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The Ultimate Fighter: Renzo Gracie
05/01/2009 - By Teja Anderson
Renzo Gracie–Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion Has a Strong Hold on Life’s Joys
Given the opportunity to interview Renzo Gracie (pronounced Henzo) one of the world’s most famous and decorated Jiu-Jitsu fighters and teachers, it was time to do a little research. After watching countless videos of Renzo and his illustrious family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) masters pummeling, punching, kicking, injuring, cursing, and breaking the body parts of their subdued opponents in cages, rings and arenas around the globe* on “YouTube,” I was a little nervous sitting down to interview him at his palatial estate in Holmdel. Luckily, Renzo turned out to be a warm, joyful family man, with a quick, easy laugh and a wonderfully positive and insightful attitude about life and competition.
Renzo is very proud of his roots, and he has every reason to be. BJJ was invented by the Gracie family, and traces its roots back to Renzo’s grandfather, Carlos Gracie, who, in 1916 at the age of 14, started training in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu martial arts with Japanese Judo master and prizefighter, Mitsuyo Maeda. Maeda had left Japan to introduce the sport to the rest of the world, eventually settling in Brazil. Carlos and his brother Helio were able to rework and redefine what they saw to be the weaker points of Judo by focusing on groundfighting and self-defense techniques, thus creating a new martial art – BJJ. Renzo’s father, Robson Gracie, is a ninth-degree red belt and teacher, and he, along with many others of the Gracie family, continued to develop BJJ throughout the 20th century, perfecting it as a combat sport. In the 1990’s Renzo, his brother, and his cousins brought BJJ to the United States, opening many schools in California and New York. Renzo currently runs the Renzo Gracie Academy in mid-town Manhattan, and is thrilled to be just weeks away from opening an academy right here in Holmdel, his home for the past 13 years.
*One of his most notable fights was in 1996 against Oleg Taktarov – “The Russian Bear” – when Renzo stunned the much larger fighter in barely a minute, with an astounding kick from the ground and then ahead-punch combo, knocking him out completely!
LIH: So you grew up in Brazil, in Rio, and were already part of a very famous family there.What was that like?
RG: For me it was great because instead of the people I admired, my heroes and my superheroes, being in comic books or in the movies, they were inside my house. I grew up watching them competing, fighting, and winning. The people I looked up to were all around me…all my relatives.
LIH: How many siblings do you have?
RG: There were 12 of us…seven problems and five solutions. There were seven beautiful girls and five ugly boys (laughs). I am the fifth child.My father actually married three times, [and had] four kids with each wife. My youngest sister is 5 years old and my oldest sister is 50.
LIH: Was there a lot of competition between the brothers?
RG: We always fought each other. It was a different mentality. I think that other people if they saw our family they would be shocked.We would be sitting at the table eating and then we would start arguing, and then the grass was right outside, so we would just go outside and wrestle. But as soon as it was over we came back to the table and discussed everything that we did wrong so we could improve our technique for the next time.
LIH: Your English is very good. Did you study it in school?
RG: No. I learned English from watching movies. Unfortunately, sometimes I curse too much because I like to watch movies like Scarface, Raging Bull, and a lot of those kinds of movies. But I never studied English in school.
LIH: Did you ever consider another career besides ultimate fighter?
RG: Actually, I was studying to be a lawyer, but I didn’t like it. I found that it was not my calling and that I would rather do just the fighting, so I quit after my first year of college.
LIH: You already had a career as a fighter at that point…you’d been fighting since you were a kid?
RG: I started training when I was 5 years old. I started teaching at 17, and I opened my first school when I was 21; but I always liked New York, so I decided to open a school here. I opened the first Gracie School on the East Coast, inManhattan, when I was 28.
LIH: Were you married then?
RG: Yes. I got married when I was 23.
LIH: How did you meet your beautiful wife Cristina?
RG: It was love at first sight. Our fathers were friends and our families were already close, but we hadn’t really interacted that much. One day she came to visit my cousin, who was staying at my house, and she got too close to me and I couldn’t resist her.
LIH: How many children do you have together?
RG: We have three – two girls and a boy: Catarina (23), Cora (15), and Ruran (13).
LIH: Are any of your children interested in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)?
RG: Yes, the two younger ones. The oldest one likes fashion; she just graduated from LIM College-The College for the Business of Fashion in Manhattan. I am trying to convince her to open a clothing line around the fighting theme. But my younger son and daughter both are interested in training in BJJ.
LIH: So then it’s not just a sport for men?
RG: No. In fact, I have a niece, Kyra Gracie, who has more tittles than I do! She is unbelievable. I happened to train her for a long time when I was in Brazil; now she comes to New York to train all the time. She is a black belt and looks like a supermodel.
LIH: She just fights other women though, right?
RG: Yes, but she trains with men. That’s no problem at all; she is very good. She has won many titles – she won three times theWorld Champion BJJ (2004, 2005, and 2008), and twice the Abu Dhabi Combat Champion (2005 and 2007), which is another very prestigious world champion award that they have.
LIH: So what sort of preparation is there before a fight? Is there a special diet you adhere to?
RG: Well, you need to combine certain foods in your diet so that they don’t turn your blood into acid. You try to eat very healthy, avoid heavy meats and drinking alcohol.
LIH: How soon before a fight do you start training?
RG: Well, you never stop training…six days a week, hours and hours every day.
LIH: Is there anything that you do for mental preparation?
RG: One time they did a test. I was in Abu Dhabi. I am very good friends with the royal family there; I am a trainer for them. One of them is a black belt under me, and he brought in a team of specialists to measure my mental composition and many different aspects of my cognitive state. They were amazed at my ability to be able to switch so quickly from one thing to the next, to be able to be laughing and joking and then to be able to concentrate and focus on my fighting so suddenly and intensely. I never get
nervous, I never get butterflies…to me it’s another day at the office.
LIH: Do you have any traditions for good luck, or superstitions that you follow before a fight?
RG: Not really. I like the color white; it is good luck for me. Early on in my career, I always wore white, but now it’s not necessary that I have to wear white.
LIH: So you don’t ask or pray for any outside help?
RG: I do believe strongly in God, and I do believe that nothing happens by chance. I think that everything is pre-set. Life put me in a family that is amazing, and everything always works out so perfectly for me. I have met so many incredible people in my lifetime and I am surrounded by such great parents and family. Most people would think that the best environment to build a great fighter would be to be surrounded by hate and to have a really tough childhood…to really struggle and face adversity in life to make you tough. But for me it was 100% the opposite. I grew up surrounded by love and happiness. My parents never looked at me without smiling, they never raised a hand to me, and I am the same way with my kids. In fact, there is a little bit of spoiling going on.
LIH: Apparently there are a lot of celebrities who are into Jiu-Jitsu…
RG: Yes…like Nicholas Cage in the movie Knowing; [also] Jim Carrey, Robert Downey Jr., Guy Ritchie…he trains with me.
LIH: Who is the most famous person you have trained?
RG: Well, in my country I taught everybody, even the kids of the President, but over here I work with a lot of actors, a lot of famous people, and it’s not really so impressive to me because most of them are just doing it as a pastime or for a role in a movie; but Guy Ritchie…he is special to me. Guy is a hardcore trainer; he trains all the time, even on his sets when he is making movies. You are going to have a chance to see this in his new movie, Sherlock Holmes. There is a lot of fighting that he added in because he is so passionate about it. He even invited me to be in one of his movies as an actor, but I said no because his movies are serious [and] he needs serious actors in them, not like me; no one wants to see me. I don’t want to see that (laughs).
LIH: All of your fights are filmed, do you mind watching yourself then?
RG: I always watch them, not in a vain way, not to see if I look good or not. I watch themin the sense that I amstudying to see how I can improve, both as a fighter and as a teacher, because I can always pass on to my students, to my cousins, and my nephews things that I have learned from each fight.
LIH: Does anyone teach you; do you take advice from anyone?
RG: Every single student teaches me! The moment that you actually stop learning you are not a good teacher any more. The moment that you think you are a master you are really stagnating, you have stopped. So every day I learn something new…you can even learn from beginners, from people who just walked in the gym and have never trained before.
LIH: You get recognized a lot on the street. Is there a particular question you’re always asked?
RG: Yes, they always want to know if I get scared before a fight.
LIH: Are you ever afraid?
RG: You are only afraid of the things you don’t know. I have been fighting since I was 5 years old [so] it doesn’t scare me. It’s like when you see a guy handling a snake. To me and you it would be scary because we don’t know how the snake is going to move, if it’s going to go this way or that way, when it’s going to strike. But the snake trainer isn’t afraid; for him it’s a piece of cake – he can just go up and kiss it on the head. That’s because he knows everything about the snake’s movements. I’m not afraid because I know how my opponent is going to move.
LIH: Have you ever been surprised by an opponent?
RG: Oh yes. I had my arm broken in a fight. I was winning the whole fight; there was only 17 seconds left, I was getting ready to celebrate…and then someone in the corner told me something and I made a mistake.And then my arm was caught as I tried to yank it; he broke it. I didn’t give up but the ref was saying, “Your arm is broken; give up.” I said, “No problem, keep going. This happens all the time.” But they stopped the fight. (This was in 2000 against Kazushi Sakuraba.)
LIH: What is the worst injury you have inflicted on an opponent?
RG: A broken nose…some purple eyes. I broke an arm once, but nothing that can’t be healed in a couple of weeks.
LIH: Do you wear any protection?
RG: Just a mouth guard and a cup.
LIH: Are there any body parts that are off limits during fights?
RG: When I began fighting it was bare knuckle and anything was allowed. Now there are some rules: like no biting, eye gouging, head butting; and now they have small 8-ounce gloves that actually hurt more. Now the guy can hit you harder and more times.You have the perception that it is safer, but in actuality it’s more dangerous, it protects the fighter’s hand. One time in a fight I hit the guy in the forehead with no gloves on, and it broke my hand. I had to go on and finish the fight with my hand broken, I couldn’t hit him again. You have to learn to control your punches, and that makes the sport safer.
LIH: But the sport is obviously dangerous.
RG: Of course it can be. But it’s not like boxing, where you have so many head injuries. I meet a lot of boxers and they can’t have a conversation, and they are shaking and have Alzheimer’s. But in BJJ it’s really a safer type of fighting. I want to be like my grandfather who, at age 93, can still sit around and tell us stories and pass on his knowledge to the future generations. I will be able to have my wits about me.
LIH: At the end of the fight do you shake hands? Is there mutual respect?
RG: Yes, absolutely. Because it’s a real sport you don’t see too much bragging and insulting happening. You don’t want to be taunting someone and the next thing you know you are laying there helpless with him pounding on you, because you can get a bunch more hits in there before the ref can stop it. You don’t want to get your opponent enraged by insulting him. Normally people are very polite and kind…very respectful. It’s a great sport; it even makes you more polite I think.
LIH: So you have made a lot of friends who are fighters?
RG: Especially in the schools. It’s such a great environment. Every day you go into the school it’s like reading a book. You learn so much from each other…all the stories, the experiences… you build mutual respect.
LIH: Do you form friendships with your students too?
RG: I’ll give you an example. I had this one American student I trained many years ago in Manhattan and he became a doctor, a surgeon, and he moved to California. I didn’t hear from him for a couple of years and then one day he called me up and spoke to me in Portuguese. He learned Portuguese so that he could speak to me in my language! He told me what he learned from me was better than what he learned in college for medicine. Also, he named his son Renzo! That was such a compliment for me.
LIH: What do you like about living here in New Jersey?
RG: It’s beautiful here with the changing seasons. The parks are beautiful, the people are very friendly; there is nothing here I don’t like. For me everything is perfect!
LIH: It’s very different from the weather in Rio.
RG: Until I came here I had never seen the leaves dropping.We came to this area in the beginning of the winter and I thought everything was dead. I was wondering how people can live like that with everything dead around them…the trees, the plants, the grass. I thought how sad it was. Then I got to see everything growing in the spring and now I love it. I love to have the changing seasons.
LIH: Do you take advantage of the beach?
RG: I used to surf. I have five surfboards downstairs, but the waves here are small and the water is pretty cold here, not like in Brazil where I used to compete in a professional circuit. In fact, this one scar that I have on my face is from surfing, not from fighting. And this other little scar is from riding my bike (points to a tiny scar by his eye).
LIH: Have you competed in any other sports?
RG: I’ve done some horse racing in the desert. I was in a 98-mile and a 130-mile horse race in Dubai; the grand prize was a brand new Bentley! I took 9th place out of 68 horses. I didn’t know that I could race horses, but I did it. Before that, I only rode horses a few times as a kid on my friends’ ranches in Brazil, but just for fun. This was like in the movie Hidalgo; it was serious horseback riding in the sand. It was so hot; you are in the desert and a lot of the horses die. You have the same horse for the whole race, and every time you finish a loop the veterinarian checks the horse to make sure it’s the same one. I didn’t even have a good horse; my friend didn’t want to waste a good horse on me since I didn’t really know what I was doing and I weighed 40 lbs. more than most of the competitors. But I finished and the horse was okay.
LIH: Wow! You have a strong will. How did you do it?
RG: I think I was able to do so well because I treated it like a fight. I paced myself and the horse. I didn’t push too hard in the beginning. It took about 8 hours to do the whole race.Afterwards I couldn’t walk.
LIH: So you have the gym in Manhattan, you’re opening one in Stanford, Connecticut, and now also one right here in Holmdel?
RG: Yes, on Route 35 in Kohl’s Plaza, where the old Lucille Roberts used to be. It’s the perfect spot – 9,500 square feet, with low beams, everything covered with mats. It’s going to be great!
LIH: Where do you see yourself in 10 years besides teaching and opening more schools?
RG:You know a bunch of us were talking the other day, and this guy asks what you’d do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow. Everyone is saying things like “I’d go here, I would do that, I would fix this, I would call my mother and tell her I love her.”When it got to me, I said, “I would do nothing differently because everyone I love I tell them. I hug all my friends and I am already just a happy guy. I would do what I always do – go to bed and watch a little Brazilian television. Live each day the way you want to and be happy.
LIH: Is that your motto?
RG: No, it’s my way of life. My motto is, “Don’t back up…even to jump!”
LIH: I like that one. Thank you so much for the opportunity to get to know you better.
RG: You are so welcome. It was my pleasure.
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