Rorion Gracie, the eldest son of Hélio, brought BJJ to the United States. In 1978 he moved to southern California with $2,000 in his pocket. Jiu-jitsu’s cross-continental move from Tokyo to Rio de Jinaro was historic, but Rorion knew the US was the cultural core of the modern world, and if he could start teaching BJJ in the US it would spread all over the globe.
Rorion began teaching out of a garage in Torrace, CA outside of Los Angeles. After a few years of training students and establishing Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in America, Rorion invited his younger brother Royce moved to America with him.
Hollywood images of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris influenced US martial arts culture heavily. US martial arts was more focused on striking and kata training. Karate and Taekwondo dojos were the most ubiquitous. Kung fu schools were fairly common too.
Repeating history of their father and uncle, the Gracie family began issuing open Gracie challenge fights. The Gracies were Vale Tudo veterans, familiar with the ruthless dynamics of no holds bar matches in Brazil. Masters of local dojos, bitter over loss of students and the rumors of a new devastating martial art, challenged the Gracies. Rorion, Royce, and their brothers Rickson and Royler all dominated the California traditional martial artists who challenged them.
After years of underground challenge fights in basements across California, and training hundreds of students out of a garage in Torrance, in 1989 the first Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy opened in the United States.
In 1993, Rorion created the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a pay-per-view television program, not dissimilar from the model professional wrestling relied on in the 90s. Rorion’s aim was to show the supremacy of jiu-jitsu on live television, as it dominated other styles.
Some of the worlds most gifted marital artists in karate, muay thai, sumo, and other styles competed in the 1993 single-elimination tournament. Rorion chose Royce to compete on behalf of the Gracie family, on the basis that Royce was small, young, and physically unimposing.
The young stone faced 26 year old stone toe to toe with musclebound tattooed snarling striking experts. Royce used only the fundamentals of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to swiftly an decisively decimate the competition, and win UFC 1.
In my lifetime martial arts has undergone massive existential changes. 1993 changed everything, and the world of martial arts has never quite been the same. This is the enlightenment period for martial arts.
In the wake of jiu-jitsu’s dominance the mystique of the traditional arts has faded, causing Kung fu, Tai Chi, Karate, and Taekwondo practitioners to do some soul searching, and tweaking of their art to make them more practical and useful in the real world. The concept of randori, the sparring element of jiu-jitsu, is what makes it so effective in the ring or the street.
The current faces of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu are brothers Ryron and Rener Gracie, sons of Rorion. They teach out of the Torrance Gracie Academy. Many other jiu-jitsu associations not directly in collaboration with the Gracie family have blossomed out of the teachings of Mitsuyo Maeda and Hélio Gracie.
Gracie Jiu-Jitsu has a specific curriculum focused heavily on self defense. Many other BJJ associations have slightly more emphasis on sport, though a framed picture of Hélio Gracie is likely to still hang on their wall. All jiu-jitsu practitioners, be them from Gracie Barra, 10th Planet, Alliance, or BJJ Globetrotters, acknowledge the contributions of the Gracie family to the gentle art.