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Rickson Gracie explains how infidelity — and a well-kept secret — helped build Gracie’s ‘clan of fighters’

Rickson Gracie (Erik Engelhart)
Rickson Gracie
Erik Engelhart

Carlson, Rolls, Rickson, Royce, Royler, Rorion — there’s a chance MMA wouldn’t exist, at least not as we know it today, if it wasn’t for that generation of the Gracie family.

But building a “clan of fighters” that big would be nearly impossible, according to Rickson Gracie, without infidelity.

Carlos Gracie, who founded Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the first half of the 1900s, had 21 children with seven different women. Helio Gracie, his younger brother, had nine kids with his wife Margarida. Or at least that’s the story Rickson said the world was told for decades.

One of the greatest fighters to ever come out of the family, the jiu-jitsu and MMA legend Rickson released his biography, “Breathe: A Life in Flow,” earlier this year and revealed that his mother was, in fact, a nanny named Isabel, since Margarida wasn’t able to get pregnant. In a one-hour interview with MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca, Rickson went into detail about his family tree.

“My uncle and my father had the intention to create a clan of fighters and, in order to do that, they couldn’t be limited to one relationship and two or three kids,” Rickson said. That was why, he said, Carlos was married “six times and my father got married only once, but secretly had two other women who had his kids, and it mixed in a big family.”

“I think that’s a truth that has to be told at some point,” Rickson added. “I didn’t know the reality when I was born. I always saw Margarida as my mother, completely, and didn’t see any other way. I believed that up until I was 16. After I started connecting the dots and started to make things make more sense, I really understood that my real mother was a nanny that my father had for a long time. With [Margarida’s] agreement, they had a scheme that they had three kids.”

Rickson, born in 1959, explained that Margarida is listed as his mother on his birth certificate and every other documentation. “My entire life I was son of Margarida Gracie,” he said, “when, in reality, I was surprised that’s not a fact.”

Rickson said Rorion Gracie, the co-founder of the UFC, and their brother Relson Gracie are also sons of Isabel, not Margarida. But that’s not the case for Helio’s other six children, including UFC pioneer Royce Gracie and PRIDE veteran Royler Gracie.

“When I was 12 years of age, my father asked me, ‘My son, would you like to have more siblings?’ I said, ‘Yes, dad,’ but what a weird question that was. I still thought I was son of [Margarida],” Gracie said. “We hopped in the car and left the house in Flamengo and when we got to Botafogo, we got to an apartment in the sixth floor and when the door opened, one lady showed up and I started seeing heads popping up behind her. There were four at that time: Rolker, Royler, Royce, and Rerika. Ricci and Robin had yet to be born.”

That lady was Vera, who worked in the Gracie academy in Rio de Janeiro.

“I saw those kids, and [Helio] said, ‘They are all your siblings,’” he continued. “That was a surprise to me, but I can say it was a pleasant one. But, from the point of view of his relationship with my mom [Margarida], she was surprised by those four kids, who later became six, and it was traumatic because she hadn’t agreed with it, and she probably didn’t know about this story either.”

At the time, Helio was a respected man in the martial arts world and in Brazilian society. To hide her husband’s infidelity, Rickson said Margarida used pillows to pretend she was pregnant with their first three kids. Rickson thought less of Helio as a husband after noticing how much his other children with Vera hurt Margarida.

“She was disappointed when she found out about it, and I started seeing a side of — I wouldn’t call disrespect, but lack of love, lack of partnership, that bothered me at the time,” he said. “I didn’t want a girlfriend that had that type of relationship with me, a weak relationship, of not knowing what I do, not being OK with the things I want, etc. That was not what I wanted for me in a relationship, and was a reference for my future.

“I saw that in my mom [Margarida], even though she did it all for love, it got to a point where her depression, her sadness for not being able to satisfy him through her own powers, she felt like she didn’t succeed in the end. I felt a lack of joy as she got older, and that impacted me a lot. Thinking about it, seeing this relationship, that’s not something I wanted for my life. Even though I admired my father as an example, as a general, as someone with many [qualities], on the relationship side, I felt he lacked a bit.

“When you’re a kid, 12 or 13 years of age, you don’t understand much of life. But when you see your mother crying on a corner for no reason, you say, ‘Mom, are you upset?’ [She says,] ‘No, my son.’ [She] tries to hide it. You begin to understand things that exist between the lines, things that aren’t written or shown, but there is an emotional effect there. Why is my mom upset? You begin to understand something that is under the rug. Then you have to act [as if you] feel comfortable with what’s going on.”

Keeping the story a secret for over six decades in a family as big as the Gracies is impressive, and Rickson laughed when asked how it was kept from the public for so long.

“I’m just a victim of the product,” he said.

The former vale tudo fighter said he kept in touch with his birth mother Isabel after discovering the truth, but apparently she didn’t feel comfortable making it public either.

“After it was uncovered, she kept being company of the family, a partner, going to our house and visiting,” Gracie said. “And we always treated her differently, as a unique nanny that later transformed into mother No. 2, you know? We treated her nicely, but she never opened up about that fact, never opened up about being our mother. We never spoke openly about it.

“The only time I tried to talk to her about it, I was already married, I think it was in 2006 or 2008, and she said no one in her family knew about that yet. She kept it a secret. Since she wanted it that way, I didn’t want to force anything by coming now as a new son. I felt a bit uncomfortable in a sense of opening up and being disappointed with something she might do, so I accepted that that would be a positive distance between us.”