Joining the family business is usually a matter of choice, but when you grow up a Gracie, a career in combat is the only way to earn a living.
Since molding the teachings of a visiting Japanese judoka into their own martial art of Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) in the early 1900s, the Gracie family have changed the face of unarmed combat by turning the confused chaos of ground fighting into a dynamic science of joint locks, chokes and strangles.
After challenging and defeating a string of martial artists across Brazil, which came to be known as the Gracie Challenge, they became a household name in 1993 when Royce submitted a boxer, a wrestler and a savate specialist all in the same night at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Royce shook up the rapidly growing world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) by defeating bigger, stronger opponents and winning three of the first four UFC events.
The dominance he was able to establish over a grounded opponent heightened the interest in BJJ and it grew like wildfire in the US throughout the 1990s.
Igor Gracie lights up when he talks about his family. He smiles at the bravado of the Gracie Challenge, talks excitedly about Royce’s exploits in the UFC, and rubs the black-and-grey portrait tattoo of his father Rolls on the inside of his bicep when he talks about him.
In a recent interview in Singapore, the Rio de Janeiro native also told of the pride and pressure of being a Gracie.
“Everybody wants to beat a Gracie,” said Igor, who splits his time between fighting in mixed martial arts and teaching at his cousin Renzo’s BJJ academy in New York.
“Everyone knows about our family and they want to beat us so much. But it’s that kind of pressure that makes us better, makes us train harder,” he said.
“When they first developed BJJ my family went all over Brazil, challenging other martial artists to fights and beating them. So we are used to dealing with that kind of pressure,” added Gracie, a Pan-American and Mundial medalist in BJJ.
Igor’s father Rolls, who died in a hang gliding accident at 31, had a major impact on the evolution of BJJ, studying other martial arts and training regimes to improve conditioning and technique. His mother played her part too.
“My mother was always making sure we did well in school,” Gracie said. “As kids we could get into trouble, get into fights on the street and we’d get a slap on the head.”
“But mess up at school and big trouble,” he said, finishing the sentence with a rueful shake of the head.
“I grew up in the fight world, grew up seeing my cousins fight, was behind the scenes at fighting events, Pride in Japan and the UFC,” added Gracie, who is due to fight in an MMA event in Rhode Island in February.
“I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. I cannot imagine growing up without BJJ. I tried. I went to law school for two years but I knew Id never be a lawyer, so I switched to business school for another year and a half,” he said. “But at the back of my mind I knew I wanted to teach BJJ, I knew I wanted to fight.”
Teaching BJJ is a passion for the family.
They are determined to popularize it around the world, though Asia has proven a tough nut to crack, perhaps due to the predominance of regional martial arts such as taekwondo, karate, judo and kung fu.
However, he sees great growth potential here and hopes BJJ will gain the kind of worldwide popularity that earns it an Olympic berth one day.