Without Royce Gracie there would be no Ultimate Fighting Championship today. That's a bold statement, but one I'm perfectly comfortable with. Let's be frank - without Royce the first UFC would have been little more than a glorified Tough Man contest. Remember Kevin Rosier, belly hanging over his horribly ill fitting and uncomfortably tight white shorts, pounding and stomping poor Zane Frazier until Frazier was bloody and incoherent and Rosier himself was heaving for breath? Remember Ken Shamrock, practically forgetting to remove the needle from his buttocks before getting into a shouting match with Pat Smith after their fight ended for reasons no one could really discern or explain? It was crass and forgettable, pro wrestling without the pomp, boxing with none of the skill and technique that demands you refer to it as a science not a sport.
Into this morass of dojo warriors and third rate Sumo wrestlers walked Royce Gracie, introducing not just his art form but an idea of what fighting can and should be. Weighing 170 pounds in his sparkling white gi, Royce crushed the competition. This was something new, something exciting and different. With the almost forgotten ground stylings of early 20th century Judo wizards, Gracie turned everything we thought we knew about fighting upside down. Bulging muscles? Not so important. Long hair? Probably a bad idea. Wearing a single boxing glove? Don't do it.
By the time Royce withdrew from active competition in 1995 he had revolutionized the martial arts. Just saying you were a tough guy wasn't enough any longer. Breaking boards was something better accomplished with a saw. Gracie showed that no one could succeed in a real struggle without some idea of how to defend themselves on the ground. It's an important legacy, one that has made him and his family very wealthy.
That was more than enough. Gracie is a name that will now never be forgotten, a name that will be passed on for generations alongside Kano, Bruce Lee, and Mas Oyama. Comebacks followed, a memorable run in Pride and a return to the Octagon that made Matt Hughes a star. Gracie's story is unique - even in losing he was really winning. To beat him Hughes, a collegiate wrestler, used jiu jitsu techniques. Gracie has put his stamp on every fight in the Octagon from now into the foreseeable future.
One giant "BUT" after the jump
Royce Gracie is a legend. One of the sport's all-time greats. But Royce Gracie only belongs in the cage if he's going to smile for the cameras and wave to the adoring crowd in Rio de Janeiro. At 44, Royce is so far past his prime he can't even spot it in his rear view mirror. Royce already had his Willie Mays moment, walking to the cage with his oddly stilted gait and getting demolished by Matt Hughes at UFC 60. Gracie looked like a man facing a firing squad that night - and that was five years ago. Today, even Hughes, the young gun in that 2006 bout, is washed up and barely hanging on. I can't even imagine what a 2011 Royce Gracie would look like in the Octagon. It would be ugly and be ugly fast.
The truth is, fighting is a young man's game. Reflexes, endurance, joints, your brain's ability to take a licking and spring back into semi-coherence - these things all fade with age. And, although old school fans don't want to hear it and I want to write it even less, even in his prime Gracie couldn't compete with today's fighter. Even the rawest fighter on The Ultimate Fighter would beat Royce Gracie senseless. To find an appropriate opponent, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva would have to scour nursing homes and karate dojos for other elderly martial arts masters. Fred Ettish? Art Jimmerson? Is the world really demanding this kind of farce?
Leave the past in the past. If the UFC wants to honor Royce and his family in Brazil, I'm all for it. No one is more deserving. But honor them with a ceremony, not with a fight. The Octagon is no place for an old timer's league.