Biography and Profile of Helio Gracie

Helio Gracie in 2004.
Helio Gracie in 2004. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Helio Gracie Biography Introduction:

Oftentimes, great fighters and martial artists come from the kinds of backgrounds most don’t expect. Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, was somewhat sickly as a child. The same can be said of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. Well, there was once a somewhat frail child walking the streets of Brazil in the 1920’s who eventually became the founder of arguably the most proficient martial arts style of all time. That one time teenager was Helio Gracie, and the art he formulated was called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Here is his story.

Date of Birth and Lifespan:

Helio Gracie was born on October 1, 1913 in Belem do Para, Brazil. He died on January 29, 2009 in Petropolis, Brazil of natural causes. Ten days before his death, he could be found training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, making him somewhat of an anomaly.

Martial Arts Beginnings:

The story actually starts in Japan with Kodokan Judo master Mitsuyo Maeda (at the time, many still used the terms judo and jujutsu nearly interchangeably). In 1914, Maeda came to stay with Brazil’s Gastao Gracie. When Gracie helped Maeda with business in the area, Maeda did something that few easterners ever did for those in the west- he taught Gastao’s eldest son, Carlos, the art of judo. In turn, Carlos taught the other children in the family, including the smallest and youngest of his brothers, Helio. Helio, unfortunately was somewhat sickly and therefore, at first, was not allowed to participate in classes.

From Sickly to an Innovative Teacher:

Helio did not physically train like his brothers did for health reasons, but he was apparently a master observer. Reinforcing this, one day a Brazilian bank director named Mario Brandt arrived for a private class at the Gracie Academy in Rio. Carlos Gracie, the slated instructor, was running late. Since Helio was there, he offered to teach the man. As the story goes, when Carlos finally did arrive, the student actually asked to continue with Helio. Carlos agreed, leading to Helio’s teaching days.

From Judo to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:

Given Helio’s somewhat diminutive size (it is reported he weighed 155 pounds at his heaviest), some of the Japanese style martial arts moves did not suit him, as many of them were based on strength. Thus, he began experimenting with leverage in different ways, which really led to a revolutionized martial arts type. That style eventually became known as Gracie Jiu Jitsu or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Bringing BJJ and MMA to America:

Helio's son Rorion was the co-founder of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a full combat fighting organization in America that debuted on November 12, 1993. Royce, Rorion's brother, was the first Gracie participant in their inaugural event. All 170 pounds of Royce won the UFC's first single elimination fighting tournament against many larger participants from varied styles, proving the worth of the art his father had invented. Royce went on to win three of the first four UFC tournaments. This served as the introduction of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to America, and the beginnings of modern day MMA.

Family Life:

Gracie is the father of sons Rickson (widely considered to be the greatest BJJ practitioner of all-time), Rorion, Relson, Royler, Roker, Royce, and Robin. He also has two daughters- Rerika and Ricci.


At the age of 19, Gracie attacked Luta Livre teacher Manoel Rufino dos Santos (1932). He told Playboy Magazine the following regarding the incident:

“It was 66 years ago that I was involved in my biggest trouble. A famous fighter in Brazil (a former Luta Livre Champion) Manoel Rufino dos Santos, said that he was going to show the world that we Gracies were nothing. It was at the Tijuca Tennis Club of Rio that I gave my answer to him. I arrived and said "I came to answer the declaration that you made." He threw 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."

Gracie was sentenced to two and a half years in jail, but Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas pardoned him.

Helio Gracie- Vale Tudo Fighter:

Gracie made a name for himself within Brazil's Vale Tudo circuit (full contact, unarmed combat events). His 30 second win over boxer Antonio Portugal via armlock was reportedly his first (1932). However, the diminutive Gracie's most famous battle came in a loss against Masahiko Kimura, one of the greatest judokas of all-time. Kimura outweighed Gracie by a significant margin. Before the fight he indicated that if Gracie were to last more than three minutes, he should consider it a victory. Though Gracie did take his share of lumps in the fight, being thrown on multiple occasions, he lasted a whopping 13 minutes until Kimura sunk in a reverse ude garami (arm entanglement, a shoulderlock). Gracie refused to tap and had his arm broken. Afterwards, the reverse ude garami became known as the Kimura, in honor of the move and this fight.

Kimura was so impressed with Gracie afterwards that he invited him to teach at his school.

Chuck Norris on Meeting Helio Gracie in Brazil:

Famed karate practitioner Chuck Norris was on vacation in Rio de Janeiro when he kept seeing the Gracie name popping up everywhere.  He eventually found the Gracie Academy and went to work out there.  First he grappled with Rickson, who beat him rather easily.  Then came Royce, and next Helio Gracie, the elder statesman of the group.  Here's what he said, according to, regarding his time with Helio.

“Mr Gracie’s about this big [gesturing that he is short with his hand]. So we started working out, and I mounted him. And he says, ‘Okay, Chuck, punch me.’ And I said, ‘Mr Gracie, I’m not going to punch you.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no. Punch me.’ So I brought my hand back [to punch him], and that’s the last thing I remember."

“The next thing I know, I’m waking up. I’d been choked so hard I could hardly swallow. He said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it so hard.’ Then he says, ‘I want you to stay here. You’ve got great potential. I can make you a great Jiu-Jitsu person.’

Helio Gracie's Fight by Fight Record:

  • 1932: Defeated Antonio Portugal by armlock
  • 1932: Draw with Takashi Namiki
  • 1932: Draw with Fred Ebert
  • 1934: Draw with Wladek Zbyszko
  • 1934: Defeated Taro Miyake by choke
  • 1935: Defeated Dudu by side kick to the spleen.
  • 1935: Draw with Yassuiti Ono
  • 1936: Draw with Takeo Yano
  • 1936: Defeated Massagoichi by armlock
  • 1936: Draw with Yassuiti Ono
  • 1937: Defeated Erwin Klausner by armlock
  • 1937: Defeated Espingarda
  • 1950: Defeated Landulfo Caribe by choke
  • 1950: Defeated Azevedo Maia by choke
  • 1951: Draw with Kato
  • 1951: Defeated Kato by choke
  • 1951: Lost to Masahiko Kimura by Kimura lock
  • 1955: Lost to Valdemar Santana by TKO (fight duration 3h 42min)
  • 1967: Defeated Valdomiro dos Santos Ferreira by choke