Hélio Gracie (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈɛliu ˈɡɾejsi]; October 1, 1913 – January 29, 2009) was a Brazilian martial artist who, together with his brother Carlos Gracie, founded the martial art of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, known internationally as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Until his death, Gracie was the only living 10th degree master of that system, and is widely considered as one of the first sports heroes in Brazilian history; he was named Black Belt magazine’s Man of the Year in 1997. He was the father of the world-renowned fighters Rickson Gracie, Royler Gracie, Royce Gracie, Relson Gracie, and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Co-founder Rorion Gracie. According to one of his most notable opponents, Masahiko Kimura, Gracie held the rank of 6th dan in judo. He was named Black Belt Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1997.
When he was 16 years old, he found the opportunity to teach a jujitsu class (at that time judo was commonly referred to as Kano Jiu-Jitsu or simply Jiu-Jitsu), and this experience led him to develop Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. A director of the Bank of Brazil, Mario Brandt, arrived for a private class at the original Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro, as scheduled. The instructor, Carlos Gracie, was running late and was not present. Helio offered to begin the class with the man. When the tardy Carlos arrived offering his apologies, the student assured him it was no problem, and actually requested that he be allowed to continue learning with Helio Gracie instead. Carlos agreed to this and Helio Gracie became an instructor.
Gracie realized, however, that even though he knew the techniques theoretically, the moves were much harder to execute. Due to his smaller size, he realized many of the judo moves required brute strength which did not suit his small stature. Consequently, he began adapting judo for his particular physical attributes,and through trial and error learned to maximize leverage, thus minimizing the force that needed to be exerted to execute a technique. From these experiments, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, later known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, was created. Using these new techniques, smaller and weaker practitioners gained the capability to defend themselves and even defeat much larger opponents.
Hélio was involved in an attack on Luta-Livre teacher Manoel Rufino dos Santos in 1937, at the age of 24. In a Interview for Playboy Magazine he regretted that act with this statement:
“ It was 66 years ago. that I was involved in my biggest trouble. A famous fighter in Brazil [a former luta livre champion] Manoel Rufini dos Santos. said that he was going to show the world that we Gracies were nothing. It was at the Tijuca Tenis Clube of Rio that I gave my answer to him. I arrived and said “I came to answer the declaration that you made”. He throw a punch and I took him to the ground, with two fractures of his head, and a broken clavicle, and blood spurting out. But it was a foolish act that I did. Today I would never repeat such a thing. ”
Hélio was arrested and sentenced to two and a half years in jail. An appeal was made to the Supreme Court by Hélio’s lawyer Romero Neto and the sentence was upheld, as the court said “Today it was with Manoel Rufini dos Santos. Tomorrow it will be us.” A couple of hours after that decision Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas pardoned Hélio. According to Hélio, one of his students had a brother who was an ambassador and was very close to Getúlio, and he intervened in favor of Hélio. Hélio and Getúlio subsequently met many times and Hélio eventually taught Getúlio’s son Maneco.
Hélio stated in an interview that he had around 15 fights. He began his fight career when he submitted professional boxer Antonio Portugal in 30 seconds in 1932. Also in 1932 he fought American professional wrestler Fred Ebert for fourteen 10 minute rounds until the event was stopped by the police. In 1934 Hélio fought professional wrestler Wladak Zbyszko, who was being billed as a “world champion”, for three 10 minute rounds. That match was declared a draw. Hélio did win against Taro Miyake, a Japanese professional wrestler who worked for Ed “Strangler” Lewis in the U.S.
Hélio also fought in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu vs. Judo matches. In 1932 he fought Japanese judoka Namiki. The fight ended in a draw, but according to the Gracies the bell rang just seconds before Namiki would have tapped out. Hélio had two fights with Japanese judoka Yasuichi Ono after Ono choked out Hélio’s brother George Gracie in a match. Both fights ended in a draw. Hélio fought another Japanese judoka Kato twice. The first time was at Maracanã stadium and they went to a draw. Afterwards, Hélio asked for a rematch. The rematch was held at Ibirapuera Stadium in São Paulo and Hélio won by front choke from the guard. In 1955, Hélio went on to fight leading judoka Masahiko Kimura at Maracanã stadium with Kimura winning via bent arm lock. In 1994, Hélio admitted in an interview that he had in fact been choked unconscious earlier in the match, but had revived and continued fighting. In 1967, during a live television interview, Helio was challenged by capoeira practitioner Valdomiro. Helio, as always, accepted the challenge and defeated him via back choke on a live television program called “Desafio 67″ that took place one week after the challenge was made.
Hélio shares the world record for the longest fight in history with his former student Valdemar Santana, a feat achieved when they spent 3 hours 40 minutes fighting with Hélio losing by technical knockout due to exhaustion. That fight was held at the YMCA in Rio de Janeiro in May, 1955.