The Octagon will arrive in Belem, Brazil for the first time on Feb. 3, but there’s a chance mixed martial arts wouldn’t exist the way we know it today if not for one fateful meeting that happened there 101 years ago.
Back then, Belem — the capital of Para, a state in the north area of Brazil — was a city rich with immigrants due to the need for tens of thousands of men to work in the area. Japanese immigrants flooded into the region, and some brought with them their knowledge in martial arts, including jiu-jitsu and judo.
Mitsuyo Maeda, a judoka and prizefighter also known as “Conde Koma,” eventually arrived in Belem to compete.
Gastao Gracie, a man hungry to test any business opportunity he envisioned successful, took his 15-year-old son Carlos to watch one of his Maeda’s fights at the Theatro da Paz — and that day in 1917 forever changed the history of fighting.
At the time, Carlos was always getting into trouble on the streets of Belem. He was known for breaking windows with rocks and claiming random mango trees as his own — no one was allowed to climb them to get fruits. Carlos even targeted the French embassy during World War I, and it was up to Gastao to prevent any later punishment.
After watching Maeda perform at that theater, Gastao realized that martial arts could help calm his boy down a little bit, so when Maeda began teaching jiu-jitsu in his home, Carlos quickly was sent to become one of his students.
Maeda immediately saw potential in Carlos Gracie, while the skinny teenager saw in jiu-jitsu a way to defend himself from larger men.
In his first class, Maeda asked a student to volunteer to experience the “mystery of apparent death,” which is what Maeda called choking an opponent to the point of unconsciousness. No one was willing to volunteer for such a scary sounding experience, though. After a brief moment of silence, Gracie finally entered the ring and said he would do it. The young boy was scared, too, but wanted to show how brave he was.
Maeda put his arms around Gracie’s neck and began to squeeze in a rear-naked choke. At one point, Maeda simply stopped. “It doesn’t fit a great champion to start learning jiu-jitsu by losing his consciousness,” Maeda said, according to Carlos Gracie’s biography, which was written by his daughter Reila Gracie (Roger Gracie’s mother). So Carlos was sent outside the ring, and another kid replaced him to be choked out.
Gracie fell in love with jiu-jitsu that day, and spent the ensuing months training under the tutelage of Maeda every day until the Japanese master eventually departed for Liverpool. Once “Conde Koma” was across the ocean, Gracie continued to train alongside Jacinto Ferro and his brothers, Oswaldo and Gastaozinho.
Gracie went on to train with Maeda for three more years after Maeda returned to Belem, learning a mix of different variations of jiu-jitsu. Since Maeda had traveled around the world, and fought so many different styles of opponents and learned different forms of jiu-jitsu, he only taught the young Gracie the most effective attacks that would work in street fights, turning what would come to be known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (or Gracie jiu-jitsu) into one of the most efficient forms of combat.
As time went on, Gastao Gracie went bankrupt in another one of his professional misadventures, and the Gracie family continued to bounce between fancy houses — in periods when they had money — to more simpler homes.
In December of 1921, Gastao’s father Pedro Gracie died in Rio de Janeiro, and Gastao, who never really had a good relationship with his dad, decided to move back from Belem to Rio de Janeiro, eyeing his family’s estate. He took with him Carlos, who never again returned to Belem and never again crossed paths with Maeda.
But the jiu-jitsu seed was already planted.
Carlos ended up having 21 children with five women, including the legendary Carlson Gracie and Rolls Gracie, while his younger brother Helio brought nine kids into the world with two wives; among those children: UFC founder Rorion Gracie, and vale tudo stars Rickson Gracie, Royce Gracie, and Royler Gracie.
Carlos and Helio would later turn that martial art into a global phenom as the primary developers of modern Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and the name Gracie would live on for decades as one of the most formidable families around.