Japanese Jiu-Jitsu (practiced as Judo) was introduced to the Gracie family in Brazil around 1914 by Esai Maeda, who was also known as Conde Koma. Maeda was a champion of Jiu-Jitsu and a direct student of Kano, at the Kodokan in Japan. He was born in 1878, and became a student of Judo (Kano’s Jiu-Jitsu) in 1897.
In 1914, Maeda was given the opportunity to travel to Brazil as part of a large Japanese immigration colony. In Brazil, in the northern state of Para, he befriended Gastão Gracie, an influential businessman, who helped Maeda get established. To show his gratitude, Maeda offered to teach traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu to Gastão’s oldest son, Carlos Gracie. Carlos learned for a few years and eventually passed his knowledge to his brothers.
Helio Gracie, the youngest son of Gastão and Cesalina Gracie’s eight children (three were girls), was always a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells, and no one could figure out why.
At age fourteen, he moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu in a house in Botafogo, a borough of Rio de Janeiro. Following doctor’s recommendations, Helio would spend the next few years limited to only watching his brothers teach.
One day, when Helio was 16 years old, a student showed up for class when Carlos was not around. Helio, who had memorized all the techniques from watching his brothers teach, offered to start the class. When the class was over, Carlos showed up and apologized for his delay. The student answered, “No problem. I enjoyed the class with Helio very much and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue learning from him.” Carlos agreed, and Helio became an instructor.
Helio soon realized that due to his frail physique, most of the techniques he had learned from watching Carlos teach were particularly difficult for him to execute. Eager to make the techniques work for him, he began modifying them to accommodate his weak body. Emphasizing the use of leverage and timing over strength and speed, Helio modified virtually all of the techniques and, through trial and error, created Gracie/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
In order to prove the effectiveness of his new system, Helio openly challenged all the reputable martial artists in Brazil. He fought 18 times, including matches against onetime world heavyweight wrestling champion, Wladek Zbyszko and the #2-ranked Judoka in the world at the time, Kato, whom Helio choked unconscious in six minutes. His victory against Kato qualified him to enter the ring with the world champion, Masahiko Kimura, the best Jiu-Jitsu fighter Japan has ever produced, and who outweighed Helio by almost 80 pounds. Kimura won the match but was so impressed with Helio’s techniques that he asked Helio to go teach in Japan claiming the techniques Helio presented during their bout did not exist in Japan. It was the recognition by the world’s best to Helio’s dedication to the refinement of the art.
At 43 years old, Helio and former student, Waldemar Santana, set the world record for the longest uninterrupted no-holds-barred fight in history when they fought for an incredible 3 hours and 40 minutes!
Widely regarded as the first sports hero in Brazilian history, Helio also challenged boxing icons Primo Carnera, Joe Louis, and Ezzard Charles. They all declined.
A dedicated family man who exemplified a healthy life-style he was the epitome of courage, discipline, determination, and an inspiration to people everywhere. A modern-day legend, Helio Gracie gained international acclaim for his dedication to the dissemination of the art and is recognized as the creator of Gracie/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.