Helio Gracie Interviewed by Nishi Yoshinori
From Kakuto Striking Spirit May 1, 2002
Translated by Yoko Kondo
This interview was conducted in 1994 just after the UFC 3, but was published for the first time on May 1, 2002 in Japan. Nishi Yoshinori participated in a seminar held one day before the Ultimate in Charlotte. What drew attention there was Helio Gracie who was teaching Nishi with care. On September 15, four days later, Nishi visited the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy owned by Rorion in Los Angeles. Helio, who postponed his return to Brazil in expectation of his visit, was waiting for him there. Nishi took a private lesson on the advice of Rorion. When the one-hour training was finished, Helio came to Nishi saying “there is something I want to show you.” What was put in front of Nishi were rare pictures of his legendary fight with Masahiko Kimura, the master. For more information on Masahiko Kimura please see this excerpt from his autobiography “My Judo” or see the videos of the match with Helio Gracie.
Nishi: What valuable pictures they are! I don’t think even the wife of Kimura has pictures like these. Well, what kind of rule was this fight done under? Was it the vale tudo rule?
Helio: No, it was the jiu-jitsu rule.
Nishi: Then, you didn’t exchange blows with Kimura, did you?
Helio: That’s right. We could do anything except kicks and punches. There were no points and no time limits. But when I challenged Kimura and we met together for the first time, he seemed to be very surprised when he saw how small I was (laugh). So I was told to fight with a man named Kato at first.
Nishi: Then, did you fight with a Japanese Judo-ka before the fight with Kimura?
Helio: Yes, I did. He had 20 kg. heavier than me and was strongly built. But I was able to win by good luck.
Rorion: My father finished Kato with a choke in less than six minutes (see a photo from the match). So Kimura accepted my father’s challenge. But the people around strongly objected to it. It seemed that especially uncle Carlos didn’t want him to do it.
Nishi: Did the people around think that Kimura was more than a match for you from the beginning?
Helio: Not only the people around, but also I myself thought that nobody in the world could defeat Kimura. (laugh) Especially my brother Carlos was worried that I would never give up under any condition. He thought I would get seriously injured. So he gave me permission to fight with Kimura on the condition that I would “give-up” without fail. Regret? I didn’t regret it at all either before or after the fight. For me who aimed at jiu-jitsu at that time, fear was surpassed by desire to know what on earth such a strong man like Kimura would do in the fight–he might open the door to an unknown world for me. I heard that you are the same type of person too.
Nishi: Yes, I am.
Helio seemed to know that Nishi had fought with Rickson [Mr. Nishi faced Rickson in Vale Tudo Japan Open 95 and was defeated by rear naked hadaka jime choke in the first round], and he has been fighting in kickboxing and karate events as well. It could be felt here and there in Helio’s words that Helio was sympathizing with Nishi’s action.
Nishi: I would like to ask you something technical before the story about Kimura. What kind of style of jiu-jitsu was it you learned?
Helio: I remember vaguely that my brother Carlos was learning it from Konde Koma (Kosei Maeda) around 1914. Anyway I was just four years old at that time. To tell the truth, I don’t remember well the technique directly taught by Koma. Carlos opened the dojo in Rio when he was 25 years old, and I was watching the techniques that he had learned from Konde Koma. But I kept thinking about what a small and weak man like me should do to win, and developing the theory to control an opponent by technique.
Rorion: It seems my father didn’t teach it to anybody in the beginning. But one day he had to teach the training in place of uncle Carlos who was late for the class. My father was only 16 years old yet, but the improvements my father made in the techniques to control an opponent with a minimum power was persuasive enough to satisfy the students. Since it doesn’t require power, it makes it possible for you to fight for 20 or 30 minutes. After that, it seems that uncle Carlos left the teaching to my father.
Nishi: That has become the base of Gracie jiu-jitsu of the day, hasn’t it? Was a style Mr. Carlos learned from Kosei Maeda centering on “kata”?
Helio: There weren’t so many techniques. Most techniques were something mainly based on power. But Konde Koma was always fighting in real fights, so a lot of tricks to win in a real fight were incorporated in his teaching.
Nishi: Striking was also included, wasn’t it?
Helio: No, it wasn’t included.
Kosei Maeda known by the name of Konde Koma was a judo-ka who got out of Japan to spread Kodokan Judo to the world in Meiji period, and performed an open fight with a different style in each country. (However, Kodokan removed his name from the register in the later years.) But why did he call it jiu-jitsu, not judo in Brazil? Nishi has secretly thought that jiu-jitsu introduced to Brazil might be something like a variant form of judo.
Nishi: Did Mr. Maeda call it jiu-jitsu, not judo from the beginning?
Helio: I heard that Konde Koma called it jiu-jitsu. We didn’t even know the word of judo itself until it came into Brazil. At that time (the time when jiu-jitsu was brought by Konde Koma), there were many Japanese immigrants and local people had a friendly relationship with them. I heard that they often helped Japanese people in many ways. So I think he taught us their traditional jiu-jitsu in return for it.
Nishi: When judo came into Brazil, didn’t you think it was similar to jiu-jitsu?
Rorion: I have a strong impression about judo that judo is a sport where the objective is to throw the opponent to the ground using power. But I think maybe the original art is jiu-jitsu. When Japan lost in the World War II and America was occupying Japan, they taught the Americans judo, but not jiu-jitsu. In that sense, we were lucky to have been able to come in contact directly with jiu-jitsu first, rather than judo.
Helio: (nodding to what Rorion said) They didn’t teach the Americans the mind of the samurai.
Nishi: It doesn’t seem that judo itself was completely introduced to you. I wonder if Kosei Maeda introduced something he made up and called jiu-jitsu, or if it had originality as a result of the improvements made by Mr. Helio. It draws my interest very much. Then, when is the start of vale tudo?
Helio: It was not something like vale tudo, but the first fight between different styles was in 1932 when I fought with an American wrestling fighter named Fred Ebert when I had 17 years old. He described himself as a world-class strong fighter.
It seems that Fred Ebert was a fighter who took second place in the 95kg class in the world wrestling championship held in New York in l928. This coincides with the story of Helio who described him as a giant with 98kg, but it turns out to have been nearly 40kg difference in weight between them. Helio’s weight was about 60kg.
Nishi: How about the result?
Helio: (with a frown) The fight started at 12:00 at midnight, and fought until 2:00 in the morning. But we were told to stop the fight by the police.
Rorion: The fight lasted 2 hours and 10 minutes. To tell the truth, he was stopped to fight by the doctor then due to the high fever caused by a swelling. Anyway he had to undergo an urgent operation next day of the fight.
Nishi: It sounds…… (breaking off in his speech) …..reckless…….
Helio: I didn’t want to be said that I avoided the fight under the pretext of the doctor-stop. That’s all. However, I regret that we couldn’t get the result.
Nishi: What if Mr. Ebert is in good health and challenged you to do the sequel to the fight now?
Helio: I will do it, of course! (laugh) But he might need some handicap because he was pretty older than me.
For Helio, who has such a “never say die” attitude toward a fight as mentioned above, I wonder what came to his mind when he threw in the towel in the fight of Royce [vs. Sakuraba in Pride Grand Prix 2000], his son, with his own hand. I wanted to ask him about it. But maybe there was something wrong in the way I started to question saying “I am sorry for the result of Royce, but….”, they stuck to the answer made by Rorion, who was voluntarily working as an interpreter, that “No matter how nice a car you drive, it sometimes happens to you to get out of the course due to a puncture. Neither Shamrock nor Royce lost to anybody this time.” (Helio speaks only Portuguese, so the interview was done in such a way that at first Nishi’s words were conveyed to Rorion in English, and then Rorion conveyed it to Helio in Portuguese) However, I felt like that I saw Helio’s deep attachment to fights in difference in words between Helio, who used simple and clear words, and Rorion, who used a metaphor.
Nishi: Mr. Helio, did you have a favorite technique other than jiu-jitsu?
Helio: Does it mean a technique in striking? I was good at side kicks. I did it in my own way, but kick the body of the opponent using the heel. Don’t ask me to demonstrate it here now! (laugh)
Nishi: No! (laugh) You said it was your own way, but did you study it watching the move of karate?
Helio: Karate? No. Judo came to Brazil around 1950-1960 and Karate was later than that, maybe around 1970. So I had no chance to study it. Besides when I saw karate for the first time, I didn’t think it was effective for self-defense or kakuto art.
Nishi: Well then, do you think kakutogi based on striking are not effective for all?
Helio: Generally they are not, are they? I think you know about it much better than I do.
Rorion: In a fight like the Ultimate, all you have to do about striking is to kill the distance. If you do it, then you can control the fight.
Nishi: They are at a disadvantage under the rule of the Ultimate for sure, but I can’t agree with you who say positively that they are not effective from the view point of self-defense and kakuto arts either. Then, when did you start fighting with striking?
Helio: I don’t remember clearly, but jiu-jitsu was considered something oriental in Brazil and there was some guy saying that he could defeat me in a street fight. So I accepted the fight with him including punches and kicks.
Nishi: Unbelievable! (laugh) He must have sorely regretted his words after the contest.! Was that the beginning of vale tudo?
Helio: Maybe so. I’m the one who started vale tudo. But we didn’t call it vale tudo. It was a TV producer who decided to call it that.
Nishi: A TV producer?
Helio: That’s right. I held style vs. style tournaments to spread jiu-jitsu. Of course, I won all of them. The producer found them interesting and decided to telecast them. The title of that program was Vale Tudo. Later the form was changed to one-match fight between a winner of the jiu-jitsu tournament (it was held under the original jiu-jitsu rule and striking was prohibited) and a challenger invited from a different style. This program started around 1960 and became very popular. It used to be aired every week at one time.
Nishi: It is a model of the Ultimate. Anyway, I’m surprised to see that it was the title of the TV program, and vale tudo was performed every week. What an amazing country Brazil is.
Helio: Many people were scared of punches. But since they watched the fights on TV, they started to understand that punches were good, but they could be nullified by using different techniques, and a small man like me could fight.
Nishi: I was doing judo and was afraid of getting punched. That’s why I started learning striking and still now I am studying. Mr. Helio, did you have any fear of getting punched?
Helio: If I get punched, I feel happy and more guts. But I feel pain too. (laugh) So I developed the way of fighting to avoid to get punched.
Nishi: And at first you keep the position not to get punched, then give the opponent punches whenever you want to.
Helio: That’s right (laugh).
Nishi: How about a throw? Throwing is not effective either?
Helio: No, it can be very effective at times. Anyway, a fearful throw by Kimura remains vividly in mind. It was very impressive to see that Kimura made the opponent KOed with one throw. When it was decided that I would fight with Kimura, I was careful about his throw.
Nishi: Could you tell me more details about the fight with the master Kimura?
Helio: In the beginning I carefully tried to find a breakthrough, but I was in his control as soon as we stood close to each other. I had no time to even hold or grapple him. What I barely could do was to avoid his perfect throw in such a way that I relaxed the strength of all my body and moved my position a little bit at the moment when Kimura tried to throw me and as a result Kimura lost his balance. I was taken into the ground, and I got choked at first. It was difficult to breathe. I felt it working enough so I was wondering if I should tap as I promised Carlos.
Helio: Well, this is what I’ve never told anybody before. It seems I went unconscious while I was thinking about what to do [give up or not].
Naturally all the staff let alone Nishi were surprised to hear that, but what was more impressive than that was the shocked expression on Rorion’s face.
Helio: If Kimura had continued to choke me, I would have died for sure. But since I didn’t give up, Kimura let go of the choke and went into the next technique. Being released from the choke and the pain from the next technique revived me and I continued to fight. Kimura went to his grave without ever knowing the fact that I was finished. If possible, I wish I could have talked about the fight with him and let him know about it.
Nishi: I will tell his wife without fail.
Helio: Thank you. But then, Kimura was strong……. strong and a gentleman. He spoke in my ear in Japanese “good, good” while catching me with arm-lock. I don’t understand Japanese at all, but strangely I was encouraged by his voice. It gave me power. (laugh) I was anxious about it, so I asked him later. He said, “I was admiring your heart.”
Nishi: Kimura also talked about the fight with Mr. Helio in his book, and says that you had a strong heart.
Helio: Same to him. I think I got the authentic samurai spirit from him. I might have been Japanese in a previous life.
Nishi: By the way, what shall I do with my plan? I was prepared to do a challenge match here aiming at defeating a Gracie, but I touched the heart of the master Kimura in the talk with Mr. Helio. Now I’ve had one more teacher, Mr. Helio. Indeed, I must have been Brazilian in a previous life.
Helio: Thank you. If you continue to train, you will be the champion in a jiu-jitsu tournament in Brazil for sure. Age? No problem. I am 82 years old now, but martial arts are what you search for at the risk of your whole life.
I have no enemy; I make carelessness my enemy