Grantland’s Gracie Family History Misses the Mark

Earlier this week a history of the Gracie family – a group which sits firmly at the foundation of mixed martial arts — was published online by a respected journalist in David Samuels.

Samuel’s story, One Hundred Years of Arm Bars, has been received with a remarkable amount of excitement. One of the granddaddies of MMA journalism, Jim Genia, described the piece as “a must-read” in an article for Caged Insider. Patrick Wyman of Bleacher Report (among others) called it “incredible” in a recent post on Twitter – noting Samuels as “one of the best non-fiction writers around.”

Here’s my take.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as others.

Why? My writings on the history of jiu-jitsu have always tried to separate myth from reality – chronicling Helio Gracie’s fighting career here at MMA Nuts, for example.

The piece begins with Roger Gracie recalling the stories of his grandfather, Carlos meeting with Mitsuyo Maeda, the great touring judo specialist from Japan.

“Gracie jiu-jitsu, as their version of Maeda’s teachings came to be known, was at once so technically precise and capable of such rapid evolution that it gave rise to the greatest family dynasty in the history of the martial arts.”

Samuels doesn’t mention that doubt has been cast on this “creation myth.”  Roberto Pedreira published an expansive history of the fight sports in Brazil, noting that the Gracie brothers first taught out of Donato Pires dos Reis’ academy – and posits that Carlos may have never even met Maeda.

Samuels creates a new myth in the same paragraph, boasting that Rickson Gracie is “widely considered to be the greatest champion of any style of martial arts in the past 50 years.” Rickson is widely respected – but that opinion that will be difficult to find outside of Rickson’s own students.

In some circles within the Gracie family, Rickson isn’t even perceived as the best among his own brothers.

Here’s an interview with Carlson Gracie from

Q: Who was the best in Jiu-Jitsu: Rolls or Rickson?

A: Of course it was Rolls. He was a lot more technical, a phenomenon.

Carlson was the family’s champion in the 1960’s. He led the most dominant Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and his black belts went on to found American Top Team and Brazilian Top Team. Another of his black belts is Andre Pederneiras, the co-founder of Nova Uniao. The three teams comprise most of Brazil’s MMA champions in recent years, along with fighters like Anderson Silva – whose jiu-jitsu trainers received their black belts from Ricardo de la Riva, another Carlson student.

But strangely, Carlson is barely mentioned in Samuel’s piece.

Stranger still is Samuel’s remark about Roger’s MMA career:

“To jiu-jitsu purists, Roger’s participation in a Strikeforce event is a disfigurement of his family’s technical, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual legacy.”

It’s unclear what Samuel is referring to here. The family has competed under a wide variety of rules in the past, with and without strikes, and that legacy will continue.

Another major figure of Brazilian jiu-jitsu given short shrift by Samuels is Renzo Gracie, who is confusingly described as “seen as more of a showman than a champion” whose “career wound down after a series of embarrassing defeats.”

In truth, Renzo is the Gracie everyone in MMA respects, at least as a fighter and a teacher. Why? Unlike Rickson, for example, Renzo fought everyone available. In the late 1990’s, he won a vale tudo tournament and represented the family at the highest level of MMA – including fighting Kazushi Sakuraba, whose challenge Rickson had famously declined, in PRIDE.

Renzo’s career indeed wound down, but only after defeating former UFC champions in three of his last four bouts. Prior to that, Renzo fought former two-division champion BJ Penn to a competitive decision loss – a result that was anything but “embarrassing.”

In recent years, Renzo’s black belts Matt Serra and Ricardo Almeida have developed one of the most successful camps in MMA, the Serra-Longo Competition Team.  Sadly, there’s no mention of this, either.

But then, maybe I had the wrong idea as I sat to read the piece. It’s a recalling of a myth, told by many, and not a real history of the family.

It’s unfair and it doesn’t always deal in fact – but maybe that’s the idea.

For more on Gracie family history, check out these links: