours. Gracie won the UFC 1, UFC 2 and UFC 4 tournaments, brought Brazilian jiu-jitsu to the masses and helped ignite a movement that transformed mixed martial arts from “human cockfighting” to billion-dollar business.

While Gracie fought only sporadically after UFC 5 and completed his career with a 15-2-3 record, he remains one of the central figures in the history of MMA. A look at a few of the rivalries that played roles in his rise to prominence:



Ken Shamrock


They met for the first time in the infancy of a combat sports revolution, as Gracie locked horns with Shamrock in the UFC 1 semifinals on Nov. 12, 1993 at McNichols Arena in Denver. The historic encounter lasted less than a minute but managed to propel Gracie forward on his march to becoming the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first superstar. Shamrock sprawled on a takedown and moved toward top position, only to become entangled in the Brazilian’s spidery guard. He then made a pass at an ill-advised heel hook, left his neck exposed and found himself trapped in a rear-naked choke. Shamrock tapped 57 seconds into Round 1. Of course, “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” lived to fight another day. Shamrock won 13 of his next 15 bouts—his tear included two submission victories over Bas Rutten—and squared off with Gracie for the Superfight Championship at UFC 5 on April 7, 1995. Their rematch was declared a draw after 36:00, leaving business between them unfinished. More than two decades later, Gracie, then 49, and Shamrock, 52 at the time, completed their trilogy under the Bellator MMA banner. The utterly forgettable Bellator 149 affair ended in controversy, as Gracie was awarded a technical knockout after he floored Shamrock with a knee to the groin—referee Jacob Montalvo did not see the foul—and closed the door with follow-up punches 2:22 into Round 1.



Kazushi Sakuraba

Sakuraba faced Gracie under the Pride Fighting Championships flag on May 1, 2000, but they did not engage in an all-action free-for-all. Rather, it was a slow-burning candle that seemed to last forever. Sakuraba and Gracie fought and grappled for 90 minutes—the equivalent of a 16-round bout in the modern Ultimate Fighting Championship—in a landmark battle before more than 38,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome. The undefeated Gracie donned his traditional gi but found that it worked against him in his showdown with Sakuraba in the 2000 Pride open weight grand prix quarterfinals. Sakuraba almost executed a kneebar at the end of the first round, and though Gracie dodged the bullet, he ran into tremendous difficulty trying to take down the Japanese star. When he succeeded in doing so, Sakuraba’s wrestling and positioning wore down the future UFC hall of famer. After six grueling 15-minute rounds of clinching, grappling, occasional submission attacks and Sakuraba’s crippling leg kicks, the Brazilian’s brother, Rorion Gracie, threw in the towel. It remains one of the most-talked-about Pride fights of all-time, its historical significance off the charts. By the time they rematched seven years later at a K-1 Hero’s event in Los Angeles, the fervor had dwindled down to almost nothing. Gracie took a unanimous decision from Sakuraba, only to later test positive for anabolic steroids—not the storybook ending for which fans had hoped.



Matt Hughes

When the blockbuster bout between Hughes and Gracie was announced for UFC 60 on May 27, 2006, most MMA observers knew it was not going to end well for the legendary Brazilian. Hughes was at the height of his power and entered the cage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on the strength of three consecutive finishes against Frank Trigg, Georges St. Pierre and Joe Riggs. Still, many Gracie loyalists held out hope that he could catch lightning in a bottle one last time. It was not to be. Hughes took down the Brazilian, controlled him from top position and threatened to snap his arm with a kimura. Gracie found out the hard way that time had passed him by, that he had been replaced by a superior model. Hughes rained down punches, forced the Brazilian to surrender his back and then flattened him out with hip pressure. More punches followed, prompting the stoppage 4:39 into the first round. Advertisement
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