The Gracies: A family tradition
The skinny kid wearing pajamas and a thousand-yard stare? He can’t be serious.
This was the crowd underestimating Royce Gracie when he stepped into the Octagon for the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event on Nov. 12, 1993, in Denver.
They hadn’t heard of Gracie, 26, barely 170 pounds soaking wet. They weren’t aware of his family. They were ignorant to his style of fighting and, understandably enough, the piece of history that was about to unfold.
What they knew, based on a quick glance, was he didn’t have a mark on his face, maybe not even a nick from shaving. In mere moments, wearing a karate man’s robe held fast by a black belt, this unthreatening soul would be locked into a cage for anything-goes combat.
McNichols Sports Arena buzzed by the time Gracie made his way out. His was the third contest of a pioneering eight-man single-night tournament, which paid the winner $50,000 and, it turned out, much much more.
UFC 1 was literally kicked off by Dutchman Gerard Gordeau sending Teila Tuli’s tooth flying like a meteor with a foot to the mouth. And it followed up with hefty American striker Kevin Rosier stomping the head of Zane Frazier.
Waiting to challenge boxer Art Jimmerson next, Gracie watched the carnage unfold on a television inside his locker room.
When Tuli took a foot to the face and the 400-plus-pound sumo wrestler fell where he stood, the consensus was worth chuckling about. They all agreed he should have known Gracie jiu-jitsu.
If the UFC rendered a monster like Tuli to tears, this Royce guy was going to be in trouble. Appearances, however, were designed to be deceiving. Chosen by his eldest brother Rorion for reasons that weren’t limited to a slim build and fresh face, Royce was not the top fighter in his family. Another older brother, Rickson, cut a far more imposing figure, with a sterling reputation as a technician and street fighter.
Gracie loyalists had hoped to see Rickson raze the competition. But that wouldn’t fit with what the clan, namely Rorion, intended to accomplish. The proliferation of Gracie jiu-jitsu — a grappling art of self defense created, refined and tested in Brazil — needed an everyman, much like its creator Helio Gracie, who dedicated a life to refining the skills that Royce was about to showcase.
“Until it came to America,” Royce said, “the world never heard of it.”
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