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Sporting Heroes: Hélio Gracie, martial arts’ little big man


The sport of pankration dates back to the 648 BC Olympic Games. According to Plutarch, it was created by Theseus to defeat the Minotaur.

Today we know its descendant, mixed martial arts (MMA). The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) brought MMA to the world 20 years ago. For that, we have Hélio Gracie to thank.

Hélio’s older brother Carlos was a ju-jitsu instructor in Rio de Janeiro. When Hélio moved in with Carlos in 1927, aged 14, doctors told him he should not practise ju-jitsu owing to his frail physique. Instead Hélio watched and learnt. When Carlos was late to teach a student two years later, Hélio offered to fill in. The student insisted Hélio continue to train him. Hélio was now an instructor.

As a practitioner he still lacked size and strength. If he wanted to compete, he would need to adapt.

Through years of trial and error, Hélio modified the traditional Japanese ju-jitsu techniques to create a new martial art, Brazilian ju-jitsu (“BJJ”), focusing on timing, leverage and balance. A grappling martial art practised mainly from a ground position, it provided Hélio with a platform from which he could win fights against much larger opponents.

He made a name for himself on the Vale Tudo, a circuit of unarmed combat events in Brazil, taking on fighters of different styles and sizes. In his first fight he forced a professional boxer to submit after 30 seconds.

In 1951, Hélio fought the great judoka Masahiko Kimura. Kimura far outweighed Hélio and suggested he would end the fight inside three minutes. Hélio lasted 13, but lost to a reverse armlock that broke his arm. This move is now a staple of BJJ, known as the kimura.

Hélio ended his fight career with a record of 10 wins, seven draws and two losses. His eldest son, Rorion, who continued to develop BJJ, co-founded the UFC in 1993. Hélio Gracie died in 2008, aged 95.