“The First Ultimate Fighter” — Helio Gracie’s Fighting Career (Part One)

Ask around about the first MMA events — what were they? Who were the first stars? — and you’ll get all kinds of answers.

But everyone knows about the original Ultimate Fighting Championship event back in 1993 — where the sport really got underway. That show, which we now call UFC 1, also offered a hint of a past that remains a little mysterious.

It was shortly before the UFC 1 tournament final, when the UFC’s co-founder, Rorion Gracie, conducted a ceremony to honor his father, Helio.

Rorion, surrounded by his brothers (including Royce, who would win the tournament) handed his father a plaque which described the elderly Brazilian, then approaching his 80th birthday, as the “first ultimate fighter.”

“The fighting world respectfully addresses him as the Grandmaster Helio Gracie,” Rorion said in a brief speech. “But my brothers and I are proud to call him father.”

The moment, which ended with a kiss on the cheek from son to father, was recalled by UFC co-founder Art Davie in his book “Is This Legal?” released last year.

“It was a really powerful moment,” Davie recalled, “and I knew how much it meant to Helio, and the entire family… Helio was officially passing the torch to Rorion.”

In his promotional material, the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action VHS tapes, Rorion described his father Helio as “developing new techniques to create an undefeated system: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.”

But he didn’t go into much detail about his father’s competition days, and neither did Kid Peligro when he wrote the first English language book on the fighting family, The Gracie Way.

Still, there was clearly a Brazilian “vale tudo” (anything goes) circuit of the 1930’s where Helio plied his trade against fighters of various styles. It just remained something of a mystery.

Recently, several books were released which shed light on that period: Carlos Gracie: The Creator of a Dynasty by Reila Gracie, which focuses on Helio’s brother Carlos and mostly offers his family’s perspective; and a pair from Robert Pedreira, Choque Volume 1: 1856-1949, and Choque Volume 2: 1950-1960 — which both gather accounts from Brazilian media of the day.

There’s also a lengthy segment on Helio in a documentary released last year: “Gracies & The Birth of Vale Tudo,” directed by Victor Cesar Sota (and co-produced by Renzo Gracie).

Putting them all together, maybe we can flesh it out a bit.

All told, I’ve found twelve matches for Helio in the 1930’s. I’ll list out the first three in this part, and finish the rest in the coming week.

1) All sources agree on Helio’s first match, in January 16, 1932: against a boxer named Antonio Portugal. Pedreira describes the match as on the undercard of a jiu-jitsu vs. boxing event, with bouts consisting of six three minute rounds. “The jiu-jitsu men would wear kimonos. The boxers would wear four ounce gloves.” (Pedreira 193)

Sota’s film and Reila’s book both describe as Portugal as a “Brazilian lightweight boxing champion.” (This doesn’t jibe with what we can verify of Portugal, unfortunately. He is profiled by BoxRec here, where he appears to have a 5-12-1 record at the time of the bout — and no title.)

In Sota’s account, Helio applies an arm lock to win in less than a minute. Reila describes it “a spectacular victory, defeating Portugal in 40 seconds.” (R. Gracie, p.100).

Pedreira quotes a report in “Diario da Noite” where it’s simply noted a “good fight” which Helio won. The time and technique weren’t mentioned (Pedreira, 197).

My Takeaway: Some discrepancies here, but it’s the teenage Helio’s first match, so an opponent with a losing record isn’t a big deal anyway. Mostly, I was surprised to see how organized these events seemingly were, right from the start.

2) Helio’s second match is against Takashi Namiki, a jiu-jitsu artist, in September of 1932, which ends in a draw.

Reila notes Namiki as “a very technical fighter” (R. Gracie, 101) and that “because jiu-jitsu is of Japanese origin, the audience had assumed Namiki would be technically superior to Helio. In this context, a draw was as good as a victory.”

Pedreira lists a round by round account, and a newspaper describes Namiki dominating most of the action. (Pedreira, 223) Helio initiates some attacks, particularly late in the match. He notes that Helio weighed in for the match — a grappling match and not a vale tudo — at 65 kg and Namiki at 72 kg.

My Takeaway: It seems Helio’s defensive style is developing, somewhat as advertised; but he isn’t dominant — not yet, at least. It’s also interesting to note that this fighter is developing within the realm of a larger fight scene in Brazil, which includes many other styles fighting one another.

3) Helio fights Fred Ebert, a wrestling champion from the US, in November of 1932.

All sources describe the match as lasting almost two hours and ending in an official draw. Ebert had impressive wrestling credentials and a size advantage.

Beyond that, well…

A voice over in Sota’s film calls the match “the first professional vale tudo match in history,” noting that “at only 135 lbs, Helio went up against Fred Ebert, at 205 lbs.” Ebert is described as the “3rd place finisher in the world’s freestyle wrestling championship.”

The camera shows a newspaper clipping with a tale of the tape: Helio is listed at 63 kg in graphic, which is actually 138 lbs.; and Ebert 92 kg, which is actually 202 lbs.

“At 2 am, Helio and Ebert were still going at it,” the voice over recalls. “Since no public event was allowed to go past 2 am, the police stopped the fight, and it was considered a draw. The fans rioted. The Gracies had made an impression.”

The next shot is Gracie himself recalling the action in an interview.

“I was only 18 years old and I destroyed him,” Helio boasts. “I became famous.”

In her book, Reila describes Ebert as being “hurled out of the ring twice, and his face looked like a slab of raw meat due to all the elbowing it had taken.” (R. Gracie, 105)

Pedreira’s account describes it very differently: “a boring flop.” One newspaper account flatly remarks that it was “not exciting” due to too many limitations on technique. Strikes were, in fact, disallowed. (Pedreira 239) He agrees that the police ended the match due to the late hour, but no mention of a riot — or any particularly excitement.

My Takeaway: The ideas have been presented that this match was a vale tudo which made Helio a star — but newspaper accounts of the day appear to refute both notions. As a grappling event, it’s still impressive that Helio’s defense was enough to hold off a larger wrestler.

Next, Helio will face another much larger wrestler in Wladek Zbyszko, a luta livre fighter named Dudu, and many more.

Click here for Part Two of “The First Ultimate Fighter” — Helio Gracie’s Fighting Career

Click here for Part Three of “The First Ultimate Fighter” — Helio Gracie’s Fighting Career

Sources Cited:

Davie, Art. Is This Legal? The Inside Story of the First UFC From The Man Who Created It. Ascend Books, 2014.

Gracie, Reila. Carlos Gracie, Creator of a Fighting Dynasty. RG Art Publishing, 2013.

Pedreira, Roberto. Choque: The Untold Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil Volume 1 1856-1949. GTR Publications, 2013.

Gracies & The Birth of Vale Tudo. A 2013 film directed by Victor Cesar Sota presented by Vale Tudo, LLC.