Heilo, always a very physically frail child, was the youngest son of Gastao and Cesalina Gracie’s eight children. Helio would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells. Nobody could figure out why. At about 14, Helio moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught jiu-jitsu in a house in Botafogo, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Helio would spend the next few years just watching his brothers, especially Carlos, teach jiu-jitsu, since doctors had recommended that the family keep Helio away from any physical activity due to his borderline health.
When Helio was about 16 years old, a student showed up for class when Carlos was not around. Helio, who had memorized all the moves and words of his older brother, offered to start the class. When training was over, Carlos showed up very apologetic for his delay. The student answered, “No problem, I enjoyed the class with Helio very much and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue with him.” Carlos agreed, and Helio thereby became an instructor, under Carlos’ supervision.
He soon realized that some of the techniques he had memorized from watching Carlos were not very easy for him to execute. He then started to adapt those moves to his frail body’s abilities, improving the leverage in the execution of some of those techniques. He dared to break away from the traditional jiu-jitsu his brothers had learned and were teaching and, through trial and error, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was born.
His fights included matches against world wrestling champion, Wladek Zbyszko, as well as a qualifying fight against the then, #2 jiu-jitsu fighter in the world, Kato, who Helio choked unconscious in six minutes. This victory enabled Helio to enter the ring for a match against the world champion, Masahiko Kimura, who outweighed Helio by over 80 pounds. Helio Gracie holds the record for the longest match in history, a battle which lasted an amazing three hours and 40 minutes! He also challenged boxing icons Primo Carnera, Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles. As if that was not enough, he once jumped into shark infested waters in the Atlantic Ocean to save a man’s life.
Helio’s tremendous impact on the art of jiu-jitsu has likely caused the biggest revolution in martial arts history. Helio Gracie died of natural causes in Itaipava, Rio de Janeiro, on the morning of January 29, 2009.
“I created a flag from the art’s dignity. I oversee the name of my family with affection and nerves of blood,” were his reported last words.