A tough local was the Gracies’ first antagonist, not a Japanese champion. In the early 1900s, little Carlos, grandson of a Scottish immigrant who had established a home in Para, Belem’s capital, didn’t hesitate before challenging his opponent. People would often see the kid play catch with an alligator that lived in the river nearby. Little Carlos would always dominate: curious and the owner of a keen sense of observation, Carlos noticed the reptile couldn’t see under water, and only swam in a straight line. The alligator actually had to stick its head out of the water in order to make turns. Just by getting out of the way of the animal’s teeth, Carlos would always win.
This and many other stories were rescued by daughter Reyla Gracie and will, for the first time, appear in a book where she wishes to tell the story of her father who was born on September 14th, 1902, and who was the first family member to make contact with the martial art that, would be eternally bound to the name “Gracie.” Thus, jiu jitsu became Carlos’s life (and vice versa) ever since his father, Gastao, trying to channel the boy’s limitless energy, made him learn a new fighting style with a Japanese friend of his, Mitsuyo Maeda, a.k.a. Count Koma. So, at the tender age of 14, Carlos began a saga that, to the whole world’s surprise, would pervade academies and rings across the planet. Out of all the pupils Koma taught, and they weren’t a few, as he used to travel the world teaching, only one fully understood the grandeur of that knowledge, adopting jiu-jitsu as a profession. Since the very beginning, I believe my father had a good idea of what he was learning. No wonder he created a school that’s lasted 80 years,” says daughter Reyla, who has been working on the book since 1999 gathering interviews, press clippings, books and documents on the subject
So, when Carlos became acquainted with Count Koma’s techniques, in 1916, the young Gracie was still a developing personality, much like the town of Belem, which functioned as an entrance to Brazil, with European and Japanese cultural influences. Belem was nearly wild, with Indians, woods and rivers where the fearless would play. “Jiu-jitsu gave my life a direction,” Carlos used to say. Dedicated to training and interested in the techniques, it didn’t take long for Carlos to stand out among the students. “Once, Count Koma needed a volunteer to demonstrate a type of choke, and Carlos offered himself. Professor Koma declined and asked for another pupil, and afterwards told Carlos’ dad: ‘He is going to be a champion, and is not here to be choked,’” says black-belt Rilion, one of the 21 children of the patriarch. Despite Maeda’s constant travels, Carlos kept his training rhythm stable, by beginning to practise with another one of the count’s students, local entrepreneur, Jacinto Ferro. “The astonishing thing is neither Ferro nor Loma set up an academy there, no pupil kept it up, and jiu-jitsu pretty much vanished from the state of Para. Ironically, the person who brought it back, decades later, was someone who had learned at the Gracies’ school in South-Eastern Brazil,” Reyla recalls. With the family’s increasingly hard economic situation, the father took Carlos, along with younger brothers Osvaldo, Gastao, Jorge and Helio (the latter, 11 years younger than Carlos), to try and make a living first in Rio de Janeiro, then Sao Paulo and then Belo Horizonte. At age 22, Carlos Gracie started to make a living out of jiu-jitsu. It was the time of challenges published on newspapers (“Want a broken rib? Look for Carlos Gracie,” one of them read), of the search for opponents, of the birth of mixed martial arts and of the suspicion by practitioners of other styles. “He didn’t look like a fighter, but like a chess player. He’d go to training in police academies. As they thought nothing of him, he had to demonstrate the efficiency of the art he believed in, that jiu-jitsu could do miracles and that he himself was a good fighter,” says Rilion. Sister Reyla adds: “Carlos was always against associating jiu-jitsu with violence. In the beginning, of course, Carlos would place the ads and challenge those huge stevedores because, in the 1930s, there was the need to establish an identity. That was when such comments began: ‘The Gracies are invincible.’ ‘The Gracies settle business with their bare hands,’” she says amongst laughs. “But each historical moment is different. When, in the seventies, jiu-jitsu became a sport, there was no more need to prove anything. It’s like today, when fighting or not fighting MMA starts being a personal choice; there is no longer the need there was in the times of my father and Helio, when they had to prove jiu-jitsu’s efficiency in the ring,” she concludes.
The influence Carlos had over his children and siblings was, therefore, much greater than fans can imagine nowadays. The old Gracie was a teacher, a strategist, a promoter, an idealizer and the clan’s creator – which Reylar intends to show in her book. “There is the man and the work. My father’s work was jiu-jitsu, family and nutrition, intertwined by his life story. The family is also a legacy he idealized, a product of his mind. Simply because the very project of making jiu-jitsu what it is today depended on the family, so that it would be possible to perpetuate the art,” says Reyla.
To Rilion Gracie, the ten years without Carlos indeed left a few gaps and many heritages: “One of the greatest heritages he left was the power of discipline and will. I never saw my father go by a day without exercising, and once he spent six months going every day to see the sunrise at Cristo Redentor [the gigantic statue of Christ atop a hill in Rio de Janeiro], where he’d meditate. Every day, never missed it,” the son recollects. “He was the family’s reference point, the nucleus, and in the 80s, at the end of each tournament, everyone gathered to evaluate each person’s performance, the rights and wrongs. I felt when he died that changed a little. And, he never hit a child, nor behaved unprofessionally. He only let good things through. That’s priceless,” Rilion says
Nothing, however, deserved the family’s gratitude more than the nutrition method elaborated by Carlos Gracie, for years, based on studies and thousand of experiments. After making his children, nephews and grandchildren listen to their bodies and eat exclusively what is beneficial to the organism, it’s no exaggeration today to say that the last half decade meant 50 years of success of the Gracie Diet, who’s basic principle is to avoid excessive acidity, which to its creator was the main cause of the organism’s deterioration and consequent malfunction. Thus the diet endeavours to keep meals’ PH as neutral as possible, balancing substances by using the right combination of ingredients. Regardless, reducing Carlos’ science to this would be ignoring much of his work – one of the things Reyla most worries about in preparing her father’s story is that: “He anticipated many of the much-divulged discoveries of today, like carotene’s beneficial role, a substance found in the papaya and the carrot, the concept of free radicals and orthomolecular medicine, not mentioning his pioneering role regarding the habit of consuming acai, watermelon juice, coconut water, vitamins,” she stresses. “And, when nobody spoke of nutrition, he noticed how useful it was to cut off red meat before Helio’s fights, since meat gives you explosion power, but not long term resistance. Proof wasn’t long in coming: didn’t uncle Helio fight a much younger Valdemar Santana for 3 hours and 40 minutes in 1955?”
Carlos’ interest in life and nutrition, just like everything else in his life, was not random. Together with a growing distrust of traditional medicine, Carlos noticed the need to look after the main human work tool: the body. Carlos Gracie, indeed, had four or five famous fights, the last of which was against Rufino, in 1931, whose picture Reyla keeps with her and another one – pure vale tudo (or ‘no rules,’ if you will) – in Rio de Janeiro, against capoeira practitioner Samuel. “At one point Samuel saw himself with no choice but to grab dad’s testicles,” Rilion recollects. The most famous one, nevertheless, was another Japan vs. Brazil classic, held in Sao Paulo, in 1924. Against Geo Omori, self-proclaimed Japanese jiu-jitsu representative, when Carlos made his most memorable fight. Nearing the end of the third three-minute round, Gracie gave his foe’s arm an inexorable lock and looked at the referee, who told him to go on. Carlos broke his opponent’s arm, but the latter paid no heed and gave an unfocused Carlos a takedown, before the end of the fight, which ended with a draw and mutual respect by the contenders, in a time when fighters only lost bouts by tapping or passing out.
Nevertheless, legend has it that the most unforgettable scene was played by rooters from Sao Paulo, who threw their hats into the ring as soon as the Brazilian broke his foe’s limb. “He excelled at the armbar,” says a proud Rilion. “For one thing is to apply it when the other guy is unfocused, but Carlos would warn beforehand, ‘I’m going to beat you by armbar,’ and the opponent would shrink their arm. Then he developed a technique of getting to the arm when the adversary knew they were gonna be armbarred. The way I see it, that was the beginning of the perfecting of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, characterized by leading the agressor to making a mistake, where the weaker person can defeat the stronger.”