The 100th anniversary of Helio Gracie's birth was this past Tuesday, an event that was celebrated to varying degrees around the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community. Helio is a towering figure in the history and development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and is one of only two 10th degree black belts in the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The other is Helio's older brother and teacher, Carlos Gracie. The first Gracie to learn grappling, Carlos learned from Judoka Mitsuyo Maeda, who had traveled the world learning wrestling techniques to pair with his Judo training. A rebellious 22-year-old at the time, Carlos took to Judo, then referred to as Jiu Jitsu, quickly. Carlos opened his own school in 1925 and his first students were his brothers Oswaldo, Gastao, George and Helio.
Helio was 11 years younger than Carlos and was sickly as a child, given to fainting spells and was relegated to watching Carlos giving lessons most of the time.
Often much is made of Helio's early life fragility, but Helio later became famous for engaging in marathon matches that last hours, so clearly Helio's life time of training did benefit him physically. But it is true that Helio was never large or particularity strong, and he had to account for that in his fighting.
Helio was a technician, not the first grappler ever to rely more on technique and timing than strength, but he was excellent at teaching the small adjustments he made to maximize his leverage in a given position. Together with his brothers, Helio helped continue to grow the blended grappling style originally taught by Maeda.
Carlos Gracie issued what is now known as "The Gracie Challenge" in a newspaper, an open invitation to a challenge match with a Gracie with a cash prize for the winner. Carlos and his brothers accepted many, many challenges over the next forty years. Boxers, professional wrestlers, Capoeira fighters, and generic tough men were common opponents. As the years wore on Carlos slowly receded form the leadership of the family and Helio stepped forward to bear the Gracie standard.
Helio fought many high profile matches against pro wrestlers and former students, but he is most famous for his matches with a pair of Judoka visiting from Japan. In late 1950 a visiting Japanese emissary that knew the Gracie family asked Helio if he would be open to a match against a Japanese champion, and Helio agreed. Three Japanese Judo champions then visited Japan, led by legendary champion Masahiko Kimura. The Japanese party decided that it would be Yukio Kato, generally seen as the second best champion in Japan, to face Gracie as Kimura was large enough to cause a win by him to be discredited by the Brazilians.
On September 6, 1951, Kato and Gracie met at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and had a fairly uneventful three round draw that reportedly Kato controlled early, but Gracie rallied back late to earn the draw.
A rematch was scheduled and on September 29, 1951 at Pacaembu Gymnasium, the two met again. What followed was about four minutes of the two feeling each other out on the feet and then Kato throwing Helio. Then in about the eight minute of the fight Helio is able to lock up a simple front collar choke from the guard and puts Kato to sleep it, winning the match in decisive fashion.
This win promoted Kimura to then challenge Gracie to their famous match. While Helio would lose this match and have his arm broken in the lock that now bears Kimura's name, the Japanese left impressed with Helio and Kimura awarded the rank of 6th dan in Judo to Helio.
Helio was far from done fighting at this point, and he would continue to grapple well into his 90's. Helio was not perfect, but he was a great teacher, an extremely technical grappler, and immensely important in the development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.