I’ve fought 122 times in my life—no one can shoot me down” This and other words from Master Relson Gracie at his seminar in SF
“I’ve fought 122 times in my life—and I have no marks on my face, see it’s still pretty— no one can shoot me down!” he shouts. These were the emphatic words of Master Relson Gracie as he began his seminar last weekend in San Francisco with tales of his early street fighting days in Rio de Janeiro.
The weekend seminar drew a group of some 50 Bay Area practitioners from various local academies, all of who came down to Carlos Sapao’s Barra Brothers academy, nestled in the breezy, surf-friendly Ocean Beach, to watch the master teach a few of his favorite fundamentals of what he called his “8 pages of no holds bar” techniques.
The seminar started off with what I thought would set the tone for the entire seminar—we were on the feet, sprawling on our partner’s takedowns. We then moved on to some non-sport, self-defense tactics, where we’d stand toe to toe and close the distance and move in for a takedown. The next moves brought us to the ground where we worked on submission from in the guard, passing the guard, and variations in the half guard—all of which had great details and multiple variations.
Master Relson, a 58-year-old 8th degree red and black belt is the second eldest son of the late Grandmaster Helio Gracie. His father Helio first began training Relson as a toddler in Brazil and beginning at age 10, Relson went on to become a 22x undefeated Brazilian National Champion. Additionally, he was part of one of the earliest waves of Gracie fighters to come from Rio to the United States around the 1980’s.
During the 1970’s and 80’s, along with his cousin Carlson and brothers Rickon and Rorion, the family cemented their reputation of “no holds bar” Gracie JiuJItsu on the streets, in challenge matches against other martial artists from other disciplines and in Rio’s Vale Tudo scene. During this era, Gracie’s like Relson were often part of a series of challenge matches where he and his brothers would take on fighters from other martial art disciplines who would challenge the Gracie’s in their then relatively unknown fighting style. You might have seen them in some of the old “Gracie in Action” DVD’s from back in the day.
In 1988, after Relson’s hay days of fighting under his legendary father as a national champion and a brief stint living in California, Relson moved with his family to Honolulu, Hawaii to open his first academy. He would then go on to help his youngest brother Royce prepare for his eventual stardom in the earliest UFC days. At that time, the UFC allowed many of the “no holds bar” Vale Tudo tactics which Relson and his brothers are acclaimed for in Brazil, but were quickly forbidden in the U.S. and are now only to be captured on the highlight reels of MMA’s not too distant past.
Once the seminar ended, I had the opportunity to sit on the mat with Relson to ask him a few questions about his family, the sport of jiujitsu competition today and whether he foresees jiujitsu becoming an Olympic sport in his lifetime. Relson is a man of many words—and they are passionate words. He has strongly held opinions about his family, jiujitsu in America and how the sport is currently governed. His deep-rooted loyalty and admiration for his father immediately apparent. Amongst all his silly banter and ways he finds to pick on his brother Royce in some fashion or another, you can feel in his core and essence that this is his life 100% and always has been. An aura most younger Gracie’s do not embody.
Relson, vehemently stands by his father Helio, as his only master and the god father of Gracie JiuJitsu, he says. When I asked him how he would compare modern jiujitsu to his era of fighting and competition, he responded by stating “there is so much more knowledge out there—with YouTube, books, teachers all over the world, anyone can use these secrets of fighting—it’s a secret no more.” “There were guys back then who would say now that competition is easier because now you can go and look at tapes, people eat differently, there are more competitors now and in 20 years there will be even more, competition will only get harder, he says.
What Relson said he was most disappointed in is that the way the sport is governed. He was referring to the sometimes strikingly different rules across the hundreds of tournaments held across the U.S. and other countries each year. “You have over 700 jiujitsu tournaments in the U.S. each year—and how many different set of rules do you have— 700!!” he says. “I believe there should be only one set of rules, otherwise we are never going to have an Olympic games with jiujitsu.”
These tournament rules have changed in a way that Master Relson does not like. He feels it is estranged from the ways of his father’s style. “Nowadays guys go to compete and they can get their knees blown out, necks, backs hurt—he says. “I don’t like to see my guys or my son going into that.”
I asked him what it felt like to grown up learning such an unknown and even secretive fighting style, to now in his lifetime, the sport has grown to be a rising global phenomenon, through the growth of MMA and BJJ potentially being an Olympic sport in his lifetime. He says he is not optimistic it will happen anytime soon because of the varying competition rules—teams venging to hurt one another in competition—and the lack of the adequate number of black belts required at each competitive division. He described to me that in order for the sport to become an Olypmic sport; there must be black belts able to compete at each division, across 20 countries throughout the world.
So what is Master Relson up to these days? In addition to training his students in Hawaii and preparing son Rhalan for competition, Relson travels the world throughout the year holding seminars at his dozens of affiliate schools throughout the U.S. and in Costa Rica—not a bad place to travel to for a seminar!