In 1917, a young and impressionably Carlos Gracie watched a demonstration in Brazil by Judo Master Mitsuyo Maeda, and decided that he wanted to learn the art. Carlos began the process of study under Maeda, and would teach what he learned to his brothers. His youngest brother, Hélio, was a sick and frail boy, and was under doctor’s recommendations not to train, given the risks that the full contact sport posed to his weak body. For years, young Hélio, would sit on the sides, watching his brothers train, studying the various holds and locks, informing his mind before his body had a chance to engage. Carlos by this time was giving paid lessons in Judo to local businessmen and others interested in self-defense.
On one fateful day, a student arrived for his scheduled lesson, with Carlos running late. Seizing the opportunity, Hélio offered to begin the class for the student. When Carlos arrived the student was so impressed with young Hélio’s teaching methods that he asked Carlos if he could continue to learn under him. Carlos agreed and Hélio’s teaching career began. Judo involved many throws and other techniques that relied on physical strength in order to implement. Because Hélio was such a small man he had to adapt the traditional Judo holds and locks to maximize principles of leverage, and minimize the necessity of physical superiority in order to exact dominance. His frailty created a necessity, and an asset – he had to adapt the art in ways that could be utilized without physical strength. As a result, his form of martial art (later known as Gracie or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) became very popular, because it presented the possibility for smaller or weaker individuals to defend and even defeat much larger competitors using leverage, and mental strategy.
Hélio’s trial and error adaptations not only transformed Judo into an entirely different art, the art of Gracie or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), but it also propelled him into the public spotlight as the art’s most famous practitioner. Hélio became so convinced at the superiority of his art, as compared to traditional fighting styles, that he famously challenged any and all comers in public exhibition bouts. Even as a 5’9’’, 130 pound man, Hélio was able to defeat or at least fight to a draw much more physically gifted and stronger men, including champions of other fighting styles from other countries. Hélio became a well-known sports figure in Brazil in the 1930s as his adapted art began to receive public notice.
Jiu-Jitsu became much more than a physical exercise to the Gracie family. It became an art, a lifestyle, a philosophy; some would even say a religion. Spreading the superiority of the art became the family’s purpose and their mastery of the art of fighting was continual. Carlos and Hélio formed an Academy where BJJ would be taught to all those who would come. The most important academy however that they would create, to further the interest of their sport, was the academy within their home. Carlos, who had twenty-one children, and Hélio, who had nine children, purchased land and created the “Gracie Compound”, a large property in Teresopolis, Brazil with a Hotel Style house and it’s own water tower. The mission of the gracie compound: to teach the Gracie children Jiu-Jitsu.
Ultimate Fighting Championship co-creator Rorion Gracie, Hélio’s eldest son, was one of the children who were taught the art at the hands of the master. In an interview for a biopic of Hélio on the Biography Channel Rorion provided a humorous description of what it was like “growing up Gracie”:
When people would drive past the house in Teresopolis, they would see all the kimonos neatly hanging outside, looking like straitjackets. You would look at the grassy area at the center of the house, and on the canvas in the grassy area, there were people training. It looked like a mental asylum…crazy people…thirty-five children grappling with each other.
As part of the training regime, Carlos and Hélio also created a special diet (the appropriately named “Gracie Diet”) designed to maximize health and nutrition by focusing on food combining for optimal health. These “little grapplers” grew into some of the most famous names in the now thriving world of mixed martial arts including original Ultimate Fighting Championship Winner Royce Gracie, and his undefeated older brother, Vale Tudo Champion Rickson, and it is these men (Carlos’ and Hélio’s sons) who have completely altered the world of competitive martial arts forever. Anyone who is familiar with mixed martial arts is familiar with the Gracie family and BJJ. All of these came about because a family had laser like focus on a particular life purpose and a complete dedication to mastery in the endeavour.
Winning competitions, making money, and achieving fame and status were never goals for the Gracie family, although these results have surely followed them over the years as the popularity of their art has flourished throughout the world. Gracie Barras, or teaching academies, can now be found all throughout the world. The family’s focus, as first established by Hélio, has always been on sharing their art with the world, and proving to the world that what they created was a superior martial art form. The path that they pursued was not one based on external rewards, but rather one that was based on absolute and complete mastery of a subject matter. Concerning why he fought, Rickson Gracie, generally considered the greatest fighter of Hélio’s sons, remarked at the 2012 World Jiu-Jitsu Expo, “I fought to raise the honor of Jiu-Jitsu. I fought to prove that Jiu-Jitsu is without a doubt the superior martial art and always will be.”
Hélio Gracie died at the age of ninety-five having lived a full life dedicated to mastery of his chosen purpose. Rumor has it that he was still training in Jiu-Jitsu, and instructing students, only ten days before he died. There is no question that he lived a life that engaged flow. He didn’t chase external rewards, but rather sought, even until his very last days to master, in essence to perfect, his purpose. That is a philosophy worth emulating. Each of us can have that too, if we are willing to do what it takes. The path is simple. We must determine what we value, then we must align our actions and goals so that they correspond to these values. We must reject external rewards (money, security, titles, prestige) as our motivating drivers, but rather embrace a life that is dedicated to mastery of a unique purpose.