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Almost two decades after UFC 1, Gracie family still grateful for continued spotlight on jiu-jitsu

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MMA Fighting

For the Gracies, the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship event was a family affair, except for one member of the family. Rener, who had just celebrated his 10th birthday and was excited for the trip to Denver, was told at the last minute he wouldn't be going.

So, he was back home in California watching alongside the family's adults when his uncle Royce followed the Gracie train to the octagon for the first time.

Even to his young mind, there was no question about what was going to happen.

"I knew Royce was going to win," he said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I’d seen him win for the 10 years before that in the Gracie garage in all the challenge matches we had there. It wasn't a mystery to us as it was to the other artists. But for all the fans out there who see this little pretty Brazilian guy go in there at 178 pounds, fighting the likes of Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau or whoever else, you could imagine what was going through their minds."

To the Gracies, it was a transition from garages to pay-per-view television. To the rest of the world, it would be a combat sports revolution that was not immediately understood. To this day, Rener and brother Ryron, who are best known as the most current faces of the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California, hear the remembrances of people who tuned into the fights on that night in Nov. 1993, only to see skinny Royce matching up with bigger, stronger men.

With the UFC marketed as "two men enter, one man leaves," there was real fear that Royce could be badly injured or maybe even killed, but all of the Gracies knew better.

Ryron, two years older than Rener, was allowed to attend and was one of UFC 1's towel boys, in charge of wiping blood off the canvas between fights. Before the event, he was still sure enough about the outcome that he spent most of the lead-up walking around and collecting autographs from the rest of the show's competitors.

"I was a little bit nervous, of course, for Royce, but when I really just stopped and sat down, after watching the first fight with Teila Tuli getting kicked in the face, I said, 'Man, Royce is going to be OK.'"

Ryron's tenure as a towel boy was short-lived after complaints about children wiping up blood flooded in. Rener never got to do the same job, although he did get to travel to the next event.

For the kids, it was a fun adventure, but for their father Rorion, a founder of the UFC who served as the inaugural event's fight director, it was the culmination of a dream of bringing Gracie jiu-jitsu to the American masses.

Royce was chosen because his size would prove the art's effectiveness, even though there were no guarantees he would win.

"Of course I had always a lot of faith in jiu-jitsu," Rorion said. "I had the opportunity to see jiu-jitsu vs. different styles of martial art. I don't know if it was an infomercial, but it worked out really good for us. What I hoped would happen did happen."

The show was a success, and more events followed. In addition, the Gracies were soon asked by the U.S. Army to create a combatives class to teach recruits. But Rorion wouldn't stay involved with the UFC for long. His vision for the UFC had always been an anything-goes style format with no rounds, no weight classes and no rules, but it was soon discovered that could lead to problems.

At UFC 4, Royce Gracie and Dan Severn fought what at the time was the longest UFC match ever, lasting 15:49 with Gracie winning via triangle choke submission. However, the promoter Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) had only contracted for a two-hour pay-per-view window, and the match ran three minutes over. As a result, television viewers who paid for the event did not get to see the conclusion. It was a business fiasco, with money being refunded. As a result, SEG mandated time limits, something Rorion was adamantly opposed to.

"For me, from the very beginning as a fight director, the most important thing was let the two guys walk in, lock the door, one guy walks out," he said. "Let them do anything and everything they want. No restrictions whatsoever. With the rules, you have to put time limits, judges, rules, regulations, and all these things would impact the fight, and I decided not to be involved anymore because those things would take away from the real fight, the original concept of the UFC."

Rorion said that he has never regretted his decision, while his sons Rener and Ryron credit the next generation of owners -- Zuffa -- with marketing the sport to a worldwide audience.

After all, the original idea of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was to showcase Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and even today, an event hardly goes by where someone doesn't win due to tapout based on skills learned from their gentle art.

For the Gracies, the UFC served and continues to serve its purpose, spreading the gospel of jiu-jitsu.

"Even thought it’s not in alignment with my father’s original beliefs, the fact that they did that and have catapulted it into this global entertainment spectacle that everyone loves watching, and now jiu-jitsu is being used by everyone in there, it still gives the art we care most about an exposure and a platform to be seen globally," Rener said.