With jiu-jitsu legend Roger Gracie to be featured on a UFC PPV event for the first time next Saturday, it’s a perfect time to check out The Gracies and the Birth of Vale Tudo, a documentary released this year to tell the Gracie family’s incredible story in MMA history.
The Gracies and the Birth of Vale Tudo was released (straight to DVD) this year to considerable excitement. Directed by Victor Cesar Sota (a friend of Renzo Gracie, who is credited as co-producer), it promised a different side of the family’s story from earlier perspectives offered from Rorian Gracie and his sons.
It delivers just that, and succeeds on several levels: offering a ton of great footage (some new, some old) and fleshing out the stories of many of the family’s champions. Is it the whole story? No, but at 89 minutes maybe that’s not a fair question.
An odd quote flashes across the screen as the film begins: “There’s no greater solitude then that of the samurai, unless he is the tiger of the jungle, perhaps – Bushido.” Odd, firstly it because it seems nobody in the sprawling Gracie family is ever alone. Odd, secondly, because that quote apparently has its origins with French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, who used it for his film “Le Samourai,” and not any actual samurai treatise. (Also, I think that should be “than” and not then…)
Several family members then appear to introduce the art: Renzo’s father Robson, then Renzo’s brother Ryan Gracie; both seem “itching for a fight.” Be aware, the film can be bloody, and profane.
The story of Mitsuyo Maeda bringing jiu-jitsu to Brazil in 1914 is briefly described, “a judo champion known as Conde Koma who helped establish a Japanese colony in the state of Pará.” Maeda would, of course, teach Carlos Gracie in Brazil, who taught his brothers; and the Gracie Academy of jiu-jitsu eventually developed. (What separates judo from jiu-jitsu is not explained here.)
The Gracie Academy grew to prominence by the open challenge of any other martial artists, often in vale tudo (“anything goes” in Portuguese) competition. Of the original brothers, George Gracie is briefly mentioned as an early champion of the family, but the youngest, Hélio, is credited as the art’s most prominent early proponent.
Helio is described as rising to great fame in Brazil, among his achievements beating a Brazilian lightweight boxing champion in 1932. (This is incorrect, according to scholar Roberto Pedreira — who is translating Carlos’ biography at his site with his own notes.) Accounts of encounters with Japan’s judo legend Kimura and former Gracie student Waldemar Santana are also offered – again, with some facts in dispute, but the stories are told fairly gracefully and with quality footage.
The family’s many divisions soon begin. The intersection of politics (Brazil was a military dictatorship for much of the last century) and the fight game is also briefly explored.
The eccentric Carlos created a huge family, including one son, Rolls, which would end up raised by Helio. Rolls, a tragic figure, receives almost 1/4th of The Gracies and the Birth of Vale Tudo’s running time. It’s clear that Renzo credits him greatly with the development of jiu-jitsu, even describing him “the most acclaimed and respected Gracie.” The family’s later fights, especially Rickson’s and Renzo’s, are recounted well, along with the birth of the academy Gracie Barra.
Other prominent family members, like Carlson Gracie, are offered less of the spotlight, but are mostly recalled with fondness in the film. It’s really only Rorian Gracie who finds himself “put on blast,” described as hoarding the Gracie legacy when he moved to the US, and treating Rickson and other more talented jiu-jitsu fighters unfairly with his legal acumen. But he is credited with helping found the UFC, too.
Whatever side of these disputes you find yourself on, or whatever you feel about this family — it’s clear they’re at the heart of the sport we love. The Gracies and the Birth of Vale Tudo isn’t perfect but maybe it shouldn’t be. The story isn’t finished. In fact, it continues next Saturday as Roger Gracie fights at UFC 162. If you enjoy the fights, you’ll enjoy this film.