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Remembering Helio Gracie

Let us remember the great Helio Gracie-

It’s hard to pinpoint one person as the most important figure in the history of mixed martial arts. But there is one thing you could say with virtual certainty: If it had not been for Helio Gracie, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts in the U.S. would not exist, and the martial arts world would be significantly different.

Gracie’s death Jan. 30 at the age of 95 got surprisingly little attention for someone of such significance. He was a pioneer, key in developing important tactics. He was even around many generations later to watch his work catch on in North America due to his sons.

Helio Gracie’s teaching of jiu-jitsu’s defensive tactics is an important part of the game for virtually every fighter today. Every bit as important is the legend of his fights in Rio de Janeiro, as a Vale Tudo (the name of the fighting style of his time in Brazil) star starting in the 1930s. That violent Vale Tudo world of no holds barred fighting became the influence that Helio’s oldest son, Rorion, grew up with, which became the framework of his development of the UFC.

Yet, in his later years, the elder Gracie thought all of this fighting was no longer necessary.

“He felt [his] Vale Tudo fights were necessary to show what was the most effective fighting art,” said Kid Peligro, who wrote numerous books on the Gracie family and their teachings. “He felt once Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was shown to be the most effective art, there was no more need to fight.”

Of course the game has changed, and you need more than jiu-jitsu to be an effective fighter, but few have been successful without taking something from Gracie’s repertoire.

A sickly teenager in the 1920s, Helio Gracie observed the teachings of his older brother, Carlos Gracie, who had studied Japanese judo and jiu-jitsu under Mitsuya Maeda, a turn-of-the-century pro wrestler who was also known as Conde Koma. At first, Gracie wasn’t allowed to participate in classes, only observe, but he apparently possessed an ability to dissect what was being done, and eventually became not only the best teacher, but a legendary fighter, even though he probably weighed around 155 pounds.

“He helped so many people,” said son Royler, 43, a multi-time world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a well-known MMA fighter in Japan. “He gave them a healthy way to work out that would give them confidence.

“He was a very straight guy. He had a mission in life and influenced so many people. He developed a way that a small guy can beat a big guy, or at least, defend himself against a bigger guy. He was my hero. It’s hard for me, because every time I put on a gi, it’s a memory of him.”

Gracie was almost a Brazilian Jack LaLanne. His teachings not only included martial arts, but healthy living and eating. He possessed none of the attributes one would expert from a great fighter. He was not strong, not quick, and not explosive, which were the foundations of what the jiu-jitsu taught by his older brother were about.

Instead, he developed a defensive style, refining the guard, where the goal against a bigger and more athletic person was to neutralize their strength while exerting as little energy as possible, force them to get frustrated, tired, to make a mistake, and then capitalize. He lost a lot of interest in UFC when they made changes to keep the interest of spectators, implementing time limits and stand-ups when fights became ground stalemates.

Even in his 80s, Gracie was a regular in his son’s corners, and it was not for show. Peligro noted that he would be in a room full of black belts watching people scrimmage, and Helio would pick up minor technical things that nobody else would see.

“He wouldn’t say too much,” said Royler, about how father’s cornering. “He would give you two or three things, and didn’t want to throw so much out that it would confuse you.”

Helio and older brother Carlos started an army of Gracie fighters.

Helio had nine children, seven boys, although he considered himself having 10 since he raised a nephew from childhood. All the boys studied jiu-jitsu from childhood, although Royler insisted their father never put pressure on them to do so or live up to the family name. Carlos had 21 children and more than 100 grandchildren, including son Carlson Gracie Sr., who was reputed to be Brazil’s best Vale Tudo fighter in the ’60s.

When so-called no holds barred fighting first garnered underground popularity in the mid-’90s, its two biggest early stars were Helio’s sons, Royce in the U.S., and Rickson, in Japan, relying on the teachings of their father.

In many ways, Royce’s career mirrored that of his father, as he was also skinny and didn’t have the athletic gifts of most of his opponents. Both had their first major fight against a pro boxer, easily taking them down and showing the sport that most thought was the most effective combat sport had holes, because a real fight often goes to the ground where boxing is rendered useless. In the ’40s, Helio often challenged Joe Louis, the boxer who may have been the most famous athlete in the world of that time.

For all of Gracie’s accomplishments, the two fights everyone remembers best were his only two losses.

In 1951, he battled Masahiko Kimura, who by legend in Japan was the greatest judo player of all time, at Maracana Stadium in Rio. The fight drew 20,000 fans, including the president of Brazil. It was a grudge match of sorts since Helio had choked out a judo player named Kato. Kimura and Kato were in Brazil together working as pro wrestlers, and after Kato lost, the crowds for pro wrestling plummeted because fans believed they were fakes. So the match was more than just the two men, but two men defending their businesses.

Kimura, in his autobiography, noted when he got into the stadium, he saw a coffin.

“I asked what it was. I was told, ‘This is for Kimura. Helio brought it in.’”

While Gracie legend purports Kimura as a 220-pound monster, he was actually closer to 187 pounds at the time, but still a physically stronger man then Gracie. He threw Gracie around and eventually clamped on a shoulder-lock that is now called a Kimura, and broke Helio’s arm. Gracie didn’t tap, even hearing his bone breaking. Kimura couldn’t think of anything to do but continue the move, and heard the bone break a second time before Helio’s corner threw in the towel.

The other, in 1955, was with one of his top students and a teacher at his gym, Waldemar Santana. The two had a disagreement regarding Santana doing pro wrestling, egged on by a newspaper reporter. Their match lasted three hours and 45 minutes before the much-younger Santana finally won, believed to be the longest Vale Tudo match in history.

This led to Carlson Gracie’s series of matches with Santana to restore the family name, with Carlson winning the most famous bout on August 3, 1956, at Maracana Stadium before 40,000 fans.

The success of these matches that led to Helio’s oldest son, Rorion, trying to market an event that he wanted to call “War of the Worlds,” which pitted fighters from eight different fighting disciplines in a one-night tournament with virtually no rules.

Everyone in television laughed at the idea except Campbell McLaren, an executive for Semaphore Entertainment Group, They scheduled a pay-per-view event, by this point with the name changed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, on Nov. 12, 1993. Rorion nominated younger brother Royce to represent the family and their art, and with Helio as the sage in the corner, he ran through the competition and became the first champion.

In doing so, an American audience found out that almost everything they believed about fighting – from boxing’s superiority to the dominance of bigger fighters – wasn’t true. But it all stemmed back to a sickly teenager nearly 70 years earlier studying body movement, leverage and submissions in coming up with a style that would allow him to survive against men much bigger and stronger.

By Dave Meltzer, Yahoo! Sports

Watch the Helio Gracie video tribute(unofficial):

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