As strange as it sounds, MMA owes its current popularity to the circus. When George Gracie’s grandson, Gustão Gracie, married the daughter of a wealthy Brazilian family and by extension, became a business partner of the American Circus in Belém, so began the rise of MMA’s most influential family: the legendary Gracie clan. Trace their power back three generations to the patriarchs, Carlos and Helio:
Spread out over 3 generations, the Gracie family boasts more than 50 members and is single-handedly responsible for the rise of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). Arguably the most important discipline in today’s MMA landscape, the origin story of BJJ is remarkable.
Despite being one of Brazil’s most famous exports, at least part of the Gracie lineage can be traced back to Scotland. In 1825, George Gracie traded in the Southern Uplands of Dumfries for the jungles of Brazil, beginning a series of events that would directly lead to WME-IMG’s $4 billion acquisition of the UFC in 2016.
Exactly 100 years prior, the Queirolo Brothers, business partners of Gustão’s, featured Japanese judo champion and prize fighter Mitsuyo Maeda at one of their circus shows. A year later, in 1917, Gustão’s eldest son, Carlos Gracie, began to study martial arts under Maeda. What Carlos learned, he passed on to his brothers, Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., George, and Helio.
Though Helio was too young, sick, and frail to train under Mutsuyo Maeda, he picked up the sport from watching his older brothers. Today, Helio and Carlos are widely considered to be the founders of modern Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Between his two wives, Helio Gracie fathered seven sons – Rorion, Rickson Relson, Royler, Rolker, Royce, and Robin.
His eldest son, Rorion, brought Brazilian jiu jitsu to the United States in 1978. He would go on to found the Gracie Academy, now a global BJJ organization whose name recognition is unmatched.
Rorion was also involved in the creation of another organization. In 1993, he teamed with an 18-year-old television producer named Art Davie to create the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a pay-per-view event that featured martial artists of different disciplines competing against one another. Today, the organization offers staggering payouts for fighters:
Davie’s dream of an interdisciplinary competition became a reality through Rorion Gracie, who sought a platform to demonstrate the superiority of the Gracie brand of jiu jitsu over other martial arts.
A year later, at the behest of high-ranking military officers from the US Army’s most elite unit, Rorion created a system of hand-to-hand combat based on the most effective techniques from BJJ.
The result was Gracie Survival Tactics, a system that has since been taught to all major law enforcement agencies and military organizations in the US. His techniques are at the core of the official U.S. Army Combatives program.
When regular people want to learn to fight, they call up the Army. When the Army wants to learn to fight, they call up a Gracie.
Rorion’s half-brother, Royce – winner of the first two UFC tournaments – is recognized as the most influential figure in modern-day MMA. Among his other accolades, Royce holds the record for most most consecutive victories by submission in UFC history with 11.
It’s worth noting that after winning all seven fights by submission at UFC 1 and 2, Royce won his first fight at UFC 3 (back when UFC events were tournament-style, with fighters fighting multiple bouts in a single day as the victors advanced towards the finals) before withdrawing prior to his next match because he was dehydrated.
Three months later, in December of 1994, he won UFC 4 by submitting all three opponents he faced; Royce was one Gatorade away from sweeping the UFC’s first four events.
It would take hours to delve into all the Gracies and their respective accomplishments, but the third generation of Gracies, including (but not limited to) Ralek, Ralph, Rener, Renzo, Reyson, Rodrigo, Roger, Rolles Jr., and Ryan, are all world-class martial artists.
Since emigrating from Scotland, to Brazil, to the United States, the Gracie family has put down roots all over the world and they show no signs of slowing down. Those versed in MMA lore know the Gracies can be full of themselves, but without Carlos and Helio, Rickson, Royce, and the rest of the Gracie gang, MMA wouldn’t be where it is today and the UFC wouldn’t exist.