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Renzo Gracie reflects on the Kazushi Sakuraba fight, life-changing move to New York

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When asked about the highlight of their fighting career, not too many people would pick the moment when they suffered their first conclusive loss and most serious career injury in a battle that was far more than a match, but a fight to uphold the family name.

Yet Renzo Gracie, the ever-smiling member of MMA's most famous family, talks often about the highlight of his career; the moment where his elbow was dislocated and the fight was stopped against Kazushi Sakuraba. It was August 27, 2000, at the Seibu Dome in Tokorozawa, Japan, before a sold-out crowd of 32,919, to see what was the third chapter in the Sakuraba vs. Gracies rivalry that led to Sakuraba becoming a Japanese national hero and help kick off the explosion of MMA popularity and the heyday of the Pride Fighting Championships.

Over the prior nine months, Sakuraba had beaten two of Renzo's cousins, Royler and Royce Gracie. While Royce Gracie was more famous as the first superstar of the UFC, winning three of the company's first four tournaments, Renzo was considered the more complete, more aggressive and better all-around fighter.

"In my life, I always believed that if I had an injury, I would never give up," said Renzo Gracie, days before his 48th birthday, as he looked back at his life and career. "If that happened in the fight, in the old times, people would keep fighting in the ring. But they stopped the match. In reality, my whole life, I thought I would do that in that situation. I would never tap. But you can never be 100 percent sure until that moment arrives and you feel that pain. That was the most pain I ever felt in my life, but I was happy I went through that, even though it hurt a lot. I was smiling the whole time. It was the moment I found out my mind was stronger than my body."

His most famous fight, along with a look at growing up Gracie, a world where he competed in jiu-jitsu from the age of seven, because of the name, he felt it would be a disgrace to lose, and his later life in New York running his world-famous academy are all covered in a UFC Fight Pass Pioneers of MMA special that started airing this week.

They say you learn more from a loss than a win, and Gracie emphasized the valuable lesson he learned, and one that in the nearly 15 years since this famous fight took place, he always imparts on his students.

History that day was nearly different. The fight was technical, and very competitive. From watching it, it felt like Gracie was winning the fight, although beating Sakuraba in those days in Japan via close decision would not have been easy. And then, in a scramble, Sakuraba got the Kimura, the same move Masahiko Kimura used to beat Helio Gracie in 1951 in one of Brazil's most legendary fights. The match was over 17 seconds before it would have gone to the judges.

"I knew I could beat him," Gracie said. "I had all the tools to beat him. I was very confident. There was a time when I really believed nobody could beat me. I trained a lot and I was in good rhythm. I had just fought a very tough guy in Alexander Otsuka. I thought if I could get my hands on Sakuraba, I would win. The only thing, I don't want to say I regret, but I worried about my defense the whole time. I played it safe. I thought I had the fight won. With 17 seconds to go, I got caught in the armbar. I wasn't naive. I made a mistake, but I didn't expect him to be so strong in that position. When I fought him, I was 172, 170 pounds. He was used to fighting guys 200, 205 pounds. I didn't expect the strength that he had and I got caught.

"It was one of the biggest lessons I learned in my life," he said. "A fight is only over after the bell sounds. In my head, I was celebrating victory and knew how much time was left on the clock. I was on his back. I controlled the fight standing and when he was in my guard. I was feeling like I had the fight won and I got caught in the armbar. It was a beautiful lesson. I've taught my students to never believe the match is over until it's over, not until your arm is raised. It was an unforgettable day. Sometimes defeat teaches you better than a victory."

Is their regret over the mistake that cost him his most famous match? Sure. Yes, when asked about it, he talks with excitement, not bitterness, loves to expound on it, rather than change the subject to his biggest wins, and treats the memory of it like a wonderful thing, much different than most fighters it you put them in a similar situation.

"If you lock me today in a cage, where there's no light coming in, and feed me only enough to survive, if you open the cage door 10 years from now, you'll find me smiling at you. In my head, I accomplished much more than I ever dreamed I would accomplish. I've already lived a full life and I'm only halfway there. In my head, I still have another half of my life to live. But I feel like I've already lived three normal lifetimes. I was not only a champion in sports, but the friendships I've been able to build, the love I've received, the love I've had to give, and there are moments that will stay with my the rest of my life. I'll have the best memories anyone ever had."

As far as MMA went, Renzo Gracie's coming-out party in the U.S. was in a pay-per-view tournament called the World Combat Championships, held on Oct. 17, 1995, in  Charlotte, N.C. With the success of Royce Gracie in the early UFC's, and the Gracie family garnering a big following, the promoters went to Brazil to search for someone with the right last name and skill set.

He was about 158 pounds at the time, fighting in a tournament with no weight limits that included some big heavyweights. He fought three times that night, winning all three fights in under three minutes, all against men far larger than he was. He first beat Ben Spijkers, a three-time Olympian in judo who won a bronze medal in 1988. Then he beat Phil Benedict. In the finals, he finished off James Warring, a former world cruiserweight boxing champion. .

"Back then, there were no weight divisions," he said. "I did an interview in Brazil recently, with the Combate Channel, Minotauro Nogueira, his brother and Junior Dos Santos were there. I was sitting down. One of the color men came to me and said, `I'm in awe. You're half the size of these guys.' I said, `I know, why does that surprise you?' He said, `You were fighting in the same weight division with these guys and I never realized how small you were."'

But he's quick to note that with the rules in place then, it was a different sport than today.

"I was fighting with no gloves. Today, people are knocking each other out. Then, if you threw a punch and hit someone's head, your hand was broken. When I fought (Oleg) Taktarov, I broke my hand. For six months, I couldn't shake anybody's hand. Now, they have five-minute rounds. You can't play it safe. You can't bait the guy. I used to think I could beat anyone if there was no time limit. My head was that I'd set them up to put them into a trap. That's  how it was in my head then.."

While he likes the idea of the 10-minute rounds that Pride had, feeling shorter rounds give strikers the edge, he feels the changes in the sport are for the most part, for the best.

"In order to be entertaining, it's almost perfect the way it's set up," he said about the modern version of the sport. "Now you have weight divisions. You don't need to fight out of you weight.  There's always an evolution, and every evolution is for the better.

"But I'd like to see rounds of 10 minutes. I think it would change the game completely. It will change the dynamic of the fight. That's how Pride had it. It would make it better for the grapplers and the wrestlers. A lot of guys work hard to try and take their opponents down. If it takes two or three minutes to get him down, if the guy can just survive until the end of the five minutes, they start again standing and the guy who did all the work to get him down is the one who is tired. That changes the fight."

It was shortly after winning that tournament that Gracie changed his life completely. He went from a fun loving guy on the beaches in Rio de Janeiro, training and surfing, to an immigrant in a totally different world in New York City, when he opened his academy in Manhattan in 1996, not far from Madison Square Garden.

"I always thought I'd never leave Brazil," he said. "I love the people. I love the food. I love the culture. I love the language. I had everything I wanted there. If I wanted to talk to the President of Brazil, two days later, I'd have a meeting. I went to New York, and I was just another Mexican or Puerto Rican. I expected to live forever in Brazil. But when I came to New York, I saw such a mix of cultures. There was so much I could learn from. I fell in love with New York. So I proved Sinatra right, that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere."

He feels the UFC has gone about the frustrating process of trying to get legalized in New York the wrong way.

"I've been living in New York for 18 yeas and the most valuable thing is not my bank account, it's the friendships I've been able to build. I was able to build friendships that would have helped make it (legalization of professional MMA in the state) possible. The UFC decided to go and sue the state. It was a very bad move. You pissed off the politicians. All you're doing is getting bills from your lawyers and making your lawyers rich.

"I dream for the day a guy can warm up in my academy a block away, and then go fight in Madison Square Garden. New York is the window of the world. You want everything to explode, you have to make it explode in New York."

His gym was the original Mecca of jiu-jitsu in New York City, but it wasn't easy. When he started, he ran the place on his own. He taught from Noon to 9 p.m., then cleaned up the academy. He did this seven days a week, for the first five years. Eventually he was able to hire a family member, Rodrigo Gracie, who was far better at keeping the gym clean, and then was able to hire his top student, Matt Serra, to help teach.

From childhood, he felt jiu-jitsu was his obligation. He once joked that with his last name, in Rio de Janeiro, he was like the famous Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue," in that growing up with his name, he'd either have to get tough or die. He started competing in jiu-jitsu at seven, and with his childhood experience, he won everything in his age group for years. But eventually, as a teenager, after recovering from a broken leg, he lost his first match.

"I remember how much that hurt me," he said. "I thought I'd go my whole life without losing. That shows how naive I was. I always believed in training hard to be on top, to represent my family and my art. I thought growing up that jiu-jitsu was my obligation, but that I'd have a different job. But jiu-jitsu suddenly could more than pay my bills."

Now, he said, financially, he could do nothing but sit in his house all day.

"The most important thing I did was to guide people that I love in the right direction," he said. "I've seem them succeed, build families, build a living, and understand the beauty of what we represent. Your sons are like arrows and you are the bow. I was so glad to have Ricardo Almeida, Chris Weidman, Georges St-Pierre, Matt Serra and his brother, and the Jersey Shore Guy, Frankie Edgar. They became family members, not friends."

So naturally, when Hurricane Sandy destroyed the home of Weidman he immediately wanted to set up a fund raiser and seminars to help raise money. Then he got a call from Weidman.

"I'm setting it up, and I got a call from him. He wanted to thank me, but he said he would appreciate if I wouldn't do it. He told me, `I promised myself that in my lifetime I will never be the object of charity'. The day he told me that, I knew he'd be champion of the UFC. To be able to be surrounded by people like this, that was the blessing this sport gave me. I was extremely glad I had some knowledge I was able to share with them."

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