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By Can Sönmez

The youngest son of Robson Gracie, Ryan was a colourful character, to put it politely. Born in 1974, he made a name for himself as a troublemaker early on, a reputation upon which he would build for the rest of his short life. As Renzo remembered in the Legacy documentary:

My brother Ryan, he’s a disgrace . Everything I did in my life that brought trouble to my parents, he gave them at least four times more. You tell the stories and people think you’re lying, that you’re exaggerating, but they’re all true.”

Those stories included multiple run-ins with the law, such as when he was arrested in 2001 after allegedly stabbing a man in a nightclub (Ryan’s version of the story is that it was the man’s own knife, with which he got cut after Ryan tried to break up a fight). He also had an infamous feud with Wallid Ismail: this began when Ryan punched Wallid in the back of the head at the 1999 Mundials, due to Wallid’s loud (but nevertheless accurate) boasting about beating three Gracies in competition. The two men never met in a sanctioned fight, but had numerous confrontations off the mats.

Ryan’s behaviour was understandably seen as inappropriate for a jiu jitsu black belt. Marcelo Alonso once asked Robson directly about the situation, to which Robson had a succinct response. “One can also see it differently. Do you know why the academies are full? Because there is a Ryan!” Notoriety had its advantages, according to Ryan’s father, no stranger to controversy himself.

Ryan Gracie passed away on the 15th December 2007, though that is probably too gentle a description given the circumstances. To quote the article that appeared on Bleacher Report later that day:

At 7:00AM, Ryan Gracie was found slumped over and unresponsive in a jail cell in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Gracie had been arrested at approximately 1:30AM 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.

Ryan had been given a potent cocktail of drugs by the doctor, to “calm him down”, including antipsychotics, tranquilizers and relaxants. The cause of death was initially judged as unknown by the coroner. However, according to the author of the Bleacher Report article, a subsequent press release confirmed that in addition to the cocaine already present, Ryan’s heart was unable to cope with the many chemicals coursing through his body. According to Tatame, the doctor served two years for negligence, which must have been scant comfort to Ryan’s family.

Whatever his flaws, Ryan was able to leave behind a legacy in BJJ, as well as a respectable 5-2 record in MMA. He was part of the Gracie Barra team, beginning at the original academy at the age of five. In 1995, he went on to open a school in Sao Paulo with his brother Ralph. That school and the Ryan Gracie team managed to keep producing elite competitors and world champions. Much of the credit surely goes to Celso Vinicius. He had been invited to join the team as an assistant coach by Ryan shortly before his death, which was then upgraded to taking over as head coach

Something of a prodigy, Celso initially also learned his trade at Gracie Barra, starting in 1998. At only 16, he was able to reach the final of a competition against fully grown adults. Facing Thiago Fernandes, the fight went on for 20 minutes, resulting in the two men jointly winning the first prize. Vinicius then won gold as a brown belt at the 2004 Mundials. As a result, he was awarded his black belt on the podium by half guard master Roberto ‘Gordo’ Correa. ‘Ceslinho’ immediately continued his winning ways at black belt: he can boast of three world titles, winning the Mundials in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

Gabriel Vella, a keen athlete, began training BJJ at the age of 14. Having already trained judo, he followed his brother Thiago to Ryan Gracie’s gym in Sao Paulo. Although he received his black belt from Ryan Gracie, other teams would benefit from Vella’s achievements. He went on to win gold at the Mundials in 2002 listed under Gracie Barra, then controversially switched to Alliance, local Sao Paulo rivals.

Still listed under Alliance, Vella won another gold medal at the Mundials in 2009, but he would return home to the Ryan Gracie. This time, it was under the experienced eye of new head coach Vinicius. Yet Vella still didn’t compete under the Ryan Gracie banner, instead carrying the Gracie Elite name that encompasses several connected teams (including those of Rilion, Renzo, Ralph, Cesar and Ryan Gracie).

It is in keeping with Ryan Gracie’s tough reputation that the most famous female competitor from his gym, Talita Nogueira, is nicknamed Treta, which roughly translates to ‘bullshit’. This surprising nickname is due to a tattoo on her stomach, which she got to show her support for a punk band of the same name. Treta briefly took up judo, but her training was cut short by pregnancy.

She certainly made up for lost time, beginning BJJ at Cicero Costha as a 20 year old and earning her blue belt in a mere four months. It only took another 6 months to get to purple belt, with the brown belt arriving in 2009. Her decision to switch to the Ryan Gracie team was rewarded with a gold medal at the 2011 Mundials (though like Vella, she was listed as part of Gracie Elite). Back then, the top division for women was merged between brown and black belts: Treta was promoted to black belt on the podium by Francisco Santana, with her hero Kyra Gracie tying on the belt. No doubt Kyra’s uncle Ryan would have been proud.

1974: Robson Gracie's third son, Ryan Gracie, is born
1995: Ryan founds a school in Sao Paulo with his older brother Ralph
1999: Ryan has the first of many major altercations with Wallid Ismail
2005: Celso Vinicius wins the first of his three Mundials titles
2007: Ryan passes away after a botched attempt by his doctor to help "calm him down"
2011: Talita 'Treta' Nogueira wins gold in the combined brown/black belt division at the World Championships


Marcelo Alonso et al, Die Familie Gracie und die Revolution im Jiu Jitsu (Budo International) • Gethin Aldous, Renzo Gracie: Legacy ● global-training-report.com • fightworkspodcast.com • bloodyelbow.com • BJJHeroes.com • bleacherreport.com • ibjjf.org •

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August 10, 2017 — Jiu Jitsu Style