It’s midnight in New York and I finally get Relson Gracie on the phone. I’m on the West Coast and I’ve been chasing Relson for weeks now with no luck until earlier today. Relson’s business partner, John Cooper, emailed saying Relson wanted to talk tonight. We scheduled the call for 7pm. I waited but the phone never rang. I gave up. I figured Relson was busy with bigger things. I decided to clean the BBQ grill; a task I had been putting off for months. I was elbow deep in grease when the phone rang. It was John Cooper. Relson authorized John to give me his cell number and was waiting in his room for me to call. The chain of command made me feel like I was granted audience with a dignitary. I grabbed my recorder, notebook and cell phone and headed to a quiet place. I punched in Relson’s cell number. The phone rang twice. “Hello!”.
Relson Gracie is mad as hell.
He’s not happy with the state of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Feeling disappointed and disrespected, he’s not taking it nicely. In a time when many in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community are calling for an evolution of the sport the Gracie family pioneered in the early 1900s, Relson is calling for a revolution.
Relson Gracie is the second oldest son of Grandmaster, Helio Gracie. Helio is credited with transforming the Jiu-Jitsu taught by Mitsuyo “Count Koma” Maeda into the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu we know today.
Relson is the champion of the world’s first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament. In 1962, ten years after the Gracie’s opened the Academia Gracie at Avenida Rio Branco, Centro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Relson competed in the first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament. The event was held at the Gurliandia Clube, Botofogo, Brazil. Ten year old Relson won his own weight class and the open division. It was the coming out party for the first family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the crowning of the Gracie family’s first champion. At ten years old, Relson started a Brazilian National Champion winning streak that would last 22 years before passing the mantle of family champion to his younger brother, Rickson Gracie.
Relson is the first to organize a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament outside of Brazil in Honolulu, HI in 1992; one year before his younger brother Royce would compete in UFC 1.
Relson is the first to fire a shot in the modern day Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu revolution. He’s taking aim at the current Jiu-Jitsu power structure, tournaments, rules, and organizers.
“We’re going to turn this thing upside down. We’re going to start a revolution. We’re going to get everybody talking. Let people choose where they want to spend their money, train, and compete.”
- Relson Gracie
The pinnacle of modern day Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is reached once a year at the World’s Jiu-Jitsu Championships organized by the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation,(IBJJF). The best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athletes from all over the planet compete to determine the champions in each division. They train for months and sacrifice their bodies hoping to be crowned with the title World Champion.
In 2010, the event was held at the Pyramid in Long Beach, CA. Relson did not go to the championship finals. Disgusted, he refused to enter the arena filled with old friends and thousands of fans of the sport his family developed. For Relson, it was also filled with bad memories of biased officiating, disregard for the athletes, poor displays of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and greed.
“I cannot handle an entire tournament where black belts can only win by advantage, staying in one position for ten minutes, and stalling. Anybody can be trapped in that game. Everybody screams hold on! Thirty-seconds left! Stay there! Stay there! That’s not real Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. That’s not what we’re about.”
- Relson Gracie
It’s after midnight in New York and Relson is adamant that the officiating in the World’s Jiu-Jitsu Championships is poor and biased. He gets agitated while he speaks about his experiences at the World’s Jiu-Jitsu Championships.
In 2008, Relson’s son, Rhalan Gracie, competed in the Purple belt division. Before Rhalan’s semifinal match, he asked a referee in the warm up area if knee-bars were legal in his division. The referee instructed Rhalan that knee-bars were indeed legal. Rhalan knee-barred his next opponent at 2:30 into the semifinal match. His opponent submitted, jumped to his feet, and celebrated. The referee promptly disqualified Rhalan raising his opponents arm in victory. Confused, Rhalan sought out the first referee who told him knee-bars were legal. When confronted, the referee responded smugly, “I said knee-bars were legal. Sorry, I made a mistake.” The IBJJF’s response to Rhalan was that it was his responsibility to know the rules. While Relson agrees competitors should the know the rules, he’s quick to point out that referees at the world’s mosts coveted championship should also know the rules stating, “Mistakes like this cost championships.”
“This is the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. There were over 1,500 competitors from countries worldwide, some who do not speak or read English. The referees need to know the rules and maintain a lot of patience to respond correctly when asked a question, or they should not be referees. Just because they wear the shirt doesn’t mean they’re qualified to be a referee.”
- Relson Gracie
In 2009, Rhalan took second place in the Brown belt division losing to Ian McPherson of Alliance. The following year, 2010, Rhalan fought again in the Brown belt division. The IBJJF put Rhalan and McPherson in the same bracket. In most sports, the first and second place winners from the previous year are put at opposites ends of the bracket to balance the division. Rhalan submitted a Gracie Barra student his first match of the bracket. During the match he did not receive two points for a sweep; instead the referee gave Rhalan an advantage. Given the knee-bar mix-up from the previous year, Relson took a tape of the missed sweep points to the head judge and requested an alternate referee for Rhalan’s next match, which coincidentally happened to be McPherson. The judge told Relson he would not watch the tape. Relson questions, “How can you fix the mistakes if you don’t see them?” The referee turned his back and walked away. Not content with the answer, Relson said, “Excuse me sir. You can’t change refs, fix the brackets, or watch the tapes! If I get robbed again today, I’m going to cause a problem.” Relson wondered, “If I, the second son of Helio was treated this poorly, how poorly is everyone else being treated?”
Relson has been disappointed with the tournament scene for years now. He has even discouraged his students and son from competing in certain tournaments. Outside of careless injuries and many unjust decisions, Relson believes it’s a waste of time and energy to compete in a tournament that does not respect the true Jiu-Jitsu roots.
“Helio Gracie did things for a reason. As our Great Grandmaster of the art, he did everything in his power to keep Jiu-Jitsu pure, safe, and just for all. Unfortunately, through what I see outside a select few, I don’t think that vision is being honored anymore.”
– Relson Gracie.
Why? Who is at fault? Is it the competitors? Is it the Jiu-Jitsu community? Is it the big organizations?
“I don’t know who tells the referees what to do. I don’t know who makes the rules. I don’t know who organizes the events. In my opinion, people of influence that have the power to make decisions are to blame. If these people do not set an example, or better yet, a standard for Jiu-Jitsu, who will? It’s not just one person, but it starts from the top and works its way down. What I see in many of these tournaments is a disrespect to Jiu-Jitsu and its supporters. Countless people get robbed and go home cheated. Other people compete using steroids and/or other performance enhancing drugs. You tell me, is this fair? You spend your money, your time and energy to come here and compete. You obey the laws and rules, and still, you don’t have a fair chance. This needs to change.”
– Relson Gracie
The modern day Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament is very different from the first tournament at Gurliandia Clube in 1962. Helio Gracie organized the tournament with very simple rules designed to keep the match flowing and the athletes safe. Stalling was frowned upon and submissions were king. The competitors were composed mostly of normal people with professions. The competitors did not train twice a day, seven days a week. The Jiu-Jitsu Helio innovated was for these people. The techniques were basic and accessible to the average person not requiring extraordinary strength or flexibility. Knee-bars, heel-hooks, wrist-locks and can-openers were prohibited to keep the competitors safe. Holding the sleeves to stall was against the rules. You couldn’t hold both sleeves for longer than 10 seconds without transitioning, attempting a submission, or letting one of the sleeves go. You also couldn’t stall on top by holding a position for longer than 30 seconds without attempting a transition or submission. Relson remembers the results were faster paced matches with transitions and many more submissions in comparisons with today’s standard.
“The only guys I like watching these days are Roger Gracie, Marcello Garcia, Kron and a few others. Those guys finish and go for submissions. They don’t hold the sleeves and stall for ten minutes.”
- Relson Gracie
“Tell Roger I’m sorry. I couldn’t go watch him on Sunday. He’s the only one I enjoy watching. The rest of the matches are so bad. I can’t stand to watch them. One guy in one position for ten minutes is boring.”
- Relson Gracie
“A champion Black belt was submitted by a fourth degree blue belt at my school because the Black belt had such a highly specialized style of Jiu-Jitsu. He wasn’t used to defending real submission attempts.”
- Relson Gracie
Relson complains that the self-defense level of many of the top athletes is lacking as well. Helio’s standards incorporated self-defense. Relson explains, “Many of these black belts don’t know the basic self-defense techniques. If they we’re surprised from behind with a neck hold, 90% of them would not know what to do.”
Relson laments, “Regular people don’t have a place in modern day competition. If you work at a bank or doctor’s office, how are you going to train twice a day for six days a week? Many of these athletes are on steroids. How are you supposed to compete with this? Helio did not approve of this!”
“Some people are making a lot of money.” That’s what Relson says when referring to the thousands of competitors who sign up each year at IBJJF events. There were over a thousand competitors at the World’s Jiu-Jitsu Championship and Pan American tournament. The IBJJF charges $100 per competitor on average depending on when you sign up. Spectators are charged an entrance fee. Sponsorship is everywhere inside the building.
Relson suspects the original rules have been changed to attract more competitors and money. Leg locks have attracted Sambo players from the Russian martial art. Holding positions and stalling out the clock has attracted almost all grappling based competitors from wrestlers to Judo. Relson’s complaint is the rule changes make the sport more dangerous. “If you injure your knee from a knee-bar, forget it. You might never come back. These techniques aren’t part of the original rules my father, Helio, established and they are only there so they can attract more people to pay for the tournament.”
The genius of the IBJJF is that the shows biggest attractions, the fighters, are also paying customers. Every competitor gets a free T-shirt. The first, second, and third place winners get plated medals. The medals afford bragging rights; the most valuable thing you get from a IBJJF organized tournaments. In Relson’s words, “The guys who make the show, don’t get paid!” In the 2010 Pan-Ams tournament, over 2,500 competitors came from all over the world to participate in the tournament held over four days. Fans traveled to the Bren Center in Irvine, CA to watch the world’s best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athletes compete on the biggest stages. In the end, the top names of the sport walked away with nothing more than a T-shirt and fancy plated medal.
The athletes who travel from Brazil or other countries have it even harder. They must find sponsorship from businesses, family members, and friends to scrape together enough money to pay for visas, transportation, and lodging for the tournaments. In 2010, the IBJJF enacted a requirement for all black belt competitors to have a valid IBJJF registration card. The registration was free this year. Next year and the years to come, it will cost a fee to be registered. In years past, athletes like Abmar Barbosa had to choose between saving money for tournament expenses or paying academy fees back home. Tarsis Humphreys declared that he would use his earnings from a non-IBJJF tournament to get his helicopter pilot’s license for a future career.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athletes are treated much like the athletes of the National Football League in the 1950s, except the NFL players received some kind of paycheck. Jiu-Jitsu athletes perform at the highest level of their sport for no reward. Perhpas, the IBJFF cannot afford to pay millions of dollars to the competitors, but it’s an extremely difficult economic position to justify no payment whatsoever; especially when much smaller tournaments like Abu Dhabi, World Cup Pro and Grappler’s Quest pay winners on a regular basis.
Relson has come to a solution.
By blending the past and future, he looks to preserve Jiu-Jitsu as he knows it. The Gracie Jiu-Jitsu he learned through the ways of Grandmaster Helio Gracie.At the same time, he looks to give the Jiu-Jitsu community a safe, just, and enjoyable environment that will allow some of the world’s greatest Jiu-Jitsu athletes to showcase their talents. Relson is creating a new tournament circuit called the Gracie Pro-Am. The Gracie Pro-Am Circuit will have new rules, highly qualified referee’s and a hefty $2,000 cash prize for the winner of 4 different No-Gi Pro Divisions. Along with cash prizes for Gi Open Divisions from Blue to Black belt.
The rules are focused on the original rules Grandmaster Helio Gracie put together for the first tournament in 1962.
Relson’s new tournament system will be a tour zigzagging the country with an event every other month. The first tournament, the California Championship, will be held in Sacramento, CA., September 4th and 5th followed by cities like: Columbus, OH., Orlando, FL., Honolulu, HI., Los Angeles, CA., so on and so on.
The tour will use a point system to determine the tour winner. Winning a match by submission earns the athlete 5 points and winning by points earns the athlete 2 points. At the end of the tour, the athletes with the most points for each division will be declared the tour champion and will be awarded a bonus.
An exciting development is that other Gracie academies may participate in the tournaments. Their students have not participated at a high rate in the IBJJF tournaments. The fallout is that some teams may be a no-show. Relson’s response, “Many guys won’t show up because their style of Jiu-Jitsu is not focused on submissions. They have learned to win a match based on the current IBJJF rules, not on advancing position and submitting.”
“The Gracie Pro-Am Circuit is looking to preserve Helio’s heritage and approach to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu through competition. We hope that by changing some key rules, this tournament will promote a more transitional, safe, submission-based game”
- Relson Gracie
It will be interesting to see if the changes in the rules result in more exciting matches where the submission is the focus. The goal is to open the matches up in a way that does not require hours of endless training for specialized positions, but instead, highlights transitions and submissions.
The athletes will be paid for winning. As the tournaments grow, the cash prizes will grow and the best competitors in the world will be attracted to compete. The tournament is for the athletes. The fans come for the athletes. The sponsors come for the athletes. They deserve to be rewarded. The athletes think so and so does Relson´s organization.
It’s late and our conversation ends.
Questions are swirling in my head; lots of them. Will the IBJJF consider changing their rules or paying their athletes? Will Carlinhos respond? How will Rorion’s students do in competition? What does Rickson have to say about all of this?
How will the Jiu-Jitsu community take to the new tournament system?