The story of BJJ developer Hélio Gracie


The life story of Hélio Gracie begins on October 1, 1913, in Belém, Brazil. Hélio was born the youngest son of Gastão, grandson of a Scottish immigrant, and Cesalina Gracie. From an early age, Hélio stood out for his petite build. He was tall and slight in contrast to his brothers, who had small and strong statures.

Hélio had a turbulent childhood, his family lived in poor conditions and was financially forced to move to the big city of Río de Janeiro in 1921. Due to the poor living conditions, Hélio suffered from chronic dizzy spells from a young age and struggled with health exhaustion.

Beginnings of Gracie Jiu Jitsu

In 1915, one of the best judo masters and jiu jitsu prize fighters, Mitsuyo Maeda, traveled to Brazil and founded a martial arts school with the help of Hélio’s father. Hélio’s oldest brother Carlos was the first Gracie to train under Maeda. After some time, Carlos taught Jiu Jitsu himself at his home in Río de Janeiro.

At the age of 14, Hélio moved in with his brother in the Botafago district. Hélio was initially instructed by his doctor not to participate in physical training. Over time, however, Hélio’s health improved thanks in part to the Gracie diet developed by Carlos, which focused on optimal acid-base balance. Finally, at the age of 16, Hélio began working out with his brothers George and Carlos. When Carlos was absent one day, a student reported for class and Hélio offered to take over the training session. After a successful training session and an extremely satisfied student, Carlos allowed Hélio to teach the martial art. By observing his brothers’ training, Hélio had already gained extensive knowledge of the techniques practiced before taking part in the training.

Due to his lanky build, Hélio was forced to work hard on the techniques as they were mainly based on strength and skill. He adapted the techniques and made use of principles such as the development of force through leverage. Hélio assisted his brother Carlos in the following years with the further development of the training for self-defense. On September 7, 1930, the brothers opened their first official academy and managed to attract important people to the martial art. They took different roles in the development of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Carlos was a visionary as well as a mentor, while Hélio refined the training and techniques. The focus of the martial art was to wrestle the opponent to the ground, a sequence of different holding positions on the ground and finally a choke hold or armbar to give up the opponent.

Professional fighting career

To demonstrate the effectiveness of Gracie Jiu Jitsu to the general public, Carlos and Hélio publicly challenged opponents in Vale Tudo fights (a full-contact, no-rules fight), the birth of the Gracie Challenge. The goal was to prove the superiority of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu over other martial arts. Hélio competed against opponents from different fighting styles for several decades.

In 1931, when Hélio was 18 years old, he began his professional career as a Jiu Jitsu fighter. Hélio defeated boxer Antonio Portugal in his first fight by surrendering with an armbar after only 40 seconds. Another important fight took place in November 1932 against the legendary freestyle wrestler Fred Ebert, who had a weight advantage of 29 kilograms. The Vale Tudo fight was stopped after almost 2 hours because neither of the opponents could hold their ground. In the following two years, Hélio fought more fights and played a decisive role in the further development of Jiu Jitsu martial arts, whose techniques became more effective and gave rise to a new fighting style of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. From 1937 to 1950 Hélio took a break from competitions and retired for personal reasons.

For his comeback in 1950, Hélio challenged boxing champion Joe Louis to a Vale Tudo fight, but the latter refused and proposed a boxing match, which Hélio refused. On January 18, 1950, he fought a much younger opponent in Landulfo Caribé, who also owned an impeccable record. Landulfo had publicly challenged Hélio to a fight to the death with an ad in the newspaper. The fight was fought in kimono under jiu jitsu rules. At the beginning of the fight Caribé tried to jump into the guard, whereupon Hélio flung him hard to the mat. Hélio managed after some time to overcome the guard and defeat Caribé after four minutes with a stranglehold.

A year later, the legendary fight between the best Japanese jiu jitsu master Masahiko Kimura and Hélio took place. At first, Kimura did not want to fight Hélio because he was much older and lighter than him. Kimura eventually accepted the challenge on the condition that Hélio first fight the second best jiu jitsu fighter from Japan, Kato, and defeat him as easily as Kimura had done before. Hélio defeated Kato by a stranglehold, after which the fight between Kimura and Hélio took place on October 23, 1951 at the Maracanã Stadium in Río de Janeiro in front of 200,000 spectators. The historic event was the first Jiu Jitsu championship to be held outside of Japan. The fight was scheduled for two rounds of ten minutes each. Kimura, confident of victory, let it be known in the newspapers before the fight that if the fight lasted longer than three minutes, Hélio would be declared the winner. At the beginning of the fight, Kimura’s throws catapulted Hélio around the entire ring, but he found it difficult to control Hélio or force him to give up. Hélio was known for his excellent defense. However, midway through the second round, Kimura managed to land a shoulder tackle that was later named after him, after which Hélio’s corner threw in the towel, as he refused to give up and his arm was already broken.

On May 24, 1955, Hélio faced one of his former students, Valdemar Santana. Santana was 16 years younger than Hélio at the time of the fight and 27 kilograms heavier. The fight was fought in kimono and lasted almost four hours, which Valdemar won by kicking Hélio’s head on the ground. Hélio’s last fight was in 1967 against Valdomiro Santos Ferreira, whom he defeated by a task hold. In total, Hélio fought 20 fights, of which he won nine, eight of them by submission and one by knockout.

The legacy of Hélio Gracie

Hélio devoted his later life to teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu primarily to the Gracie family, his sons, nephews and grandchildren. These included BJJ legends such as Royce, Rickson, Carlson, and Royler, among others. When the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation was founded in 1967, Hélio played a decisive role as president in establishing Jiu Jitsu as a sport with the definition of rules. Through the evolution of the martial sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, several persistent ideas of Hélio were changed over the years. These included the scoring system for competitions in BJJ, the belt system with multiple belt colors, and the neglected aspect of self-defense. After these changes, Hélio decided to leave the association because the self-defense aspect of his taught Jiu Jitsu was completely lost.

Hélio had married twice and had a total of seven sons and two daughters. These include Rorion, Rickson, Royler, Relson, Rolls, Robin and Royce as well as Ricci and Reika. In addition, Hélio was grandfather to many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts such as Ryron, Rener, Kron, Ralek and Rhalan. On January 29, 2009, Hélio passed away at the proud age of 95. He gained international recognition for his dedication to spreading the philosophy and martial art of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. The name Hélio Gracie is synonymous with courage, discipline, inspiration as well as determination. To this day, the Grand Master, 10th Dan in Jiu Jitsu, is known as the founder of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.