The legend of the Gracie family was built in a time where vale tudo fights were used to prove one martial art was better than others, turning jiu-jitsu into a must for anyone who wanted to become successful in the sport. Decades after fighters realized they had to train in every discipline in order to dominate in what became mixed martial arts, Neiman Gracie stands out as the most successful Gracie of the era to come out of that esteemed clan.
Speaking on this week’s episode of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca ahead of Friday’s Bellator 274 main event with Logan Storley, Gracie was posed a question — is he the best, most well-rounded Gracie fighter to ever compete in MMA?
“I’ve heard people say that, that I’m the best MMA fighter the Gracie family has ever had, but I don’t know. I don’t think so,” he said. “Everyone has their own style. It’s my moment now, I’m more in the media and people are giving me more props. I’m happy about it. That was one of my plans when I started fighting, to become a complete fighter and show that Gracies can fight in all areas. I’m happy when people say that, but I don’t let that get inside my head and it doesn’t make any difference to me.”
Gracie has ended all but one of his 11 professional MMA wins by stoppage, but the most recent one — a 87-second finish over Mark Lemminger in September 2021 — came by knockout instead of a traditional submission. The Brazilian welterweight has also submitted the likes of Jon Fitch and Ed Ruth throughout his Bellator run, and hopes to secure another shot at the 170-pound title with a win over Storley on Friday.
“This belt would be a big achievement [for the family], for sure. That’s the plan,” Gracie said. “I can’t wait to get to my turn, and I’ll try to take that belt. This family is big and I’m sure others will come, but I won’t let my history [down], I’ll bring this belt for the family.”
In order to become a well-rounded talent, Gracie moved to California from New York to train at Kings MMA with Muay Thai specialist Rafael Cordeiro. With Cordeiro and Renzo Gracie in his corner, “the best in the striking and the best in jiu-jitsu by my side,” the 33-year-old welterweight has plenty of examples to look up to inside the gym.
“[Fabricio Werdum] inspires every jiu-jitsu fighter that comes to MMA,” Gracie said of the multiple-time jiu-jitsu and ADCC champion who climbed his way to the UFC heavyweight throne. “Werdum is sensational. He helps me a lot even when he’s not here, since he moved to Brazil. He was training for the PFL when I got here and is always texting me.
“I feel the same thing from master [Cordeiro]. Master told me he’s watching me transform into a whole new fighter, transforming into a more complete fighter, and that he’s seen that before. Master has gone through that, taking guys from jiu-jitsu and transforming them in complete fighters like Werdum, Rafael dos Anjos. And he said he’s watching me go through that too, and that’s so cool.”
Gracie must get past Storley in Connecticut in order to move one step closer to the 170-pound belt, which would be his second attempt at gold after coming up short against Rory MacDonald in 2019. Fresh off the first knockout victory of his career, Gracie admits it feels nice to finish a fight with strikes, but he also hide from his bread and butter.
“Now I understand why people trade [punches] so much,” he said with a laugh. “It’s much easier when you win like that than having to take someone down, hold them on the ground, pass and mount. It’s much less work, and the feeling when you win is different. When the referee steps in and stops the fight, it feels different.
“I really enjoyed it, but I still know where I’m good at. A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh f*ck, he’ll think he’s a striker now and will stand with everybody. We’ve seen that before.’ But no, I continue taking people down in training, continue doing guard [work], continue doing jiu-jitsu. I know what I’m good at and what will take me to the top.”