While a large part of mainstream America was blissfully enjoying their long Memorial Day weekend, fans of the Ultimate Fighting Championship franchise were glued to their Pay-Per-View TV sets, watching the end of an era. In the pinnacle event of UFC-60, the reigning welterweight champion, Matt Hughes, faced off against UFC legend Royce Gracie — and won, by technical knockout, when the referee stopped the fight about 4 minutes and 30 seconds into the very first round.
To fully appreciate the significance of Hughes’ achievement, one must know a bit about the UFC’s 12-1/2-year history. The enterprise was founded in 1993 by Royce’s older brother, Rorion Gracie, as a means of proving the brutal effectiveness of his family’s signature style of jujitsu. The concept was simple, yet brilliant: invite fighters from every conceivable style of martial art to compete against each other in a full-contact, no-holds-barred martial arts tournament, with no weight classes, no time limits, and very few taboos. No biting, no fish-hooks to the nostrils or mouth, no eye gouging, and no throat strikes. Everything else was fair game, including groin strikes.
(Admittedly, the fighters tended to honor an unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” not to make use of groin strikes. That’s why karate master Keith Hackney stirred up such a controversy in UFC-III when he broke that agreement in his match against sumo wrestler Emmanuel Yarbrough and repeatedly pounded on Yarbrough’s groin to escape a hold. I personally never had a problem with Hackney’s decision. He was seriously out-sized, and if you’re going to enter a no-holds-barred tournament, you should expect your opponent to be a little ruthless in a pinch. But the universe meted out its own form of justice: Hackney beat Yarbrough but broke his hand and had to drop out of the tournament.)
The first UFC was an eight-man, round-robin tournament, with each man fighting three times — defeating each opponent while still remaining healthy enough to continue — to reach the final round. Since no state athletic commission would ever consider sanctioning such a brutal event, the UFC was semi-underground, finding its home in places like Denver, Colorado, which had very little regulations in place to monitor full-contact sports. Think Bloodsport, without the deaths, but plenty of blood and broken bones, and a generous sampling of testosterone-induced cheese. (Bikini-clad ring girls, anyone?)
Rorion chose his younger brother, Royce, to defend the family honor because Royce was tall and slim (6’1″, 180 pounds) and not very intimidating in demeanor. He didn’t look like a fighter, not in the least, and with no weight classes, frequently found himself paired against powerful opponents with bulging pecs and biceps who outweighed him by a good 50 pounds or more. And Royce kicked ass, time and again, winning three of the first four UFC events. (In UFC-III, he won his first match against the much-larger Kimo, but the injuries he sustained in the process were sufficient to force him to drop out of the tournament.)
He beat shootfighter Ken Shamrock (who later moved to the more lucrative pro-wrestling circuit) not once, but twice, despite his size disadvantage. His technique was just too damned good. Among other things, he knew how to maximize leverage so that he didn’t need to exert nearly as much force to defeat his opponents. Shamrock (pictured at right) has said that Gracie might be lacking in strength, “but he’s very hard to get a hold of, and the way he moves his legs and arms, he always is in a position to sweep or go for a submission.”
UFC fans soon got used to the familiar sight of the pre-fight “Gracie Train”: When his name was announced, Royce would walk to the Octagon, accompanied by a long line of all his brothers, cousins, hell, probably a few uncles and distant cousins just for good measure, each with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front of him as a show of family solidarity and strength. And of course, looking on and beaming with pride, was his revered father, Helio Gracie (now 93), who founded the style as a young man — and then made sure he sired enough sons to carry on the dynasty.
Royce’s crowning achievement arguably occurred in 1994, when, in UFC-IV’s final match, he defeated champion wrestler Dan “The Beast” Severn. Many fight fans consider the fight among the greatest in sports history, and not just because Severn, at 6’2″ and 262 pounds, outweighed Royce by nearly 100 pounds. Technique-wise, the two men were very well-matched, and for over 20 minutes, Severn actually had Royce pinned on his shoulders against the mesh wall of the Octagon. Nobody expected Royce to get out of that predicament, but instead, he pulled off a completely unexpected triangle choke with his legs, forcing Severn to tap out.
For all his swaggering machismo, Royce was one of my heroes in those early days, mostly because I had just started training in a different style of jujitsu (strongly oriented toward self-defense), at a tiny storefront school in Brooklyn called Bay Ridge Dojo. True, it was a much more humble, amateur environment than the world of the UFC, but Royce gave me hope. I trained in a heavy contact, predominantly male dojo, and at 5’7″ and 125 pounds, was frequently outsized by my class mates. My favorite quote by Royce: “I never worry about the size of a man, or his strength. You can’t pick your opponents. If you’re 180 pounds and a guy 250 pounds comes up to you on the street, you can’t tell him you need a weight class and a time limit. You have to defend yourself. If you know the technique, you can defend yourself against anyone, of any size.” And he proved it, time and again.
For smaller mere mortals like me, with less developed technique, size definitely mattered. The stark reality of this was burned into my memory the first time one of the guys kicked me so hard, he knocked me into the wall. Needless to say, there was a heavy physical toll: the occasional bloody nose, odd sprain, broken bone, a dislocated wrist, and a spectacular head injury resulting from a missed block that required 14 stitches. (I still proudly bear a faint, jagged two-inch scar across my forehead. And I never made that mistake again.) I didn’t let any of it faze me. I worked doggedly on improving my technique and hired a personal trainer, packing on an extra 30 pounds of muscle over the course of two years. Not very feminine, I admit: I looked like a beefier version of Xena, Warrior Princess. At least I could take the abuse a little better. In October 2000, I became only the second woman in my system’s history to earn a black belt.
I learned a lot over that seven-year journey. Most importantly, I learned that Royce was right: good technique can compensate for a size and strength disadvantage. It’s just that the greater the size differential, the better your technique has to be, because there is that much less margin for error. And if your opponent is equally skilled — well, that’s when the trouble can start, even for a champion like Royce.
After those early, spectacular victories, Royce faded from the UFC spotlight for awhile, focusing his efforts on the burgeoning Gracie industry: there is now a Gracie jujitsu school in almost every major US city. He’d proved his point, repeatedly, and it’s always wise to quit while you’re at the top. But every now and then he’d re-emerge, just to prove he still had the chops to be a contender. As recently as December 2004, he defeated the 6’8″, 483-pound (!) Chad Rowan in two minutes, 13 seconds, with a simple wrist lock. (“Either submit, or have it broken,” he supposedly said. Rowan wisely submitted.)
The very fact of Royce’s success inevitably caused the sport to change. Fighters were forced to learn groundfighting skills. Back when the UFC was all about martial arts style versus style, many fighters in more traditional disciplines — karate, tae kwon do, kickboxing — had never really learned how to fight effectively on the ground. The moniker changed from No-Holds-Barred, to Mixed Martial Arts — a far more accurate designation these days. Today, the UFC has time limits (with occasional restarts to please the fans, who get bored watching a lengthy stalemate between two world-class grapplers), and even more rules: no hair-pulling, and no breaking fingers and toes. The formula is commercially successful — UFC events typically garner Nielsen ratings on a par with NBA and NHL games on cable television — but these are not conditions that favor the Gracie style. Eventual defeat was practically inevitable.
And so it came to pass over Memorial Day weekend. The UFC torch has passed to Hughes. But Royce’s legacy is incontrovertible. He changed the face of the sport forever by dominating so completely, that he forced everyone else to adapt to him. That’s why he was one of the first three fighters to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame (along with Shamrock and Severn). Royce Gracie will always be a legend.
When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses about physics and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.