With the recent passing of Grand Master Helio Gracie, the martial arts world lost one of its most influential figures...
... and I lost a very dear mentor and friend.
As the founder of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Helio changed the way we think about effective self defense. He emphasized technique over strength and leverage over power. Helio was small in stature and relatively physically frail, so he designed a unique fighting system which specifically allowed someone like him to overcome a much bigger and stronger opponent. He basically invented what we today call Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Although Helio changed martial arts and combat sports, to me his legacy goes beyond just creating a fighting system. I spent fifteen years of my life talking to Helio and training jiu-jitsu directly with him. And he taught me a lot about jiu-jitsu. But he taught me even more about life.
Anyone who was close to Helio will tell you he was a very charismatic guy, and he knew how to make an impression. I met him around 1975, and, from the beginning, he treated me like family even though I wasnt a blood relative and my name wasnt Gracie. It's funny, the first time I met him, I shook his hand and I remember thinking that this was an old guy with a really strong grip! That very first day, Helio made me spar with Royler who was a little, tiny kid at the time, and I became so exhausted! Helio turned to Rickson and said, So this is your tough friend? Well, he doesnt look that tough to me! Then Rickson said, Cmon, dad, leave him alone or Im never gonna see him again! We still laugh about that today! But that was who Helio was. Today, I have a lot of memories, and I value the relationship I had with him in many ways.
Helio taught me that the principles of problem solving in jiu-jitsu go beyond just learning how to fight. He showed me that you can apply them to solving problems in life, too. I think this was Helio's most valuable gift to me. He showed me that the true advantage of jiu-jitsu is not how good a fighter it can make you, but how good a person it can make you. He taught me that when you truly understand jiu-jitsu, your life will improve mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially.
And he also believed that literally anyone could experience the positive changes in life that come from learning jiu-jitsu, that it could take care of any problem. Because of his teaching, Ive learned that in life, we all face bad moments, but how you react to those moments will determine what kind of life you live. Helio believed that jiu-jitsu would give any person the problem solving ability to overcome those bad moments. He said that just as you have to stop and think about the problems you're having on the mat, whether it's an arm bar, a choke, whatever, you can take those same principles and apply them to your life off the mat in order to resolve conflict. He said jiu-jitsu teaches you to be a problem-solver. And that's one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my life.