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.

14 COMMENTS
  • says:

    I am not the biggest fan of the Gracie Family…I respect what they did for the sport and their talent, but I cannot stand their antics before, during and after a fight… They try to make the whole situation about them, and not the sport, the fight or the business… Especially, when one of their members win a fight, they storm the ring/cage like a bunch of college kids in a College Football upset…it shows the lack of respect they have…

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  • says:

    While I think that this stuff is true about some of the Gracies it’s not fair to lump them all together. Renzo in particular comes to mind as a member of the family who fought real competition and who is recognized as an excellent and honest instructor. Royce and Rickson, on the other hand…

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  • says:

    Renzo deserves some credit but he’s no angel. I really believe he quit on that Shamrock fight. He could have at least made a better attempt to try and see if he could get back in there. Plus, like the other Gracies, he is a bit arrogant times as well.

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  • says:

    The Gracie’s acknowledge that the early UFC was about showing off the superiority of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. While I have seen many say the same thing about the other competitors not being the best in their chosen martial art, neither was Royce.

    Rickson was looked at as the best of the clan at that moment in time, yet they put Royce in the tournement. Calling the tournement rigged is a bit misleading or bias because that would insinuate that other fighters were taking dives for Gracie, but I do not believe that to be the case as there is no evidence to back that up.

    I think there is also a ton of supporting evidence that would agree that Ken Shamrock was in fact the number 1 ranked shootfighter at the time, just based on his Pancrase activities.

    Now I don’t have the knowledge to say, but you should come up with something concrete if you are going to throw accusations about handing out the Gracie name for training academies based on money and not merit. I see nothing that backs up your claim, but I see a ton that backs up your claim about MFS…you trained in an affiliate. Have you trained in a Gracie academy? Do you honestly KNOW what it takes to get a franchise or is this all based on bias and heresay?

    Sam, I read your stuff all the time and I think you are awesome. This diatribe or yours against the Gracie’s doesn’t change that, but I don’t think you did the best that you normally do when you wrote this. I was expecting a lot more then empty accusations that you don’t support because you normally deliver the goods.

    I think Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is well proven from many fighters that come out of the academies. Say what you want about attitudes or whatever, but fighters like Matt Serra, Nick Diaz, Nate Diaz, David Terrell, Stephan Bonnar…etc. are all good to great fighters who have been trained from the Gracie family.

    Also, to the comment Sean said about the Gracie’s showing lack of respect by storming the ring or cage…that’s nuts man. Name ONE team that DOESN’T do that after a victory? Chute Boxe? Nope, in fact they storm the ring and cause fights, you wanna talk lack of respect? How about Hammerhouse? How about Team Quest? AKA? Give it a rest man, EVERY team comes in after a victory to congradulate their fighter and the opponent on a tough fight. If you don’t believe that, you haven’t watched enough Pride or UFC or MMA for that matter.

    I agree with Hap about Renzo. Hell, Renzo, Royler, and even Royce took on Sakuraba in his prime. Royce fought Yoshida. Many Gracies fought in Bushido against formitable opponents.

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  • says:

    Richard:

    You are right that Shamrock was fighting Pancrase at the time but I really don’t think there’s an accurate way to go back and verify how he was ranked as a shoot fighter. I mean, the guy was a submission wrestler and Gracie wasn’t a wrestler, but a submission expert. They knew that Royce had better submissions than Ken.

    I never said they fixed the tournament. When I said rigged, I meant that the tournament field was built with the belief that Royce would be able to win.

    As far as my comments about his schools, I didn’t serve hard evidence to support my claims but that’s why it was a blog rant and not something I submitted to CBS Sportsline. Should I have even gone that far in a blog rant? I gave it some thought beforehand but didn’t feel like it was irresponsible because I’m not talking out of my ass. What I wrote was based on a lot of conversations with people I have trained with at various schools who spoke from first-hand knowledge.

    As for people who have trained a Gracie schools in the past, I’m not saying they are all bad. I’m sure some of them are good. I’m sure if I trained with Renzo, Royce, Rickson, or Cesar Gracie that I would learn a ton. However, a lot of guys that go off on their own take on other influences as well. With Serra, if you go to his school on Long Island you’re not learning Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, you are learning Serra Jiu-Jitsu (he even calls it that himself). I’m sure it’s very similar to what Renzo teaches at his school in Manhattan, but there are also a lot of differences.

    I also have to agree with you about Sean’s comment. It’s hard to criticize them for a practice virtually every MMA camp is guilty of.

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  • says:

    Hey Sam, thanks for replying.

    I guess I didn’t look at the seperation between what you write for CBS and what you post here. I was really caught off guard because you are always on top of your stuff and I have never really seen you write a piece like this before, and yes, that dates back to 411mania. :)

    So fair is fair, it is a blog rant.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read the response.

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  • says:

    the “past their prime” argument (just one small bit of the rant that i have time to comment on) is getting less and less viable as we watch older fighters stay in shape and continue competing at a high level. Royce looked to be in excellent shape when he fought Matt Hughes, and Hughes could have taken his arm off, but chose not to out of, I guess, respect. I’d imagine it would be somewhat gross to break someone’s arm with your bare hands.
    Any time age is brought up, you gotta mention the Natural, too. It seems like a reflection more of the maturity of the sport. As it grows, athletes involved will be more and more likely to use modern techniques to stay in shape and maintain health and flexibility…no more Tank Abbotts (not that I have any problem with Tank).

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  • says:

    [...] Sam Caplan: A commentary on the Gracie family MMA legacy… [...]

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  • says:

    excellent article.

    one thing you didn’t mention was how whenever a Gracie fought in Japan it would be under ‘special rules’ that favored the Gracie over the opponent.

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  • says:

    hello, something i had comments about.
    “You are right that Shamrock was fighting Pancrase at the time but I really don’t think there’s an accurate way to go back and verify how he was ranked as a shoot fighter. I mean, the guy was a submission wrestler and Gracie wasn’t a wrestler, but a submission expert. They knew that Royce had better submissions than Ken.”

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  • says:

    honestly i haven’t seen ken in pancrase, but i i think you could make a case for ken being the better at standup and takedown defence. i owuld think that would make him the top contender.

    koclem Says:
    “one thing you didn’t mention was how whenever a Gracie fought in Japan it would be under ’special rules’ that favored the Gracie over the opponent.”
    pretty sure i’ve seen gracies fight under unified pride rules (regulation for the time)

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  • says:

    Hi, I wanted to comment on the Gracie Franchises, I have trained at a Gracie franchised school and I checked and double checked the lineage before joining. The fact of the matter is, the owner of the school was not as capable as many (and I mean many) grappling/bjj folks that I have rolled with. Additionally, the same school name is used on every gym he opens, even though he is not actively instructing.

    When I researched this school, I looked over the franchise program and it does seem very simple to buy your way into a franchise… you order correspondence material, study for your blue belt test and then pay to roll with Royce and/or his instructors for 2 days. If you totally suck will you get a Blue Belt? Maybe not, but from what I saw, you don’t have to be very great either. To remain a Gracie school he has to keep a certain number of members, this appears to be the only requirement. Maybe this isn’t indicative of every affiliate, but there is (at least in my case) some truth to what the author wrote in regard to quality of instruction.

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  • respect says:

    Sam Caplan, as a sports writer you should get all information before you write about anything. comment#4 is right. Don’t tell me Sakuraba & Yoshida aren’t good fighters of their martial art. What’s wrong w/ making some money doing the thing you love? I wish & hope people are doing what they love and making money from what they love to do. It is a gift for the Gracies to teach others their knowledge of this martial art. Everybody has a skill and jiu-jitsu is the Gracie’s.

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  • Did you forget the Rickson´s victories in Japan? Are they a fraud too? And have you heard about names like Ryan Gracie (decesead), Roger Gracie, Ralek Gracie, in recent fights in Japan? All of these are frauds?
    Or maybe you are a fraud………

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