This week a legion of students, the MMA world and his thousands of fans in Japan remember the premature death of Ryan Gracie, one of the most famous black belts from the Jiu-Jitsu family.
In honor of the fighter, o GRACIEMAG.com hereby reposts an article written by Luca Atalla and originally printed in the January 2008 GRACIEMAG, issue 131.
I am the legend
Ever since he was a kid, he’d tell friends he was going to die at the age of 33.
He lived at maximum intensity, relishing extreme pleasures, provoking outrageous emotions, walking a tightrope of the utmost danger.
Still, we were all caught by surprise when the news hit: Ryan Gracie died in his sleep, alone in a jail cell at the 91st Police Department in São Paulo early in the morning of Saturday, December 15.
The world will be different without him.
After all, the “Beast” was omnipresent.
One needed only say his name and, like magic, he was there. It didn’t matter if we was in Japan, Rio, NY, or Hawaii.
And he’d arrive with a bang.
I remember 1997, at the Jiu-Jitsu Pan-American in Honolulu. It was well before his Pride FC debut, but he was Ryan long before that.
The island of Oahu was too small. So he went to the sea. He grabbed a surfboard and waded into the raging Waimea bay.
So what, surf aficionados will say. Surfing the giant waves of Waimea is by no means for just anyone, but there are still a lot of people who do it. Fine, I respond. Except that Ryan DIDN’T know how to surf.
He went in, tried to drop in on three waves, and obviously, he wiped out every time. He said he nearlydrowned, but he came out without a scratch. On the same trip, he flipped a car and knocked out two Hawaiians with a single elbow strike. But pertaining to both these habits of his (throwing elbow strikes and flipping cars), there are other memorable stories to recount.
Arriving in São Paulo
His first car, a black XR-3 Escort, lasted a single trip. It was one amazing trip, but just one.
Accompanied by friend Alexandre Soca, Ryan left Rio in the morning, heading for São Paulo. He was only 17 years old, but not having a driver’s license was a mere trifle to him.
It so happens that his tires went flat more than 20 times. It sounds like a lie, but so does everything else in his life. He started by paying for the repairs. When the money ran out, he used the clothes from sponsor High-Level to pay. Then the clothes were gone, and his tires went flat again. All that was left was to get them fixed and make a break for it before paying. Except, just ahead, they would go flat again, and they would have to go back to the same guy and convince him to fix the tires again. It was a task easy to accomplish for someone born with such charisma as he had.
At the speed he drove the trip would take three hours (four for normal people), but it was already dark and São Paulo still far away. He wanted to stop to rest, but the were“almost there,” insisted Soca.
“Okay, so here’s what you do, wake me at the curves,” Ryan said, to which Soca agreed.
This insane plan worked for awhile, until Soca too fell asleep.
They went down a hill, flipping several times, him crying out during the accident: “I told you so, little punk, I told you so.”
“I just wanted it to be over so I could kick his ass,” Ryan would recall when telling the story. “But I felt sorry for him, because he busted his knee in the accident.”
Their arrival in São Paulo – where Ryan would later settle, open a gym of his own, have legions of fans and enemies – was a triumphal one: trailing behind a tow truck.
There are countless stories depicting the elbow strike, his favorite move, one he systematized through practice outside the lab. Or, scientific jargon aside, he perfected them in the real world, in street fights.
The black belt Jorge Pereira knows all about that.
Ryan was a good friend of my brother-in-law, Paulo Guillobel, and even lived at his house as a kid. But one day, in 1998, they had a falling out over a girl, and scheduled a fight, behind closed doors in the gym, to settle the matter.
It was going to be at Gracie Barra, but at that time Carlinhos [uncle and teacher to Ryan and to Guillobel’s teacher Jorge Pereira] was with me and Vitor Belfort scaling Gávea mountain.
We arrived there late, and their bout was already underway in the street in front of the academy. Them being friends, it didn’t look like a real fight, and nothing much happened–Ryan was on top in Guillobel’s guard. They fought because they had said publicly they would. The rhythm was so calm that, amid the fuss, Ryan was already arguing with Jorge.
Carlinhos stepped in to calm them down. So as to not interfere with the outcome, he suggested: “If you both stand up, it’s over, right?” They both agreed. So Guillobel pushed Ryan away and got up.
Jorge then went to talk to Ryan about what he’d said to him during the fight. There was no talk. He ate an elbow, and dropped to his knees, stunned.
An hour later, Ryan had gone and Jorge went back to talk to Carlinhos. He wanted to settle the score. Eventually, they came to terms and there would be no sequel to the episode. But, there, in the garage at his master’s house, and still angry, Jorge shrugged his shoulders, scratched his chin and admitted:
“Hats off to the kid for that elbow strike.”
Two thousand was the year that would define Ryan’s life.
Involved in a scuffle at Ilha dos Pescadores, a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, he spent 17 days in jail, accused of stabbing a tough guy who went by the moniker Chuck Norris.
In an interview published in GRACIE Magazine #39, he told me he didn’t get proper food and had to share a cell with 35 inmates. Nevertheless, he got along just fine:
“They didn’t bother me; I kept quietly to myself in a corner. They all treated me well; I gave out autographs and some T-shirts, both to prisoners and policemen alike.”
That did scare him, though:
“I never want to go back, and I have faith I’ll never go to a place like that again,” he said.
Hearing his response, I asked if he was going through a change in attitude:
“No, I won’t change my attitude, but I will stop responding to provocation, so I won’t end up in this kind of mess.”
Up until then, Ryan had some results in competition Jiu-Jitsu, hundreds of street fights, and was fairly well known in the milieu. But his professional career was nonexistent.
He then asked me to get him a fight in Pride. Koichi Kawasaki, Renzo’s agent, liked the idea. His brother didn’t. Thought he wasn’t ready yet, wanted to postpone it. But Ryan insisted, and Renzo caved.
With no record, and two weeks after turning 26, he premiered in August of 2000 for a purse of 150,000 dollars, around five times what big-name Brazilian fighters received for fighting in what was the top MMA event in the world at that time.
As he walked to the ring, the Japanese announcer called him the greatest street fighter in the Gracie family. No exaggeration there. Speaking over the mic, he told of how in one fight he bit off an opponent’s ear. Also not a lie.
The fight mentioned, with him as a kid taking on Tico of Amazonas, is a Youtube classic. In the middle of the fight, he said his opponent was pulling his fingers. They said no holds were barred. So he did what his crowd told him to: “Bite his ear off!” It didn’t go as far as to come off, but the bite did end up figuring on his résumé.
Immediately, rebellious Japanese youth identified with Ryan. At events, he made a point out of greeting his fans, even on the walk out preceding his fights. He would be surrounded by thousands of fans, who were looking for signatures, photos, mementos. He was an idol.
Professional commitments forced Ryan to dedicate himself more to training. His life of partying, travel and women had to share a room with his training program. There were no two ways about it. If he didn’t train, he could not fight.
Perhaps the most naturally talented fighter I have ever met, during that phase he got better technically and was able to use at least a small percentage of his ample talent.
If he kept on that path, the Milky Way was the limit.
But fighting brought in a lot of money, and money brought him an cushy life. More parties, more women, more pleasure. And the room for training got thinner. Before he realized what was going on and tried to pull the brakes, he stepped on the gas hard. So hard, there was no stopping him.
Ryan didn’t die
From August 2000 to December 2004, Ryan fought seven times, all in Pride, all against local idols.
The high points were his outstanding debut, knocking down and out a local wrestling star; the fight against Sakuraba, where he lost by decision but climbed even higher up the mountain of fame; and the occasions when he represented the Gracies in the Pride Bushido team match-ups.
Another feat of his was the armbar that hyperextended the arm of Shungo Oyama, a judoka who had disrespected him at a press conference. Ryan wanted (but didn’t get to) to fight Olympic judo champion Hidehiko Yoshida. He knew that bout would make him even more famous.
A few days after his death, Ryan’s greatest enemy, Jorge “Macaco” Patino, told “Diário de São Paulo” newspaper the following:
“Though he may not have been a top fighter, Ryan had termendous will to win, had no fear and took shit from no one – which the Japanese loved.” Macaco also said that the respect for and fanaticism about Ryan’s style in Japan were impressive.
Ryan and Macaco fought about ten times, over the course of 15 years. They fought in tournaments, restaurants, MMA events, within the São Paulo Federation, on the street. They did have a truce for a couple of years, but then they got back to their mutual bellicosity.
Still, though he does try to diminish Ryan’s worth as a fighter, Macaco does recognize his popularity.
Indeed, Ryan’s results were trifles when compared to what he represents. Out of his seven fights at Pride, five were main events (as a comparison, Rodrigo Minotauro was also featured in five Pride main bouts – but he fought 21 times for the Japanese promotion).
It’s no wonder Ryan made the cover of nine issues of GRACIEMAG and NOCAUTE magazines.
Elvis Presley may not have been the greatest virtuoso as a musician, but that didn’t stop him from being the most popular.
In 2005, Ryan practically tore up a check for a million dollars, the sum offered by Pride FC for a year of the Gracie’s services – but he would never fight again.
Catch me if you can
With glory came more money, more commitments, more tension, more obligations, and drugs seemed to be the purge switch. The biggest problem might not even have been the drugs, but rather the pills and, above all, the alcohol.
The fact is that he signs he needed help had started to surface. And his family, friends, wife, students, all tried to help. He even tried himself, with all his might. He would spend days, sometimes weeks without taking anything, but then came the withdrawal crisis—and it was stronger than him.
Ryan wasn’t used to being tamed, and he wouldn’t let himself be controlled. When his subconscious took the reins, he did what he wanted. It was always like that.
His body seemed impervious; he’d go out of his way to defy the system, create an adverse situation, and then escape by a hair. Always.
During carnival in 2002, at a rave in the Southern Brazilian town of Ibiraquera, he was getting beaten up by a half dozen mid-ranked Chute Boxe students from Curitiba, and I convinced them to let go of the choke they had him in. In a split second, his first reaction once able to breathe was to summon two bouncers working the party to help him out: “You guys are with me, you’re with me.” His students arrived right after that and the situation got worse before it got better. But he left unscathed.
Next to him, Frank Abganale Jr, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me if you Can”, seems like a grounded kid sneaking out of his bedroom.
Ryan was a master of escape.
He was capable of analyzing all the ingredients before blinking, and instantly make the decision that would lead him to the best way out.
At the height of his paranoia, the panic attacks that would strike more and more often as time went by, Ryan left home on Friday, December 14, 2007, and, imagining São Paulo drug gangs were after him, he stole a car to escape. Masterful at the wheel of a motor vehicle, his crashing into a park bench, a scene that would be emblazoned on newspapers the next day, shows he was no longer himself. He tried to steal another car, couldn’t, approached a motorcyclist and tried to take his bike. He was overpowered by a crowd and arrested in the act.
The family psychiatrist visited in jail and prescribed a cocktail of drugs in massive doses, proving to be fatal doses when combined with the other drugs he had in his system. Ryan, at 33 years and two months old, would not wake up the next day.
Medical screw-up apart, he had promised he would never get locked up again.
As much as it hurts, perhaps, at this time, rest may have been the best way out for the Beast.
* * *
Legends about their exploits immortalized Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Virgulino “Lampião” Ferreira. Ryan Gracie, though, was the legend itself.