Martial Arts Masters January 1995

Rickson Gracie in Japan
by Todd Hester

When Rickson Gracie stepped off the plane two weeks before the July 29 Vale Tudo 1994 Japan Open, it was the culmination of sixty-five years of preparation. Rickson, the Gracie Family Champion, had been taught Jiu-Jitsu by his father Helio, the legendary Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion. Helio, in turn, had been taught by his brother Carlos, who had learned Jiu-Jitsu from the Japanese Jiu-Jitsu World Champion Esai Maeda as a show of friendship for the help of their father, Gastao Gracie, had given him in establishing a Japanese immigration colony in Brazil. But until this fight, no member of the Gracie Family had ever returned to Japan to test their modified Jiu-Jitsu techniques against the original Japanese art.

The Japan Open was an eight-man, single elimination tournament organized by the Japan Shooto Association. Limited rules included wearing lightweight open-finger shootwrestling gloves, as well as no elbowing when both fighters were on the ground. The original format had called for the referee to return the fighters to a standing position if, after thirty seconds on the ground, the fighters had reached a stalemate. Rickson, though, had insisted on no referee intervention as a condition of his appearance. The promoters, eager for Rickson to appear, agreed.

The Japanese had learned of Rickson in an indirect way. Rickson’s brother, Royce, in the United States pay-per-view event called The Ultimate Fighting Championship had easily beaten Ken Shamrock, a much bigger man and one of Japan’s top freestyle submission fighters. Because of this victory, Royce received extensive coverage in Japanese magazines. In press interviews, though, when asked if he considered himself the best fighter in the world, Royce stated that his brother was ten times better than himself. This comment stirred the Japanese interest and spawned a host of articles about Rickson. While Rickson’s accomplishments are common knowledge in Brazil, Japanese readers were soon bombarded with details about the undefeated fighter. They devoured stories about his four hundred straight victories. They read with near disbelief how no one in Brazil had dare challenge him to a freestyle ring match in nearly ten years, after Rickson’s savage victory over a dangerous Brazilian brawler named Zulu. Stories from the United States, where Rickson now lives and teaches, soon came to light. Rickson’s reputation was now know on the island nation-now he would have to prove himself against seven top international fighters.

Within a few days of Rickson’s arrival in Japan, brother Royler, a champion fighter in his own right, flew in from Rio de Janeiro. With only a little more than week left until the fight, it was time for Rickson’s training to begin in earnest. The two were driven to a secluded Japanese mountain retreat unknown to any of the press. Rickson had brought crates of papayas and other tropical fruit with him and for a week, the two brothers fell into a strict regimen of diet, exercise and Jiu-Jitsu. The morning would consist of a special calisthenics routine that Rickson has practiced for years.

The effectiveness of these exercises is evident by Rickson’s physique. After a lunch of fruit and juice, the two would do freestyle grappling for several hours. Rickson gives much of the credit for his top condition for the tournament to his brother Royler. The remainder of the day consisted of more fruit for dinner and then an evening endurance run. When it was time to return to Tokyo, Rickson was focused and ready.

The night before the fight at the final press conference dinner, Rickson met the other fighters. Although Rickson was still very personable, he was more reserved and quiet than the first conference. The fight was the next day and it was time to put on his game face. The other entrants included top Japanese shootwrestlers Kenji Rawaguchi and Kazuhiro Kusayanagi, World Heavyweight Karate Champion Chris Bass from Holland, American kickboxer Bud Smith, giant American Wing Chun Kung-Fu fighter David Levicki, Muay Thai World Champion Jan Lomulder of Holland, and Japanese martial arts master Yoshinori Nishi, holder of both Judo and Karate black belts and a four-time winner of the All- Japan Open Style Martial Arts Championship. When the pairings were announced, Rickson had drawn Nishi in the first round – history was about to be made.

Helio Gracie, Rickson’s father, still living and teaching in Brazil, but unable to attend, had to be following the match-up with keen interest. Nishi was the top student of recently deceased Japanese Judo Master Masahiko Kimura, the only man to have beaten Helio during his legendary fighting career. The defeat had come in 1950, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and was the first time the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship had been held outside of Japan. Before the fight, Kimura, eighty pounds heavier and nine years younger than Helio, had boasted that if Helio lasted three minutes against him, Helio should be considered the winner. The actual fight lasted over thirteen minutes and Kimura was so impressed with Helio’s techniques that he asked the Brazilian to come to Japan and teach at the Imperial Academy. Because of family considerations Helio declined, but now forty-four years later, Helio Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu had come full circle. It was now Helio’s student, Rickson, against Kimura’s top student, Nishi. This time the fight was in Japan.

On the day of the fight, it was evident that Rickson was the marquee attraction. Rickson appeared on the front of the program as well as the center of the promotional poster. Without ever having fought a single fight in Japan, Rickson Gracie had now become a legend.

As night fell and nearly ten thousand fans streamed into the NR Hall outside of Tokyo, the main interest was definitely focused on the Gracie versus Nishi match-up.

The first three fights all ended quickly. None lasted into the second ten-minute round.

Jan Lomulder of Holland brutally destroyed shootwrestler Kenji Kawagucni in a war of attrition, breaking his hand in the process, subsequently withdrawing from the tournament. Kickboxer Bud Smith quickly knocked out karate expert Chris Bass, and David Levicki made short work of the much smaller Kazuhiro Kusayanagi.

The stage was now set for Rickson versus Nishi. Nishi entered the ring to the cheers of the crowd while Rickson, backed by Royler and best friend SergioZveiter, was greeted by a polite smattering of applause. The two fighters stared across the ring at each other. At the bell, Nishi stayed close to the roped and took several steps to his right. Rickson, arms at his side and chin out, strode purposefully across the ring like a man crossing the street against a red light. Rickson kept his arms down until he was only a few steps away from the waiting Nishi. Just as Nishi pulled back to strike, Rickson kicked out at Nishi’s knee, forcing his arms down to block. At that moment, Rickson lunged forward and clinched. Nishi tried to spin away, but the Brazilian kept his weight low, went to Nishi’s side, hooked his leg and tripped him to the mat. Nishi, on the bottom facing up, put a figure four leg-lock on Rickson’s right thigh, intelligently keeping him from mounting. Rickson hooked his left arm under Nishi’s neck and pummeled the Japanese with repeated right hands to the ribs.

After nearly a minute of this, Rickson put his right hand on Nishi’s knee and managed to free his trapped leg. He straddled Nishi’s stomach inthetopmountposition and punched several times to the head. Nishi rolled over to avoid the strikes and Rickson hooked his heels inside Nishi’s legs, snaked his arm under his neck and applied a choke.

After several moments of struggling, Nishi tapped the mat and surrendered. The entire match had taken less than three minutes.

Some in the crowd clapped, but most were silent. The defeat of a local hero is not pleasant to watch.

Due to Lornulder’s broken hand, Bud Smith received an automatic berth into the finals.
This left Rickson to fight Levicki as the lone semi-final fight of the night. From the opening bell on Levicki fought a defensive fight. Rickson tried to close in on Levicki early, but the American, at 67" and 265 pounds, struggled to the ropes and both men toppled out of the ring. After re-entering the ring, Rickson repeatedly kicked the huge American’s knee.

Levicki tried to time his punches and was rewarded by landing two glancing blows to
the top of Rickson’s head. Rickson then tripped Levicki to the ground and immediately straddled his waist in the top mount. Rickson unleashed a flurry of punches to his opponent’s head, not stopping until the referee grabbed Rickson’s arm and dragged him off. Levicki was out cold.

In the final match against Smith, Rickson wasted no time. At the bell, Smith snapped out a straight kick to Rickson’s stomach but Rickson grabbed the leg in the air, threw Smith to the ground and mounted on top of him. Five straight punches to Smith’s head were enough to convince him of the hopelessness of his situation and he quickly tapped out. The tournament was over and Rickson, to no one’s surprise, had won the final bout in thirty-nine seconds. Rickson, in a generous gesture that endeared him to the fans, lifted the fallen Smith into the air at center ring. Seeing this, the crowd seemed to adopt him as one of their own and gave him a long round of applause.

After the fight, the small interview room was crowded by a throng of reporters, photographers and news cameras. The questions continued for nearly an hour.

One repeated question was if Rickson thought he could ever be defeated. "Of course it’s possible," he said. "There are many good fighters and anything can happen in the ring. I just have confidence in the Jiu-Jitsu techniques I learned from my father. If they are applied correctly, the will give a solution to any situation."

If the reaction of the Japanese public is any indication of the response Rickson will get when he fights in other countries, he had better start practicing signing his name.

This autograph business is something Rickson is just going to have to get used to.