A deep dive into the life of Helio Gracie

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[First published in 2007. Part 3 out of 3.]

The year of 1952, following the year of his epic fight against the Japanese Kimura, stood out in the life of Grandmaster Helio. That was when his first legitimate son, Rorion, was born, and when he, along with his brother Carlos, opened a massive gym on Rio Branco Avenue, in downtown Rio de Janeiro, which was kept running for 30 years. Also in ’52, Carlos bought a “house” in Teresópolis, which served as the setting for the weekends of the entire Gracie family until the 1980s.

Helio had announced his retirement after the big fight, and started dedicating himself to the administration of what was, according to him, the greatest Jiu-Jitsu academy of all times. “There has never been and will never be anything like it,” says the master with pride. “Although Rorion’s gym in California is more spacious, the Rio Branco organization was a business. It took up the whole floor of the building, with five rings and 100 private lessons per day. We had 600 students per month for over 20 years. Double what Rorion has these days,” he compares.

At the time there were no computers, but Hélio organized his entire contingent of students, as he explains: “When the student would sign up, he would receive an id card and pay his contractual fee. The student would come and pick up his card and go to the clothing booth. The academy would provide a gi and towel, when he would present his card at the clothing booth. The employee would then check to see if everything was in order (time, payment etc.) and he would hand over the little basket with the towel and gi. When the student would go to the dressing room, the employee at the clothing booth would call the secretary informing that the student had arrived at such and such a time. When he would go to the ring, another call was made to the secretary informing the time of entry. All of this she would make note of on the student’s form. He would have his class and, when he left the ring, the teacher would go to the reception and turn in the class form signed by the student to the secretary.”

Discipline

The team of instructors at the Gracie academy (Carlson and Robson Gracie, Hélio Vígio, Armando Wriedt and João Alberto Barreto were the ones that spent the most time teaching there) was rigorously supervised by Hélio: “I kept track and charged fines for lateness. The teacher had one minute to leave the ring with the student and bring in the next one, in between half-hour classes. Every minute over was a certain amount. If the student arrived late, he would leave at the right time. There was no make-up class, because there was no time for it. Sometimes, people would wait a whole year to sign up for their class. Everything was full, from seven in the morning to seven at night. The teachers ate in the gym, there was no time.”

As the academy provided the gis, the Gracies had a stock of 3,000 complete kits, manufactured by them. At the end of the week they would load up a pickup with 600 dirty gis and take them to the laundry, with two industrial laundry machines, they maintained in the house in Teresópolis. “One of them I still have in my house,” says the master, who used the gis to weed out weaknesses in the system. “I had the records on the gis we washed. It could not go over that count, I knew the number of classes by the number of gis, and I challenged the secretary to steal from me without my knowing it. But there was no way, the system was so complex that no one understood it completely, except me,” he says with pride, recalling one case: “Once, a secretary named Mary tried to pocket some money from an extra class. But, when I was looking over the student’s form, I noticed he had taken a class outside of the normal schedule, and I asked her: ‘Where is the money from so-and-so’s extra class?’ She turned red and answered: ‘Didn’t you say I could take it?’ ‘So put it back,’ I replied. The system was perfect.”

But the master’s demand that the gym be maintained just the way he wanted it was not limited to organization and punctuality. In fact, he was even more rigorous concerning method, which he says he perfected over the years, just like his Jiu-Jitsu. “We had internal phones everywhere. I would enter each ring for five minutes. If I knocked on the door and the teacher opened it, he would be fined. He could only open the door by calling first, and if it was me. And he had to teach the class the way I wanted it taught, because I teach for the student to learn, not to fool around. Nobody teaches like I do. I am a nitpicker, I only think about solving the student’s problem. I love the student; I don’t want to hear about anything else. Sometimes, the student is a little dumb, or awkward, but that is not his problem. And these inspections helped me find out when a teacher was impatient, intolerant, or bad at explaining things. At the end of the day, I would call everyone over and question them.”

Despite the discipline adopted, Hélio would praise his teachers: “They were good. Sometimes I would go over the method again with each one, and work on their morale. If I caught someone saying, ‘So-and-so, lie down,’ I would notice. ‘Lie down,’ no way! It’s ‘Mr. So-and-so, would you please lie down?” They were little things, but they made up the method. The student must feel respected. We taught presidents, ministers of the state. Can you imagine: ‘Lie down, Figueredo?’ Deep down the guy doesn’t like it. He would already step on the mat cowering, as he was physically inferior, and the instructor should not use strength to hurt the guy’s self-esteem. So, I had a way to keep the student, by way of attention, out of politeness, a set of things that keep the student. As I tell my kids, the student only stays away from the gym because of sickness, travel or a lack of money. There is no other reason. What other reason would they have for not doing what they enjoy?” he challenges.

It happens that there was something that caused the Gracie academy to empty out in the 70s: the traffic. “Downtown grew a lot and, all of a sudden, no one could stop their car near the academy. We would teach 200 children classes, but their parents would bring there kids and nowhere to park near the gym. So we lost a large part of our clientele,” explains Hélio, telling of what transpired next: “I ended up closing the gym and teaching at Vasco da Fama. After some time, I moved to Padre Antônio Vieira high school, where my sons Royler and Rolker are to this day.”

THE LONGEST VALE-TUDO FIGHT

During the days of the super gym, the dressing room workers would often also learn Jiu-Jitsu and become sparring-partners for the teachers. “Armando Wriedt was one of them, and George ‘Frenchie’ was another…” remembers Hélio, referring to Mehdi, who later went on to perfect his game in Japan and now runs a well-known judo academy in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro. Among the employees, the marbler Waldemar Santana stood out. “I remember the day he showed up at the gym, which was still in Flameno,” tells João Alberto Barreto, who the master pointed out as his best instructor at the time. “Years later, when we were already at Rio Branco, he left the faucets running one Friday the water had been turned off and, on Monday, the mats were soaked. He got told off horribly by the master and left, then frequenting the academy only as a sparring-partner,” Barreto clarifies.

Waldemar would turn out to be a character in the longest fight Hélio ever fought: a vale-tudo that lasted 3 hours and 40 minutes and which interrupted the master’s retirement, on the 24th of May, 1955. “Waldemar had already been with me for five years, and some months before our fight when he came to me saying he had a fight lined up at the Palácio de Alumínio (“the Aluminum Palace”), where worked fights would take place.” I questioned the choice: ‘You don’t know I’m against that crap?’ And he alleged that his fight would be for real. ‘It very well may be, but that place only has worked fights, and if I let you fight there, they will think my fights are worked,’ I justified,” recalls the instructor, who ended up taking radical measures. “He said he had already signed the contract and I said he should either desist or I would be obliged to kick him out of my house. And that is what happened,” he relates.

From then on the press took it upon itself to fuel the discord. “A malicious journalist got a declaration from him saying I wasn’t all that. I didn’t like that, responding in kind, he didn’t take it back and we ended up fighting, from one day to the next,” tells the instructor. The fight would take place on May 23, but was stopped by Colonel Menezes Cortez, commander of the military police. So Hélio went to his office and convinced him there was no reason to do that: “I said he was committing an injustice, because the fight would take place in private, without paid entry, with a referee, policing and an audience. So he called the D.A’s office and asked whether there was a legal recourse to prevent the thing from happening. As there wasn’t, he let it take place,” he remembers. When Hélio returned to the locale, there wasn’t enough time for the fight to go on, and it ended up taking place the next day.

The Globo newspaper edition from the 25th described the events as they transpired during the fight: “Waldemar spent most of the time keeping Hélio under his body, head-butting him in the chest and chin and, once in awhile, trying to toss him out of the ring. Hélio heeled him in the kidneys, as well as elbows and chops to the back of his opponent’s head, trying to stun him. Countless times, he tried to choke him, and managed to sink one but Waldemar escaped, always by way of kicks and punches, when the guard would open.” In Carlos Gracie’s testimony, from the same newspaper, he completes the narration: “For over three hours, the battle was even, with Waldemar resisting all of Hélio’s attempts to finish the fight. However, tiredness got the best of my brother. After being thrown against the ropes, he delayed in getting to his feet, and was thus struck by that violent kick.”

Another report from that same day, the Jornal dos Esports recorded that, at that moment, “Carlson, Hélio’s nephew, was the first to invade the ring, lifting his unconscious uncle and carrying him, on his shoulders, to the infirmary.” Hélio’s brother Carlos did not hide his anger in the declarations he made to O Globo: “Don’t think my explanation is whining. It is much to the contrary, I wish to, so as to not let my declarations be exploited, state right off the bat that Waldemar fought well and his victory cannot be contested by any means,” he said frankly. He added: “However, one must recognize that Hélio only entered the ring as a question of honor, without having trained once for it. My brother understood that he could not run away from this fight with his ex-student. It was not a question of winning but a question of proving that a Gracie does not run away from any challenge. Hélio wanted to show that cowardliness has never passed the doors of our academy. For over five years, Hélio prepared Waldemar, one of his favorite students. He was, at that time, a model of humility and dedication, but they filled his head with ideas of grandeur and, when we least expected it, he repeated a common behavior, the revolt of the creature against the creator. Waldemar wanted headlines and got them by challenging precisely the one that taught him to fight.”

The master himself, who carried no animosity for his ex-disciple (“He continued treating me well,” he remembered), analyzed the fight: “The fear and the respect he had for me kept him from attacking, and he ran away the whole time. I, weak, could not go after him. So I waited for him to attack me, to get him with a counter-attack, which was my forte. That is why it took so long.” João Alberto Barreto, who along with Hélio Vígio, Carlson and Robson, stood around the ring during the fight to keep the fighters from falling on the ground, confirmed: “Hélio took a surprise beating, from an ear infection and a 39 degree fever. And even so he fought for almost four hours. Afterwards Carlos proposed a revenge match against Carlson, me, or against Hélio himself, to Waldemar. And he accepted a fight against Carlson.”

CHILDREN

Despite the setback, Hélio went about his normal routine, taking care of the gym and going with the family to the house in Teresópolis during the weekends. “The house was spectacular, with eight bathrooms, 24 bedrooms, 24 telephones, on which six people could talk at the same time. There was a Swiss television set, 18 servants. It was a luxury hotel that could house up to 100 people during a single weekend,” describes the teacher. That was where Rórion, the master’s favorite son, has his first memories. “At that time,” says the son, “there was still a train in Teresópolis, somewhere. I must have been about two or three years old, dad rode Quilate (his favorite horse) and I would sit in front of him, on the saddle. The train would pass by beside us and we would gallop, alongside the train, like in a cowboy movie. Actually, as I’ve come to understand from others, every weekend, we would go to Teresópolis. Everybody’s history is in Teresópolis. The place was paradise.”

The master would do everything to keep the family together. And Teresópolis was fundamental in doing so. “Once, we had a carnival party with 1,200 people at the house, with a band and everything. It was such a success that the folks from Higino (the city’s club) came to ask the old man to not throw the party anymore, because it was effecting their business,” remembers Rórion who, at 15 years of age, when he believed Relson and Rickson were his only brothers, he heard a surprising revelation from his father. “We left the gym, passing the Aterro do Flamengo, when my father asked me: ‘My son, would you like to have more brothers?’ I thought it was the coolest thing that Uncle Carlos had 21 children, so I responded: ‘Of couse, 20 more, if that is possible.’ So he told me ’20 you don’t have, but you have four more,’ and he took me to a house in Botafogo where I got to meet Rolker, Royler, Royce and Therika, and Vera, their mother. At first I was sad, no son would ever want his parents to separate, but no, he explained that he was not going to abandon my mother, but she could not have any more children, and I understood.”

The story, at first glimpse, is kind of crazy, but the Gracie family, under the philosophical guidance of Carlos, always believed sex was for procreation, and as Margarida, his wife, could no longer become pregnant, Hélio did not look the other way when he met Vera, in the Gracie gym, and saw his chance to have more children. “I was friends with Oneika, one of Carlos’ children who was brought up by Hélio. When she started taking an English course and, for lack of time, she needed to divide her secretarial duties at the gym, she called upon me,” remembers Dona Vera, who would come to marry the instructor in 1992, two months after Margarida’s death, many years after the couple’s relationship began.

“On the first day, I ran away because I saw Hélio yelling at one of Carlos’ kids, Reylson, for something he did wrong in one of the classes. I was scared to death. But Oneika called me back and, one day, when I couldn’t find one of the students’ forms he had asked me for, I took the blame. Crying, I locked myself in the store room to find what he wanted. Then Hélio opened the door, say me in a panic and felt sorry for me. From then on, he started treating me well, and I became enchanted by him,” confesses Vera. As time went on, they began to flirt, but Hélio made it clear he would not separate from his wife. The story continued, and after one of their first encounters, Vera became pregnant. “She had three children in a row, with a year of difference between them. That is very rare,” exalts the master.

Much later, when Robin and Ricci, the last of the couple’s children, had been born, a letter from Margarida arrived, letting on that she had discovered everything. “She asked me and I told her what had happened. I told her that, if she wanted me to leave, that was fine. But as my wife she knew of my desire to have kids, and she forgave me,” remembers the teacher. Margarida did not only accept it, one day, secretly, she went to find Vera and the two, without anyone knowing for a long time, became friends. “She, who was very sophisticated, started taking the bus and subway because of me,” remembers Vera. “When Margarida became sick, Vera would take food to her in the hospital,” recounts Hélio.

After Margarida’s discovery, all the children came to spend time together, and now, to the joy of the father, all the men in the family live Jiu-Jitsu. “My brother Carlos would tell me we had a heavenly family, and all my children had come to do Jiu-Jitsu,” he remembers. The first three, Rórion, Relson and Rickson, along with Royce, now live in the United States. The two girls married and live in Brazil, with Royler and Rolker, who both teach in the Humaíta neighborhood of Rio. The youngest, Robin, is in Spain, and Hélio lives in his “Nosso Vale” ranch, in the Itaipava. There he teaches private lessons, takes care of the property and uses his free time to philosophize and write down his thoughts. The path Jiu-Jitsu, the modality that, as he likes to say, “was the vehicle, the machine,” has taken bothers him, but following his own line of thinking, is that way for us to learn something. “Or would you put in doubt the wisdom of nature?” he would say.

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Public challenge

One of the most famous challenges Hélio Gracie ever made was to the American boxer Joe Lewis. Everything started seven years before he arrived in Brazil. In 1943, the magazine Seleções published an article stating that a boxer had beaten a Jiu-Jitsu fighter, in a fight to demonstrate the superiority of one style over the other. Even though he knew the fighter was not from the Gracie Academy, Hélio felt offended and proposed to fight five boxers from any nation, with or without gloves, in a single evening. The challenge was published in the O Globo newspaper, but nobody accepted the test. But in 1950, Lewis came to Brazil, and Hélio say the opportunity to avenge the Jiu-Jitsu’s reputation. This time, he challenged only the American, in a telegram printed on the cover of the periodical: “I have just learned of the possible arrival of Joe Lewis, ex-world boxing champion, in our capital. I would like to notify everyone possible that I would like to face him in a fight between boxing and Jiu-Jitsu to prove the superiority of the art I practice, as well as to clear up the doubts raised by the magazine Seleções. Hélio Gracie”.

The press went wild with the telegram, and there was almost daily coverage of the challenge. But, to Hélio’s chagrin, Joe Lewis never accepted the proposal. The response of the American’s agent was as follows: “To all sportsmen in Brazil: this telegram is to confirm the declaration that Joe Lewis, ex-world champion of boxing, admires all sportsmen in their respective areas, and will accept any challenge from anybody wanting to box with him. We want to thank the press and radio for the consideration given us, and would like to let the good people of Brazil know that we will never forget them. Sincerely, Marshall Miles, Joe Lewis’ manager.”

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Jiu-Jitsu vs gunpowder
Many years ago, when on holiday in a dude ranch in Resende (state of Rio), Hélio Gracie found himself up against the stubbornness of a friend. He insisted in questioning the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu against a gun. His idea was: “Why bother learning a martial art like Jiu-Jitsu, if all I need to protect myself is a gun?” The topic of the conversation changed and, with no one realizing, Hélio asked his wife to go to the room and bring his gun. He hid it under his shirt and again brought up the subject of Jiu-Jitsu versus weapons, proposing a challenge to his friend: “If you think arms are so effective, let’s do this: you pretend you are armed and go to the corner. I will go to the other, and we will walk, and when we meet each other, you pull your weapon and let’s see what happens,” he tells. The teacher had everything already planned. “When we got near each other, the guy pulled out his finger and I pulled out my gun. ‘Wait, old man, you don’t have a weapon?’ I asked the guy, who was stunned.” Hélio told his friend that if all he believed he needed to defend himself was a weapon, then it would be a good idea to always be armed and ready to shoot. He also talked of how impractical it was to carry a weapon on a beach, in a marketplace, at a dinner with friends or any other situation where you are not expecting any danger. The question was not Jiu-Jitsu’s effectiveness against a weapon, but, unlike a weapon, Jiu-Jitsu is something you carry in your head the whole time.

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RICKSON

Since the death of Rolls Gracie, almost 20 years ago, one of Hélio’s sons, Rickson, occupied an important position as champion of the family. In a statement made to GRACIE Magazine, the idol attributed the influence of his father’s personality as a fundamental factor in his occupying such an important position for so long: “I think the most important thing I learned from my father was not exactly the practical side of Jiu-Jitsu. Evidently the idea and basic idea of using leverage is something you learn and develop, and he taught me the concept of always looking to find the easiest route to do things. But the major influence and great presence of my father was in incorporating the whole system of life in relation to Jiu-Jitsu. That is the spirit I have whereby I should go to the gym, relate to the student, what I want out of training, how to find out the secret of the thing, and be curious about the positions that are a little odd to me. To know my limit, have emotional control, cool-headedness, precision, finally, what was important were the conversations we had at the dinner table, his descriptions of how he reacted to determined situations. That, you go absorbing and gradually applying and adapting in your own way. Because the possibilities, life, my father’s opponents, summed up, all the situations he had been through, were specific to his time. My evolution is, although personal, based on his philosophy.”

Swimming with the sharks

In 1952, Hélio Gracie received a medal of honor from the Standard Oil company for an incredible act of bravery he performed six years earlier. It all happened on the Tanajé ship, when he and his brother were on the way to Fortaleza. “We were on the deck, when we saw a guy in the ocean. Everyone was yelling, ‘Man over board!’ and the captain turned around to pick up the guy, stopping around 200 or 300 meters from him. The guy had tried to commit suicide,” recalls the teacher. A boat with eight sailors was deployed to save him, which was made more difficult by the conditions at sea, with enormous waves. “When they got to the guy, who was passed out and floating like a buoy, they grabbed him by his hair, but could not put him in the boat. Carlos said: ‘They are idiots, why don’t they just get in the water to help the others pull him in?’ Behind me, a sailor said: ‘My friend, we are in Abrolhos, here you don’t even put a hand in the water, it’s infested with sharks!’ I asked Carlos, ‘You don’t want to get the guy?’ ‘I do, but I won’t make it.’ I said: ‘I will,’ and so he said: ‘Then go!’ I took of my clothes, and, wearing my underwear, jumped in the ocean. I dived off the deck and, when in the air, I got scared and decided not to go too deep. I swam all I could, there were so many waves,” he narrates. The ship’s captain had already ordered that the boat abandon the rescue and return. Hélio passed them and they told him to go back. “I was tired, I wanted to return to the boat. My fear was that I would not reach the guy and he would go under. That would be a disappointment. But I grabbed him, when I saw that fortune had been cast: ‘If there is a shark, he will choose one of us.’ I put the fellow in the boat and got in too, without a hitch. It was about 5:30, getting dark, about to rain. The sailors were afraid of not reaching the ship, and I screamed: ‘You wimps, row properly, if not I’m swimming!’ They did not let me get out, I had become a leader. In the end, we made it to the ship and there was a great celebration. When we stopped in Bahia, the guy left in handcuffs,” Hélios tells, who almost went to jail too for having thrown himself from the boat without permission from the captain. “I changed my clothes and went to him, and he said: ‘Gracie, you have nothing to apologize for, you performed an heroic act. I don’t know how you saved him, if it were up to me to stick a foot in the water to save my mother, she would die, so certain I would be my foot would be bitten off,” finishes the master, with his usual laugh.

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