In the current landscape of the UFC, each and every fighter is well versed in a number of different disciplines and can hold their own both on the feet and on the ground. But if we crank back the clock around 20 years, the UFC was much different. Most people had only a single discipline, and most were of the stand-up variety, until Royce Gracie showed up. Here I will talk about his career in martial arts and how he would change the landscape of mixed martial arts forever.
Ahead of UFC 1, not many people were aware of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a means of winning a fight. But in Brazil, there was a small group of people (namely the Gracie family), that were practicing this martial art. When they heard of UFC 1, they wanted to send one of their Gracie Jiu Jitsu practioners to compete, as they believed their method was the best martial art in the world. In order to prove that theirs was the best, they elected to send Royce to represent them, despite him being the smallest and weakest of the Gracie’s, just to prove that even a small man could win against bigger men with their system.
As it turned out, they were incredibly right. Even though there were no weight or height limits for UFC 1, the 6’0 175ish lb Gracie won each of his three fights with ease (and all by submission) to win the first ever UFC event. Both the announcers and his opponents alike were extremely confused and shocked by his success as his small stature led them to believe he would not do very well. After this historic and monumental win, he continued to fight for the UFC and went undefeated for around 7 years. He eventually went on to fight for other promotions and actually fought as recently as February in 2016 for Bellator and won via TKO. It is unlikely he fights again, but you know his competitive spirit still lives on.
While his time inside the cage was outstanding, his contributions to the sport of MMA and the UFC go far beyond simply winning fights in the cage. Royce Gracie was the catalyst behind the evolution of the sport towards a more ground fighting and grappling-centered approach, and approach which many successful fighters still utilize today. While fighters nowadays are more balanced, Gracie was not, which makes his career even more impressive. In fact, he once had 11 straight wins by submission (a UFC record), which shows that even though opponents knew what he was going to do, he could still do it.
He is called by many people in the industry the most important and influential figure in UFC and MMA history and I find it hard to argue that. In 2003, Gracie became the first entrant into the UFC Hall of Fame (along with Ken Shamrock), which was a testament to just how much the UFC brass valued his contributions to the company.