The Gracie name is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable surnames in all of sports, with their jiu-jitsu empire and long-lasting lineage being a testament to this.
Their family birthed not only modern jiu-jitsu as we know it today, but the sport of mixed martial arts, where focal figure Royce Gracie defied the odds by winning the very first UFC tournament, giving hope to every undersized, average person out there.
For nine historic decades, the Gracie’s have accomplished their fair share of deeds within the realm of combat sports, drubbing expectations time and time again in order to prove that their style of fighting reigns supreme. And so it did, for quite some time.
On top of defeating numerous foes on the mat, the Gracie’s aimed to build a philosophy inside their students. One that promoted a life free of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Members such as the aforementioned Royce, along with the likes of Rener and Royler continue to exhibit this ideology, benefiting the lives of each pupil that regularly walks through the illustrious halls of their schools. However in every herd, there is a black sheep.
Ryan Gracie was born on August 14, 1974, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Son of the legendary Robson Gracie, Ryan also happened to be the youngest of five brothers at the time, and was thrust deep into the culture of his families creation. After his parent’s divorce when he was ten, the young Ryan in company with his four brothers were left to fend for themselves in their Barra de Tijuca household.
His eldest brother Renzo, who was only 17, naturally accepted the role of a father, particularly with the juvenile Ryan. It wasn’t long before the brothers transformed their home into a jiu-jitsu paradise, littering their safe-space with mats as a means to train safely.
Despite his brothers best efforts, Ryan could not remain solely focused on developing his jiu-jitsu game and was often found causing carnage in the streets. The mayhem he produced wasn’t your average spell of teenage crime – Ryan was involved with the Pit Boys.
The Pit Boys were a gang based in Brazil that featured BJJ practitioners, who would use their deadly skills to rob, beat up, and even kill helpless prey walking the streets throughout the 1990s – early 2000s. It is widely believed that the gang is responsible for a number of deaths, which struck fear into the hearts of citizens left unaccompanied come nightfall. Because of this behaviour, combined with various run-ins with the law, Ryan was gifted the nickname “Fera”, which translates to ‘beast’. And a beast he was, for better or for worse.
Unsanctioned brawls, an intense rivalry and PRIDE
The year is 1995, and Ryan Gracie along with his brother Ralph moved to Sao Paulo to open a jiu-jitsu academy, in an area that most desperately needed one. In spite of now owning and teaching in one of the city’s more famed gyms, he was unable to stay clear of the ominous streets, continuing to cause havoc in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The school remains standing to this day and is known as the ‘Ryan Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy’.
Less than five years later, Ryan’s name would spread like wildfire all over the jiu-jitsu community, albeit not for his achievements on the mat.
The youthful Gracie began a war of attrition with Wallid Ismail, a well known Carlson Gracie black belt. Throughout his storied jiu-jitsu career, Ismail notably battled three members of the Gracie family – Ralph, Royce and Renzo – defeating each one of them in what turned out to be the greatest victories of his professional vocation. The animosity between the two began after Ismail reportedly bragged about beating the three aforementioned clansmen, which Ryan never took lightly. Having said that, it is also widely believed that the bitter hatred kickstarted after Ryan’s “no holds barred” match with a man by the name of “Tico”, who Ismail had close relations to and even cornered. In the clip, which can be found on YouTube, Gracie can be spotted biting his opponent’s ear off. This infuriated Ismail, and further lit a desire to one day get his hands on him.
Due to the couples undying aversion, they decided to settle their beef inside the cage, signing to fight one another in the WEC’s inaugural event of 2000. Ryan ultimately withdrew from the contest after claiming he did not have enough time to prepare, pushing his professional MMA debut back until August of that year. Sadly, they would never settle their issues inside of the cage.
Even though the fight fell through, it never stopped the two from continuing their back-and-forth disputes. Gracie and Ismail crossed paths while at a beach in Rio, openly engaging in a war of words. Although no punches were thrown, the encounter did not sit well with Ryan, and just days later he knowingly visited a gym where Ismail had been training. This prompted his adversary to rush downstairs in an attempt to lock horns; witnesses say that Ryan was not interested in fighting, spurring him to reach into his ‘fanny pack’ and pretend to have a gun, forcing Ismail to back off. This was one of many major altercations between the pair.
Although originally signing with the WEC, the 26-year-old instead made his professional debut in PRIDE, arguably the sports most dominant organization at the time. The Japan-based promotion offered a grand stage for the surging Brazilian, who they promoted as the ‘wildman’ of the Gracie family tree. This marketing strategy did wonders, instantly turning him into one of their biggest stars. He was scheduled to face Tokimitsu Ishizawa in his first bout on August 27, 2000; in just over two minutes, Ryan unleashed a barrage of punches on his opponent to claim the TKO victory, solidifying himself as a threat in the ever-stacked middleweight division.
Three months later, he attended an after-party of a ‘Bad Boy’ fashion show and unexpectedly saw Wallid Ismail from across the room. According to first-person accounts, Gracie snuck up behind his foe in a bid to sucker punch him, only for Ismail to turn around and wrap him deep into a guillotine chokehold, putting him to sleep. Fashion shows, restaurants and even sports competitions – he would fight in every and any scenario. We are unaware of what transpired after this event, but what we do know is that Ryan focused on his return to the ring, and was matched alongside Japanese icon Kazushi Sakuraba, who had surprisingly defeated Royler, Royce and Renzo Gracie respectively, earning him the moniker of The Gracie Killer. To the dismay of both Ryan and his team, this nickname would remain intact.
The fight, mainly contested in the grappling facet, was more often than not controlled by Sakuraba, consequently earning him the unanimous decision win. Ryan Gracie was humble in defeat, showing respect to Japan’s submission maestro. A good sport inside the ring – out of which remained a different story.
The competitor within
Watching tape on Ryan Gracie’s seven professional mixed martial arts bouts, which were all contested as a member of PRIDE’s roster, really puts into perspective how loved he was by fans.
Out of all seven compelling performances, his third career victory over the highly touted Kazuhiro Hamanaka is likely his best. At the time, the Gracie family were going toe-to-toe with the best talent Japan had to offer, in a clash labelled as ‘Team Gracie vs. Team Japan’. Before his bout with Hamanaka, the score between the teams sat at 2-2, meaning a victory for Ryan would cement his family as one of the sports most respected and minacious teams. He got the job done, alright.
After dominating the vast majority of the fight through his deadly jiu-jitsu game (which included pounding Hamanaka with punches while in back mount), Gracie stung his opponent with strikes, dropping the Japanese prospect to the hard red and white canvas. He pounced, throwing a multitude of accurate soccer kicks to trigger the referee to step in and wave things off; Ryan had to be momentarily restrained as it looked like he wasn’t done dishing out punishment to the opposition. He had just ended the Team Gracie vs. Team Japan saga in spectacular fashion, with the finish producing instantaneous celebrations from his relatives who then swarmed the ring.
His last MMA bout came on December 31, 2004, at PRIDE’s traditional New Years Eve show. In this fight, he successfully arm-barred Yoji Anjo to earn the final triumph of his short-lived yet exciting career, which saw him present his crafty set of skills on the sports biggest platform. Although routinely calling out the previously mentioned Sakuraba in his final competitive years, Gracie was unable to secure the rematch he so desperately wanted, consequently retiring with a professional record of five wins and two losses.
By now you will be fully aware of Ryan Gracie’s acute rivalry with Wallid Ismail, which continued to plague the jiu-jitsu scene years after their set of confrontations in the early 2000s. It appears as if one of his talents was juggling, but not the regular kind. Gracie was a master at balancing multiple personal feuds at once.
In 2001, one of his more famed yet shocking cases made nationwide news – Ryan got into a nightclub altercation with fellow troublemaker Marcus Vinicius Rosa, who went by the sobriquet of the “Chuck Norris of Méier”. During their conflict, Ryan stabbed Rosa with a knife, landing him a mere 18 – yes, you read that right – 18 days in jail. A very light sentence indeed. The jiu-jitsu black belt claimed that the knife used was, in fact, Rosa’s, and the damage imposed was a result of him attempting to break up a fight. Even with this protestation, Ryan served his brief sentence. As a result of this, he was removed from his scheduled bout with arch-nemesis Wallid Ismail, in what would be the final time they arranged to fight one another.
On top of numerous other reported attacks, former President of the Rio de Janeiro jiu-jitsu league Mauricio Lima claimed that he was rushed by the Gracie bad-boy after accusing his father, Robson Gracie, of being discriminatory towards homosexuals. Lima told his account of what materialized that night to the police.
“I criticized his father, and Robson did not retaliate. I don’t get it. At the night club, Ryan said I was bad-mouthing his dad and punched me in the chin. I didn’t fight back.”
After discovering Lima went to the police, Ryan released a statement of his own regarding the incident.
“Saddam (Mauricio’s nickname) is an amoeba, and idiot. I never said anything about gays. Only thing is, during my TV show (Ring Heroes), we joked when a guest of the show said that Mark Kerr looked a little feminine. I have nothing against gays. Saddam, for example, has a candid, delicate soul,” said Gracie. He continued.
“Now, if he is gay or not is not my business. Personally, I think homosexualism is an ugly thing, two hairy men touching each other… ugh. Now, two women having sex is ok!”
This assertion is extremely sardonic, and only contradicts the same mindset he denied his own father of possessing.
Ryan Gracie’s final quarrel with the law came in 2007, after being arrested for stealing and crashing a car, then trying to hijack a motorcycle as a means to escape from police officers. Quoting a report by Bleacher Report, the following events ensued.
“Gracie had been arrested at approximately 1:30 AM for stealing and crashing a car, and then attempting to steal a motorcycle to flee from police. Ryan was hit on the head by the owner of the cycle, whom he had threatened to kill, and then detained by several cyclists until the police arrived.”
According to Bleacher Report, he also tested positive for marijuana, cocaine and an unknown antianxiety drug, further worsening his circumstances. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t make it through the night.
At 7:00 AM on December 15, 2007, Ryan Gracie was found slumped over and unresponsive in a Sao Paulo jail cell.
Death and controversies
Ryan Gracie was pronounced dead on December 15, 2007, at only 33 years old after being discovered unresponsive in his cell. Almost immediately the public, but more importantly his family, wanted answers.
An investigation into his death revealed that a psychiatrist by the name of Sabino Ferreira de Faria prescribed Ryan with a cocktail of drugs for the purpose of calming him down. The mixture reportedly included Haldol (a powerful antipsychotic), Fenergan (which has a side effect of sleepiness), Topamax (for Migraines), Dienpax (tranquillizers), and OmniPlex (relaxant). However, another report suggested that a number of different medications were found in his system, which includes Midazolam and Clozapine. This only adds to the mystery surrounding Mr Gracie’s death. No matter what drugs were used, they proved to be lethal, ultimately causing the death of the 4th degree black belt.
The psychiatrist was later accused of negligence and was sentenced to two years of community service. Nevertheless to the displeasure of Ryan’s family and friends, he was never found guilty in a court of law. Meaning nobody suffered for their wrongdoing; now some thirteen years on, it remains that way.
His death had a profound effect on every individual in the Gracie family, specifically Renzo, who struggles to openly speak about his younger brother to this day. Any premature death is saddening, but even more so when it could have been prevented.
Ryan Gracie is survived by his son, Rayron, who is currently a young adult. Just like his father he is striving towards a career in mixed martial arts, hoping to do him proud.
The legacy of “Fara” extends much farther than his achievements in the ring. He was, and always will be jiu-jitsu’s bad boy. A man unafraid; as dangerous as he was loyal. Even after several negative actions performed throughout his life, many described him as a kind soul with good intentions. The streets ultimately proved to be his toughest fight.
May he forever Rest in Peace.