Exactly 40 years ago, on April 25, 1980, 21-year-old Rickson Gracie debuted in vale-tudo against the giant Rei Zulu (‘King Zulu’). The duel took place in Brasilia, and Rickson, accompanied by his father Helio and brother Rolls, faced what still stands as the hardest battle of his career. Read here Rickson’s account of the bout, from an interview with Esporte Interativo:
“It was by far the hardest fight of my life. In the locker room, which was shared by all fighters, I was sitting with my friends, stretching, with my back facing the door. Suddenly they were all gaping, looking behind me as if a ghost had come in. I didn’t look, but it was the reference of everybody’s concern. The guy was a giant. He weighed 98kg to my 74. Super-endowed physically, truly like a horse. But even so, I complained to them for being intimidated by Zulu.
“The fight began, and as soon as the bell rang, he rushed me, with the intention of tackling me with just one of the legs and throwing me overhead — a move he used to pull often. I defended myself and landed in the perfect position for a knee strike. I hit with all my might, but, even receiving the perfect knee strike in the middle of his face, which even caused him to lose a tooth, Zulu shook his head and charged again.
“When the round ended, I, covered in Zulu’s blood, got to the corner and told my dad I could not go on. That I was dead tired. He did not even hear what I said. He massaged me and said the guy was more tired than me. I reiterated, said I felt bad, that I wouldn’t even be able to get up. Then my brother Rolls took a bucket of ice water and poured it on my head. I drew a really deep breath from getting startled, and the bell rang, with them pushing me back into the ring. I went at it with the big black dude again. I had the good fortune to grab him from the back and finish with a rear naked choke.
“It was a great experience. From then on, I’d always go in willing to die in my fights, but never to give up or think that I had already done enough. I will carry this until the end of my days. This made me what I am today. Always moving forward, never believing in defeat. Always ready for the adversities of life.”
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(One commenter points out that the video above is of the rematch, held in November 1983 in Rio de Janeiro.)