Helio Gracie: Learn About This BJJ Legend

Helio Gracie is known as the Grandmaster, and his likeness is on display in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu gyms. The legendary fighter helped develop Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and never stopped believing in the discipline. Helio Gracie is a legend and has left behind a legacy of grace, determination, and excellence.

Early Life

Born on October 1, 1913, in a small city in Brazil, Helio Gracie was one of five brothers born to Gastao Gracie and was, by all accounts, a frail and somewhat sickly child. Prone to fainting and spells of dizziness, he wasn’t included in the same manner his brothers were. Eventually, the family went bankrupt and relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where the legacy began.

Learning From Carlos

Helio’s older brother Carlos began learning from Mitsuyo Maeda, a Kodokan Judo Master and practitioner of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. Carlos went home and taught his brothers the skills he had learned from these lessons. Though the frail Helio only watched at first, he used that time to study and understand the intentions behind each movement.

Developing a Martial Art

Carlos is the creator of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but Helio is the man who perfected it and developed BJJ into an art. For Helio, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was truly an art. Pouring his determination into his art, Helio became a fierce competitor and champion of the skill. He believed that one must always strive for perfection and never stop training.

Helio Gracie on the Jiu-Jitsu Belt System

The brothers continued to move the sport forward, developing it together. This dedication led to a whole lifestyle centered around the tenets and principles they used as the foundation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

The BJJ Lifestyle

Carlos created and promoted his 12 Commandments as a way to teach the principles that he felt were the most important to his new Jiu-Jitsu practice. Helio followed them closely and added his spin to them as well. These commandments govern one inside and outside the gym and show that the sport was more than just grappling.

With thoughts about focusing on future victories instead of past losses, believing in your strength, and having a positive self-opinion, along with what has become known as the Gracie Diet, the lifestyle fueled Helio to become better.

Helio’s Lifestyle and Principles To Live By

Helio added his thoughts to the lifestyle that a practitioner of his art should undertake. He believed in food as fuel and that it was acceptable to still indulge from time to time. He was known only to eat what was in his garden and felt that his diet and physical training helped him overcome his childhood frailness.

Helio professed the idea that the perfection of technique over force was the hardest to beat. He also said that one must continuously pursue perfection and never stop training. His quotes on BJJ are still valued by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu practitioners today.

Proving the Art of BJJ

While still a very young art form, Helio entered into his first Vale Tudo, or no-holds-barred fight to prove the dominance of BJJ. He easily won in less than a minute through his opponent’s submission. His success began a progression of matches leading Helio to face fierce opponents on the mat.

Formidable Foes

Helio Gracie believed that every practitioner of Jui-Jitsu needed to teach the art to others. He also thought that his Jui-Jitsu was a force to be reckoned with, proving his stance in a series of well-known fights with some of the world’s greatest fighters.

Gracie vs. Kimura

The Gracie vs. Kimura match is arguably one of the greatest martial arts fights ever. It materialized into an epic battle between two of the greats in their respective disciplines. This fight came to define the image of Helio Gracie as a formidable opponent for a fighter practicing any style of martial art.

Post-war Japan failed to provide an income for the legendary fighter Kimura, so he began to tour internationally and finally ended up in Brazil. Initially uninterested in fighting Helio Gracie, Kimura eventually accepted the challenge after mounting pressure forced his hand.

The matchup came about due to Helio’s submission of the formidable fighter Yuko Kato, one of Kimura’s contemporaries. This win made Helio Gracie hard to ignore and earned him a fight with the Japanese master.

On September 27, 1951, the two greats entered the ring, agreeing to a fight lasting three ten-minute rounds. The two put on a magnificent showing of skill. Still, early in the second round, Kimura submitted Gracie in his gi with a reverse ude-garami, now known as the Kimura, in honor of the master martial artist. Martial Arts enthusiasts and fans of the sport regard this fight as one of the greatest.

Gracie vs. Kimura - October 23, 1951 (Maracanã Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brasil)

Leaving a Legacy

Helio would agree that the greatest legacy he has left is that of his family. With bountiful children and grandchildren now teaching and practicing the art he helped to create, Helio was a proud man, to say the least. Especially when reflecting on his thoughts about the imperative for fighters to impart their knowledge to others.

Familial Traditions

Helio and his brother Carlos eventually parted ways in thought over the promotion and application of the discipline. Carlos looked to the business side of the sport while Helio looked to the perfection of the art. His business efforts produced two distinct schools of thought: BJJ, which focuses on competition, and Helio’s GJJ, or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, focusing on self-defense.

Both men had numerous children to whom they passed on their philosophies. Helio’s children and grandchildren still practice and teach the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu that they learned from Helio. Many of his descendants further the sport through teaching. There is even Gracie University which is entirely online.

A Family of Champions

Though it is debated which Gracie, Helio, or Carlos, taught the Gracie offspring the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, no one can contest their absolute dominance of the sport. Whether sparring or in an officially sanctioned fight, the Gracie family is a family of champions, first and foremost.

Helio’s son Rickson Gracie is one of the most feared and revered fighters ever, with a fight record that shows him having never lost a match. He passes on Gracie Jiu-Jitsu at his very own Rickson Academy in California.

His son, Helio’s grandson, Kron, is a terrifying fighter who fights with a casual, ruthless style. Often behind in points, Kron has won countless matches through unbeatable submissions. When the chance presented itself, he even competed in the UFC and won in the first round. 

These are just two men, both upholding the Gracie legacy, who learned from the great Helio Gracie. The sheer size of the family multitudes alone assures that there will always be someone named Gracie fighting on a stage for all to see.

Helio Gracie Day

The Grandmaster, Helio Gracie, passed away on January 29, 2009, at the distinguished age of 95. He left behind a legacy of technique, triumph, and a tenacious spirit. The world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu still mourns the first authentic Brazilian sports hero, and everyone impacted by the sport regards the family with reverence. 

To celebrate the great man that he was, many have taken to celebrating the first of October as Helio Gracie Day. Every year on his birthday fights are held and his memory is elevated. Brazilians especially celebrate the day to honor the man they often call grandfather.

A Life’s Work

Helio Gracie spent the entirety of his life in pursuit of Jiu-Jitsu. Whether practicing, teaching, or simply discussing it, Helio was a man devoted to the craft he loved and helped to create. His importance to the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as well as to the world of martial arts in general, is hard to forget or ignore.

A gentle soul, quiet as he was fierce, Helio Gracie is the Grandmaster. The fact that his photo hangs in the gyms where his life’s work is still taught is a testament to his character and skill. An homage to a man whose unfailing refusal to stop striving for perfection still sets the example for what a man can be.

Helio Gracie is a legend among legends and is remembered as a true champion of the sport. He  is a true giant among giants.

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