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A commentary on the Gracie family MMA legacy…

Already being a sports writer, I decided to cover mixed martial arts because I had become such a huge fan of it. Hell, I became such a huge fan that I stopped training in Kung Fu and started training in MMA even though it had been drilled into my head over the years that “Jiu Jitsu was nothing more than a bunch of guys rolling around on the ground.”

Being such a fan of the sport, I guess I’m not as cynical about it as I am as when I cover the NBA, NFL and MLB.  I think when it comes to MMA, I have a tendency to see the positive more so than the negative. So when I really speak out against someone, you know that I really have an issue with them.

I’ve never been a fan of the Gracie family and I believe that their contributions to MMA are exaggerated by many. I’ve followed MMA closely at times, and not so closely during others. Acknowledging that I haven’t always followed the sport closely may hurt my credibility but there was a period of time when it was truly a bloodsport and I simply didn’t enjoy watching it. People will often say they’ve seen every UFC but that might have been pretty hard considering there was a time they were only doing 2-3 a year and not only didn’t have a TV deal, but didn’t even have PPV distribution.

But I was around for the beginning. I was a huge boxing and pro wrestling fan. Since I was into pro wrestling, I used to subscribe to Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer newsletter (and still do) . Meltzer has followed MMA back before it was really MMA, when it was called “NHB” (No Holds Barred fighting). He was intrigued from the start about the UFC concept of matching fighters from individual martial arts styles in order to determine which style was most effective.

Based on Meltzer’s writings, I became intrigued as well and watched the early tournaments. Like everyone else at the time, I was shocked when Royce Gracie went through much larger opponents with ease and broke and choked them with crazy submission holds I had never seen before (prior to that point, I actually thought you could use a Boston Crab in a street fight).

As I grew older I eventually started training in martial arts and was exposed to a lot of different ideals, opinions, and philosophies. One of the most prevalent opinions expressed over the years was that the Gracie family were nothing more than total frauds.

Based on Royce Gracie’s positive steroid test, I felt compelled to write this long diatribe about how I really feel about them.

Whenever I rip the Gracie family, the usual response is, “Yeah, but they started MMA” or “But Royce Gracie was the man back in the day!” Whether they truly started MMA is highly debatable. Yes, they brought it to PPV in this country but variations of MMA have been taking place all over the world for hundreds of years (some claim even longer). To try and attribute the creation of MMA to one person (or one family) is a foolish exercise.

There’s a false perception that when Royce won the first UFC tournaments that he did so against the top representatives of each respective discipline and martial art. That’s not true. A lot of the fighters brought into the first shows were chosen primarily because they were big and had an impressive look. The Gracie family were part-owners of the UFC in the early days and their true motivation behind starting it in this country wasn’t as a test of styles, but as a marketing tool for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Their plan was to set up the tournament so that Royce would win, with hopes that BJJ could replace Karate in America as the most commercially viable martial arts discipline.

Their plans worked to some extent. BJJ went from being a relatively unknown style to being practiced in just about every major and minor city in America. The Gracie family have been able to sell their name to franchises over the years to quite a few instructors all over the country. And a lot of schools that don’t use the Gracie name are run by instructors who have trained at a Gracie school at one time or another.

While their plan may have worked, the fact remains that Royce didn’t defeat the top competition that was available at the time. The tournament was basically rigged. As competitive martial artists, most of the Gracie family have shied away from fighting the sport’s biggest names. When they have, the fighter was either past their prime or restricted rules were used.

In the UFC, things started to go south for the Gracies once there was a push to create parity within the promotion. Long-term, the prospect of having Royce win every tournament in dominant fashion was going to allow the Gracies to open a lot of schools, but it wasn’t going to sell pay-per-views. So the Gracie family sold off their portion of company and split. Royce actually stayed away from active MMA competition for five years after going to a draw with Ken Shamrock at UFC 5 in 1995. Once top-level wrestlers that understood a little bit about takedown defense started getting into the game, it seemed like the Gracies suddenly got out.

The other issue I have with the Gracie legacy is how they go about leasing franchises. From a pure biological perspective, the Gracie family is big. But their numbers become even bigger because not everyone with the Gracie name is an actual blood relative. For the right price, the Gracie name can actually be bought.

I’ve also heard that how they award belts and franchises is a bit questionable as well. I don’t train Jiu-Jitsu on a regular basis, but I’ve been around it enough to know that whenever a name is brought up in a conversation and they are referred to as a “black belt,” someone always asks “Who did they get their belt from?” I’ve come to learn that a brown belt from certain teachers are more respected than black belts for others. Certain black belts just carry more credibility than others.

A lot of Gracie school franchises are often awarded based in large part on money. If you have enough cash, you can move through the belt hierarchy rather quickly. In other words, Gracie franchises aren’t always awarded on merit and instructor certification can be questionable at times.

Whenever you franchise a martial arts name there’s always the risk that what’s being taught at the affiliates isn’t as authentic as it would be if you trained at the primary location. But I used to train at the MFS-affiliate (and I plan on going back once my work schedule calms down) in Philadelphia and I know that the standards in getting a MFS franchise are based a lot on merit. You have to go through an interview process and get approved. Then you have to go down and train in Iowa with Pat Miletich and all of his top guys. Assuming you pass that test, you then have to pass trainer certification. And even once you pass trainer certification and are awarded a franchise, you still have to go to Iowa on a quarterly basis to improve your certification, and at times renew it. Because the ciriculum changes, head instructors have to attend frequent seminars in order to make sure their students are being taught the latest techniques.

I’m not trying to advertise for Pat Miletich, I’m simply trying to illustrate that not every Gracie school is awarded primarily on merit. Politics play a huge role.
I know this post will generate a lot of response, both positive and negative, but I just felt like I needed to come out and call it like I see it.

Do I know for a fact that Royce Gracie used steroids? No, I don’t. Perhaps his test result was a false positive. However, knowing how they’ve used smoke and mirrors to protect their “precious” legacy over the years and have tried to re-write history, it wouldn’t surprise me if Royce looked for a shortcut of some sort.