UFC Retrospective Series: Rorion Gracie Interview Part 1 (Uncut)

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 by Tony Reid

Tony Reid-Being a diehard fan of the sport and a member of the MMA Community I would just like to start by saying “Thank You” for introducing Brazilian Jui Jitsu to the United States (and the world) and in turn playing a huge part in creating the great sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Your vision and efforts will go down in history as possibly the most monumental contribution in the history of combat sports.

Before we talk about the early days of the UFC, I would like to talk about your personal story if we could. It’s been said that you were in a gi before you could walk so Gracie Jui Jitsu has been apart of your life since basically, day one. Can you talk about the importance, the responsibility of carrying the Gracie name and legacy in the way you do?

Rorion Gracie-It’s what I was conceived to do. Like the brothers and relatives and the whole Gracie Family, especially for myself. My dad being who he was, he wanted to have kids to continue on and perpetuate his work and his vision. I was just born into it. I was groomed for it. I just woke up one day and I was on the mat teaching classes. I was lucky enough to understand it and learn from the old man and see his vision, share his vision and that’s all I can think about doing. It’s the only major objective in my life. To get this stuff going, on the biggest and most productive and efficient was to share with everyone. When I reached a certain stage in my life, in Brazil, I looked around, the Gracie name was very established, and the name was very known in Brazil. After taking that first exploratory trip to the United States when I was 17 years old, I went through some ups and downs. I was pan handling on the street corner and sleeping under newspaper on the sidewalk. After a whole year in America it turned out to be a very positive experience. I helped me grow a lot. I learned to like the United States and what it was about. After a year here (in the United States) I went back to Brazil after the year here in 1970. I came back in 1972 for a few months to be with some friends and in 1978, after finishing law school, I decided it was time for me to come back here and establish to the world what my father has perfected in terms of refining the Jiu Jitsu he learned from my Uncle Carlos and sharing with the rest of the world. It was fun, 35 years ago, it was a wonderful time. Very exciting things happening then and to look back and see how much of an impact started with me but eventually with the help of my brothers and cousins and nephews and other relatives we had to do for the world, its amazing to think that one family could do this much for the world. In hindsight, I can now see why my dad and Uncle Carlos had so many children! In the beginning it’s hard to understand why would you have so many kids all doing the same thing? Now that you look back you see there is a reason why. It’s been exciting and very rewarding.

Tony Reid-In late 1969 you made a trip to the United States in which you went through a number of difficult, challenging times. There is a story that you where staying at the YMCA and someone stole your pass, your money and plane ticket back to Brazil, leading you to stay longer in the States. Can you share that story with us?

Rorion Gracie-That’s right. I first went to the east coast to visit some relatives but I always had California in mind. Because of the better weather, the beaches, it just made me think about Brazil. So to save money I originally stayed at the YMCA in Hollywood. I joined as month earlier while I was in Brazil so I could take advantage of the $1 discount. For safety reasons I decided to put my cash and return ticket with the receptionist, to put in their safe. The receptionist himself stole the money and everything else. When I came back to get the money the next week the guy was gone. I was flat broke, no money, no ticket to get back to Brazil. I contacted the airline company and they said it would take six months to make sure nobody uses the ticket. In order to not stress out my father I called him up in Brazil and I told him “Dad I love America so much. I’m going to be here for at least another six months.” I ended up staying here, I found myself a job flipping hamburgers, made some friends and just kept staying here longer and longer watching concerts like Jimi Hendrix and all that good stuff. I made some good friends and ended up staying for a year. Some ups and downs but I enjoyed it; it was all a part of the history.

Tony Reid– In 1978 you moved back to the states for good, how fondly do you look back on “The Garage Days”? Do you just sit back and smile, thinking about those days?

Rorion Gracie-Absolutely. “The Garage Days” is what it’s all about. To have the idea of coming to a country like the United States where you have Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris and the punching and kicking arts so established, and coming here believing that I had something that was extremely efficient and something that would help people change the way they saw fighting in general. Think about that, I knew I had something that would change the world. I was that confident. The Brazilian people knew there was a small possibility that it would work but thinking I was still a dreamer. To come to a country like the United States and think I was going to change everything, it was not a surprise to me the way things happened. The whole world got turned upside down. That was my vision. It’s true, in those days there was no internet, and other media that we are now using that is way beyond my dreams, but the concept of coming here and revolutionizing the way everyone looked at martial arts was never surprising for me, not one bit. That’s exactly what I hoped for and exactly what I did my best to make happen. Starting in the humble little garage in Hermosa, it’s very exciting to look back and think of all the fond memories. I have students from the garage who are still training with us, 30 years later that are now still training here saying “Remember when…” In my office, as we speak, I have a picture of the garage with the mats and nothing else in the Gracie garage.

Tony Reid-Following in the footsteps of your father and the generation before you, you introduced The Gracie Challenge in the early 80’s. What was the one match or one fight that you are most proud of looking back now?

Rorion Gracie-While teaching classes in my garage there were dozens and dozens of challenge matches I had. In those days camcorders were very rare and I did not have one!

Tony Reid– Could you imagine if you did!

Rorion Gracie– Oh, man! That would be absolutely classic, every single one of them. In those days, there were a lot of people practicing all different styles of martial arts. Black belts would come up to the garage to challenge me all the time, brought up by their former students. I’m teaching the new student and the student would tell me that their former instructor doesn’t believe what I’m teaching. He thinks its Mickey Mouse business. He doesn’t believe in all this, he wants to fight me, he thinks he can beat me up. I’m telling him to come in! We had those matches all the time in the garage. We continued having those matches after we moved into the first academy in Torrance. Some of those matches are on the “Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Action” DVDs. In my opinion each one of those matches is a classic because there’s a guy who comes in 220lbs of solid muscle who can punch and kick like lightning who thinks he’s just going to knock me out with one punch like he has rehearsed for the last 15 or 20 years of his life ad by the time he realizes it he’s being choked out. It’s hard for them to conceive that. Every single one of those matches was very important to me. So there is not one specific fight because every one of them helped build a foundation of where we are today.

Tony Reid-In 1993, four years after starting the Gracie Academy in the States, you decided that the best way to further popularize Gracie Jui Jitsu would be to have it televised, which is where the idea of the UFC formed. Can you talk about how that idea entered the equation and how it got set in motion?

Rorion Gracie– I had dozens of challenge matches in the garage. In 1990 I opened up a school in Torrance. It got to the point I was teaching 600 students out of my garage. I had 85 people on a waiting list including Hollywood director John Milius. He did Conan the Barbarian and Apocalypse Now and amazing director and writer taking classes with us. So we move to the academy in Torrance and the challenge matches kept happening. By that time I met and became friends with Art Davie, who also became a Jiu Jitsu student of mine. Art had a very strong background in marketing. We had a couple of those matches and Art would come and he was puzzled by the whole thing. He would say how great it was and I told him it was my dream to share it with the rest of the world. With his marketing background he and I started bouncing ideas around wondering how we could make this seen by the rest of the world. He said “We gotta go to television.” I said “Well then let’s go to television.” We started to scratch out heads and put the concept together figuring how we could make it all happen. We invited John Milius to be the creative director. He pitched different ideas of how we could develop the whole concept of the Octagon. It was important to me, to not have a boxing ring, because if the cameraman follows the guy to the corner he would get stuck there. We had to be a little more open than just the square boxing ring; it had to be more round, so the guy wouldn’t get stuck in a corner. We had meetings at John’s office at Sony Pictures (Studio). We would discuss having guys from the Roman Era, guys with horns pumping the arena up, dressed in togas, that we would have the fighters brought in on chariots and one with a black horse and one with a white horse that would drop the fighters off at opposite ends of the Octagon. We talked about a moat with alligators or sharks swimming around. We talked about all kinds of stuff. Ultimately we settled for what it is today, it turned out to be a great idea. It’s a very exotic looking piece of equipment and it stuck. The Octagon is continuing to grow and be known all over the world. We thought of everything, a Plexiglas enclosure, electric fences, we thought of everything.

Tony Reid-What are your thoughts on the growth and expansion of the sport today?

Rorion Gracie– The UFC nowadays continues to grow and it’s known as the fastest growing sport in the world. I am happy for those guys. I am glad to see they were able to take the stuff and take it all the way to the moon. So I am happy on that end. Personally, as you know I am no longer involved with the UFC. The reason I got away from the UFC is because when Royce fought Dan Severn at UFC 4, we had a two hour window for the transmission for the Pay per View. That’s UFC 1, 2 and 3. That’s the contract. We had a two hour window. Miraculously events 1, 2 and 3 all fit within the two hour window. Exactly two hours, perfect timing. When Royce fought Dan Severn the event lasted two hours and three minutes. Which means at two hours exactly the Pay per View live transmission went blank. For everyone that paid the $20 or whatever it was at the time, who paid to see it live, got it cut off. Only the people at the event, live at the arena, saw the end of the fight. So a few hundred thousand people who paid to see the fight got the transmission interrupted. It was the biggest mishap in Pay per View history. I was right there in the middle of it. For me the fights could have no rounds, no time limits, no gloves, no points, no judges and two men walk in and one walks out. As the fight director of the event, for me, that was the only way to go. I wanted to make it a real fight. We lost money on that event. We had to refund people; we had to show it again for free, it was a big, huge mess. As a result of that, the guys from Semaphore Entertainment, my partner Bob Meyrowitz, who was the president, said we couldn’t have a no time limit event anymore. They said we couldn’t run a no time limit show anymore. They said it was a television show and you can’t run a television show without knowing when it’s going to end. That was the big difference, philosophically, from me to them. Bob was a great guy, a wonderful businessman and he was financing the show at the time, and he said we had to put time limits. I said that we couldn’t do that. If you put time limits you are going to kill the spirit of the show. If a fighter walks ion to fight three five minute rounds he has one strategy on his mind. He can stall the first round, he throws a couple of punches and sits back and then is aggressive in the third round he can win the fight. When Royce fought Dan Severn if the fight had ended without the triangle one minute prior to that the judges would have given the victory to Dan Severn. He’s a big guy, he’s on top, and he’s crushing the little guy on the bottom. Of course, you spend more time on the top, you win the fight. That could not have been further from the truth. There is a certain strategy of the little guy, who knows the right techniques of Jiu Jitsu, who lets the big guy stay on top, throw all of his energy away, wear himself ultimately win the fight even from the bottom. That is the ultimate strategy. That is what my father developed in Brazil. He was 140 lbs soaking wet. All of his fights he won, he was on the bottom. He was in no condition to muscle his way out from under the big guy. So he had to wait for the big guy to wear himself out and then defeat the opponent. With that said, if I agreed to the idea of time limits I would be jeopardizing the number one philosophy of what I was all about, which is the Jiu Jitsu mindset of not trying to impose your game ad beat up your opponent but instead make yourself safe so you don’t get hurt, wait for the opponent to get tired, and when he gets tired and makes a mistake that’s when you win the fight. This is the strategy that we teach at the academy and we have always taught at the Gracie Academy. That is the only way you can ensure the chance of a little guy beating a big guy. There is no way you can put a small guy in there to face a guy twice his size and expect him to win. That’s not going to work. For me it was a sin to say “Ok, we will put the little guy against the big guy and have five minute or ten minute rounds.” It doesn’t work. With that I could not prove my ideology that Jiu Jitsu enables the little guy to beat the big guy. For me the number one priority has always been the integrity of the fight. For my partner it was about doing television, a television show about fighting. We were looking at it from opposite ends of the spectrum. And it was the Golden Rule, which is “He who has the gold makes the rules.” He was financing the show and said we were going to do it this way no matter what. I said “Thank you very much. I’m outta here.” I decided to sell my interest in the company and walk away from the UFC. People say “Oh my gosh! Do you regret selling the UFC?” Absolutely not. I didn’t think about it twice. I don’t regret it, ever. Because for me the UFC was not a money making machine, it was a way for me to showcase the effectiveness of the martial art perfected by my father, carried on by my family and now share it with the rest of the world. It was an educational media, an educational vehicle for me. It was a platform to teach people that the little guy can defeat the big guy. People ask “What about the money?” Money is a consequence of what I do; it’s not a reason why I do things. Philosophically, it helps me sleep well at night. If one way or another I found a way to stay involved today, even though the show doesn’t reflect the reality of fighting the way it is today. What would I tell my father? “Hey Dad, Listen it’s not a real fight anymore but lets just make money with it.” I can’t sleep at night. I owe the old man too much, I have too much respect for him and what he’s done to just sell the concept of fighting as real but it’s not real. I have the highest respect for what the UFC is doing today. Dana and the Fertitta brothers, they have created an amazing spectacle. Its’ an entertaining thing but its not a real fight. The UFC today does not demonstrate a real fight. The guy who wins the fight is not the ultimate fighter, in my opinion. In a fight where one person places a choke on someone’s neck at 100%, to the point where he will pass out in ten seconds but the round ends in five and the ref pulls him off and he has to let go. What kind of real fight is that? So as an entertainment piece 100%, but to say the fighter that wins is the best fighter in the world, I have to disagree. In my humble opinion here in my office at the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California, I disagree. With all the respect I have today for the UFC, I don’t even watch it. I respect the success but I don’t watch the show. Back in the old days you locked the gate, said “Guys stay in there until one guy walks out and the other guy is out.” That’s the real deal for me. That is the spirit that sparked the flame. In the old days it was for me to compare the different styles of martial arts. I want to compare the Karate to the Kung Fu to the Tae Kwon Do to the Wrestling to the Judo and whatever else. I wanted the public to say “Wow the Karate guy is great at punching and kicking but if he gets taken to the ground he is useless.” Amazing! That’s what made people realize the importance of Jiu Jitsu. Nowadays everybody does a little bit of everything, which is mixed martial arts. But let me remind you of another thing, of the mixed martial arts the main ingredient of that mixture, the glue that holds the whole thing together is Jiu Jitsu. Let us not forget that. There is no mixed martial arts; there is just Jiu Jitsu and whatever else you want to add to it.