EXCLUSIVE | Royce Gracie Talks Jones, Diaz Brothers, Submissions and His Legacy; Says He’s ‘Pretty Much’ Retired
“Let me see the hooks! Let me see the hooks!” These are the first words I hear MMA legend Royce Gracie yell as I catch him conducting a children’s Gracie Jiu-Jitsu seminar this week at Chad Kight’s Sugar Land Mixed Martial Arts. Gracie had been traveling through Texas and Louisiana teaching, and I caught up with him at Kight’s Houston-area school as he was finishing up a children’s class and preparing for the adult class.
After an obligatory autograph and photo session with the parents, I’m able to talk to Gracie in the school’s front office. My first question: What keeps Royce Gracie busy these days?
“I spend about six months [every year] traveling and teaching. So six months home, six months gone. It’s about 15 days home, 15 days gone [every month]. [I’ve lived in] L.A. for the last 29 years.”
When asked if he should be considered the most influential fighter in MMA history and the father of modern MMA, Gracie said his father, Hélio Gracie, deserved that honor.
“My father is the main one. I’m a vehicle of his work, a product of his work. But he’s the one who changed everything.”
Groundbreaking father aside, what does Royce Gracie consider his own personal legacy in the history of MMA to be?
“[My legacy is being] the first UFC champion. The first man to win tournaments, three fights, four fights in one night. No refs, no time limit, no weight divisions. I fought Akebono, 6’8”, 490 lbs. I had the second longest fight in history; my father had the longest fight in the history of MMA. Mine was the second longest [at] an hour-and-a-half or an hour-and-45-minutes.”
I reminded Gracie that Akebono never actually won an MMA fight. He shoots me a glare as if to say “Let’s see you beat the guy.” I decide to keep my observations to myself.
Gracie said his family helped make the UFC what it is today.
“My father did that. If it wasn’t for my family, there would be no UFC. We’re the ones who had the concept. My brother brought the concept from Brazil to America. [When I first came to America] we were teaching private classes, every half an hour there’s a new student coming in. We would teach out of the garage at home and had so many students we had 150 students on the waiting list. That was when we started to open up the Gracie Academy.”
I told Gracie that many people, myself included, considered him the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. Others consider UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva the greatest ever. Who did Gracie think was the best of all time?
“My father. (Laughing). Look at his size and what he did. The guy was 140 lbs., 60 kg, and he did what he did. He wasn’t strong; he wasn’t a power lifter. Not strong at all. So he created a whole style based on leverage and technique.”
But what if the Royce Gracie of 1993-94 fought today? I asked Gracie how he would compare to today’s fighters if he were fighting in his prime, and if he could possibly hold a title at 170 lbs. or 185 lbs.
“It’s hard to say. You’ve got to step in the ring and do it. Can you compare Muhammad Ali with Klitschko? Different times, man. There’s only one way to find out. If Bruce Lee was alive, could he fight [in MMA]? There’s only one way to find out. That’s why everybody’s had their time.
“But you can’t say what Muhammad Ali did back then, he couldn’t do today. That’s unfair to say that, because he was ahead of his time back then. It’s like saying Jim Brown, what he did back in his days, he couldn’t do it today. But back then, there was [essentially] no helmets, no padding; but he still did what he did.
“Today you see the guys have technology and training that’s advanced so much. But take a guy from today and put him back in that time, and see if he could’ve done it — without all the help you see. From shoes to supplements and [equipment], you’ve seen the technology advance so much, and just people knowing how to [fight]. Everything’s improved so much, it’s hard to say.”
Gracie has beaten fighters including Ken Shamrock, Kimo Leopoldo, Dan Severn and Kazushi Sakuraba. I asked what it was like to have beaten so many legends of the sport.
“It’s my job. That’s what I train for. I didn’t train to lose.”
In talking about Sakuraba, we discussed Gracie’s rare defeats. I told him that I thought he’d only suffered two losses, a statistic that UFC.com and Sherdog confirm. Gracie said others may consider it three.
“There’s Matt Hughes, Sakuraba… Harold Howard, that [fight] was considered to be a loss because I didn’t fight [but] I walked into the ring. If I didn’t walk into the ring, it wouldn’t be a loss. But I walked into the ring and we didn’t fight, because I blacked out. [Whether that’s a loss], it’s hard to say.”
Gracie was able to defeat Sakuraba in their rematch and avenge that loss. He had only positive things to say about the Japanese fighter.
“[Sakuraba], the guy is very good, man. He’s very good. He’s very good. In his time, man, he was awesome. He beat a lot of people. He knew the game, studied the game, trained a lot. That’s all he did, man — trained Jiu-Jitsu, trained kickboxing, traveled all over learning and training.
“A lot of the fighters today are doing that. The ones that keep an open mind and know how to train, those are the ones that are on top, man.”
In Gracie’s fight with Hughes, the legend was caught in an armbar that he refused to tap out to. I asked Gracie if he would have ever, under any circumstance, considered submitting in an MMA fight.
“No. I signed up for a fight, man. I’m not thinking about tapping, giving up.”
What if that meant a broken arm or a hyperextended knee?
“Go ahead. Let’s do it. I’m not thinking about quitting. My corner knows that. Only stop the fight if I get knocked out. Then you stop the fight. But if I’m taking a beating, let me take a beating. They know that, you know — let him take a beating. Take a beating? We signed up for a fight! (Laughing). We didn’t sign up to take a couple of hits. No! You’re gonna have to knock my brothers out before we stop the fight. Taking a beating? That’s what you signed up for! (Laughing).”
With all this talk about submissions, I reminded Gracie that he still holds the UFC record for most submission victories with 11. Does he consider himself to be the best submission specialist in UFC history?
“There’s a lot of guys out there who are good at submissions. Nick and Nate Diaz are very good. Anderson Silva, he does a lot of knockouts, but he has some submissions too. Jon Jones … You see, everybody’s practicing Jiu-Jitsu today. So it’s hard to say.”
And just what are Gracie’s thoughts on the Diaz brothers, who are Cesar Gracie students?
“Very good. I like the way they think. They actually remind me of my family a lot. Tough kids, don’t take bullshit from anybody. They’re here to fight. ‘You’re gonna beat me up? OK, beat me up man! I didn’t sign up to quit.’ So they don’t back down from a fight.”
How about UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones?
“Very good fighter. Big, man. The guy’s big for that division. And he walks around … It’s not like he walks around overweight. He’s already cut up. He walks around pretty much that way. The guy’s just a very good athlete. And he knows how to use strategy, that’s the main thing. The guys that are on top are the guys that know how to use strategy. He’s not just an athlete, he’s an athlete that knows the game, knows how to fight, and studies. I hear that he studies and learns from everybody, Jon Jones. You see he has an open mind to learn … so he’s gonna be a tough pick to beat.”
Gracie fought in the UFC when there were basically no rules, then returned 11 years later to fight Hughes after the UFC had adopted the unified rules. I asked Gracie what he thought about the two formats and whether he preferred the weight classes, rounds and judges or the original no-rules format.
“No rules. It was pretty much the concept my father created Gracie Jiu-Jitsu around. It’s a street fight. You don’t pick opponents on the street. A guy comes by, pinches your wife or girlfriend on the butt, you’re not gonna walk up to him and say, ‘Excuse me, how much do you weigh?’ Come on! ‘Uh, honey, I’m sorry. He’s not in my weight division. I can’t fight him.’
“There’s no such thing, you see. There’s no gloves, there’s no rules, there’s no time limit out on the street. So in the beginning it was style against style, everything goes: No weight division, no time limit, no rules.
“But in order for the sport to grow, they had to create the rules, the time limits. Look what happened in the Dan Severn fight with me. After about 15 minutes, the cable, the TV blacked out, because they only bought two hours [of pay per view time]. With no time limits, there’s that problem. The fight might go a little longer. You don’t know how long it’s gonna last. It might be too fast, too short. So you have to put in [time limits] in order for the sport to grow.”
Gracie and I talked about the evolution of the sport and how, for many fans, MMA has surpassed more traditional international sports.
“Today, it’s become almost like a dream for the kids. They wake up in the morning and they go train. They’re thinking [about MMA] like baseball, like football. ‘One day when I grow up I want to be a football player, I want to be a baseball player.’ Now it’s ‘When I grow up, I want to be a UFC fighter.’ It’s become a kids’ dream today.”
Gracie was the first inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame, alongside Ken Shamrock. I asked him what this honor meant to him.
“It’s my house, man. I built it.” (Laughing).
Not only did he build it, but he built it fighting three or four guys a night in tournaments. Having also fought in single fights, I asked him which format he preferred.
“It’s a different strategy. Single fights, you can go all out for five rounds, five minutes, 25 minutes, whatever. Fight in the tournament, and you have to think about coming back for the next fight, so it’s a different strategy.”
I wanted to know if Gracie watched Strikeforce and Bellator, and what he thought of their tournament formats.
“Some, I watch some, yes. It’s good, that idea, as long as it’s one fight a night. To fight two, three fights in one night, man… Today [that would be difficult] because everybody’s so level, so even. It’s hard to do that.”
Not only did Gracie fight in tournaments, but he often fought against bigger opponents. I asked him how he was able to beat guys who often outweighed him by 50 or more lbs.
“My father created an art of self defense. It’s an art. I don’t believe [my opponent] can beat me. Let’s fight. On the streets there’s no size, there’s no time limit, there’s no weight divisions. It’s pure technique, that’s what Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is.”
Gracie often, but not always, fought in a gi. I asked him if he preferred competing with or without the gi, and what the advantages of the gi were.
“Gi. In an MMA fight, the opponent tends to grab. If you watch a bar fight, how come they rip each other’s shirts? It’s human nature to grab the shirts. If I’ve got nothing to grab, what am I gonna do? I’m gonna punch you. So human nature is to grab, and I’d prefer them to grab me than punch me. Yes it could make it harder, but I know where your hand is at. That’s why I train all my life in my gi. [Grabbing it] is human nature.”
Gracie took a nearly five-year hiatus from professional fighting between 1995 and 2000, leaving the UFC and resurfacing in Pride. I asked him why he decided to walk away from the sport and the UFC for so long.
“Because Rorion was involved with the UFC, and when he left, he told me that he didn’t agree with the rules and that I shouldn’t fight under those rules.”
And speaking of five-year hiatuses, fans haven’t seen Gracie compete since his 2007 defeat of Sakuraba. Yet I had never heard Gracie conclusively admit that he was retired. Was he ready to announce his retirement, or could he see himself fighting again?
“Been there, done that.”
Just to be clear, I asked if he was officially retired.
“Pretty much. Pretty much.”
I asked Gracie about his brother, Rickson Gracie, recently telling Tatame that only 30 percent of Jiu-Jitsu was effective in MMA, and that “you can’t put Royce or any other guy only using it [out there].” Did Royce agree with this assessment?
“Nope. Everything, it’s a whole combination. Did you watch the kids’ class? Teaching the kids how to make a base, a simple thing … [it’s something] people today are trying to eliminate. ‘Well, the base is no good. The hip throw is not good for MMA.’ But the hip throw teaches you how to make a base, how to find your base, so you can pick somebody up and leverage it. You see? So everything’s a combination. It’s not just the 30 percent of moves that you’re gonna use, and the other ones you don’t use. No.
“[Compare Jiu-Jitsu to] every other style of martial arts. Wrestling? How many takedowns, really, can you use in an MMA fight? Three or four? So all the other takedowns from wrestling are no good? No, they’re good! They complement each other. They teach you different bases and different ways to move. Judo? So you’re telling me all the other throws in judo are bad? Because you only use two throws in MMA? No. I don’t think that way.”
And just how does Gracie Jiu-Jitsu compare to these other disciplines? What does Gracie think is the most dominant martial arts discipline in MMA today, in 2012?
“Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. I still think Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Take away Gracie Jiu-Jitsu … Look at wrestling. They don’t have chokes. So, OK, you take people down and do what? Pin them down? You see, if you can’t finish the fight by choking … Look at Dan Severn and me. He didn’t know how to finish the fight. Look at boxing. You get in a clinch, they don’t know what to do. Kickboxing, if you get in a clinch, they don’t know what to do. You take Gracie Jiu-Jitsu out, and they’re done.
“Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, what’s our system? We’re gonna get you in a clinch, take you down to the ground, and we’re gonna finish you with a choke, an arm lock, a foot lock, a knee lock — a finishing hold.”
I asked Gracie if he had any closing thoughts.
“It’s all good, man. Life is good.”
And with that, I could hear the adult class loudly assembling for its seminar in the gym, as dozens of people prepared to learn at the feet of the master. I bid Gracie farewell, and he emerged from the front office into the gym. In an instant, the clamor fell to dead silence. Royce Gracie was in the room, and he had everyone’s undivided attention.