The Gracie Challenge Explained

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a rich history that had many things play a part in its development. One thing that played a big role in the evolution of BJJ was the Gracie Challenge.

The Gracie family’s standing challenge helped shape what the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is today.

In this article, we discuss the story of the Gracie Challenge.

We will look at how the Gracie’s challenge began, famous Gracie Challenge fights, and how it helped forge the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA).

What is the Gracie Challenge?

The Gracie Challenge is an open challenge the family created to prove the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Created roughly a hundred years ago, numerous martial artists and tough men have taken the challenge.

Today, the Gracie Challenge still stands, but obviously with the popularity of BJJ isn’t taken as much anymore.

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How was the Gracie Challenge created?

The Gracie Challenge was started by the co-creators of Jiu-Jitsu, Carlos Sr and Helio. To show the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the brothers understood that they had to prove it.

The Gracie brothers gained publicity with their challenge by contacting the Brazilian press and publishing their challenge. Any martial arts practitioner that wanted to test the power of BJJ was invited to try.

Challengers could either come to the Gracie Academy to challenge the brothers or they could set up a fight. Whenever fights were set up, they were often held under the Vale Tudo format. Anything went in the fight, except for the use of weapons.

Famous Gracie Challenge fighters

carlson gracie bjj in london

Throughout the last century, the Gracie family has produced dozens of world-class fighters. Below we will discuss some of the most notable family members who fought to represent the family name and martial art.

Helio Gracie

The first Gracie Challenge fighter was Helio Gracie, the co-creator of the martial art. Helio’s fighting career lasted five decades where he fought in numerous matches. He is an icon and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu would not exist without Helio Gracie.

Carlson Gracie

Carlson Gracie was the best athlete in the Gracie family for over 3 decades. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, Carlson was a BJJ champion and fought in approximately 20 Vale Tudo fights. Carlson only lost one of those matches, proving the power of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Rickson Gracie

Rickson Gracie is considered by many the greatest BJJ practitioner of all time. He has an alleged 300-0 record, split between grappling matches and Vale Tudo fights.

The most notable Gracie Challenge involving Rickson was the infamous incident with Japanese wrestler Yoji Anjo. In this fight, Rickson famously mauled the Japanese wrestler.

Rickson claims to have a video of the incident but has never released it. There are only a handful of photos of the fight available online.

Royce Gracie

MMA pioneer Royce Gracie is the reason that the UFC exists today. He was chosen as a representative in the early tournaments to prove the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Royce proved just that and battered fighters more than twice his size with ease using Jiu-Jitsu.

Heróis do Ringue (Heroes of the Ring)

The UFC wasn’t the Gracie family’s first live broadcast of their Gracie Challenge on television. They had actually attempted this 30 years prior in another event they created.

This event was called Heróis do Ringue (Heroes of the Ring). A Vale Tudo rules show that featured the best fighters of the era. Carlson Gracie and Waldemar Santana headlined the card in one of their many matches against one another.

The event was held in Rio de Janeiro and broadcast live by a local TV station. Heroes of the Ring was one of the first attempts to bring Vale Tudo fights to the mainstream public.

It would also be one of the only attempts. In the event, future UFC 1 referee João Alberto Barreto would break his opponent’s arm with an armbar.

The TV station airing the fight was appalled that this violence aired on their network. Heroes of the Ring was quickly cancelled and the Gracie’s wouldn’t attempt anything like this again for many decades.

Famous Gracie Challenge fights

During the 20th century, the family took part in hundreds of challenges from martial artists from different backgrounds.

Below we take a look at some of the most notable Gracie challenge fights in history.

Hélio Gracie vs Masahiko Kimura

One of the most famous Gracie challenge fights was a loss for the Gracie family. This fight took place in 1951 between Helio Gracie and Masahiko Kimura.

Kimura was on a tour through South America and stopped in Brazil. During his stay in Brazil, Helio Gracie challenged Kimura to a grappling match.

The Judo champion accepted the challenge and the two had their match in Rio de Janeiro. Kimura would have a dominant performance and throw the smaller Gracie around the mat.

Helio was put in a gyaku ude-garami, but refused to submit and had his arm broken. Out of respect to Kimura, BJJ practitioners referred to the submission as a kimura from that point on.

Gracie Academy vs Fadda Academy

A famous Gracie challenge took place involving two different Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academies. The Gracie academy and the Fadda academy.

Oswaldo Fadda was a pioneer of BJJ and was taught by the martial arts co-founder Luiz França Filho. Fadda ran his own Jiu-Jitsu school and challenged Helio’s school in 1955.

There are mixed reports of what actually happened as a local Rio de Janeiro paper reported team Gracie won. But Reila Gracie, who wrote Carlos Sr’s biography stated in the book that Fadda’s team won using footlock techniques.

Both sides would meet again a year later on a fight card featuring Carlson Gracie and Waldemar Santana. Team Fadda would win that contest.

Walid Ismail vs the Gracies

This matchup is more of a feud between Walid Ismail and the Gracie family (particularly Renzo Gracie). Walid Ismail was actually a top student of Carlson Gracie and faced Royce Gracie in a BJJ match.

Ismail would put Royce to sleep with a clock choke and then a war of words between him and Renzo began. To this day, they are still feuding but have never officially fought each other.

Rickson Gracie vs Yoji Anjo

In the early 1990s, Rickson Gracie gained a lot of fame in Japan after winning Vale Tudo Japan 1. This led to Japanese pro wrestlers from a start-up promotion challenging Rickson to fight them in the promotion.

Rickson had no desire to fight within what he called a fixed fight promotion. Instead, he laid down a Gracie Challenge to the wrestler to come to the Gracie Academy and fight him.

One young Japanese wrestler named Yoji Anjo made the trip to California. He came to the academy with Japanese press members and waited for Rickson to arrive.

When Rickson arrived, he let Anjo and his manager in, but not the press. Once they went inside the school, they went to the mat and the fight began. 

Rickson and everyone there reported that he gave Anjo a vicious beating and put him to sleep. There’s allegedly a video of the incident, but Rickson has never released it to the public.

Sakuraba vs the Gracies

During the heyday of Pride, there was a huge rivalry between Kazushi Sakuraba and the Gracie family. It started after Sakuraba beat Royler Gracie in a controversial match, where Royler didn’t submit.

The Gracie’s vowed vengeance and chased after bouts with Sakuraba ever since. Kazushi would then beat Royce Gracie after a 90-minute war, where Royce was too tired to keep fighting.

He would then go on to beat Renzo Gracie and his brother Ryan Gracie. Earning Sakuraba the name “the Gracie Hunter.”

Royce would win a rematch later in their careers and Ralek Gracie would also beat Sakuraba. Putting the series between the two at 4-2 for Sakuraba.

The Gracie In Action instructionals

the gracie challenge

In the late 1970s, Rorion Gracie would move to the US to teach Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Rorion would also bring the Gracie Challenge with him. 

Laying down the open challenge to any American martial artist or tough guy that doubted the power of Jiu-Jitsu.

After years of teaching Jiu-Jitsu in his garage, Rorion was able to open an academy in Torrance, California. This is really when people started taking the Gracie Challenge.

Many of those challenge attempts were recorded on video and saved by Rorion. He compiled these Gracie Challenge attempts and put them in the Gracie In Action instructional videos.

These videos gave the Gracie family a lot of publicity and helped the first big growth of BJJ in the US.

Did the Gracie family lose any challenges?

The Gracie’s would never admit they have lost a challenge, but yes, they have lost Gracie Challenges. We already mentioned the Kimura vs Gracie match that ended with Kimura breaking Helio’s arm, but there’s another more recent challenge.

A Gracie Challenge that took place in France in 2003 involved Royce Gracie’s younger brother Robin Gracie. Robin owns the Gracie Academy in Barcelona, Spain and was giving a seminar in Perpignan, France.

During the seminar, a French MMA fighter named Damien Riccio showed up to the seminar uninvited. He challenged Robin to a fight and the challenge was accepted.

This was a rare Gracie Challenge that would not go the Gracie family’s way. Gracie would get his takedown defended and pull guard.

Riccio would begin landing headbutts and punches that made Robin Gracie quit.

Royce was so enraged by this incident that he allegedly gathered family members and went to Perpignan. The family ended up finding Riccio at the bar he worked at and attacking him and his brother.

Damien also allegedly fired a gun, which made the Gracie’s flee. Nobody knows for sure what really happened, and since Riccio passed away in 2016, we’ll probably never know.

How did the Gracie Challenge influence the UFC?

The UFC was created as a gigantic version of the Gracie Challenge. Rorion Gracie along with business partners Art Davie and Bob Meyrowitz wanted to bring the Gracie Challenge to PPV.

The UFC was originally created as a one night no rules fight tournament that took place in Denver, Colorado. This large version of the Gracie Challenge proved to be quite successful.

Not only did it grow Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but helped lay the groundwork for MMA to become a legitimate sport.

Gracie Challenge Summary

The Gracie Challenge played a huge part in the growth of Jiu-Jitsu. Without the Gracie family’s challenge, Brazilain Jiu-Jitsu would not have evolved as it did.

Also, the Ultimate Fighting Championship would not exist without the Gracie Challenge. It was the whole reason that Rorion Gracie created the event. 

So if you train Jiu-Jitsu, you should understand the role that the Gracie Challenge played in the growth of BJJ.

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Gareth Davies

I'm a martial arts competitor and enthusiast. Over the last 15 years, I have trained and competed in several martial arts. I live in Manchester U.K working as a strength & conditioning coach when I'm not travelling and exploring martial arts around the world.
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