How an 19th century Scotsman changed the face of combat sports

In 1826, a young 25 year old Scotsman from just outside Dumfries immigrated to Brazil in search of a new career. What he didn’t realise at the time was that in almost two centuries time, his descendants would change the face of combat sports. His name was George Gracie; a surname familiar in the world of mixed martial arts, particularly the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which was developed by two Brazilians of 1/8th Scottish descent.

From George came Pedro, then from Pedro came Gastao, the latter fathered two children; Carlos and Hélio Gracie. Carlos Gracie began his martial arts career by practising the traditional martial art of Judo. He was instructed by prize fighting judoka Mitsuyo Maeda, who immigrated to Brazil in 1914 to teach the art of judo. Carlos used Maeda’s teaching to develop a martial art of his own, called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Carlos founded the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school along with brothers Hélio and George Jr. They quickly garnered popularity and began issuing open challenges to fighters of other combat sports such as boxing.

Carlos was small in stature and weighed only 135 pounds. Despite his size, he used the effective jiu-jitsu grappling techniques to get boxers of larger size to the ground and submitted. Hélio Gracie also competed in open challenges using his BJJ against other combat martial artist. In 1951, the jiu-jitsu grappler issued a challenge to judo practitioner Masahiko Kimura. The Japanese judoka came to Brazil and submitted him with his signature Kimura choke that is now a specialty submission move in MMA.

Hélio didn’t give up after the loss. He fathered nine children and almost all of them became legends within the world of mixed martial arts. His sixth child Royce Gracie, a sixth degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu rose to worldwide fame in 1993 when he competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Denver, Colorado.

A skinny slender competitor, he did not have the prowess and size of his competitors in the eight-man tournament to determine the best form of combat martial arts. He faced boxer Art Jimmerson in the quarter-finals submitting him after just two minutes. The semi-finals saw him take on MMA legend and physical goliath Ken Shamrock. Although much larger in physique, Royce used his jiu-jitsu technique to submit Shamrock after 57 seconds to advance to the final. He faced French kickboxer Gerard Gordeau and submitted him after a minute and 40 seconds, winning the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Royce Gracie paved the path for mixed martial arts. He showed the combat world that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was the superior martial art having gone onto win the UFC 2 and UFC 4 tournaments in 1994. BJJ has now become a necessity in MMA and in particular the UFC, MMA’s leading promotion. Almost every top fighter within the promotion has a high level of BJJ, most of which are students of the various Gracie Jiu-Jitsu schools dotted around the world.

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Student Nate Diaz applies a rear-naked choke on superstar and BJJ brown belt Conor McGregor at UFC 196.

The Gracie family name has spread from Brazil all the way up to the United States. Hélio’s children have made their way stateside such as Rickson Gracie, the third eldest. Regarded as one of the best Gracie Jiu-Jitsu family members, the eighth degree black/red belt is highly touted as one of the best teachers of BJJ. His son Kron is currently active in MMA with Japanese promotion Rizin, obtaining a perfect record of four wins and no losses.


Kron Gracie (left) with father and jiu-jitsu legend Rickson Gracie (right)

It seems that what goes around comes around Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has returned to its Scottish roots. Paul ‘Bearjew’ Craig is the latest Scots MMA fighter to be signed by the UFC. He has an impeccable 9-0 record in mixed martial arts with eight of his wins coming via submission. His UFC debut in Saramento, California last December saw him overcome Brazilian fighter Luis Henrique da Silva via armbar submission in round two. “You either tap, nap or snap in this game,” says Paul Craig. “You tap when you’ve had enough, nap and go to sleep or get snapped.”

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist Paul Craig weighs in on his UFC debut.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist Paul Craig weighs in on his UFC debut.

It seems quite fitting that two centuries after a young George Gracie made his way to Rio de Janeiro in the 1820’s that the favour has been returned to Scotland. One thing is for certain however. If you practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you will have most definitely have learned it from a member of the Gracie family. The Scottish surname is synonymous not just in Brazil but globally with combat martial arts and without the Gracie family name, the UFC would not exist and the promotions superstars such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey would have never received the platform to stardom the UFC has given them.

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