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Book Review: Rickson Gracie’s memoir ‘Breathe’ spills a lot of tea

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The BJJ legend’s book hits shelves August 10th

TOKYO, JAPAN - MAY 26: (JAPANESE NEWSPAPERS OUT) Rickson Gracie competes in the match against Masakatsu Funaki during the Colosseum 2000 at Tokyo Dome on May 26, 2000 in Tokyo, Japan.
Rickson Gracie competes in his final fight, a victory over Masakatsu Funaki at the Tokyo Dome in 2000.
Photo by Sankei via Getty Images

Rickson Gracie is very proud of being humble.

And that is only the beginning of the paradoxes that surround the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu legend.

An alpha personality in the dojo, within his family he took a backseat to his brothers. Born with a fierce temperament, he adopts wild animals, gentling them into pets. Adamantly in favor of respecting progressive, dynamic women, and a father who believes in empowering his two daughters, he also repeated the chauvinistic behaviors modeled by his father and uncle. Perhaps most poignantly, he asserts himself as a self-aware realist, and while that is undoubtedly true, it is also evident that he isn’t quite as self-aware as he believes.

Breathe: A Life in Flow is in itself a sort of paradoxical title. While it is clear Rickson Gracie found that flow in his training and within the ring, his life has been marked by conflict. Much of it not his fault, but all the same, Gracie has had more than his fair share of traumas.

Gracie is open and honest about both his past and present, and willingly shares any number of fascinating details about what it was like growing up Gracie. While I had a basic sketch of the Gracie family story, it turns out I was missing all the good stuff.

Some things are pretty easy to anticipate—Carlos and Helio throwing the boys back and forth, higher and higher, to see which of them were brave, and possible candidates for “family champion.” Less expected, Carlos believing he was in contact with a ghost who gave him extra sensory perception. Also, I somehow missed the polygamy part of the deal? Did y’all know about that? And why didn’t anyone tell me how much the Gracies were reminiscent of just-settled-Utah Mormons?

Anyway, the first third of the book feels like a 1990’s interview with Barbara Walters, where all the tea gets spilled. And if you’re a trash person like myself, it’s pretty great. The middle of the book contains a good many interesting stories, particularly about the evolution of BJJ within the United States, however, this section is also the most weighed down by Rickson Gracie’s ego. As ever with the paradoxes, Gracie asserts that the early UFC was great, and that the early UFC was too much like professional wrestling and he is glad he was never a part of it. Given his take on Royce, it certainly seems that it still rankles that he wasn’t chosen by the family to represent the Gracies in the UFC.

During this section, it kept popping up into my mind that as much as I admire everything Gracie accomplished as a martial artist, and as many stories as he has to tell, I wouldn’t want to sit down and have a beer with him.

However, the final third of the book addresses a great tragedy in his life, and the aftermath of that tragedy. This section is by far the most personal, and the cold sort of ego that rides alongside his stories of the fight life drops away into something much softer, much more vulnerable, and quite moving. His ultimate conclusions about Gracie Jiu Jitsu (as he often still calls it), who it is for, and how it should be taught, come from the heart of a genuinely humble martial arts master.

Rickson Gracie often mentions how he understands the world intuitively, implying that it is a wordless sort of intuition, and further implying that language is not exactly his friend. Breathe: A Life in Flow is at its best when it tells beautiful, small little stories illustrating this truth about how Gracie moves through the world, as a fighter, a surfer, and a man doing his best to be his best. It is a worthwhile read, and will be available for purchase August 10.