The Birth of the Kimura

By Mike Whitman Nov 19, 2013

A family originally known for its seemingly unbeatable style and fighting dominance might just be most revered for a famous loss.

Long before Royce Gracie taught Americans what real fighting looked like by winning three of the first four Ultimate Fighting Championship events, his late father, Helio, did the same thing for years in Brazil. Helio and his brother, Carlos, became legends among fight fans for their willingness to take on all comers with their brand of jiu-jitsu in the first half of the 20th century.

For Helio, this included Masahiko Kimura, one of the most respected judokas of all-time. Gracie challenged him to a submission match in 1951 while Kimura was visiting Brazil with fellow judokas Toshio Yamaguchi and Yukio Kato.

Prior to locking horns with Kimura, Gracie twice faced Kato. While their first fight ended in a draw, there was no confusion in their second encounter, as Gracie put the Japanese ace to sleep with a cross gi choke from his back. Following Kato’s defeat, Kimura accepted Gracie’s challenge, and the two squared off at Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in front of 20,000 spectators, including the president of Brazil, according to Kimura’s biography, “My Judo.”

The surviving footage of the match paints a one-sided picture, as the physically superior Kimura dominated the smaller Gracie, throwing him with great force multiple times and passing his guard. However, as the bout was submission-only and could not be decided by ippon or pin, the wily Gracie utilized his famed survival tactics to stifle Kimura’s overwhelming attack.

Nevertheless, Kimura eventually found what he was searching for around the 13-minute mark, catching Gracie in a bent armlock, or gyaku ude-garami. Gracie refused to relent, instead allowing Kimura to break his arm and forcing brother Carlos to throw in the towel on his behalf.

The bout’s legacy lives on more than 50 years after Kimura and Gracie battled in Brazil. The submission Kimura used to finish the fight was adopted into Gracie’s style and named after the judoka in homage, which is why whenever a modern mixed martial artist fishes for a double wrist lock, fans find themselves calling out the name “Kimura.”