Helio Gracie The Passing of a legend

Came across this and found it very interesting…

Article by: Marcelo Alonso (in collaboration with Guilherme Cruz, Eduardo Ferreira, and Erik Englehart)

After over 80 years devoted to Jiu-Jitsu, the man who revolutionized the Martial Arts concept around the world has passed away.

On October 1st, 2008, family and friends gathered to celebrate the birthday of Hélio Gracie. Though he was turning 95 years old, Hélio took center stage and delivered a heartfelt speech to those in attendance detailing his storied life, and thanking them for taking the time to celebrate with him. Following the party the general consensus among guests was that Hélio had never looked better, and not only would they be returning the following year to help celebrate his 96th birthday, they would also return years from now to mark his 100th birthday.

Sadly, this was not to be as the legendary Gracie succumbed to pneumonia and passed away on January 29th, 2009.

Of Hélio’s nine children, only Royce and Rolker were able to make the trip in time to attend their father’s funeral (which took place only 8 hours after his passing). Rorion and Royler were in the US, while Robin and Rickson were in Europe at the time. None of them could find a flight that would get them back to Brazil in time. Following Hélio’s funeral, a saddened Royce Gracie recounted the phone call that brought him back to his native Brazil just in time to say goodbye to his father. “My mother called me and told me that he (Hélio) wouldn’t last long, so I took an immediate flight from Los Angeles to Brazil. When I arrived, it seemed as if he had been waiting for me to get there and soon after that he passed.”

True to her word Hélio’s wife Vera followed her late husband’s final wishes and arranged a simple and quick ceremony at Petropolis Cemetary located 90 min away from Hélio’s native Rio de Janeiro, and just 20 min away from Itaipava, where Hélio had spent his remaining years.

As he watched the coffin lower into the ground, Royce Gracie, the man who had introduced Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to the world, and had fought for hours against opponents twice his size, began to break down. As a final gesture of love and respect for his father, Royce placed a single black belt on top of the coffin and led a round of applause that echoed around the world.

Within hours of his passing, various international media outlets began reporting the news. Almost immediately martial artists from around the world would begin to pay their respects in various ways. Some elected to hold a moment of silence, while others elected to share stories of the fallen patriarch.


Born in Belém, Brazil on October 1st, 1913, to parents Gastão and Cesalina, Hélio was the youngest of five children. It was in the same city of Belém that Hélio’s father had met and befriended Mitsuyo Maeda (also known as Count Koma) some years prior. At the time, Gastão Gracie was an important political figure and had used his influence to help Maeda establish a Japanese colony. In return for his help, Maeda offered to teach Gracie’s eldest son Carlos the ways of jiu-jitsu.

During the early 1900’s, it was considered a crime against the nation for a Japanese national to teach jiu-jitsu to a non-Japanese, however Maeda disregarded this fact as he felt that in Brazil he had found the fertile soil he had been searching for in order to perpetuate the art of jiu-jitsu, which he felt was losing students to Judo in Japan.

During his childhood and early adolescence, Hélio suffered from numerous health problems, and had unexpected dizziness spells. His conditioned worsened to the point that he couldn’t even attend school and instead opted to spend his time at his brother’s jiu-jitsu academy where his older brothers taught classes. Although forbidden by his brothers from participating in the classes, Hélio continued to watch with a perceptiveness that no one realized. He studied and memorized each move until he knew the art of jiu-jitsu inside and out.

Then came the fateful day that would forever change the course of jiu-jitsu. Carlos was running late for a private lesson, and the student asked Hélio if he wanted to “play” until Carlos arrived to begin the class. Hélio ended up teaching the student until Carlos arrived. Excusing himself for being late, Carlos told the student to prepare for the class when the student immediately dismissed him and informed Carlos that he wanted Hélio to teach him from that point on. Master Hélio was born.


To demonstrate their style during the 1920’s the Gracie family used an aggressive marking strategy called “The Gracie Challenge” which utilized the newspaper in order to captivate people’s attention and encourage them to learn the art. Some of the ads they put in newspapers would read “If you want a broken arm call Carlos Gracie” and practitioners from a variety of disciplines including Karate, Boxing, Capoeira, and Luta Livre would flock from all over hoping to be the one to disprove the Gracie’s belief in jiu-jitsu. It was through these challenges that the Gracie brothers began the Vale-Tudo (anything goes) fights in Brazil, and grew the Gracie name into one that was both feared and respected throughout the country. It was this exact same strategy that Hélio’s eldest son Rorion implemented in order to showcase Gracie jiu-jitsu to the United States. Along with his brothers and cousins, Rorion won dozens of unsanctioned “challenges” in garages, universities, and various seminars around the US until he met advertising executive Art Davie, and the two of them were able to talk to Hollywood director John Milius (Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian) into coming aboard as an investor. Thus the UFC was born, however for Rorion and his family this was nothing new as the Gracie’s had been holding these types of challenges for well over 60 years.


George, Carlos, and Oswaldo’s stunning victories in the very first Vale-Tudo fights immediately put the Gracie name on the map. Hélio longed to follow in his brothers footsteps, and on January 16th, 1932 at the age of 17, Hélio’s first fight under Vale-Tudo rules came against the Brazilian Lightweight Boxing Champion Antonio Portugal. The unknown jiu-jitsu master, and his larger opponent served as the night’s opening bout which took place at the Frontao, a popular Rio arena. Going into the fight Hélio was so nervous he was unable to speak. When the opening bell rang Hélio dodged a punch from Portugal, took him to the mat, and immediately applied an armlock for the win. The fight lasted just 30 seconds. Following the fight, the crowd was left in awe having just witnessed a smaller man not only defeat a boxing world champion, but doing it in under a minute. Many thought the fight was fixed.

Following the fight with Portugal, Hélio faced his first Japanese opponent, Takashi Namiki. The fight was scheduled to take place at the Teatro Sao Caetano, and with time running out Gracie broke Namiki’s arm. To his dismay, the tough Japanese fighter refused to give up and Hélio was forced to accept a draw. Immediately following the fight, Hélio issued a new challenge to Namiki – which he refused.


On November 6th, 1932, Hélio accepted the challenge from another international champion named Fred Ebert. Ebert had finished second in the World Freestyle Wrestling Championship in the 95-kilo class in 1932. Weighing 77lbs (35kg) less than his opponent, Hélio was treated as the underdog by the press and many of the spectators in attendance. The fight would go on for more than 2 hours, and was broken up by the police because state law declared that no public sporting event could be held past 2 a.m. During the fight, Hélio had managed to throw the much larger man out of the ring twice, and by the time police arrived Ebert was unable to stand on his own. Although Ebert was taken to the hospital, the match was declared a draw due to the rules stating that a winner could only be declared via submission or KO.

In 1934, Hélio fought Japanese fighter Miaki who had gained notoriety by having a rope tied around his neck with two men pulling either side and not submitting. The match was scheduled for one, thirty minute round. Hélio was able to submit Miaki via choke in 27 minutes.

In his fifth fight, Hélio once again faced an opponent with a significant size advantage in Wladek Zbyszko. Zbyszko weighed in at 265lbs (120kg) and at the time was widely considered to be the greatest fighter in the world. The contest was called a sports match so there were no punches or kicks involved. The fight was scheduled for three, ten-minute rounds and ended in a draw. “I offered him overtime, but he refused” the proud BJJ master would often tell people.


In February 1935 Hélio once again fought under Vale-Tudo rules, this time against Orlando “Dudu” da Silva who at the time was a Brazilian luta-livre (wrestling) champion. During the fight, one of Hélio’s kicks knocked out two of Dudu’s teeth. Despite fighting nearly the entire duration from his back (guard position), Hélio was able to inflict an incredible amount of damage on Dudu, and at 19 minutes the fight was stopped and Hélio was declared the winner by KO. Following the fight, Dudu had to be taken to the emergency room and was treated  for a fractured rib, two broken teeth, and a broken jaw. “It was the most violent fight of my life. It was 19 straight minutes of blood” Hélio told the newspapers following the fight.


Late in 1935, Japanese fighter Yasuichi Ono made his way to Brazil and made the claim that he could beat five Gracies in a single night. Hélio accepted the challenge. Near the end of the first round Hélio was exhausted and was having trouble seeing, yet he somehow managed to continue. At the end of the final round, Hélio was able to apply a choke until the bell rang, signifying the end of the fight. As Hélio let go of the choke, Ono fell unconscious to the ground, however the fight was ruled as a draw.

In 1936, Hélio fought two Japanese fighters named Masagoishi. By that time Hélio’s choke had become so feared by his opponents that many of his opponents forgot to defend against his other attacks. As the fight with Masagoishi started, Hélio placed his feet on his opponent’s hips, threw him over, and landed in the mount position. Masagoishi raised his arms in an attempt to defend the choke, and was caught in an armlock.


In the 1950’s, the Gracie’s moved their school from the small Rio borough of Flamengo to a much larger location in Rio de Janeiro off of Rio Branco Ave. “It was undoubtedly the biggest gym ever” a proud Hélio would boast, and thanks to the Gracie’s fame dozens of top celebrities and politicians such as Carlos Lacerda (a famous journalist who later became Governor of Rio de Janeiro) began to train there, as did the son of Brazilian President Getulio Vargas.

The Gracie’s were not only jiu-jitsu masters, but also highly organized businessmen that kept their school running like a well- oiled machine. Every student at the academy was given two cards with pictures and important information. One was kept at the school, and one was given to the student to keep with them and present upon entering. Once the card was presented, the school secretary would match it to the card held at the school. The school card was then stamped with the date and name of the instructor who taught the class and given in addition to a towel and a gi back to the student in exchange for their personal card. At the end of each class, the instructors would sign next to the stamp to confirm that the student had taken the class. The student would then exchange his school card, along with the gi and the towel, for his own card.

At the time of his passing Hélio still had the cards of every student who attended the Gracie Academy. “We had hundreds of students” remembered Hélio. “When each student came to the school, he would get a basket with a clean gi, a hanger, and a clean towel. Every student had his own gi, and that was his for as long as he continued to train at the academy. At one time we had 600 students, and taught 600 classes a week. They would only wear the gi once – no one every wore a dirty gi in my school!”

The Gracie’s method of keeping track of their students proved to be so effective that to this day it is still used by many jiu-jitsu academies around the world.


In 1951, Hélio Gracie had conquered all challengers in Brazil and sought new opponents in the homeland of jiu-jitsu: Japan. At the time, Hélio was very confident in his skills to the point that some viewed him as cocky, or abrasive. He made several comments about how he had beaten several Japanese opponents, and that the Japanese had no one that could beat his jiu-jitsu.

In response, the Japanese sent two fighters, Kato and Kimura. Upon their initial meeting, Kimura refused to fight Hélio stating that the weight and age difference (Kimura weighed 220lbs compared to Gracie’s 154, and was 10 years his junior) was too great, so instead proposed a fight between Hélio and his (Kimura) understudy, Kato. “When I beat Hélio people will say it’s because of the weight and age difference so instead I offer Kato.” Kimura later went on to publicly state that if Hélio were to beat Kato, he would offer an immediate challenge to Gracie.

In September 1951, Hélio fought Kato in the Maracana Stadium (the largest soccer stadium in the world with a maxium occupancy of 100,000). Despite suffering two broken ribs the week before the fight, Hélio fought bravely until the end of the three ten-minute rounds. The match was declared a draw. During the fight Hélio had been taken down twenty times, while Kato was forced to escape through the ropes on several occasions.

Later that same month, the two fought again, this time in São Paulo. With a great show of heart and determination, Gracie was able to choke Kato unconscious in front of the roaring crowd. Following the fight, and true to his word, Kimura stepped into the ring to issue a challenge to Hélio.

Despite the fact that he was in his 40’s, and he was facing a much bigger man, Hélio trained the same way as he did for every opponent. “I would teach my lessons all day so at the end of the day I would only have to train for ten minutes” Hélio recalled. “Everyone tried to stop me from fighting Kimura. They said why risk losing? Why not go out on top?” I told them “I know I am going to lose, but I want to fight him and find out how he is going to beat me! When you fight, you find out more about yourself. If you win, you know you are on the right track; if you lose then you learn why you lost and try to improve your technique.”

The fight took place on October 13th, 1951 in Rio de Janeiro in front of 60,000 fans and the entire Brazilian and Japanese press corps. Prior to the fight, Kimura had stated that if Gracie was able to last more than three minutes with him, he (Kimura) would surrender his title to the Brazilian. Few people in the audience expected the fight to go past the first round. Kimura began the fight using his devastating onslaught, however the crafty Hélio utilized his defensive skills to nullify his opponents attacks and confuse the Japanese fighter. At the end of the first round Hélio was exhausted, but proud that he had been able to last longer than anyone expected. “Where did Kimura’s three minutes go?” asked an overly excited Joao Café Filho, Brazil’s President.

The fight continued, and at one point Kimura was able to pass Hélio’s guard and apply a side headlock. The pressure was so great that it caused blood to ooze from Hélio’s ear. Kimura asked him if he wanted to continue, and Hélio replied with a defiant “yes!”

Following the 13 minute mark, Kimura finally caught Hélio in an ude-garami (now widely known as the “Kimura” in BJJ) and applied pressure hoping to get Gracie to submit. “I had promised Carlos that if Kimura caught me in a submission hold I would tap, but I was very stubborn and wouldn’t do it. When Kimura applied the armlock, Carlos threw in the towel” Hélio later told a reporter. Following his loss to Kimura, Hélio’s historic 13 year undefeated streak came to an end. Kimura was so impressed with Gracie’s performance that he later visited Hélio’s house and invited him to visit Japan. Hélio graciously declined because he believed that during their fight he had learned everything he could from the Japanese legend.


Hélio eventually retired from the professional fight circuit and instead dedicated his time to making the Gracie Academy the preeminent martial arts school in the world. On May 24th, 1955, Hélio came out of retirement to face one of his own instructors in what is still widely regarded as the most mythic fights of all time.

The fight originated with a disagreement between Hélio and his best student and top instructor Waldemar Santana. Waldemar was a former dockworker, and had been with the Gracies for nearly five years, and had developed a close relationship with the family. At the time, Santana was in desperate need of money and agreed to take part in a “professional wrestling” event at the Palacio de Aluminio (a show house for fixed fights). Hélio warned Santana that he didn’t want him participating in the event because it could cloud the academy’s reputation. Santana tried reasoning with Hélio, insisting that the fight would be held under Vale-Tudo rules, but Hélio refused, further stating that as long as Santana worked for him he would not be allowed to take part in such events.

Fueled by money, Santana disobeyed Hélio and took the fight anyways. He was able to defeat his opponent with ease, but was immediately expelled from the Gracie Academy upon Hélio’s discovery.

In an interview following his fight, Santana was instigated by journalist Carlos Renato from the newspaper Ultima Hora (who had a longstanding grude against the Gracies) into making disparaging remarks about the family.

Upon learning about the remarks, Hélio contronted Santana and offered him a chance to retract what he had said. Santana refused, and Hélio was forced to issue a challenge for a fight.

The fight was held at the YMCA in the borough of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, and was considered a “private affair” so no press was admitted entrance. The fight began promptly at 4 p.m. and went on for an unprecedented 3 hours and 45 minutes WITHOUT INTERRUPTION. Hélio fought valiantly against a man 23 years his junior and 66lbs heavier, however shortly before 8 p.m. Hélio, now exhausted, was caught with a vicious soccer kick to the head and immediately knocked unconscious.

To this day the Gracie vs. Santana fight is considered to be the longest Vale-Tudo match in history.


It’s almost impossible to measure the impact that Hélio Gracie has had on jiu-jitsu and modern MMA. After dedicating more than 70 years of his life to the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Hélio’s lifetime goal of sharing the art of jiu-jitsu with the world was finally realized in the early 90’s when his son Royce went on to record 12 straight victories and become the first UFC champion by defeating opponents much larger than him with his father’s teachings.

While Royce dominated his opponents in the US, Hélio’s other son Rickson did the same in Japan by defeating six opponents in two Japan open tournaments. At the time the Gracie’s victories sent shockwaves through the martial arts world, and opened the doors for modern MMA; the fastest growing sport in the world today.

Had it not been for the determination of a frail boy who spent hours memorizing the movements of his older brother, none of this would have been possible.

And for that, martial arts fans around the world will forever be grateful.

“I created a flag from the art’s dignity. I oversee the name of my family with affection and nerves of blood.”

-Hélio Gracie


Author: Eddie Kone Academy Of Jiu-Jitsu

Come in today to experience the gentle art of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu for FREE! This free session is intended to give you a taste of our art with no obligations necessary. Simply turn up to one of our classes and take advantage of our completely Free Introductory lesson, a Certified EKBJJ Team Coach will be more then happy to show help you within the class. We also welcome you to invite a friend or family member. Enjoy this limited time offer to try jiu-jitsu in one of our friendly classes absolutely free!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s