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Renzo Gracie on returning at 51: ‘If there’s life after this one, I hope they allow spirits to fight’

Renzo Gracie Photos

Renzo Gracie’s is an MMA life well lived. He’s a history vault, one of the sport’s best raconteurs. a respected coach, an ambassador. And of course, he’s a fighter. Is. Present tense. He surprised many earlier this year when he announced that he will compete at ONE Championship Reign of Kings on July 27, returning at age 51 and after an eight-year layoff.

Contrary to previous reports, this isn’t a one-off, not a retirement fight. Gracie is signed to fight Yuki Kondo. That we know. But he believes he’ll return to the cage sometime after July as well, continuing the activity he loves to do.

“I can’t wait,” he told MMA Fighting. “This is a chance to learn. What we actually carry from this life is memories. Everything else, we don’t take with us. So, what is the best place for you to live the equivalent of years and to acquire memories in seconds? It’s the MMA cage. In there you learn a lot, and I’m able to improve all those around me not just as people, but as fighters with technique, and from what I’m going to learn under the stress and how I will deal with it. That knowledge and those memories, it’s a chance to live years in minutes.”

So what stopped Gracie from partaking since April 2010, when he last shared a cage in a loss to Matt Hughes? In a word, family. Gracie said for several years, he had to give his full attention to his son, who was suffering through a panic disorder. Now that he’s doing better, and that his gym empire—which includes more than 50 global affiliates—is in the capable hands of those around him, he feels comfortable putting aside time to train and compete.

Of course, having the will to compete is one thing; many fighters never lose it. But actually stepping in to do it is another. Bodies age, reflexes slow, injuries are slow to heal.

Gracie is not a superhuman. He has dealt with all of this, but says because he’s never stopped training with the killers in his gym—from Frankie Edgar to Neiman Gracie and beyond—he has continued to stay sharp as well as to acquire knowledge that can only help him on July 27 and beyond.

“There is a big difference in what I could do when I was young,” he said. “But now I don’t have the stupidity, the ignorance, the lack of knowledge that I had when I was young. So I’m able to see things clearer and better. What people don’t understand when they say ‘You’re going over the hill,’ is downhill is when you pick up speed. Going downhill is 100 percent better than climbing the hill. So downhill, I’m coming. I’m smarter, I’m better and I have a new arsenal.”

The partnership with ONE started with a simple conversation. Gracie happened to be sitting next to CEO Chatri Sityodtong at an event when the executive asked if he had thought about fighting again. Yes, Gracie replied. Plans quickly came together.

Despite a longstanding relationship with UFC ownership, Gracie said he’s long been impressed with ONE’s ability to put on a spectacular show while also treating its athletes well.

“I love it, it represents the old samurai concept,” he said. “It reminds me of PRIDE, it’s the closest thing to PRIDE out there. I love the people that work there, the way they manage, and how they care for the fighters. To treat me good is easy. Everywhere I go, I’m well-treated. But I see how they treat the newcomers. They feel like stars. They’ve done a great job giving their young fighters a place in the sun.”

The older fighters, too, it seems.

Gracie’s history in fighting goes back so far, it pre-dates the UFC. His first pro fight in vale tudo occurred on New Year’s Day 1992. In the quarter-century since, he’s fought a Who’s Who of the sport, including B.J. Penn, Dan Henderson, Matt Hughes and Frank Shamrock, among others.

In typical Renzo Gracie style, he’s got stories about them all. Like the time he fought Oleg Taktarov, who mistook one of Gracie’s much larger cornermen for him prior to their match in 1996. When he realized he was actually fighting Gracie, he couldn’t help but relax.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to go smoke a joint, go to the strip club, drink vodka and have fun tonight,’” Gracie recalled. “I said, ‘If I was you, I wouldn’t do it, otherwise I’m having Chicken Kiev for dinner tomorrow.’”

Gracie knocked him out with an upkick in just 62 seconds.

Or the time he volunteered to fight Henderson on short notice: “I always knew he hit like a mule, and I found that out. He didn’t knock me out with a punch; he knocked me out with his wrist when he sprawled.”

Or when Penn’s dad called him to set up a fight, leading him to the conclusion that Penn’s dad thought it was an easy win: “I really wanted to prove the old man wrong. He had unbelievable hands and technique, and I was really proud that he later said in his book it was the toughest first round he’d ever had in his life.”

Or when he initially rejected a matchup with Pat Miletich due to their previous relationship, only to have Miletich call and personally request it.

“I said, ‘Pat, I’m going to beat you in one round. I gave you your first jiu-jitsu lesson. There is a moral issue here. I’m going to grab you like a kid and smack you in the butt. I don’t want to do that,’” he recalled. “He said, ‘Do you really think that?’ I said, ‘I know it.’” Gracie won by guillotine choke in less than four minutes.

Gracie looks back at all of these fights and opponents with a fondness, saying that winning and losing has never mattered to him as much as measuring himself against legends of the sport. So it was then, so it remains now against Kondo and beyond.

At 51, Gracie still has boundless energy. He says he only sleeps up to three hours a night, regularly travels around the world spreading the gospel of jiu-jitsu, and works out. That’s why he can’t see himself stopping after this upcoming fight, or anytime soon. This is who he is, and who he’s always going to be.

“You’re talking to a guy who loves to fight,” he said. “If someone comes to my front door and says he came here to fight me, we’ll move the furniture from my beautiful living room and we’ll make a match right then. If there is a life after this one, I hope they allow spirits to fight.”

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