When Roger Gracie meets "King" Mohammed Lawal tonight as part of the undercard for the Strikeforce Grand Prix Semifinals he will be carrying on a family tradition and rekindling a rivalry that stretches back decades, the one that exists between Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and American wrestling. For many fans this will bring forth images of Royce Gracie choking out Dan Severn or being pummeled by Matt Hughes, but it goes much further back than the era of Ultimate Fighting, beginning with his great uncle Hélio Gracie [EN 1].
Hélio Gracie in action against Walkermar Santana in 1962 ( via www.onzuka.com)On November 5, 1932 a 17-year-old Hélio Gracie faced the American professional wrestler Fred Ebert who was touring South America at this time. Ebert was reported in the Brazilian press as being a top wrestler who had taken 2nd place in the 95kg class of the 1928 World Wrestling Championship tournament held in New York City. Hélio himself described Ebert as being a giant who weighed 216 pounds and entered the ring a full 80 pounds heavier than him. Neither of these statements was true, of course. According to Mark Hewitt, Fred Ebert was more along the lines of a "jobber", traveling the US, and later Australia, putting over the bigger names. And when he entered the ring that night at the Sao Chistovao Athletic Club in Rio de Janeiro, his weight was given at a little over 191 pounds.
Still, that is not to say he wasn't a worthy challenge. "Jobber" or not, he was described as capable and skilled in catch-as-catch-can wrestling - much better than his position or record in worked matches would indicate - who still had 50 pounds on his opponent.
The rules of the match, as agreed to by both parties, were that it would be competed over 10-minute rounds to be decided only be "submission or unconsciousness". And while punching, kicking, hair and ear pulling, biting and eye gouging were all forbidden, knees, elbows, head-butting, chokes, and "any traumatism against the floor" were allowed.
The match itself played out over an hour and forty-five minutes, mostly with Ebert pinning Hélio to the ground looking to force him to quit , while the young Gracie unleashed an endless barrage of knee, elbow, and open hand strikes upon his bigger foe.
In an interview back in May of 2001, to Nishi Yoshinori of Kakuto Striking Spirit, Hélio and his son, Rorion, described the outcome of the contest::
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.
Afterwards there were several attempts to arrange a match between Ebert and Hélio's brother, George Gracie [EN 2], but it came to naught and soon the American moved on to greener pastures. Hélio, for his part, hadn't yet had his fill of wrestlers, and was soon had his eyes on a much bigger target: Wladek Zbyszko.
Wladek Zbyszko punishing his opponent (via www.procombatathletics.com)
The 43-year-old Wladek, who was in Rio along with his brother, the legendary Stanislaus Zbyszko, as part of a wrestling troupe they had organized to tour South America, was no "jobber". He had followed his brother from Poland to America in 1913 and quickly became a major force in the world of professional wrestling, even holding the heavyweight championship at least one time [EN 3]. He was a skilled in Greco-Roman, catch-as-catch-can, and even, reportedly, knew some jujutsu. And at a well-muscled 235 pounds, he would truly be a giant in comparison to Hélio.
The David versus Goliath match took place on July 28, 1934, and was competed under a "no strikes" agreement. For the full three ten minute rounds Zybysko used his size and strength to take Hélio down and pin him, trying to squeeze the life out from him. He also went after Hélio's neck time-and-time again, attempting various cranks or "twists", but Hélio gamely fought him off until time expired and the match was called a draw. The papers declared that it had been a "long and boring" contest but others saw it as a display of true grappling prowess. Wladek was quoted afterwards as being so impressed with Hélio's performance that he would like to bring him back to North America.
Hélio often credited these matches as the first mixed matches and the origins of what would become known as Vale Tudo[EN 4]. Over the next few decades he would continue taking part in such matches against practitioners of judo, boxing, luta livre, and capoiera, and eventually his oldest son would make that pilgrimage to the United States and introduce the world to a thing called "Ultimate Fighting" [EN 5]. Soon other Gracies were adding to the family's legacy.
Tonight Roger Gracie and "King" Mo Lawal add another chapter to the continuing story.
EN 1: Most of the readers are probably pretty familiar with the Gracie story: How Carlos Gracie (Roger's grandfather) was introduced it jiu-jitsu by Matsuyo Maeda, and in turn instructed his younger brothers, including Hélio who was originally thought to be too frail and sickly to participate, in what would eventually become known as Brazilian or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
EN 2: While Hélio is remembered as the family's champion, George Gracie's contributions seem to have been written out. According to Mark Hewitt George Gracie was the most regular Gracie participator in these "vale tudo"-style matches and the first to find great success. Hewitt's Catch Wrestling: Round Two has a whole chapter dedicated to these early days of the Gracie clan and is a must read for anyone who is interested in the subject.
EN 3: Wladek Zbyszko was one of the big four, along with Joe Stecher, Earl Caddock, and Ed "The Strangler" Lewis, who ruled wrestling after Frank Gotch's retirement. He was viewed as one of the best fighter of his era, even winning a heavyweight title by beating Ed Lewis. (One of many heavyweight championships floating around in wake of Frank Gotch's retirement and then death.)
EN 4: This is, of course, patently false. Vale Tudo-type matches and mixed fights were taking place in Brazil before the Gracie's ever engaged in them. Matsuyo Maeda, who introduced Carlos to jiu-jitsu took part in these matches, not only in Brazil but in the 1900s while touring North America, Europe, and Latin America on the professional wrestling circuit under the name Conde Koma or Count Combat. As soon as Edward Barton-Wright introduced jujutsu to Europe wrestlers and jujutsu or judokans were going at it. I will go into much more detail on this in the final installment of The Forgotten Golden Age of Mixed Martial Arts.
EN 5: For further details on the evolution of Ultimate Fighting from out of the Brazilian Vale Tudo scene check out Jonathan's Snowden's amazing tome Total MMA.