Somewhere in America there’s a guy who believes that Royce Gracie is the greatest fighter of all time, with Rickson Gracie as a close second. If anyone within earshot doesn’t know who Rickson is, this guy will be glad to tell them about how he won over four hundred fights, how he’s still undefeated, and how he can magically heal sick children with his armbars.
Chances are you’ve met this guy before. Probably in a bar. He may have been watching the UFC and shouting about how they should bring back Tank Abbott. Also he was drunk. This guy may be a minority in his views on MMA, but he’s not alone.
It’s hard to know what to think about the Gracies. They’re not unlike what Cy Young is to baseball, or Bart Starr to football: great in their time, but would they even make the team against the superstars of today?
Don’t get me wrong: the Gracies matter. They not only dominated the MMA scene in the early years, they basically invented it. Royce made a whole generation of men (myself included) run out and learn jiu-jitsu after his dominance in the early UFC events. Rickson forever changed the way they viewed the sport in Japan with his Vale Tudo wins, plus he convinced Todd Hayes to get the hell out of fighting and really go after that dream of becoming an Olympic bobsledder.
That being said, were they really that good? Or were they just the guys who had flamethrowers when everyone else was still rubbing two sticks together?
For an answer, look at the present state of the Gracie legacy. Some people will be quick to point out the recent downward spiral of the once-beloved Royce. His positive test for steroids after a lackluster win over Kazushi Sakuraba in June was, to put it mildly, a stain on his reputation, and his decimation at the hands of Matt Hughes in 2006 was painful even on pay-per-view.
But what does that prove except that Royce is human? Sure, he made some mistakes. He continued on past his prime, as has virtually every pro fighter from Ali to Shamrock. Does that diminish what he and his family have done for the sport?
For a more accurate picture of how the Gracie legacy has weathered the test of time, look at Renzo Gracie. He may never have reached the mythical heights of Rickson or Royce, but he’s still fighting and still training top pro fighters, like current UFC welterweight champ Matt Serra. His IFL team, the New York Pitbulls, just advanced to the league finals after going undefeated this year, and fighters like Delson Heleno and Fabio Leopoldo are significant talents on the MMA scene.
Not to mention, nobody throws out a hilarious post-fight quote like the affable Renzo, who’s become famous for lines like, “The only easy thing I ever had in my life was my mother’s breast.” Wow.
My point is, the Gracies deserve some respect that doesn’t carry with it impossible expectations. Did they do as much, if not more than anyone else to bring MMA to its current state of popularity? Absolutely. Were they the greatest fighters of all time? No. But just because they proved to be men instead of immortals doesn’t mean their accomplishments are meaningless. Idolizing them does them no favors, but neither does shunning them like we’re children who’ve just realized there’s no Santa Claus.
The sport has changed since the days when the Gracie family dominated the fighting world, and we should be glad for that (after all, would you really want to see Keith Hackney and Joe Son duke it out again?). The good news about this evolution is that most of the Gracies – like most of us who once worshiped them – have adapted and moved on.
For those who haven’t, at least you’ll always have that VHS tape of UFC 4 to watch in your mother’s basement. You might as well invite Tank Abbott over to watch it with you, but be prepared for him to stay a while. The guy’s got nowhere else to go.
Ben Fowlkes for CraveOnline.com