The Art Of… Helio Gracie

posted August 29, 2017

Before Brazilians knew anything about jiu-jitsu, the Japanese developed the gentle art. Japanese jiu-jitsu/judo was officially introduced to the Gracies when Japanese martial artist Mitsuyo Maeda and Gastão Gracie met ringside at a fight on November 5th, 1916. Maeda was traveling around the world with his friend and fellow fighter, Satake, demonstrating their techniques by defeating a hundred plus men of other disciplines. Gastão Gracie was a businessman and helped Maeda find his footing in Brazil. In return, Maeda taught Gastão’s son, Carlos, the techniques of Japanese jiu-jitsu. Carlos took what he learned and began to teach Brazil.

While Carlos was busy throwing people around on the mats, his brother Helio sat on the sidelines, under doctor’s orders. Helio was skinny and weak for no reason anyone could find, so almost everyone was cautious to allow him to train.

As the legend goes, a student showed up, looking for Carlos one day. Helio saw an opportunity and decided to offer to teach the student what he’d memorized watching his brother train in jiu-jitsu. But Helio’s technique was a bit different; he modified movements as needed for his frail frame. Helio’s new student was hooked and said he’d like to return to the mats under Helio’s instruction instead.

Carlos and Helio knew they stumbled on something. They worked together to make sure they modified the techniques of Japanese jiu-jitsu/judo to leverage the weakness of Helio’s frail body. They found strength in weakness and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was born.

To put their technique to the test, Helio took on challengers. While the size of Helio’s opponents and the results of his matches over the years were correct across the board, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu survived. A large part of the legacy was born out of their publicity. In 1925, Carlos opened an academy in Rio and one advertisement supposedly read, “If you want your face smashed and split open, your backside kicked and your arms broken, contact Carlos Gracie at this address.”

The story came full circle when Helio caught wind of some Japanese challengers in Brazil. Under the leadership of Masahiko Kimura, the Japanese fighters were visiting from the Imperial Academy. Kimura offered Helio the chance to fight his disciple, Kato. The two tangled for the first time on September 6, 1951 in front of a crowd of tens of thousands. While Kato threw Helio around like a ragdoll, their first fight ended in a draw. They came together again for a rematch on September 29, in São Paulo, when Kato found himself caught and choked unconscious. The weak had won.

Kato’s defeat was enough to convince the larger and strongest Kimura to challenge Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and take on Helio. Kimura claimed he would defeat Helio in under three minutes but when the match went much longer, Kimura was dumbfounded. The bout ended in the second round after Kimura briefly put Helio to sleep, and upon waking up, trapped Helio in the arm lock we now know as the kimura. Carlos tapped the mat to surrender and save his brother’s arm from being snapped. Nevertheless, Kimura returned to Japan impressed with how far and advanced the Gracie family had brought Jiu-Jitsu.

Even as jiu-jitsu continues to grow around the world, there is no denying Helio Gracie was integral in the evolution. It was never about winning as much as it was about expressing the art and the technique through embracing weakness and vulnerability. Understanding your limitations brings clarity and Helio transformed the gentle way for the better.

What weakness helps you show the art?

By Daniel Scharch