Issue 181

August 2019

They are the first family of Jiu-Jitsu, the Godfathers of MMA, both legion and legend, and now the fourth generation of Brazil's foremost fighting family are on the march.

They say that if you build it, they will come. The Gracie family with their jiu-jitsu have done just that, building an empire that stretches across continents, a transformation germinating into fight sports and into millions of peoples' lifestyles. The cradle of mixed martial arts.

It was Rorion Gracie who brought his family trademark to the USA, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship was born, but the name Gracie resonated because of the ground game. There were great winners, of course, in Royce Gracie, bringing new thought processes to the fight game, but the association was always the ground game. Rorion, a 9th degree red belt, had come to the USA in 1978 after graduating law school with the objective of establishing jiu-jitsu in a new continent “to share information with the rest of the world”.

His father Helio Gracie had been 140lb soaking wet, but he had a method of winning fights. Now it was seen throughout the world. But the change has come, as the family has evolved, and now we have the Gracies who fight on the feet as adroitly as anyone else, the fourth generation of the fighting dynasty now having formidable fighters who have evolved into hybrid mixed martial artists. An evolution has taken place within the first family of a sport which now creeps out into the world, growing into an ever-increasing – and accepted – form of sports entertainment.

In the last year, Neiman Gracie and Kron Gracie have sprung to prominence, in Bellator and the UFC respectively. They are fascinating characters, both, and it has signaled a change in the way the Gracies are now being viewed. The emergence of Kron, son of the great Rickson Gracie, the third oldest son of Helio Gracie, who has been training with the Diaz brothers, Nick and Nate, and AJ Agazarm in Stockton, has been a particular cause for celebration.

“I'm designed for this,” says Kron. In the formative years of his life, the young fighter who made his UFC debut in February this year – against Alex Caceres – was simply known in public as “Rickson’s son, and grandson of Helio”. The 30-year-old had fought for Rizin Fighting Federation, his nickname “Ice Cream Kron” due to his calm demeanor when fighting. His father Rickson had never been beaten in his official professional MMA career, all of his victories by submission. Kron has a record of five fights undefeated, and the path he has chosen was the one his father and grandfather paved, although he made a concerted e ort to do it his way.

“I’ve always felt pressure since I was a little kid,” says the fifth member of MMA’s first family to compete in a UFC Octagon. “Even at nine, ten years old, if I was competing, everyone would always be pointing at me and saying I’m Rickson’s son, so that’s always been very normal, and for a long time, people didn’t really even know my name. I was just Rickson’s son.”

It was so important for him to grow out of his father's long shadow. “Once I started becoming well-known in jiu-jitsu, it kind of changed and I had my own name and the evolution of that is to get to this point.”

It was similar for Neiman Gracie (Stambowsky), now on the cusp of achieving something big in Bellator, having turned heads with his fighting style. His mother was a Gracie, his father a renowned martial artist in his own right. Stambowsky is the son of Carla Gracie (daughter of Robson Gracie), and Márcio Stambowsky, making him a nephew to Renzo Gracie. Born in Brazil, the 30-year-old came to the USA aged 18.

“Mum always took me to the gym. She always told me about my family. She’d been telling me stories about my uncles because she grew up with them. Back in the day, my great grandfather had 21 kids and they used to all live in the same house,” he explains. “It’s crazy and my mum used to live there. The stories were crazy. She always told me all the stories. She made me be a fan of my own family and she took me to the gym. She’s a big part of me being a fighter.”

Neiman admits there is a type of ‘Gracie pressure’. “Definitely there is pressure, but what helped me with this is since I was a kid I’ve been competing in jiu-jitsu.

tournaments. For you to be a Gracie and go to a jiu-jitsu tournament to compete in Brazil, everyone stops what they’re doing to watch you fight. Because of the name. That helped me to stay calm in fights. Since I’ve been fighting since I was ten years old, I don’t really feel the pressure anymore. I know they did what they did and they proved what they had to prove. Now I fight for myself. For me, for my wife, and my kid. I don’t feel if I lose a fight my whole family will be down because of that. With what we’ve already done, we’re going to be up there already. If I win or lose it’s going to be for the same result. It’ll matter more to me than my last name.

”It is thrilling for him to be part of the evolution of the Gracie family. “I think it’s exciting. It was maybe easier for me because since I started training MMA I’ve done everything – boxing and Muay Thai. I started putting everything together a long time ago. Of course, jiu-jitsu is my main thing because I’ve been doing it since I was five years old. MMA was always my first plan. The difference between me and other Gracies is the first thing they wanted to be was a jiu-jitsu champion. I always wanted to be an MMA champion so I always trained like that. I think that helps me a lot and Renzo definitely helps me a lot because he was the first one to put it all together. Following in his footsteps helps me.”

Renzo's passion is renowned in the sport, and he remains a man who continues to give. “The fourth generation of my family – they have everything and have ground and stand-up fighting styles now. It's extremely important and that is the beauty of the development of Neiman and Kron and what they are now doing,” explains the 52-year-old who last fought in the UFC nine years ago against Matt Hughes, and who has an academy just around the corner from the hallowed fight mecca Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, New York.

“Every time you want to see a Gracie shine, put him under pressure. I've never seen diamonds come from charcoal without pressure. And also it is time for them to show the world that they have the blood and they have the knowledge, and not only that but they have the soul that is needed to keep jiu-jitsu and the Gracies' name out there.”

Neiman's familial roots are widespread. “I don’t know that much, but my grandparents’ parents came from Russia and Poland (on his father's side),” he reveals. His father Marcio is an 8th-degree coral belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and one of the “Famous Five” Rolls Gracie black belts.

“They came from WWII,” he recalls. “They are Jewish, so they had all those problems. Dad is Jewish. He’s been a black belt for over forty years. My dad started training and he met my mum in the gym, love at first roll. They’ve been together for over thirty years I think.”

“I haven’t talked too much about it with him. But I have an uncle who was in the Holocaust,” he remembers. “He was in a prison camp. The stories are horrible. I think someone, the Germans, killed his wife. She was pregnant and the guy stabbed her in the stomach and threw her out the window and took him to the prison camp. The stories are too much. It’s like a movie. In the world I live in, I can’t picture it. I can’t imagine how people would do that. I think I’d like to kill myself before them getting me as a prisoner, but it’s hard to say. It’s crazy. It’s unbelievable. This uncle of mine was 40 kilos when he left. All he wanted to do was eat, but he couldn’t because it had to be slowly, otherwise he’d die. I grew up with stories like that from my father's side.”

Judaism touched him briefly. “I did follow until I was a teenager because my dad put me in Jewish schools as a kid. I did my bat mitzvah and everything. I kind of stopped when I was 15. I didn’t go to Israel, because I was broke. When I was 14 I stopped going to the synagogue. I miss it a little bit, but now I think a little different spiritually. We have a spiritual team in Brazil where we believe in the afterlife and we believe in reincarnation. I really believe in that. Maybe that’s why I like to watch those movies about the Holocaust because I’ve lived in those days. I believe in that a lot.”

Fighting, feels Neiman, is a spiritual thing. “Definitely. We learn so much from fighting, we get to know ourselves. The last week before a fight is something I’m going to miss when I stop this career. It’s not the fight so much, but the preparation for the fight and everything we’ve got to handle. You get to know yourself so much.”

What is remarkable about Neiman is the utter control of the nerves he feels when he fights. “I think the one thing that helps me is I’m like that every day in my life. I’m a very calm guy. I think the worse thing I do is I go crazy in sparring, I can lose it. I get pissed off sometimes. I don’t know why. I think that’s normal too. In the fight I’m more calm. That helps me a lot. I’m not in that stage yet of being that calm. Every fight I have now is a step up and another step up. Nerves are always there, but I like them. I think they help me to stay sharp.”

But it has taken time for him to evolve into the fighter he is today. In Brazil, he trained jiu-jitsu, but the sea drew him. “I used to go to the beach every day, I loved surfing. I used to train in the morning and go to the beach right after. I used to stay on the beach when I should have been in school. I'd wake up, put on my school clothes but I’d get the bus to the beach. I finished high school but I always knew what I wanted to do. If it wasn’t fighting professionally I would be a teacher. Always knew. I used to love soccer and I was good. To a point I was good, and then I don’t know what happened.”

Renzo Gracie, as well as his father Marcio, has been instrumental in developing Neiman's fighting skills, to make him a modern mixed martial artist. “Renzo’s whole life has been a fighting life. He lived through so much,” explains Neiman. “He grew up with not much and he conquered so much. I think New York is perfect for him and his lifestyle. He’s a person who never stops. I don’t think he could be anywhere but New York.”

But it was the fight with Ed Ruth in Hawaii in December last year that turned heads, suddenly made fans and other fighters realize that Neiman had arrived. That a new Gracie was on the scene. It was the quarterfinal of the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix, and the pressure was on in Honolulu. Neiman was brilliant in the fight against Ruth, moving swiftly on his feet, outstriking the highly-rated rising star from wrestling, and showing an adeptness we had hitherto not witnessed. By the fourth round, he had Ruth hurt, and submitted him by rear-naked choke.

A semi-final at Madison Square Garden, against the champion Rory MacDonald, now beckons. “I thank Ed a lot for that because a tough fight brings the best out of me. If I hadn’t been able to show it before, it’s because I’d never fought anyone like him before. I never needed to show that,” says Neiman. “Fighting a good guy I have to bring out the best of me. I thank him for that. I’ve been training everything for such a long time so it was only a matter of time before I could show it. I was happy.”

Cageside, Renzo Gracie was visibly delighted, grabbing Neiman and hugging with so many teammates and family members. This was one of their triumphs. That night, the young Gracie had shown great skills to outsmart and stop Ruth, considered by many to have been one of the dark horses to claim the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix crown. Nine fights, nine wins, and now Neiman will fight at Madison Square Garden, just around the corner from Renzo's academy. “Man, it was unbelievable. Especially against such a strong opponent,” recalls Renzo. “It was an amazing match and you have to understand, what really makes a great fighter is the level of the opponents you have to face in your life. And his opponent was extremely tough and an unbelievable fighter, a guy who did not give up until the last second and so Neiman made us very proud that day. Neiman made jiu-jitsu very proud that day.”

Renzo has driven Neiman in his stand-up as much as his ground game for twelve years. “I believe it's my way of thinking. I was taught a fighter should be complete, and by him being around us for so long, his whole life and watching and seeing, I try to give him everything, put everything into him. To give him everything he needs, to have him in the academy, from judo to wrestling to jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. Listen, what people have to realize is that we have the No 1 team in the whole East Coast now, you know. And it's a funny thing. When we entered a Muay Thai competition with a ‘Renzo Gracie Team’, people laughed. They said, ‘This is a joke’. I said, ‘Watch the fights then you tell me’ Last year we had 16 titles, the year before we won 13 titles. So we are ruling the Muay Thai scene here on the East Coast.”

The Gracie diaspora has finally borne fruit. Neiman booked his place at MSG against Rory MacDonald with victory over Ruth, and a shot at the Canadian's 170lb Bellator crown.

“Rory will always be a tough fight for me, but I don’t think Rory will want to take me down,” says Neiman. “Of course, he will want to strike. I love my jab too, so it’s going to be a good fight. I love Ali’s jab. The jab was the first punch I learned and that’s how I started boxing. I jabbed so much that I jammed my elbow and I had to get surgery on it. It’s a tough fight but one that excites me.”

For Renzo, recent months represent a shift in the Gracie family, with the success of Kron and Neiman. But why has it taken so long, given that the jiu-jitsu lifestyle and philosophy is so strong in the Gracie family?

“No, I don't believe it's the reason. I think it's just necessary to have 'the new'. So the new generation needs to come to change the old ways of thinking. That's how the first generation had their view, its was the only way they could see it. As we grow older I realize deeply I was lucky to be a student of Rolls, who actually taught me and Rickson. Rolls was amazing: an unbelievable wrestler an unbelievable Sambo guy, Greco-Roman wrestling guy, judo – he was a very good judo guy – and with that, you know, I learned from him from very young, from five years old. Until the day he died.”

Renzo feels he is just passing on his knowledge from his master. “I fell in love with his way of seeing things, so I was open. We had boxers around, Muay Thai guys, everything. You have to remember. Rickson never changed. Even though he was Rolls’ student, he adapted the old traditions, mostly jiu-jitsu. Rickson was so good he couldn't believe he needed to strike.”

From the outside, it will be seen as important for Neiman or Kron to win titles. But Renzo pours cold water on that as essential. “People are always worried about winning titles. I'm more worried about keeping the tradition alive. We have 1500 students, and we have opened another one on the Upper West side. After four months we already have 158 students, so the important thing is to use jiu-jitsu to touch souls and make them better, and if along the way we win some titles they are going to look great on the shelf as we grow old.”

That said, Renzo is thrilled at the simultaneous progress of Neiman and Kron, in the UFC, and in Bellator. “It's unbelievable,” he enthuses. “We are living the dream right now to see those kids representing the family and representing jiu-jitsu. It's extremely important for every single Gracie alive. Or dead.”

They have built it, the Gracies, and from within, they have come.