What was ‘The Gracie Challenge’? Often times when talking about the stories and history of the Gracie family and Gracie Jiu Jitsu, people refer to ‘The Gracie Challenge’, a long standing challenge upheld by the Gracie family
and open to any other school, style, or fighter who wanted to step into the ring in a no holds bared (NHB) fighting match. These Challenges were held under the minimal ‘Gracie Rules’; that no points, pins, strikes, or throws would count towards victory- only submission, loss of consciousness, or inability to continue would signal a victory for one fighter over the other.
The inspiration for the Gracie version of this challenge may have come from ‘Vale Tudo’ (meaning ‘anything goes’ in Brazilian Portuguese) side show fights at circuses around Brazil during the 1920’s.
According to Grandmaster Helio Gracie, in an interview there was “Not much going on in Brazil at that time [1920-1930’s]’ and so the ‘Gracie Challenges’ were given publicity by the local news and media.” The Gracies, always being proponents of effective and true techniques being able to conquer size and strength, had a one page advertisement that ran in a Rio newspaper for quite some time that inviting anyone to a Gracie Challenge fight. These fights were often held in public boxing style rings or sometimes at dojos and schools and gathered large crowds of people. Sometimes tickets were sold to these events or cash prizes were offered to the winner. Various members of the Gracie family participated in these challenges over the years, each working to prove the effectiveness of the art in the face of any challenger.
By the 1950’s the next generation of Gracie fighters took over and continued accepting these challenges and public interest was still with them. By the 1970’s the Gracies as well as their students were still participating in challenge matches. Popularity of the Gracie Challenge type of fights in Brazil became so great that it even spawned a television show that often involved Gracie Family members being interviewed, commentating, and of course fighting.
By the 1990’s with all those decades of fights and styles meeting each other and a move of many of the family members to America, the Gracie Challenge became the predecessor of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) and the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). The UFC was originally an event conceived of by the same Gracies as a forum to showcase their Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the whole world on a much larger and more regulated stage. The results of this can still be clearly seen today with anyone who wishes to compete successfully in Mixed Martial Arts needing to have trained in ground fighting.
In an interview with Rorion Gracie- the first Gracie to being the Challenges to America in the 80’s, he stated that “The ‘Gracie challenge’ is not to put down the other martial arts. That’s not the idea. The idea is to say, ‘Look, you believe in what you do. I believe in what I do.’ I want to teach my students something and go to sleep at night knowing that I’m not fooling them. So it is a question of professionalism.”