Sixteen-year old Rayron Gracie is a 6’2" boy who didn’t have his father around him for most of his life, but is proud to say he’s continuing his legacy.
Ryan Gracie, a popular mixed martial artist who was very controversial outside the ring, died in a jail cell in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Dec. 15, 2007. The MMA talent was arrested the day before, and his death is still a mystery.
The Gracie family put the blame on his doctor, saying that he overdosed Ryan with medication in an attempt to control his temper. The MMA fighter was on drugs at the moment he was arrested, and the doctor was declared not guilty years later.
Ryan’s only son, Rayron, turned six just days before his father passed away, but it took a long time before he really knew what happened that night.
“My family didn’t tell me he died for two months,” Rayron Gracie says, “and I only knew the cause of death three years later on YouTube. … I was too young, it just a week after my sixth birthday, but it was tough because he was famous, so my friends would come and ask me about it. It was complicated."
The “Bad Boy" died at age 33, ending a MMA career highlighted by five wins and two losses inside the PRIDE ring between 2000 and 2004.
"He left a family that took care of me like no one else could have done,” Rayron says, "but if I tell you that I've learned how to get over the pain of growing up without a father, that’s a lie. I remember being a little kid in school, all the presents I made on Father’s Day I had to give to my grandmother or to an uncle. Leaving school and seeing other kids hugging their fathers, it was tough to grow up without this figure, especially my father being who he was."
"I didn’t get over it, I don’t think I ever will get over it, but we learn every day,” he continues. "One thing that I think is amazing is that I learned to see the good side of things, and I use this loss as a motivation instead of an excuse. I could have said, ‘Oh, it’s hard to train or do this or that because my father died,’ but I managed to invert that and put in my head that I want to make him proud. Every day I fight, I imagine him in the stands or in my corner, cheering for me."
The 16-year-old Gracie just wants to make his dad proud, and thanks everyone around him for helping his father become a great man inside and outside the fight world.
"The memories I have of my father are of us at home, in Sao Paulo,” he says. "He had this ring in the middle of our living room and we would fight in it. It was awesome. These are the memories my family and I have. And when I say family, I also mean his team in Sao Paulo. They are all very close to me. Even though he’s gone and we still miss him, for sure, he left this family and this team for me.”
Rayron Gracie is a blue-belt in jiu-jitsu now, but he wasn’t into fighting when he grew up. In fact, he thought the martial art that put his family on the mat was “boring."
"I really didn’t like jiu-jitsu. I was a little fat, and I started to sweat a lot in the gi. I thought it was boring,” he says with a laugh. "In the Gracie family, everyone has a gi waiting for them before they are born. I remember being a small kid and my grandmother, my aunt, even Kyra, they were all saying I could choose if I wanted to fight jiu-jitsu or MMA, but that I would have to train with a champion in each sport. I think that was important in my evolution not only as an athlete, but as a person as well, because of the things I’ve learned inside and outside the mat."
The young Gracie considered doing many different things in life instead of fighting, but one trip to New York changed his destiny.
Rayron flew to Manhattan for a six-month experience as an exchange student, but hanging around someone like the always charismatic Renzo Gracie changed his mind about everything.
"I was living in Brazil, I wasn’t even training that hard, when I decided to make this trip to New York,” says Rayron, who was a yellow belt back then. "I was on vacation, waking up at 6 a.m., and started to open the gym with my cousin. We got there at 7 a.m. and trained three or four times a day, and that’s when I fell in love with this and decided that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
"The thing that made me be sure that this is what I want for my life is that when I look to my uncles Renzo and Ralph, my father Ryan, and see how far they’ve come, it’s all worth it."
Rayron received his blue belt shortly after that, and was constantly asked about competing in jiu-jitsu. He saw grappling tournaments as a chance to test his evolution and prove to himself that he is getting better.
Two months after becoming a blue-belt, Gracie competed at the 2017 IBJJF Pan-American in California, capturing a pair of silver medals (ultra-heavy and open class divisions).
A few months later, the ultra-heavyweight prospect won the IBJJF World Championship in California.
"There’s always this feeling that maybe you didn’t do your best, and that motivated me even more,” Gracie says of bouncing back from his losses at the Pan-American Championship. "I started to train hard and won the Worlds. Winning my first world championship was wonderful, but I hope there’s plenty more to come. I can’t wait for the black belt [laughs].”
Before he moved full-time to New York, Gracie had a plan for his career. He wanted to test himself in jiu-jitsu tournaments, but not for too long: Ryan’s son wanted to become a MMA fighter.
A year after leaving Brazil — and after training boxing and Muay Thai in both X-Gym in Rio de Janeiro and Renzo’s gym in New York — his goal still includes mixed martial arts, but the once-boring practice of jiu-jitsu has a softer spot in his heart.
"My goal now is to win as many world titles as I can in jiu-jitsu but, for sure, in the end I’ll have a career in MMA,” Gracie says. "Renzo always says, and I believe, that MMA is an upgrade from jiu-jitsu. Every jiu-jitsu fighter should fight MMA to remember the old days and prove its efficiency."
Rayron has searched for advice from John Danaher and several members of the Gracie clan, including Renzo, Igor, Gregor, and Rolles, and the response he got is pushing him to the MMA world.
“The earlier you start training something, the better chance you have of getting good at it,” he says. "I plan on doing amateur MMA fights, but not now. I’m just 16, but I plan on fighting MMA before I get my black belt, for sure."
Having someone like Renzo as a mentor “is an incredible experience,” Rayron continues. "The biggest lessons I’ve learned from him weren’t on the mat, but outside of the gym. That’s even more amazing."