The Gracie challenge was an open invitation issued by some members of the Gracie family—known as pioneers of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ)—to martial artists of other styles to fight in a vale tudo match. A precursor to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the purpose of these challenges was to prove the effectiveness of the Gracie style of BJJ over all other martial arts styles in an era before the advent of "mixed martial arts". Challenges have been issued since Carlos Gracie first made one in the 1920s; some were public events and others have remained private.
The Gracie challenge was first issued by then judoka Carlos Gracie in the 1920s to promote and develop the Gracie's style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and as an attempt to show that it was superior to other styles of martial arts. The matches typically featured a smaller Gracie versus a larger and/or more athletic looking opponent, and became increasingly popular. Carlos and later his brother Hélio Gracie and both of these men's sons defeated martial artists of many different styles such as boxing, judo, karate, and wrestling, while experiencing few losses.
Hélio Gracie vs Masahiko Kimura
Hélio Gracie issued a challenge to a highly touted judoka named Masahiko Kimura. An agreement was made under what would be known as the "Gracie Rules" via the Gracie Challenge that throws and pins would not count towards victory; only submission or loss of consciousness would do so. This played against Judo rules in which Pins and throws can award someone a victory. Kimura would go on to defeat Hélio in 14 minutes. Kimura broke Hélio's arm during the match with a reverse ude-garami after applying a number of submissions. According to Kimura in his book My Judo, he thought of Hélio Gracie to be a 6th dan judoka at the time of his fight with him in 1951.
Fadda Academy vs Gracie Academy
In 1951 jiu-jitsu instructor Oswaldo Fadda issued a challenge to the Gracie Academy to prove his worth. The contest was proposed through O Globo ("The Globe"), Brazil's most popular publication. “We wish to challenge the Gracies. We respect them like the formidable adversaries they are, but we do not fear them. We have 20 pupils ready for the dispute.”—Oswaldo Fadda
Hélio Gracie accepted the challenge to have his students face Fadda’s and the matches took place at the Gracie Academy. Fadda’s team won, making better use of their footlock knowledge, something the Gracies lacked and frowned upon ever since, calling it “suburban technique” (Técnica de Suburbano). The highlight of the competition was when Fadda’s pupil José Guimarães choked Gracie’s student “Leonidas” unconscious.
Master vs Student
In 1952, Helio would face a former student Valdemar Santana, who in a 3-hour and 45 minute match would defeat Helio. Santana would go on to knock out Helio with a kick to the head. This would be the last of Helio's matches that involved striking (i.e. Vale Tudo).
The Gracie challenge entered American martial arts legend when Rorion Gracie came to the United States to teach Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Rorion upheld the family's tradition and regularly took challenge matches at his facility.
A common story is that Gracie backed up his challenges with a wager that he would pay the winner $100,000 should he lose. The misconception stemmed from a proposed challenge match with Benny "the Jet" Urquidez, where both Gracie and Urquidez would bet $100,000 on the outcome of the match. However, that match never occurred.
It has been speculated[weasel words] that soon after he received his black belt, Royce put out a "Gracie challenge" in which competitors would face him in a no-rules contest, won by submission or knockout, with a prize of $100,000. Royce himself stated in an interview: "It wasn't really a $100,000 challenge. My brother had a big problem with one of the big American kickboxers. Somebody was going to do the commentary for the chapter and they called my brother, and asked if he wanted to face him. He said that he would face anyone in MMA. My brother had already faced and beat him before. He told them to ask him if they knew who he was facing as he should know who he was facing." Urquidez pretended he didn't know who the Gracies were, so they made a bet to put a $100,000 down each to fight. Urquidez later backed down on the bet and allegedly[weasel words] said he did not want to put his money down and instead put his championship belt in place of the $100,000 and that if Royce Gracie won, he would become the World Champion in kickboxing.
However, there are contradictory versions of the challenge with Urquidez. According to an interview with Urquidez, the Gracies came to his school and challenged him to a fight. Benny agreed to the fight under the Gracies' rules and asked for time to train and for the fight to be held at a neutral location. When the Gracies found out that Benny was a competent grappler and had been training for many years with grappling legend Gene LeBell and Gokor Chivichyan, they, allegedly,[weasel words] backed out of the fight.
Another episode that could be included with the Gracie challenge occurred when the Gracies challenged "Judo" Gene LeBell. The Gracies wanted to match Rickson Gracie with the American grappling master, professional wrestler and stuntman. LeBell, who was almost 60 at the time, replied that Rickson was much younger (27 years difference about 33 years old) than he and that he would instead grapple with Hélio Gracie who was closer in age to him (then 80). When confronted with this reply, the Gracies accepted the challenge on the condition that Gene LeBell drop down to the 140 pound weight class of the 80-year-old Hélio Gracie. At that point, Gene LeBell allegedly did not accept their counter-offer because he was around 200 pounds and could never make it down to 140 pounds. An interesting point is that Helio had fought considerably heavier opponents and had maintained that Gracie jiu-jitsu was made for a smaller man to defeat a larger man.
Gracie challenge matches
Sakuraba "The Gracie Hunter"
After defeating Anthony Macias at Pride 7, Kazushi Sakuraba was matched against Royler Gracie for Pride 8, who had previously conquered Sakuraba's stablemate Yuhi Sano. It marked the largest weight advantage Sakuraba has enjoyed in his career to date (being around 30 pounds heavier than Royler). Royler, unable to score a takedown or strike effectively from a standing position, remained on the ground in an effort to bait Sakuraba into a grappling-oriented contest, while Sakuraba, standing, landed punishing kicks to Royler's legs, thighs and head. Eventually, with less than two minutes remaining, Sakuraba finally engaged Royler on the ground, soon catching him in an elbow lock known as Ude Garami or Double-top wristlock. As Sakuraba wrenched on the submission, the referee intervened with 1 minute and 44 seconds remaining on the clock, ending the contest and awarding Sakuraba the win by TKO. Sakuraba's victory over Royler constituted the first loss by a Gracie in professional fighting in several decades and as such, sent ripples of shock and controversy through the mixed martial arts community. Some protested that the victory was tainted due to the fact that Royler (although placed in a debilitating submission hold) never conceded defeat and was mere seconds away from the final bell when the bout was stopped. It is worth noting that the last Japanese athlete to defeat a Gracie prior to Sakuraba's win against Royler, legendary judoka Masahiko Kimura, had used the very same judo technique Sakuraba utilized to beat Royler. That time, the recipient had been Royler's father, Helio Gracie, who had, like Royler, also refused to submit but likewise lost.
While the Japanese fight media rejoiced and elevated Sakuraba to superstar status, the Gracie family took great umbrage over the incident, feeling that they had been cheated by Pride. Compelled to set the record straight and re-assert the dominance of his family, Royler's younger brother and former UFC Champion Royce Gracie returned to the sport of mixed martial arts in 2000 and entered the 16-Man Pride Grand Prix alongside Sakuraba and several other top fighters of the era. Placed on the same side of the bracket, a special set of rules were requested by the Gracies in the event of a Sakuraba-Royce match, including no referee stoppages and no time-limits, the fight ending only in the event of a submission or knock-out. In his first fight of the 2000 Pride tournament Sakuraba once again found himself matched up against a heavier opponent, this time the well-regarded 205-pound fighter, former King of Pancrase Guy Mezger. After a closely fought 15 minutes the judges requested an overtime round, and the fight ended in controversy when Mezger's coach Ken Shamrock forced his fighter back to the locker room claiming that no additional rounds were agreed upon in the contract. Sakuraba ended up winning the match by forfeit. Meanwhile, Royce defeated Nobuhiko Takada by unanimous decision and thus set the stage for their much anticipated showdown.
In the tournament quarterfinals Royce and Sakuraba battled for an hour and a half (six 15 minute rounds). Sakuraba nearly ended the match with a knee bar towards the end of the first round. As the confrontation stretched on, the Gracie's own no time-limit rules began to work against Royce as Sakuraba's wrestling skills and balance nullified Royce's ability to score a takedown and—in some instances—even pull guard. Even Royce's ever-present jiu-jitsu gi became a weapon for the wrestler to use against him as Sakuraba used it to help him control Gracie on the instances the fight did come to the ground. However, with Sakuraba's control of the takedown, these instances of ground warfare became increasingly sporadic. After the 90 minute battle of punishing leg kicks, Royce's brother, Rorion threw in the towel. Sakuraba would lose a rematch with Royce in 2007, though Royce tested positive for illegal steroids after the fight and was suspended for six months.
Prior to the bout, there was speculation that the fight was largely personal, with Royce looking to avenge his brother and Sakuraba looking to atone for his stablemate's defeats and vindicate professional wrestling and the UWFi once and for all. However, following the stoppage, Royce and Sakuraba embraced in the ring. Gracious in victory. Exhausted from his battle with Royce, Sakuraba surprised many when he emerged from the locker room for the tournament semi-finals. His opponent, Igor Vovchanchyn, outweighed him by close to fifty pounds (Sakuraba had come into the bout with Royce lighter than usual, at 176 pounds) and was considered to be the top heavyweight striker of the day. Sakuraba surprised many by taking Vovchanchyn down and nearly finishing him with an armbar. Sakuraba was actually leading the fight past the 10-minute mark, but near the end Igor was able to reverse a takedown and draw the first round even with ground strikes. After the first round was declared a draw Sakuraba's corner threw in the towel before the beginning of overtime, primilary due to fatigue.
Following the Grand Prix, Sakuraba was christened the "Gracie Hunter" by the Japanese sports media. Keeping in tow with his new nickname, Sakuraba sandwiched a swift victory via achilles lock against Shannon Ritch between fights against brothers Renzo Gracie and Ryan Gracie. In contrast to Royler and Royce, Renzo and Ryan were products of Carlson Gracie's approach to jiu-jitsu, which placed a stronger emphasis on combat-ready skills and training without a gi.
At the time of his bout with Sakuraba, Renzo's only loss in 10 bouts was a closely contested decision to Sakuraba's former UWFi stablemate and rival, Kiyoshi Tamura while Maurice Smith, Oleg Taktarov and Abu Dhabi champion Sanae Kikuta numbered amongst his victims. Renzo's stylistic differences from his cousins were in evidence from the outset of his contest against Sakuraba, as he pressed the pace of the bout with a variety of kicks and punches, although few connected. Sakuraba responded in kind, and the striking seemed to stalemate. Throwing his wrestling into the equation, Sakuraba timed a number of double and single leg takedowns against Renzo's flurries from where he alternately attempted to cartwheel past Gracie's guard, malign his legs with kicks from the standing position and even attack with a low dropkick. However, Renzo's defensive skills from bottom nullified the entire gamut of Sakuraba's offensive attempts until mere seconds remained in the battle and the contestants found themselves pressed against the turnbuckle. Sakuraba locked in a kimura and spun around, flipping Renzo to the canvas even as he wrenched his arm behind his back. Like Royler and Helio before him, Renzo refused to submit to the hold despite his elbow being snapped prior to hitting the ground and, even as the referee stopped the contest due to the injury, which awarded victory to Sakuraba. His arm in a sling, Renzo took the microphone and, before the 35,000 fans assembled at the Seibu Dome, stated that Sakuraba was "the Japanese version of the Gracie family". Renzo has since referred to the bout as his proudest moment in mixed martial arts, due to his refusal to submit in the face of injury.
Ryan Gracie, who had fought on the same card and emerged victorious, issued a challenge to Sakuraba and the two were subsequently scheduled to meet at Pride 12 - Cold Fury. Due to a shoulder injury, the fight was limited to a single 10-minute round, where Ryan's spirited efforts were generally stymied and controlled by Sakuraba, who noticeably avoided attacks on his younger opponent's injured arm.
Wallid Ismail, a jiu-jitsu champion several times over and black belt under Carlson Gracie, defeated four members of the famous Gracie family in competition, representing his master in an intra-family feud that existed between Carlson and Helio Gracie. When fighting against Royce Gracie in 1998, Ismail was the only one who accepted the conditions that Royce proposed for the bout, like having no point scoring and no time limit, thus making the fight only winnable by submission. The fight took four minutes and fifty three seconds, until Wallid defeated Gracie with the Relógio, the Clock Choke, a move that has been associated with Wallid ever since. After his win, Wallid said that if Royce's team wanted a rematch they would have to pay him USD 200,000.00, a value that even the Gracie had never been paid at the UFC at that time.
Decision after defeat - judo Olympian Yoshida win turned into a no-contest
Hidehiko Yoshida, a Judo Gold Medal Olympian, debuted for PRIDE FC in a grappling match against mixed martial arts (MMA) pioneer Royce Gracie at Pride Shockwave in 2002. The fight ended when Yoshida claimed Gracie had submitted from a Gi choke. However, Gracie disputed the stoppage and the fight was later ruled a no contest when the family vowed to never fight for PRIDE again if the win was not turned into a no contest. PRIDE accepted their demands.
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