We've been trying to interview Renzo Gracie for the past eight months but because of his busy schedule; preparing for fights, traveling, fighting, giving seminars and running his Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Academy New York City, it's been very difficult. Finally I got a break when Renzo invited me for lunch at his house in New Jersey.
Going to Renzo's house was a grueling one-hour drive from New York City at higher than legal speeds. Walking into the house, I expected trophies, medals and awards to be showcased everywhere, but no, his awards are carefully placed between books and behind pictures of his family. The trophies are there, but you just have to look for them.
Renzo takes his success in perspective and is unusually humble for all his accomplishments; in fact he acts just like one of your buddies' next door. The day I interviewed him he also invited the cable man (whom he never met before) to join us for lunch as well.
Realfighting: I heard you played judo when you were young; you started when you were already a purple belt in BJJ yes?
Renzo: Yes, and I went all the way to black belt.
Realfighting: Why did you get into judo, for the throws?
Renzo: Yes, because I believe it is a good compliment to for the jiu-jitsu. Back then I was competing a lot with the gi, so then I believed in the take-down part, to take the fight to the ground, this was very important, and the throws help with this.
Realfighting: Do you feel the same way today?
Renzo: Oh yes, I still believe the same way.
Realfighting: Which throws are your favorites?
Renzo: I really like seionage and osoto-gari and I do them from both sides.
Realfighting: Do you do a drop seionage to your knee on the mat, or do you prefer a higher approach?
Renzo: Oh no, I like to do seionage standing up, I pick up my opponent then go under; when your timing's a little off you can drop to the knee.
Realfighting: Do you use set ups for the throws or do you just go in?
Renzo: I use setups, I use footsweeps. It's a little harder to do throws nowadays because I don't compete with the gi anymore.
Actually Royler was really good in Judo also, he was the number two judoka in Brazil and he only trained for two and a half years. He almost made the Olympics. (to put this in perspective, Brazil's judo players are much better than the judo players in the USA).
Realfighting: What's your fighting weight now?
Renzo: I'm 185 lbs. But I never fight anyone in my weight class; everyone I fight is always over 200 lbs. The last guy I fought was 256 lbs. But that's what draws the audience, especially in Japan where they mainly look for fighters above 200 lbs. Unfortunately genetically, I wasn't gifted that way, but even though I like to mess with the big guys, so I don't care.
Realfighting: Well, you're fortunate not to have any major injuries; many fighters have to quit early because of them, especially when they fight out of their weight class.
Renzo: Well, with more experience you understand how to train, so you stop playing recklessly…you play calm, you use tactics. Your body starts to learn how to move, how to react and you start to avoid situations where you can get injured.
Realfighting: Are Royler and Royce still fighting?
Renzo: No, they don't fight so much, but there are a lot of good fighters coming up.
Realfighting: From the Gracie family, are you the premiere fighter representing the Gracie name?
Renzo: No, Rodrigo is coming up and Rickson's coming back this year. Rodrigo won his last fight, and he's fighting again in Pride, on June 23rd, we're both fighting in Japan
Realfighting: Are you going to keep on fighting for the next few years?
Renzo: Oh yeah.
Realfighting: Are there any up and coming fighters from your academy?
Renzo: Oh Yeah, there's Matt (Serra) he'll probably be the champ of the lightweight division, there's his brother Nick (Serra). We want to get Shawn Alvarez, to fight too.
Realfighting: Is John (Danaher) going to fight?
Renzo: No, John (Danaher) is our intellectual…he's our writer.
Realfighting: Who else from your academy do you see competing?
Renzo: Rodrigo, Ricardo, Matt (Serra), Nick (Serra), Shawn, Paul Creighton, we also have some guys from Matt's school, Joe D'Arce; we have about a dozen or so good fighters. I have a cousin Daniel, who is coming to train with us, so we have a very strong team.
Realfighting: I saw the time when you shot-in on a wrestler and something happened and you got knocked out, what happened?
Renzo: Oh Yeah, he went to sprawl and his wrist hit my jaw and knocked me out. But that's what I'm telling you, in that fight, the guy outweighed me by at least 25 lbs. And with that weight difference, and you have to understand it's not just 25 lbs., of fat but 25 lbs of muscle, so if I get hit, I know I'm going to be knocked out.
Realfighting: It looked like an accident?
Renzo: Yeah, it was…he actually asked me what happened, what happened? How did I hit you? I thought I hit his knee, since it was the last thing I saw going in.
Realfighting: Have you ever fought Bas Rutten?
Renzo: No, I never had the opportunity.
Realfighting: How about Shamrock?
Renzo: Frank's been out of the game for awhile, he's the first guy I saw that retired so early, like 23 or 24 years old. I believe Frank is out of the ballgame. Everyone now is so tough, he may have trouble.
Realfighting: Which were your toughest fights?
Renzo: Definitely Kikuta, the bout lasted 51 minutes, and he was also 35 lbs heavier than me. Other tough fights were Otsuka and of course Sakuraba.
Realfighting: On Sakuraba, Alex Mordine (also in this issue) mentioned that many times the judging wasn't adequate, especially when Shimada was judging.
Renzo: No, I don't believe it…It's just that Sakuraba is a tough guy, he's good. You can't take anything away from him. Alex is just trying to be a good friend, trying to defend us. But the reality is another thing. He's [Sakuraba] a good Jiu-jitsu man, that's the truth.
Realfighting: Are you in his weight class?
Renzo: No, when I fought him he out weighed me by almost 22 lbs.
Realfighting: What's the whole thing with Shimada, not only Alex (Mordine) but other people mentioned that he shouldn't be a judge?
Renzo: Yeah, well he makes many mistakes, but I don't believe he means to, it just happens. With so many thousands of people watching there's a lot of pressure on the ref. So mistakes can happen.
Like the mistake with Royler wasn't actually him, it was the doctor outside. He came over and said STOP! And when I saw that, I couldn't believe it. And Royler didn't realize what was going on, he's very flexible and he can scratch his ear upside down with the wrong hand. So he didn't feel anything, but that happens.
Realfighting: What's the prize money like in Pride and the UFC?
Renzo: Well, every fighter gets paid differently, for top champions they pay very well, it's a purse, and normally it's an agreement that's been made beforehand.
Realfighting: Is Pancrase still one of the top venues nowadays?
Renzo: They're still doing it; I'm really looking forward to putting Ricardo Almeida in Pancrase. There are a lot of fighters in his weight division there, and I'm looking forward to see him compete.
Realfighting: In this issue we are also interviewed Oleg Tarktatov. You fought him, and I know he got very angry when he lost.
Renzo: Yeah, he just didn't realize he was knocked out. After he watched the tape he apologized (laughter).
Realfighting: Was he one of your tougher opponents?
Renzo: Yeah, I believe if that didn't happen in the first 60 seconds the fight would've been very entertaining.
Realfighting: He was just in New York for a seminar.
Renzo: He's a nice guy.
Realfighting: Yes, he's a nice guy, very serious and a good instructor as well.
Renzo: Oh yeah!
Realfighting: I heard a story when you were in Russia and someone asked you how you beat all the sambo guys.
Renzo: Oh yeah…the announcer/host asked me after we won the event; they asked me what's the difference with Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and sambo?
Realfighting: I said the difference is "we win every time" (laughter). This is the arena with twenty-five thousand people watching (the same arena they used in the 1980's Olympics) so the audience started laughing. Back then, the guy that I took to Russia was a blue-belt so he was a beginner, and he won five fights in a row.
Realfighting: Russian fighters usually triumph their leg-locks, what do you think of them?
Renzo: Well, they talk about their leg-locks a lot, but they're very simple, they're easy to avoid and easy to apply.
Realfighting: When you train for a fight nowadays what do you practice the most, your standup game or ground game?
Renzo: Now when I practice I mostly concentrate on takedowns and grappling. I also add the boxing and kickboxing three times a week. Mostly sparring, with five-minute rounds.
Realfighting: Are you doing more Muay Thai or boxing as an adjunct to grappling?
Renzo: I was doing Muay Thai a lot, and I stopped a little, and now I'm doing more boxing.
Realfighting: When you use kicking techniques, do you go for the upper leg or lower leg?
Renzo: The lower leg and then I try to go for a takedown. The concept of boxing and Muay Thai is different when you fight no rules. The guy is trying to take you down, so you have to adjust your game to punch and kick inside the no-rules style, it's different. The boxer usually is never able to sprawl since he's always sitting on his hip for punching power, The Muay Thai guy is always trying to go for the neck, it's really tricky, you have to adapt everything for no-rules.
Realfighting: Who do you do the boxing with?
Renzo: Edgar at the Academy, he's a very good teacher.
Realfighting: When you incorporate boxing into the mix, do you try to eliminate certain moves?
Renzo: Oh yes, there is a certain distance you use in striking, and I try to stay outside of that distance, since I usually fight heavier opponents. If I exchange blows, then, I'm the one going down. My punch will be weaker than his.
Realfighting: Do you use elbows too?
Renzo: Yes, but in Pride you're not allowed to, only in the UFC can you use elbows.
Realfighting: How about weightlifting, do you lift or do you go the other route, hundreds of squats, pushups etc?
Renzo: I lift weights, I don't like a lot of repetitions, I train for explosiveness, heavy weight, a few sets, few reps.
Realfighting: What's your training schedule like?
Renzo: I work out with weights three times a week and usually do five reps and five sets of heavy weights.
Realfighting: How about aerobics?
Renzo: I usually run or do the bike everyday for around 30 minutes.
Realfighting: What type of training would you suggest for newer students?
Renzo: Training three times a week is fine, don't get too excited when you train, relax so you last longer, get the timing together, that's most important.
Realfighting: There are a lot of ex-kickboxing and karate champs out there (from the '70s and '80s) who say, well if I was only young I would beat everyone out there, but I don't think they understand the complexity of the fight game today. Most of the people criticizing BJJ really don't understand it.
Renzo: Well they never rolled with an experienced guy and made helpless like a little kid.
Realfighting: Once a skilled grappler has you, you're just trying to breathe and survive.
Renzo: Yes, people don't realize how hard it is and how many years it takes to achieve a high level.
Realfighting: I recently saw a tape of the recent UFC and these guys really look so sophisticated and powerful.
Renzo: Yeah, it's a different game now; nowadays they all understand the takedowns and grappling as well as kicking and boxing.
Realfighting: Mat (Serra) is really fighting well, did he open another school?
Renzo: Yeah, well I had a school in West Babylon (Long Island) and I couldn't go there anymore so I passed that over to them. They built up a big group there and now he finally he opened a new place, because before we were renting a space from a martial arts school.
Realfighting: In many traditional judo schools in the USA (with Japanese instructors) there's not much teaching going on, but there's lots of bullying from senior to junior students. I noticed that it's very different in BJJ, especially in your school.
Renzo: No, that stuff doesn't happen in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, especially in my school. The normal mode in my school is "don't hurt your partners," you have to use them tomorrow again to train. That's a basic rule.
Realfighting: I notice in your school, people respect each other, and they don't go over the line, and that comes from the top…that comes from you.
Renzo: Yes, I've always believed that first: you must enjoy your time on the mat. It's not only a time for you to train but also to have a good time with your friends, to relieve your stress, to relax, tell stories, have fun. And in this way, you actually learn more through your brotherhood then when competing hard against your classmates. If your partner is trying to kill you and you him, you stop trying to relax, to see what's necessary because you don't want to lose. So once you get into that mode you'll hit a plateau where you won't be able to move up and improve anymore.
That's the way we do it, for example that's why we win so much. In the last competition we won by 386 points versus 118 for second place, our score was more than triple those of the competition.And I believe this is the result of our method of training. Everyone is sincere and trying to help each other. You know it's impossible for you to ask anyone in the academy any question about training without getting their best answer.
Realfighting: In many Japanese schools they demand respect but it's mostly students are responding out of fear.
Renzo: In those schools, they demand respect they don't deserve. In our martial art, I believe the respect is there, even though we don't demand it. It's based on friendship and sincerity.
Realfighting: I notice many beginners go a little crazy and roll as if they were fighting in the UFC, but once students go up in the ranks they start to relax.
Renzo: Yes, they start to relax and calm down and start to understand the concepts, because every time you think martial arts, the first thought that comes into your head is, I can't lose, I have to win. So when they first come in they go crazy and as soon as they realize that's not the model they need to follow, they calm down and they are able to evolve much faster.
Realfighting: There's a big misconception about Gracie Jiu-Jitsu from people that don't have any direct experience with it. When I tell people to try a class they immediately say, "well I don't want to go to the ground," or because they don't know the techniques, they see it as an all-out wrestling match." But once they try it a few times they realize their perception was all wrong.
Renzo: Yeah, they don't understand the training, and once you start it's hard to stop, it's a great discipline, it's relaxing and a great way to train and condition yourself.
Realfighting: I like your logo, is it the profile of a lion?
Renzo: Yeah, a student of mine (and friend) Fabio, drew that for me in Brazil. You know our family is from Scotland and our family crest contains three lions, I wanted to reflect that part of my heritage. I also think the lion is the ideal animal to represent Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. It's called the king of all animals for a reason. Besides being strong, it's cunning, fast, agile and tough, all the qualities that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu players try to achieve.
Renzo: By the way, how's your training going?
Realfighting: Slow…little by little, with all my injuries and with not being in shape it's slow. I've been doing some privates with John (Danaher) and It feels quite different when you train with a high-level instructor several times a week.
Renzo: Oh yeah, and it's very different when you train personally with a skilled person instead of just attending a class
Realfighting: When you're an adult going into a jiu-jitsu class, or have an injury going in, it's tough, cause you don't try anything because you're afraid you might awaken your previous injuries.
Renzo: Private classes are best; you can work on your problem areas and avoid potential injuries.
Realfighting: Speaking of private lessons, I heard you trained the Prince of Abu Dhabi; does he have any grappling skills?
Renzo: Oh yes, he's a black belt, and he's good, he's been training in BJJ for about nine years now.
Realfighting: How did you meet him?
Renzo: I met Sheik Tahnoon in 1997 when he came to NY to do some private classes. I had no idea who he was but was impressed by his humility, kindness, intelligence and skill (yes, the Sheik is an excellent grappler).
Realfighting: Did he start his training with you?
Renzo: No, The Sheik began his training while a student in San Diego. Watching the UFC convinced him of the need for grappling training and he began the study of BJJ.
Realfighting: Did he tell anyone he was a Sheik?
Renzo: No, no one knew, even at his college, what a surprise when we found out.
Realfighting: Let's talk about your new book, Brazilian Jujitsu. Some people say there aren't any new techniques here; it's just the old techniques.
Renzo: There's no new technique for whom?
Realfighting: Some semi-pros who reviewed your book.
Renzo: From professionals?
Renzo: For me there are no new techniques in there. Yes but I bet, if you get the book, there's going to be a lot of new things in there.
Realfighting: Oh for me, of course.
Renzo: People don't understand about professionals, they live for fighting and they want to be fed with the crop of the production, but they don't understand. To become good you have to go through that process. And I believe there are many people who haven't achieved that level yet, so they want to be fed the information.
Realfighting: So how did it all start, when did you start practicing Jiu-jitsu, when you were five years old?
Renzo: Yeah, I started around that age.
Realfighting: I was told, as a youth you were involved in an unusual amount of street fights, how did that happen?
Renzo: Well first, the culture of Brazil is one that favors fighting as a way of solving personal disputes. People fight more often down there because it's socially acceptable to do so and because there is less chance of legal actions than in the US.
Second, I was completely involved in the fight business. Fighting gave me a way to test ideas and theories. As long as the people I fought with were freely consenting, I saw no wrong in fighting them. I never looked to hurt somebody beyond what was appropriate for sins they committed in provoking me to fight. The fact is that these fights gave me many insights into the nature of real street combat and even helped my development as a professional fighter.
Realfighting: Real fights are so different from training at a school, how did those experiences shape your thinking?
Renzo: Hands-on experience in real fighting taught me that it is chaotic and unpredictable. There were times when the most unexpected things happened. One time I fought a big strong opponent on the street and I quickly took him down, but as I did we ran into some parked cars. In the confusion, my opponent ended up on top. I fell down between two parked cars with my opponent mounted on top of me! I was caught between the fenders of the two-parked cars with this angry guy on top. I couldn't escape using any normal technique because I was trapped between two cars.
Realfighting: Talk about a bad start to a fight, what finally happened?
Renzo: What saved me was that I put my head under the car to prevent from being punched and crawled out under the car, from there I started over again and beat this guy.
Realfighting: I guess you learned important lessons from this fight?
Renzo: The important lesson I learned is that in a street fight, the number of variables that play a role in the outcome of a fight is enormous. You can't hope to train for them all. You can't train to escape the mounted position while trapped between parked cars - who could have predicted such a thing happening?
Realfighting: Only experience in real fighting prepares you for a real fight?
Renzo: Yes, only experience in fighting gives you the adaptability and resourcefulness to deal with each situation as it comes. Often the environment in which you fight is a huge factor, if not the determining factor.
Realfighting: Did you ever use your environment to your advantage?
Renzo: Yeah, one time when I was a boy, I pissed-off a butcher so much (my sense of humor created the need for fighting skills!) that he came after me with a giant knife - he was really crazy. What saved me was a parked car - that was ironic, (on one occasion a parked car almost got me beaten up, on another it saved my life!) I ran around it, using it as a barrier between the butcher and me. It was so funny! I remember cursing him, telling him to drop the knife and fight like a man - meanwhile I was only a boy!
Realfighting: Do you think you can train for different environments?
Renzo: I don't think you can really train for all environments; there are just too many variables and each environment is unique.
Realfighting: You also had lots of fights as a surfer, didn't you?
Renzo: Yeah, that was my other love, surfing. There was one beach in particular that I really liked - the waves suited my style. Overcrowding was a big problem so I decided to make that territory mine! I only allowed people that I liked to surf there. I fought several times a day on that beach until word got out that this beach was no longer open to all surfers - they had to be screened by me first!
Realfighting: These weren't serious fights, were they?
Renzo: No, no, many people think that all street fights are to the death. Actually many street fights are low intensity. Those fights were classic examples of low intensity fights. I wasn't looking to seriously hurt anyone unless they had done something to justify it. It was just a matter of taking them down on the sand and choking them out. When they awoke their passion for surfing was usually greatly diminished (laughter). This is one of the great things about jiu-jitsu. You can adjust the level of force to make it appropriate for the kind of fight you're in.
For example a fight in a college dorm is very different from one in a prison - each has a different level of intensity. You cannot approach a fight in a college dorm with the same mindset and techniques as you would one in a prison cell. Many people overlook this simple fact.
Other fights were much more serious. I've been stabbed and shot. Some fights were bloody battles that used all the elements people associate with a fight that goes all the way - eye-gouging, biting - all that fun stuff! You must have a flexible response to deal with each situation.
Realfighting: Is your fighting confined to the ring nowadays?
Renzo: Oh yes, of course, I've changed a lot since those days. Marriage, parenthood and a change to the American lifestyle has mellowed me a lot. There would be something wrong with me if I continued to get into street fights the way I did when I was a kid.
Realfighting: People are often told that fighting is antithetical to the martial arts - that a person should fight only in the most extreme situations; you obviously have a different perspective?
Renzo: I disagree. Bullying is antithetical to the martial arts, but not fighting. So long as you are not picking on people, not provoking fights with people who simply don't want to fight but instead, mixing it up with an opponent who wants to fight with you and has done something to deserve it - I see nothing morally wrong with fighting him.
Obviously there are other reasons for not fighting, worries about the law etc., but not moral reasons. Also you must limit yourself to a response that is appropriate to the situation. I always thought there is something really strange about someone who teaches people to fight and tells his students to avoid fights at all costs. How does he know his technique works? What kind of advice can he offer his students? It's like getting advice about sex from a virgin!
Renzo Gracie is coming out with a new series of videotapes this summer. His new book, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, co-authored with Royler Gracie is available at Amazon.com and major booksellers.
Renzo Gracie's school is located at: 301 West 37th Street, 4th floor212-279-6724 or see the website at: www.renzogracie.com