Rorion Gracie helped to revolutionize the martial arts world in 1993 with the concept of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a battle between combatants to attempt to prove jiu-jitsu as the most efficient of all the martial arts.
Now, almost three decades later, Rorion’s daughter Rose Gracie has made it her life’s mission to bring awareness to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The granddaughter of Helio Gracie and great-granddaughter of Carlos Gracie, Rose was indoctrinated into grappling as a child like most of the members of the Gracie clan, but said she didn’t feel welcome on the mats like her male relatives due to a sexist mindset of the older generation. Nonetheless, she moved to Torrance, Calif., at age 19 to help her father in the gym, which became ultra popular in the early days of the UFC, and was accustomed to being present in the room when Gracie Challenges happened.
She watched members of the family walk through other martial artists behind closed doors. Now she helps educate athletes to the dangers of blows to the head in combat sports.
“We understand more about it today,” Gracie said on this week’s episode of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca. “Nothing really changed. Everybody still gets hit in the head the same way. Maybe even more. But now we have a better understanding of what really happens.”
CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma, one of the main aspects of MMA and combat sports in general. Gracie’s crusade began after close friends and her then-husband, 21-fight veteran Javier Vazquez, started experiencing health issues.
“A good friend of mine and a roommate when I lived in the United States, Kathy Brothers, was a phenomenal fighter,” Gracie said. “Her wrestling was wonderful, her boxing and kickboxing too, and she kept complaining about headaches, saying it could be associated with MMA, hitting her head on the ground.
“It was crazy that every time we were going out or traveling to Las Vegas or some place else, I’d say, ‘Don’t forget your pills so it doesn’t disturb our trip.’ Those headaches were something automatic, but we never stopped to think what was going on. I got married years later and my husband ended up developing certain symptoms too.”
Vazquez, 45, fought under the Shooto and King of the Cage banners before earning a shot in the UFC in 2014, where he was slated to face future champion Matt Serra before being forced out of the bout with a knee injury. Vazquez ultimately retired from the sport, but later decided to resume his career to try and earn a deal with the UFC, Gracie said.
He won a couple of bouts inside the EliteXC cage in 2017 and eventually signed with WEC, going 2-3 in the company with submissions over Jens Pulver and Mackens Semerzier. Vazquez then signed with the UFC and won a decision over Joe Stevenson in his sole octagon appearance in 2011.
Gracie said she began to notice the signs midway through his MMA career.
“I saw depression and anxiety, things I didn’t see before,” she said. “I began to notice something was wrong. Irrational behavior, memory [loss]. His [memory loss] was even a joke to us, really. … But that was something normal at the time, I didn’t understand it could come from some place else. I thought, ‘Oh, you get hit in the head, you have memory loss.’ But the episodes got worse and more frequent, and then we had the worst of them all. I said, ‘No, no, no, something’s wrong.’
“A friend of mine, also a fighter, saw one of those episodes and asked me if I had seen the movie Concussion with Will Smith. She said, ‘You have to watch it. I swear to God, what he’s doing looks exactly what that movie [shows].’ When I watched that movie, it felt like things were finally connecting.
The film Concussion tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who published findings on CTE in football players in the early 2000s. Gracie wanted to know more about the subject and found Chris Nowinski’s TedTalk on the subject. Nowinski is the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to the study of CTE.
“When I read about CTE and began to understand about it, I said, ‘My God,’” Gracie said. “It’s like I was connecting all the dots. That’s exactly what is going on inside [the MMA] community. Kathy and her headaches, feeling the way she’s feeling. She’s in bad shape now. I started seeing friends with heavy addictions. They are my friends, my family, the samurais that represent my family, and I started seeing all those symptoms.”
Nowinski invited Gracie to travel to Sao Paulo and meet Brazilian neurologist Dr. Renato Anghinah at the Universidade de São Paulo to better understand how the disease works and how it’s studied postmortem. Every time an individual is hit in the head, a toxic protein called tau is released inside their brain, starting a chain reaction that ultimately kills brain cells.
“That was [important] for me to understand something urgent had to be done in this community,” Gracie said. “The more I learned and talked to athletes, I started calling everybody I knew, calling families that had athletes committing suicide. Some situations were worse than I could ever imagine. I said it was enough. If someone had to do something, it was me.”
Rose Gracie said her father decided to part ways with the UFC back in the 1990s once they added more rules to the sport, including the addition of gloves, something he was against at the time. His daughter now wants promoters to educate athletes, providing resources for research, and “obviously [pay for] the treatment they need.”
“The problem is not when someone gets knocked out cold. The problem is the non-stop little blows to the head every single day,” Gracie said. “It’s how people train, which sometimes is even harder than that. You won’t see the symptoms until 20 or 30 years from now. MMA is such a young sport. You don’t know how big this is going to be. To me, it’s already out of control with the cases I’m dealing with. The more I look into, the more it freaks me out.
“[Fighters] need to understand that your chin won’t get stronger as you get punched. For the love of God, man. That’s obvious. … Remember Andrei Arlovski? He’s the perfect example of that. He’d eat punches that had you like, ‘Man, this guy has an iron chin.’ He can’t anymore. It’s very dangerous. There are older fighters going out in training, you know they can’t fight anymore. It’s so dangerous. And they are slowly seeing the symptoms now, seeing what’s going on.”
Gracie said she would not sleep at night if her daughter decided to become a UFC fighter, and “that’s exactly why I do what I do.”
“For my daughter, for my nephews, for my family and friends,” she said. “Everyone I love is involved in a sport that is hurting them and they have no idea. It’s an invisible enemy, and what’s going on today with this invisible enemy is criminal negligence because there are no studies given to fighters, they don’t do the right tests during training, before and after fights.
“They don’t even study women. Women aren’t small men. The body structure is different from a man, the neck, everything. If you don’t even study women, we still have many years ahead of us. And the reason [I do this] is because they could think of [fighting] one day, my grandkids or whoever, and I was like, ‘No, let’s settle this now to end this problem.’”
The UFC announced in January “a five-year extension of its partnership with Cleveland Clinic, and its support of the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study.”
Donating a million dollars to fund studies on such an important matter “is nothing,” Gracie said.
“They are doing tests with more than 600 athletes every year. They go there, do some brain test and go home, and only go back the next year,” she said. “There are clinical tests that will take five or six years before we see any results. And there’s a conflict of interest there, right? The UFC should be paying for studies but also their treatment. I’ve texted [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby and [UFC executive] Reed Harris so many times about this. It’s urgent, something must be done now, but no one [in the MMA sphere] wants to talk about it.
“I’d love to know what the UFC is doing because I don’t see anything. These studies at Cleveland Clinic, to me, there’s nothing there. I’ve visited the Cleveland Clinic once. Athletes ask them if there’s any help they can give, if there’s anything else, tell them they are feeling this and that, but [the answer is], ‘No, come back next year.’ They have no support. They don’t receive any information before they fight. [But] we can’t say the UFC is the only one not doing the right thing before this is [happening] everywhere.”
The Cleveland Clinic has conducted the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study (PABHS) since 2011, examining the brain trauma of over 800 athletes, both retired and active, from sports that include “repetitive head impacts.” According to the Clinic, the study “is aimed at understanding the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma, including means to detect accumulating brain injury early and factors that put certain individuals at higher risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”
The study, led by Charles Bernick and Aaron Ritter, has produced dozens of papers detailing its findings on the brain’s response to repetitive head impacts, detectable changes in the brain after exposure, proteins released in the brain that may identify brain injury and the Traumatic Encephalopathy Assessment Measure (TEAM) for assessing and monitoring those exposed to impacts.
It’s still impossible to diagnose CTE while the athlete is still alive, and Gracie is constantly trying to convince MMA fighters to “donate” their brains for research after they die to better understand how deep this goes in the sport. Renato Sobral, Paulo Filho, Robson Gracie and Marcus daMatta are some of the many MMA veterans who have signed to be part of the study. So far, Gracie said, the Concussion Legacy Foundation has “tested 10 martial arts brains, with some of them being [from] MMA [fighters].”
Gracie wants to educate fighters, but some still see it as an attempt to tarnish the sport.
“They are not evil, just ignorant. They don’t know what they are talking about,” she said. “They don’t understand it. If someone gets hurt in the gym, let’s say someone suffers a concussion and hits the ground out cold, there’s no protocol for his return to activity. It’s up to the coach, who learned from his coach, who learned from his coach. ‘Let’s take a look, let him start training jiu-jitsu and see how he feels.’ You simply can’t say how badly hurt that person’s brain is like that.”
The more people debate the topic, the more it brings positive change to MMA, Gracie said. UFC bantamweight Pedro Munhoz, who faces former champion Dominick Cruz in his 27th professional MMA bout on Dec. 11 in Las Vegas, was a guest on this week’s Trocação Franca podcast and revealed he has changed the way he trains to avoid brain trauma.
“Some sparring we do still has hard contact, but I value quality over intensity now,” Munhoz said. “What I call quality is the fighter not giving 100 percent when he hits you in the head, or the one that can slow down when he sees the strike will land flush. That’s something I’ve been working on with my training partners. We’re all aware of CTE now, I’ve watched docs that make you take care of yourself.
“I’ve thought about [adjusting my career plans], especially since I have other purposes in life, one being raising my daughter and watching her grow and get married, seeing my grandkids,” he added. “But I also have to be loyal to my feelings. … Will that make me a [soft] fighter? No way, but it might make me smarter. I’ve been thinking about a retirement plan for a few years, how and when I’ll retire and things like that, because I love this sport but have other things that are as important.”