In 2005, 23-year-old Roger Gracie won the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling World Championship by submitting all eight opponents, something that had never been done before. The son of Reyla Gracie, Roger has racked up numerous first place finishes in jiu-jitsu tournaments around the world, and won his first MMA match in December 2006 with an unsurprising first-round armbar of Ron “H20” Waterman; he plans to fight again early this year. With his long limbs and prodigious command of BJJ, the young lion of the Gracie clan could become a major force in mixed martial arts.
“The Pitbull” isn’t really built like one — he’s 5’9″ and runs a little over a buck fifty. But the nickname is justified by his aggressive approach, which deviates from the generally relaxed Gracie style. Brother to Renzo and the late Ryan, and the son of Robson, Ralph’s only loss came six seconds into a match with Takanori Gomi in 2004 when “The Fireball Kid” kneed him half to death; “The Pitbull” hasn’t fought since. He teaches and trains constantly now – and is kind of obsessive about it, as he was once quoted as saying, “It is better to die than not train.” Can we get a third option?
Carlos Gracie, Jr.
Son of BJJ co-creator Carlos Gracie, Carlos Jr. is a seventh-degree black belt in BJJ and founded the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), which is BJJ’s major governing body. He devoted his life to instructing and training others rather than focusing on becoming a competitive fighter, teaching at his father’s school, his brother Rolls’s school, and his own for the last few years. The fact that he has been based in Brazil for much of his teaching career has kept him out of the public eye to some extent, and he’s often overlooked in discussions of notable Gracies; still, his contributions were crucial.
Royler is the only person to win the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship three years in a row, and he has won it more than any other fighter in its history. Son of BJJ co-founder Helio and brother to Royce and Rickson, Royler’s also been the World Jiu Jitsu Champion four times. That said, his MMA record in sanctioned fights is 5-4-1 — not a stellar record for any fighter, let alone someone signing “Gracie” on his rent checks. He has deviated from the BJJ style a bit, which may be the reason for his lackluster MMA performances, but his ground work is excellent and getting back to the basics could place him among the sport’s elite.
A grandson of Carlos, Renzo is 13-6-1 in MMA matches, with his losses coming from mostly top-tier competition (Dan Henderson, BJ Penn, and Kazushi “The Gracie Hunter” Sakuraba). He has notable wins against legends like Pat Miletich and Carlos Newton, though many of his victories were by decision, which is not a badge of honor for a Gracie – anything less than a submission is unsatisfactory. In 2007, Renzo led the IFL’s New York Pitbulls team to an undefeated season and a league championship, guiding stars like Wagnney Fabiano and Delson Helano and proving that the Gracie name was still relevant and fearsome in MMA’s modern age.
Rorion is the oldest son of Helio and is one of the few fighters to hold a ninth-degree black belt in BJJ. With his speed and athleticism, he certainly could have been dominant in competitive fighting, but he realized he could make much more money (at the time) by teaching eager students in BJJ, making videos about it, and choreographing fights for major Hollywood movies like Lethal Weapon. (And he was busy having nine kids, which puts him on another list entirely.) In 1991, Rorion met entrepreneur Art Davie, and the two, along with action film director John Milius (who was a student of Rorion’s), created the concept for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which would debut two years later.
A Grand Master and ninth-degree black belt in BJJ, Carlson had 18 official fights in his career, and won his first match after fighting for over an hour. The oldest son of Carlos, Carlson became famous for avenging his uncle Helio’s loss to Valdemar Santana, beating him twice and fighting to a draw two other times. He has trained some of the best fighters in the sport, founded one of the most successful fight teams of all time, and is credited with improving the foundation upon which BJJ was built. Had “his day” been today, it’s difficult to imagine an MMA fighter who could touch him.
Many people would put Rickson at the top of this list just because of the legend that swirls around him. In twenty years, this son of Helio and brother of Rorion compiled a professional record of 11-0, and won the Vale Tudo Japan tournament two years in a row (1994-1995). His stamina allowed him to go on forever, back when matches seemed to actually go on forever, and all his wins were via submission. His website profile proclaims that “He is nearly undefeated with a combined record of over 400 victories in Jiu-Jitsu tournaments and freestyle wrestling, Sambo, and no holds barred challenge matches.” True or not, he’s been a ferocious presence in martial arts for years and will be a fighter to the end — why else would he be itching to fight again in 2008 at 50 years old?
Royce Gracie was the first MMA star — the stoic, graceful BJJ expert who introduced his father Helio’s martial art and “vale tudo” fighting to Americans. When he came onto the scene in 1993 by sweeping the eight-man tournament of UFC 1 (and then the brutal 16-man tournament of UFC 2), fight fans marveled at how he consistently beat dudes who were bigger and stronger than him by using a relaxed, precise ground technique, and how he seemed to be even more dangerous when he was on his back. Now we’re used to the sight, but back in the day we figured he was using some sort of Brazilian black magic. Not a naturally-skilled athlete or an incredibly imposing figure, Royce is living proof of the merits of BJJ. He’s always been one of the calmest fighters in the cage, as evidenced by his zen expression while refusing to tap out when Matt Hughes was practically breaking his arm off at UFC 60. Royce rebounded from that loss in his next match, when he battled Kazushi “The Gracie Hunter” Sakuraba to a unanimous decision victory at K-1 Dynamite!! USA in June 2007, avenging his entire family in the process. If that fight turns out to be his last, it would be the perfect end to an unparalleled career.
Carlos Gracie and Helio Gracie (tie)
How do you rank one god over another? Although many dispute which brother was the true originator of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, each man was equally responsible for arguably the most effective fighting style ever conceived. Their system could see a fighter giving up 200 pounds and twice as much strength to his opponent, and still win in impressive fashion. Decades later, fighters employing their style are still kicking ass. Their sons and grandsons have gone on to be champions and trainers of champions, rocketing the Gracie brand to a household name in the martial arts and MMA universe. Helio was highly conditioned and once fought for almost four hours straight. Carlos brought a spiritual side to his teachings of BJJ. But both taught that superior technique could overcome all other disadvantages. Though Carlos Gracie passed away 14 years ago, Helio remains active at the age of 94 – and we still wouldn’t want to mess with him.