Born on October 1st 1913, Helio Gracie was the youngest son of Gastao Gracie. There were 9 brothers and sisters, and Helio stood out since the beginning due to his body type; tall and skinny he was the complete opposite of his brothers who were shorter, and much stockier.
Helio’s childhood was a troubled one, his family went bankrupted when he was young and in 1921 they had to move from Belem do Para (his native town) to the big but poorer city, Rio de Janeiro. All these changes in his early life didn’t go without effect and he started suffering from chronic dizziness and his health was precarious, mostly due to his psychological instability.
In the last years of his stay in Belem do Para, his older brother Carlos got to meet Misuyio Esai Maeda (also known as Count Coma ), who was a Jujitsu and Kodokan Judo black belt who had come to Brazil with the intent of divulging the Japanese Martial Arts to the masses. His brother started training regularly with Maeda and rapidly became one of his top students. Everything Carlos would learn in the Jujitsu classes he would then try and pass on to his brothers. They would spar all the time, however, Helio wasn’t allowed to be a part of the actual fighting as he was far too fragile, instead he would stand on the sidelines and try to understand the mechanics behind the Jujitsu game.
A couple of years after the Gracies relocated to Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Gracie the eldest son managed to fulfill his dream of creating the first Jujitsu Academy. To help him in this new challenge he invited his brothers Oswaldo, Gastao, Helio and George, to come and join him (both because he needed help in the academy and because he wanted to take his brothers off their abusive father’s hands).
Helio started rolling (what grapplers call sparring) with his brothers, hiding the fact from Carlos who was over protective of his younger brother and feared for his health. When he found out Helio was already advanced in his techniques and was a good spar for his brothers, Carlos allowed his training to continue and allowed him to attend their normal classes.
George Gracie was an excellent fighter, but lived a wild lifestyle and Helio soon became Carlos star student, so much so that in 1932 Carlos gave him his first no-holds-barred (old school Mixed Martial Arts bouts were almost no rules were involved) Vale Tudo fight. He was 18 years old. The fight was against a boxer by the name of Antonio Portugal and the fight lasted less then a minute as Helio choked his opponent out.
Helio fought several times more throughout the next 6 years trying to promote the Gracie academy together with his brothers. At one point George broke with the academy as he wanted to fight Helio to prove who was the best fighter in Rio de Janeiro and Carlos was opposed to this.
In 1938 Helio’s career came to a hold as he left the rings and the mats to move to a different town for personal reasons. He came back 12 years later at the age of 38 after a challenge was made to him personally. His opponent was Landufo Caribé, the Bahia Jiu Jitsu Champion who had a different lineage from the Gracies, and to prove his point, Helio finished Caribé quickly.
A year later came the opportunity came to fight the mighty Masahiko Kimura, the Jigoro Kano Judo champion of Japan. The opportunity came after he challenged Mr Kimura a few months earlier, a challenge which was flatly refused as Kimura didn’t feel Gracie worthy of the match. Helio was made to fight Kato (Japan’s number 2) in order to get to Kimura. Helio fought him and defeated Kato by means of Cross Choke from the closed guard. Only then did Kimura accept the challenge. In Reila Gracie’s book about the Gracie family, it is stated that Kimura was 35Kg heavier (77 pounds), however it is unknown if this is true or not. Kimura was so convinced of his superiority that he stated to the press that if the fight lasted more than 3 minutes he would consider it a loss.
Masahiko Kimura defeated Helio Gracie by “Kimura Lock” (the submission was renamed after Masahiro after this match) in 13 minutes far after the 3 minute mark which impressed Kimura who ended the fight congratulating Helio on his toughness. This was a tough blow on the Gracies, and Jiu Jitsu which had earned a good amount of relevance in Rio de Janeiro. With this decrease in popularity, fights were scarce and Helio turned himself to teaching again.
Carlos Gracie had left the Rio de Janeiro gym, and moved to Fortaleza, Brazil to take care of businesses, he left his sons Carlson Gracie, Rolls and Carlos Junior (Carlinhos) to be taught by Helio.
Helio returned to the mats 5 years later after another challenge was raised by Waldemar Santana a former student of Helios and their fight would go to the record books as the longest no holds barred fight ever recorded at 3 hours 42 minutes, Helio lost due to a soccer kick in the head which left him unconscious.
After this it took another 12 years for him to fight again, in the mean time he dedicated himself into teaching his sons and Carlos Gracie’s sons. Legends in BJJ like Rickson, Royce, Carlson, Rolls, Carlinhos, Relson, Rorion, amongst many others. He dedicated himself to the Gracie legacy of Jiu-Jitsu. Along the years many came out against him and his hard nose ideas about BJJ, some of them were close family members like Carlson Gracie. But even with all this turmoil there is no questioning that without him, BJJ would have definitely gone a different way.
Grand Master Helio Gracie died on January 29, 2009 aged 95.
Helio Gracie Documentary (with Subtitles)
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