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Never Give Up

Helio Gracie

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/30/2009

In 1951, while American fight fans argued about whether Ezzard Charles or Rocky Marciano was the world's greatest fighter, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound Brazilian named Helio Gracie made fight history by losing badly to a Japanese judo champion named Masahiko Kimura, who weighed about 180.

Kimura had told all of Brazil that if Gracie could withstand even three minutes in the ring with him, Gracie should be considered the winner. And, as Gracie admitted more than 40 years later, Kimura did render him unconscious almost immediately. "If Kimura had continued to choke me, I would have died for sure," Gracie told a 1994 interviewer. "But since I didn't give up, Kimura let go of the choke and went into the next technique. Being released from the choke and the pain from the next technique revived me and I continued to fight. Kimura went to his grave without ever knowing the fact that I was finished."

Gracie went 13 minutes and got his arm broken, but it was his older brother, Carlos, who stopped the fight. 

As a slight, thin boy, growing up his older brother's shadow in Rio de Janeiro, Helio Gracie adapted Carlos's jiujitsu techniques to require the least amount of power, in a bid to allow the weak to beat the strong. His techniques, combined with an indomitable spirit, distilled into a fighting system now known worldwide as Brazilian jiujitsu. From the start he aimed for fame, deploying both technique and temper. In 1932, at age 19, he brutalized a famous wrestler who insulted him; he was imprisoned for assault, only to be pardoned by the president of Brazil. Gracie's challenge matches against practitioners of other fighting styles, begun in the 1950s, birthed the modern sport of mixed martial arts and the billion-dollar brand name we call Ultimate Fighting Championships, launched by Helio's son Rorion and an ad man named Art Davie in 1993; they sold the franchise in 1995.

The Gracie family's legend eventually outgrew their deeds. In martial arts circles, stories still circulate claiming that Helio Gracie arrived in the United States in the early 1990s with $1 million challenge for anyone who could defeat one of his sons. The actual scenario--a $100,000 wager that former kickboxing champion Benny "The Jet" Urquidez could not beat Royce Gracie--never came off. Another challenge from then 80-year-old Helio to "Judo" Gene LaBell was scuttled when LaBell, who was over 60 years old and 200 pounds, said he could not trim down to Helio's 140-pound weight class.

Braggart, showman, sometime brawler, Gracie polarized opinion first in Brazil, and later in the United States, where his son Royce became the first Ultimate Fighting Champion. Gracie's wife Vera and his nine children carry on the family name and traditions. He died Jan. 29.

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