In the early 21st century, the Ultimate Fighting Championship grew into perhaps the most popular form of fighting in the United States, and indeed was pegged by many as the “sport of the future.” In point of fact, however, the concept of “mixed martial arts” matches was hardly a brand new idea. It had been going on for decades, but for all intents and purposes, the origin of the idea for the UFC and that of all mixed martial arts in the Western Hemisphere came from the same place.
In the 1920s, Carlos Gracie began studying ju-jitsu in Brazil with one of the great masters, Japan’s Mitsuyo Maeda. It was Maeda who, for the most part, introduced judo to American audiences when he came to the U.S. to do a series of exhibitions in the ’20s, and after traveling to Brazil, Carlos became one of his students. Virtually everyone in the Gracie family devoted himself to ju-jitsu, including Carlos’ brother, Helio, who was enthusiastic but tended to suffer from dizzy spells. Because of this, Helio embarked on a variation of the art of ju-jitsu so as to adapt to the environment and to his own physical limitations.
The result was something he termed “Brazilian ju-jitsu,” which facilitated the economy of movement and energy, by way of emphasizing something Helio had grown adept at – ground work. This entails submission holds, namely arm bars, and choke holds. Helio worked hard at developing his craft in this regard, and eventually rose to a level of prominence that far exceeded that of his brother. He began teaching many of his brother’s ju-jitsu pupils, and enhanced his reputation greatly by engaging in various challenge matches.
These matches were not necessarily between one exponent of ju-jitsu and another. They often took place between practitioners of different martial arts. Sometimes they were karate experts; sometimes they were judo “players,” even wrestlers. The Portuguese word for this kind of activity was “vale tudo,” which meant “anything goes.” And just about anything went. These matches were “no holds barred”; there was not just the grappling and submission components, plus throws as in judo, but also punching and kicking. That obviously sounds very familiar to anyone who is an aficionado of the UFC and what is known as “mixed martial arts” in the present day.
Helio was not just doing this for “sport,” either. The method to his madness involved a marketing angle. What he was trying to demonstrate was that his form of fighting – Brazilian ju-jitsu – was the most efficient form of hand-to-hand combat, especially when it matched up against other disciplines. The residual effect was that he would reap the benefit of much more in the way of a customer base, as well as income from the exhibition of such matches. This became known as the “Gracie Challenge.”
From a young age Helio Gracie proved to be far superior to his rivals under this format. One of these challenge matches was in 1931, as he faced off against a fighter named Antonio Portugal, who came into the bout looming as a genuine threat to Helio but was dispatched in less than a minute’s time. Similar fates befell a number of competitors who met Helio’s challenges, regardless of whether their background involved karate, kung fu, judo, boxing, wrestling or street fighting.
Over the years, Helio Gracie engaged in no holds barred matches with whoever would step forward. And people were paying attention; by the time the television era came along in the 1950’s, this form of combat had gained quite a following on Brazilian TV, and matches were televised and widely publicized as well. Gracie’s reputation as the greatest no holds barred (NHB) fighter in Brazil was being well-established, though it must be said that it was not always undisputed, leading to a steady stream of willing challengers, some of which came from other parts of the world.
The most significant challenger, in fact, came from about as far away as possible – Japan. Masahik Kimura was a judo master who fought Helio in front of a stadium crowd of over 20,000 spectators in 1956. It was an epic match, and not without drama. To begin with, Helio was giving up more than fifty pounds to this opponent. His elbow wound up being dislocated, and the Gracie corner had to throw in the towel after thirteen grueling minutes. Though it may have seemed a setback of sorts for Helio and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Helio had made his point and accomplished his goal – establishing himself as a leading practitioner of the martial arts, but more importantly, establishing his own brand of martial arts as a legitimate, indeed superior form of combat. And in the process, he contributed to a family dynasty.
Rorion Gracie, Helio’s oldest son, moved to the United States in the late 1970s and brought the Gracie brand of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with him. He also brought the idea of the Gracie Challenge with him. For years, Rorion, who had been instructing students at his home, took on challengers from other martial arts in his garage, in Hermosa Beach, California, and videotaped the festivities. Rorion also fought and reportedly submitted kick boxing legend Benny “The Jet” Urquidez on several occasions. Later, a public challenge match with Urquidez was proposed, but Urquidez never accepted.
Rorion made an open challenge, winner take all, to anyone who would accept. This got the attention of Playboy magazine, which published a story about him. That brought out the challengers. But the one to accept those challenges, on behalf of Rorion, was his little brother Royce. One by one the opponents were mowed down, and word spread beyond the martial arts underground.
Most importantly, it caught the eye of an advertising executive named Art Davie, who, in partnership with Rorion, turned it into a business.
The rest is history.