There is not one true MMA fan in all the world that has not heard of the Gracie legacy. What’s more, everyone has their favorite Gracie; they show tribute with tattoos, t-shirts, gi patches, attending autograph signings or seminars and even dedicating their training to a gym bearing the Gracie name. For this particular MMA fan [me!], Renzo is just that: my favorite. I cannot believe that I was able to share one hour of uninterrupted phone time with this affable legend. (Well, besides when his phone overheated and he had to put it in the freezer for a couple of minutes…)
Below is part one of our interview, in its entirety. I did not edit out any questions, because I truly wanted to share all of this candid, funny and incredible one-on-one with the rest of you…plus one very exciting announcement and several photos from Renzo’s own collection. Part two will be published shortly. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.
Stephanie: Did you have any hesitation continuing family tradition in the martial arts? Did it come naturally to you and do you think natural ability is carried in the bloodline?
Renzo: To be honest, I was always very weak physically [growing up]. I loved and admired so much the people thatwere involved with jiu-jitsu that I just stuck with. I believed that passion for the sport comes before natural ability. The moment that you love something so much, you just don’t let go; you insist on it and you stick with it. I think the biggest gift that my family could give me was actually not just the bloodline, but the passion to make me understand how great the sport was and how important it was in changing people’s lives. That was very easy to follow, but [It takes] hard work. I would rather have a student who actually works hard than any guy that has a natural ability who is lazy.
Stephanie: How did you meet your wife, Cristina? Do all of your children practice jiu-jitsu?
Renzo: I met my wife at an early age; the first time I met her I was ten-years-old. Her father was friends with my father. We end up being together when I was 23; we were friends already for long time and it came naturally. I fell in love…I think before her, [laughs] but I am very driven, so I make sure that she fell in love! She gave me three wonderful kids [Catarina, Cora and Ruran] that I cherish and they like jiu-jitsu. One of my daughters [Catarina] works in fashion. She works at Abercrombie & Fitch and now she is thinking about setting up her own clothing business, so I am very happy for that. And my boy, [Ruran] he’s 18 and he trains a lot. He trains the whole day jiu-jitsu, so I believe the same passion my father passed to me I was able to pass to him.
Stephanie: What is a typical day like in the Gracie family?
Renzo: We have four academies, so things are pretty stable. Today, I woke up, I went to work out, came back and took a nap and [my family] woke up. We were just having breakfast me, my kids and my wife.
Stephanie: What do you think about Twitter and social media? How has it affected this sport?
Renzo: I do believe Twitter and Facebook, social media in general, helps spread the word. Everything is bigger, much faster than before. Before you have to wait for something to hit a fad that everybody would embrace; now, it’s different. I think [social media] pushed to make MMA big. You find out about kids who train in Russia, kids who train in Abu Dhabi; you have access to that information. It’s a really important tool for research, but it’s important too to communicate and to learn. You are able to find the knowledge in the most amazing way. Imagine, when I was a kid, [if] I wanted to know about something, I had to go to my aunt’s house and she had an encyclopedia at home and I had to look into that. Now I have that access at my fingertip; it’s unbelievable! It’s on my phone, it’s on my computer at home…it’s everywhere. [Follow Renzo on Twitter @RenzoGracieBJJ]
Stephanie: Do you have any stories about your experience on social media to share with me?
Renzo: There was one time a guy send me a private message saying that he was going to kill himself. He had lost his job…Luckily, he was in Jersey, so when I got that message, I messaged him back right away and asked him where he was. He told me where he was…I told him to wait because I was going to get a beer, too. So I know that this guy now has a job; he is working hard, supporting his family…he realized how foolish his thought was like that, you know? I remember having my beer with him.
Stephanie: You really did go?!
Renzo: Yeah, for sure. I have a chance to make a difference; why not embrace it, you know? I am friends with him even today and I check on him all the time to make sure that everything is good. I never put that on Twitter, but you have it firsthand. First time I told this story.
Stephanie: Tell me about the muggers that you tweeted about beating up.
Renzo: Yes, yes. Exactly like that. It was good [laughs]. The only thing that I forgot to mention…when [the muggers] came to me, they actually reach inside my pocket; like they are grabbing something. This is how they rob in New York; they say, ‘oh give me a cigarette; oh give me a dollar,’ but they grab and they go inside your purse and they go inside your pocket. In reality, it’s a way for them to get away with it if they end up in court. They are going to have a way to defend themselves by claiming that they were asking for a cigarette or a dollar, so that’s how they rob you. [One] day a guy asked me for a lighter. ‘Where’s my lighter!’ When he say that, I look at him and started smiling because I thought about the cigarettes, you know? I say, ‘look at this guy here, he’s making a joke!’ I said, ‘I have no lighter, my brother!’ And he goes ‘You told me, you promised me you going to bring my lighter!’ And I said ‘Come on buddy, you know I don’t smoke.’ ‘WHERE’S MY LIGHTER?!’ And I thought that he was doing the same thing [as the muggers], you know? So when he did it again, I was walking already towards him. I accelerate my pace and I said to him, ‘You don’t want me to have a lighter on me, so I don’t set your ass on fire!’ He said ‘Ok!’ And he took off. Unbelievable!
Stephanie: Wait, was this the same night that you choked that guy out three times?
[For full story, click here]
Renzo: No, that wasn’t the same night. The lighter was a month and a half later. It was two guys; I got two guys. I drove and the second one I got him near the west side highway.
Stephanie: Woah. Remind me never to cross you.
Renzo: [Laughs] Nah, I’m the nicest guy alive, but I’m an educator; these people need to learn. When I beat them up, I scare them well too to make sure they don’t do that again, or I’m there, you know? They’re new born-again Christians!
Stephanie: What are some differences between MMA fans of your hay-day and the MMA fans of today?
Renzo: There’s a small difference, but you have to understand every fan is extremely important for our sport. They’re the ones that support us and makes the sport grow. Without the fans, there’s nobody, but back then, the fans were more hardcore. They knew about everything. Now you have the guy who watches one fight or he heard from his friend who does [MMA] and the next thing you see is everybody is wearing a Tapout shirt and thinking he can fight, but I’m very glad for that. I always dream to see this sport going in that direction and growing like that and be able to give the place in the sun that it deserves from all this hard work.
Stephanie: What was it like fighting all over the globe? What were some of your experiences in the different countries you visited?
Renzo: America is a very intense jury. Americans like the fight and they cheer. But wherever you have soccer crowd, like if they normally root for soccer, you have a more intense experience like I had in Brazil. Japan they are very polite; you can hear, like the whole arena. We are talking about 65,000 people arena, you can hear the coach giving instructions to the fighter. Nobody makes a sound, but in Brazil, soccer fan, they go crazy. They curse, they throw things…they suffer and they cherish together with you; it’s unbelievable. I don’t know if you watched the last UFC? There were a lot of Brazilians in the crowd. You could hear them going, [sings] ‘Woah! Woooahh!’ It was funny; it was funny to see that! It was like a soccer game.
Stephanie: What was your most memorable fight and what is the most precious memory from your career thus far?
Renzo: I honestly think that my most memorable fight will be the next one: the one that I didn’t live yet, so that will be a new experience. All those that I already did, they are part of the past and I learn from and I improved from, but I always think my best will be the next one. The most amazing moment…there are so many that is difficult to point one. I have every day that I see a student doing a move that I was able to teach them; it’s an unbelievable moment. Every time I get on the mat and I sweat with those around me, those amazing people that I admire and I keep going as a fighter and as a teacher. It’s an amazing moment. I was lucky that I embrace a profession that, to me, is not a work at all. It’s a pleasure. I was very fortunate for that. So if you ask me to pinpoint one moment, I don’t have; I have hundreds. I have one almost every day. That’s how great this sport is.
Stephanie: What qualities do a good teacher or instructor possess?
Renzo: I think passion. Passion for what he’s doing. I remember even when I was back in high school, the teachers that had the passion when they were teaching, they were the best teachers. That is what pushed me to be a great teacher because I could feel the passion that they taught, the passion that they explain to you and how grateful they were when you learn. I think that’s the best quality a teacher can have, is to have passion when he teach.
Renzo: I believe that there is a spiritual world, for sure, that looks after us, but I do believe in dedication and hard work. The devil is the devil, but only because he’s the devil…and he is old [laughs]. I am very fortunate to be able to be in an age that I can have access to the knowledge of all of the generations of my family up to now: from the first ones to the young one. That taught me a lot. So it’s like I am thinking and I am sensing and I fought too, so it gave me a lot of knowledge to be able to pass through to all the others. By analyzing different fighters, by knowing their game, I could predict everything that they were thinking about doing and how they thought about winning the fight, so it’s easy to prepare my guys to do the right job. For sure I think when you dedicate yourself you develop that; you develop the ability to see what the other guy is thinking about, how to beat him. If you can apply that in your coaching, it’s easy for them to get better. It’s, I think, one of the most important things you can have is a great coach.
Stephanie: Did you ever have a moment when you questioned your career path?
Renzo: I’m very good at interacting with people; I have a natural ability. I could change jobs today and I would be fine, but I knew I would succeed [with jiu-jitsu]. I never thought I could make money doing jiu-jitsu. I really thought about maybe joining the financial market. I had offers to work with them. I have a very close friend of mine, he’s the owner of the Bank of America in Brazil and many times he invite me to work with him, to work at his bank. He goes ‘Renzo, you will be able to make a fortune; I know you!’ But, I could never, because of the beauty that we had, our mission in life – every Gracie had it – was much more valuable than anything else. I believe I make a bigger difference with what I do than actually sitting behind a desk and getting my bank account fat. I have a very good life, financial-wise; I always thought I was going to have to have two jobs: jiu-jitsu and then something else. Fluently, I can speak just jiu-jitsu, you know?
Stephanie: Speaking of happiness and being fulfilled, in “Legacy,” your father [Robson Gracie] talks about how his happiness and his riches were his family and having you and your siblings as his children. When you saw that for the first time, how did it affect you and what did you take away from that?
Renzo: Oh, it brought tears to my eyes. It made me understand how great, how lucky I was to have a father like him. [He is] an amazing man. Every time I’m with him, I cherish that moment and I keep in my memory forever. He’s an amazing dad and a great teacher and I’m glad he pass a lot of knowledge – life knowledge – not only jiu-jitsu knowledge, but life knowledge, to me that I hope I can pass on to my kids, too.
Stephanie: If someone were trying to explain all of your accomplishments and your entire legacy that had no clue about BJJ, martial arts or the Gracie name, how would you want that person to describe you? What would you like to be remembered for most in this industry?
Renzo: I ask everybody to forget Renzo; just remember the Gracie name. Gracie name is the famous jiu-jitsu…the amazing people who proceed me. The Gracie name is the backbone of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Gracie jiu-jitsu.
Stephanie: For my readers who don’t know the background of Brazilian and Gracie jiu-jitsu, can you explain how your family developed the martial art from the Japanese jiu-jitsu and how it evolved?
Renzo: Jiu-jitsu was taught to my grandfather, Carlos Gracie, by Mitsuyo Maeda, who was a jiu-jitsu practitionerfrom Japan. He came to the United States and he had an exhibition that they did for President Roosevelt at the White House. Since Maeda was the best back then, he wanted to be well-represented jiu-jitsu on the match and he wasn’t allowed; like they actually put a guy who was senior to him, but wasn’t a better fighter. So, this guy had the fight for the President and he ended up in a draw. Maeda was so frustrated that he abandoned the Japanese tour and left to Brazil to become a diplomat. With that, he met my grandfather and he started teaching jiu-jitsu. After Carlos learned jiu-jitsu, he began teaching his younger brothers in Rio de Janeiro in the first Gracie Academy. We became the capitol of jiu-jitsu after that; we grew the sport so much there that it became a huge influence in Brazil.
The difference was that the Japanese saw my grandfather was very weak physically; he walked around at 110 pounds. So he had to adapt his art for his body type. That’s the beauty of jiu-jitsu; you adapt to whatever body type you have. My grandfather wasn’t any different; he had to prove he’s the best, so they start working, him and his brothers. They thought if they believed they couldn’t lose, they would win the fight. Some matches were very long, like an hour, hour and a half, two hours long, but they walk out victorious because the other opponent couldn’t beat them. We create the best martial art like that, the best martial art to learn. You know, it’s like an American Express card; you should never leave home without it! [Laughs]
Photo Credits: Renzo Gracie & Family