Exactly 63 years ago today, one very famous jiu jitsu match was etched into the history books, further cementing the legendary fame of the Gracie family and the brand of jiu jitsu they forged.
On the 23rd of October of 1951, in front of forty thousand fans, the godfather of Brazilian jiu jitsu Hélio Gracie faced the Japanese giant Masahiko Kimura. The fight took place atop the Maracanã’s grass—the same place where, a year earlier, Brazil suffered one of its worse defeats ever, when Uruguay beat them in the World Cup final.
The Gracie clan
Rio’s people needed a new hero after such a loss, and the Gracie patriarch was just that. After having challenged several martial artists from different disciplines to no avail, Hélio Gracie had the opportunity to take on some of the biggest Japanese jiu jitsu names of the time.
These Japanese legends were visiting Rio for judo and jiu jitsu demonstrations—Toshio Yamagushi, Jukio Kato and the great Masahiko Kimura. After meeting with the Gracie brothers, they proposed a bout between Hélio and Kato. Hélio wanted Kimura, but he refused, explaining that the Brazilian player wasn’t on the same level.
Kimura didn’t want to go against Hélio because of the weight difference—if he were to beat Hélio, everyone would say it was due to the weight difference. So they arranged him a match against Kato, whom he tied with once and finished on a second time. After seeing his compatriot lose, Kimura had no choice but to take on Gracie.
Everyone thought Kimura would be victorious—he was so much bigger than Hélio, and he was the World Champion. Kimura even said that if he didn’t beat Hélio went in three minutes, then Hélio should be declared the victor. People said Hélio was crazy for coming face-to-face in the ring, at 38 years old, with the world jiu jitsu champion.
But Hélio said,
“A fighter never runs from the ring. Kimura may break my bones, but he will not break my morale. Winning or losing doesn’t matter to a good player—what matters is fighting.”
After a rain delay and all the preliminary matches, Kimura finally stepped onto the ring, and ten minutes later Hélio appeared under the thunder of clapping and the media’s flashes.
Determined to keep his promise, Kimura came at Hélio with everything, but Hélio was able to hold him off, utilizing his famous guard. After three minutes, Kimura still hadn’t beaten Hélio. After 10 minutes, Kimura couldn’t finish Hélio. Kimura was dumbfounded.
At the start of the second round, Kimura dropped Hélio, then did it again five minutes in, leaving the Brazilian unconscious and unable to defend the infamous armbar that would later bear the Japanese champion’s name. Hélio refused to tap, and his arm snapped, at which point his brother, Carlos, ran onto the mat and hit it three times. The bout was over.
Brazil lost that day, however the match left the nation with the taste of a moral and symbolic victory. By not tapping, Hélio would commence a tradition that would change the sport forever. Rickson Gracie extended his father’s tradition in his encounter against Rei Zulu, as well as in his Pride campaigns. His brother, Royce, too, continued the tradition. Certainly this fight is the most emblematic moment in modern jiu jitsu. It didn’t matter to the thousands of fans in the stands that Kimura beat Hélio. The nation had a new hero, and the gentle art has since spread across the world as one of the most popular martial arts.
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