#151 Helio Gracie Remembered

helio gracie jiu-jitsu bjj
Helio Gracie’s picture, which adorns jiu-jitsu academies worldwide.

This week marks the end of a chapter in Brazilian jiu-jitsu history. One of the men most responsible for Brazilian jiu-jitsu as we know it passed away on January 29. Helio Gracie died this week at the age of 95 after a very fruitful life: Helio not only fathered a family of nine children who have gone on to have large families of their own, but helped define a martial art that has spread across the world, improving the health and quality of life for untold numbers of Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners.

In an effort to bring our listeners a little bit closer to the man that was Helio Gracie, we speak this week with Kid Peligro, the author of The Gracie Way, and Fabio Santos, a black and red belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Both men spent time with Helio Gracie and will share their memories with us.

We will also discuss a phone call or two we have received from The Mighty 600,000 on our FightWorks Podcast toll free number 877-247-4662.

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Caleb: What is your first memory of Helio Gracie? Do you remember the day you met him?

Fabio Santos: I met him in a tournament when I was a blue belt. Even though I had been to the house many times in Flamengo, (I was at the house many times) he was always in his room or wasn’t home or he was at Ceaza buying fruit, you know he was always doing something. And I never met him until I won a tournament a tournament and he handed me my medal. He was the referee for many years of most of the fights. There was nobody really except people that were in the family that were qualified at that time. The rules were completely different. That’s when I met him. When I got my blue belt and I won this tournament.

Caleb: Do you have any special memories or stories that stand out about Helio Gracie?

Fabio Santos: Yeah. When we went to UFC, the first UFC in 1994 Helio flew from Brazil to come out.

Caleb: And this is Royce Gracie’s fight?

Fabio Santos: Yes Royce’s fight, the first UFC. When we got there it was late. There was no place to eat. So we go to a pizza place, right? And Helio has been doing this diet for 75 years (he was probably 80 years old then) and we go and get all these pizzas and bring them to the room, and we all stayed in the same room. And he starts to eat just the top of the pizza. He says, “Look at this! It’s not even cooked!” And he peels the cheese off and eats what’s cooked and leaves the rest that wasn’t even cooked. Most of this stuff doesn’t combine [as per the Gracie diet]. See this is probably what kept him alive for all these years. He was very finicky with the food. He wouldn’t eat certain stuff, or he’d modify it to make it combine with what he was eating. He was a phenomenal person. Never been to the dentist. Not until he was like 75 years old.

Caleb: By choice?

Fabio Santos: Because he never had any thing to do on his teeth! He had perfect teeth. And Rorion, until this day has perfect teeth and he is proud of it! If you talk to him about it he goes, “Look at this!” and opens his mouth and shows you his teeth. He doesn’t have one cavity. They are very proud of their health. So was Helio. If somebody came with a headache or a stomach ache he will come up with something like Carlos Gracie Sr. who was a specialist in that. Helio got some of that. He would give you some concoction that would make you feel better. They were really healthy people. I don’t think he ever had a soda in his entire life, or a beer.

Caleb: You mentioned a story about Waldemar Santana. Can you tell people about that?

Fabio Santos: Waldemar Santana was one of his students for many years, over ten years, that started helping him at the school. He got his black belt and started helping him at the school. One day Helio came to the school and the school was flooded. It was completely flooded and it had destroyed these mats. And Waldemar Santana was the guy that was teaching the night before, and he forgot the faucet. And Helio went to ask him about it and they ended up having an argument about it. I guess Helio kicked him out because of that. I am sure a lot of people don’t know why they kicked Waldemar Santana out. Now they know. It was just because of a faucet that was left open!

Caleb: Going back to the UFC… The UFC was a very important moment. Obviously it’s the birth of mixed martial arts here in North America on a grand scale, but also as a platform for Brazilian jiu-jitsu to be exposed to the world, it’s probably the marker where everything started. What were Helio’s thoughts on Royce’s performance that night?

Fabio Santos: He kind of already knew that that was going to happen by watching the fighters of this country. They had no way to fight except for stand up and point fighting. He knew that once they got in a clinch, they wouldn’t know what to do with Royce. He kind of already knew the outcome of that. Everybody had to train jiu-jitsu to be able to give Royce a hard time. Because the only thing that can stop jiu-jitsu is jiu-jitsu. But he already pretty much knew that Royce was going to win there.

Caleb: I am trying to imagine his reaction after the victories that night at UFC 1.

Fabio Santos: He was very happy but he was not a person that shows a lot of emotion. Either way. When he loses or when he wins, he really doesn’t show it. He just kind of smiles. That’s how he’s always been. Even when his kids lose a fight, he’s really not harsh at them. He’s really nice to them. Because everybody’s trying.

Fabio Santos: He wasn’t very interested in sport jiu-jitsu. He would go over there and be the ref, but he thinks that sport jiu-jitsu defeats the purpose of real jiu-jitsu. Because the jiu-jitsu that he learned was not for competition. It’s pretty much for the little guy to survive. His kids were the ones that came up with sport jiu-jitsu.


Caleb: I guess we could say that it was an end of a chapter in the history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu this week. Not to say that it’s the end of the book by any means, but it’s certainly a marker in jiu-jitsu history, right Kid?

Kid Peligro: Yeah, it’s a marker. It’s not very often that you’re able to share space, or see, or even know that the founder or one of the founders of a martial art is around. To have such a great man, Helio Gracie, to be living amongst us this time, and that influenced so many lives, it was just something so special. Every time I saw him it was just more special to me. And being close to his kids – we knew this day would come, but we always cherished the times knowing that, we’re all going to go the same way, but we knew that when you’re getting into your mid-nineties you’re getting closer to that time. But his life was incredible. There was no shortcomings. I hope I can live close to what he lived and I hope I can accomplish one one-thousandth of what he accomplished.

Caleb: Our listeners out there, the Mighty 600,000 out there all over, it’s very unlikely that any of them spent any direct or quality time personally with Helio Gracie, and you have, so I thought allow you to share what that would be like so we can live vicariously through your experiences. Could you talk about the day you met Helio Gracie? What was that like?

Kid Peligro: The day I met Helio Gracie we were at the Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro and you know, just training in the mornings and the Grand Master showed up. This was like 1996 and I was a purple belt. He’d come once or twice a week in the mornings. I was speechless that he was there. He came and Royler introduced me to him, and he said, “Nice to meet you warrior!” And I was just going, “Oh my gosh I can’t believe this! I am talking to the Grand Master and he called me ‘warrior’!” And we go to talking and he was the nicest friendliest person. He gave me a copy of his book Helio Gracie: Brazilian Superman and he autographed it. I am think, “Oh my gosh this is like dying and going to heaven.” That was real special. Every time he came to the academy it was a festive occasion. He was so beloved over there. Everybody knew that he was a venerable person. He was the master of masters. But I remember it clearly. I talked to Royler later and I said that I would like to take a private lesson or two from him. So we scheduled a couple of privates and they were awesome. Just awesome. The first one, he was trying to show me how jiu-jitsu was a defensive art. And how it was an effective defensive art. He let me mount him and put one hand on the collar. He said, “Go ahead and do whatever you want to finish me.” And it was impossible. He’d just move little angles. Everything I attempted wouldn’t go anywhere. Finally I just shook my head. It went on and on. He put himself in my guard and said, “Don’t let me pass.” I was awed to be with him, but at the same time he was so efficient with everything he did. It was incredible. I remember thinking at the time, “Oh my gosh I am getting a lesson with the Master.” I learned a lot that day. In jiu-jitsu and other things.

Caleb: Like what?

Kid Peligro: How somebody that great could be so humble and so friendly. And you know he would say things about life, about things. He said:

We’re not here to win in jiu-jitsu, we’re here not to lose. If you fight a bigger guy and you don’t lose, you won. So that’s what we strive for, we strive not to lose. And then later on if you have a chance to take advantage of a mistake from them, maybe you can risk something… your goal is survival. That’s why a weak person like myself could have faced so many bigger people.

Caleb: So that encapsulates his philosophy about jiu-jitsu being self-defense.

Kid Peligro: Yes. Exactly right. And he thought most of the jiu-jitsu’s evolution to the sports part neglected that. He never agreed with that. He said, “There is an element [in sport jiu-jitsu] that is a valid element but it’s not for me. The jiu-jitsu that I developed is to make the weak be able to survive and defend against an aggression. A real life aggression. Not for sports. And every moment of my thinking, every moment of my life I am thinking about ways to improve the leverages with no objective other than survival and self-defense.” That really changed my life actually and the way I viewed jiu-jitsu. I had classes with Rickson and Rickson tried to impart that to me, and with Royler of course, who is my master. I joke all the time with Royler because I call him Helio Gracie Junior because he’s just a younger version of his dad. There’s a picture in The Gracie Way where they’re sitting next to each other and looking to the side, smiling, and it’s just so perfect. You just look at them and they’re exactly the same.

Dan: That picture is so good. I was looking at that picture just last week. And I thought, “Man those guys look like carbon copies of each other.”

Kid Peligro: Yeah and they’re not only carbon copies physically but Royler is a lot like his dad. In the way he behaves, his seriousness, how he jokes, how he’s dedicated to his work. His dad imparted all that with all his sons. His dad was just incredible.

Caleb: One thing that struck me when you were speaking is that I presume you were a purple belt when you had those private lessons with Helio. You would expect that most purple belts have a pretty good idea about how chokes work. I don’t expect for you to have tapped Helio but [it’s interesting that] that your experience while you mounted him was totally flustering.

Kid Peligro: He was 82. You know I didn’t want to tap him but at the same time I said, “well let me try to at least get to the position where I can [tap him], and it was just incredible. It was like trying to grasp air or water. He would just move just a little bit every time and frustrate the living bejeezus out of me. It was incredible. I was just shaking my head and I said to myself, “That’s jiu-jitsu.” When you can just move a hair and take away the angles, take away the leverage.

Dan: The subtleties of the movements sometimes…

Kid Peligro: Yeah and that’s the essence of his jiu-jitsu. The details, the subtleties are the difference between things working and not working. There’s a lot of people that are learning jiu-jitsu, but the ones who are learning the details and the subtleties – not only learning but they’re paying attention and trying to execute them – that’s the difference between night and day. When you’re beginning to understand the leverages and the minute details, then you’re starting to understand jiu-jitsu. If you have to rely too much on physical conditioning or power – that was one of the things he said, he said, “Every time you’re using strength, you’re not using jiu-jitsu. If you feel yourself using strength or using power, you’re not doing what I invented, the movements I created or the leverages I created.”

Caleb: The way that it’s painted there, if you’re a bigger guy or just naturally a strong person, the natural inclination is to just use your muscle in the absence of technique and that might get you by sometimes, but like you said it’s maybe an advantage if you want to learn the original jiu-jitsu to be a smaller person because you don’t even have that option.

Kid Peligro: Yes that’s what he used to tell as well, that kids were the best because they are not strong, they are very inquisitive, and they don’t have preconceptions, so they would just learn and you can mold them. As they grow older and stronger they have the right technique. And then the physical benefits would add to the technique. It’s almost like big guys don’t need jiu-jitsu. They’re naturally going to revert to using their power to escape, or to make situations work. They really have a tough time focusing on the minute details.

2 Replies to “#151 Helio Gracie Remembered”

  1. Wow, I really thought he would be among the few people to live the longest. This is a sad time and the world is a better place because of him. He will be missed.

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