Still Rolling

An interview with Rickson Gracie.

Light / Dark

During the early 1990s, there was a modern-day version of the O.K. Corral in West Los Angeles. Although the Earps were long dead, Rickson Gracie and his brothers kept their spirit—and a Brazilian version of the Bushido code—alive on Pico Boulevard. Dangerous men from all over the world flocked to the windowless facility. These were not MMA ’roid boys or Fight Club weirdos. Most were men of action who used physical force in their daily occupations. 

“The class would fill in like a prison yard at workout time. Heavily tattooed, heavy attitudes,” says Hawiian surfer Leonard Brady of the scene. 

As a lifelong surfer himself, Rickson’s classes naturally attracted those with similar inclinations and were socially divided into fighters who surfed, surfers who fought, and non-surfing fighters. As such, skill in the water was as important to them as skill on the mats.

Rickson was born in 1958 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as the fourth son of jiujitsu pioneer Hélio Gracie. He went undefeated from the late 1970s through his final professional fight, in the Tokyo Dome in 2000, amassing hundreds of victories in the street, on the mat, in the ring, and at the beach. After American wrestling icon and Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz lost twice to the Brazilian in a private closed-door match, he said simply, “Rickson was the best fighter I’d ever seen.” While he is regularly placed beside sporting greats such as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, more-accurate comparisons would be to dancer Rudolf Nureyev or Spanish bullfighter Manolete. 

The term “mixed martial arts” conjures images of swollen monsters brawling in metal cages to adrenaline-inducing music in front of millions of pay-per-view fans. Rickson, however, doesn’t see himself as a gladiator. Rather, he carries himself as a Socratic teacher whose dialectic is both physical and mental and who, in order to have faith in his own pedagogy, fought.

Today, despite ruptured discs in his back, Gracie travels the world spreading the gospel of jiujitsu. In between lessons, I caught up with him to discuss his surfing life. 

PM Where and when did you first learn to surf?

RG The apartment where I grew up was in front of Copacabana. My family always went to the beach, and I always loved the ocean. First I rode foam inflatable surf mats, then Styrofoam boards, and then borrowed my brothers’ single-fins.  

When the Gracies went to the beach, we didn’t just build sandcastles. My dad used to have us hold on to an inner tube and [he’d] tow us out to sea. Each time, he took us a little farther out. One of my earliest memories is from when I was 4. My dad said, “Boys, today we’ll go see Christ.” He towed us so far out that we saw over the buildings that blocked the view of the hundred-foot-tall statue of Jesus above Rio. Just when we could see the statue, the inner tube sprang a leak and began to piss out all its air. My dad calmed everyone down and said, “Okay, we have to swim back in.” Without a moment’s hesitation, we all put our heads down, started swimming, and made it back to shore without a problem.

At a young age, I realized that the sea was a place where I could test myself, push my limits, and grow. The ocean is too strong to fight. You have to flow with it, remain calm, and navigate your way in and out of incredibly complex situations. The sea has always been a great equalizer for me. If I’m tense and I go into the ocean, I come out relaxed. If I’m tired and I go into the ocean, it energizes me. The ocean either gives me the energy that I need or takes away the excess energy that I don’t need.

PM Who was the first surfer who really made an impression on you?

RG When I was 15, I went to the beach on a stormy day. Nobody was surfing because it was giant, windy, and out of control. Then I noticed a skinny kid with long hair standing at the water’s edge with a red surfboard. It turned out that it was my brother Rolls’ friend Pepe Lopes, one of Brazil’s first big-wave riders. I watched him paddle out into the violent sea and surf with a kind of casual grace I hadn’t seen before. It was a very emotional moment for me because it was another challenge. Pepe wasn’t much older than I was, so I thought, “If he can surf like this, so can I!”

PM What’s your favorite wave in the world?

RG Honolua Bay. The wave lines up perfectly like one of my other favorite waves, Rincon. I rode one at Honolua Bay that I’ll always remember. I stayed high on the face and watched as the lip pitched and landed a few meters ahead of me, and I threaded this perfect turquoise tube. 

PM What do you like about Rincon?

RG It’s a wave that has many faces. You can get perfect performance waves in the Cove, big tubes at the Rivermouth, and occasionally you can ride a wave all the way from Indicator to the Cove. Sometimes it gets surprisingly big. In the 90s, I surfed a giant swell at Rincon and the waves were some of the biggest I’d ever seen in California. I tried to paddle out at the top of the point, but quickly got swept down the coast toward Little Rincon. It took me an hour just to paddle back up to the lineup. The whole time I was paddling, I watched these skinny older guys riding old-fashioned, single-fin guns getting wave after wave. They weren’t flashy, but they were so precise. I was living a nightmare, and they were just playing and having fun.

PM Was that the most terrifying experience of your surfing career?

RG No, that happened at Saquarema, in Brazil. The waves were big, I was the last one out, and the sun was starting to set. I decided to catch one more wave, and as I was paddling back out, a cleanup set broke on my head, my leash broke, and my board was gone. The current started to pull me out to sea, and it was too strong to swim against. A jolt of adrenaline hit me that awakened my most primal senses. I immediately realized that if I panicked or made a mistake, I would die. In order to get out of the current, I swam parallel to shore at a pace that would allow me to swim for hours if necessary. I used lights from a church down the coast to keep my bearings and focused on my stroke and my breathing. 

When I stumbled onto dry land two hours later, I wasn’t just happy to get back in. I was proud of myself, because I’d used my brain, my strength, and my endurance to save my own life. Winning fights, riding wild horses, taming vicious dogs—none of it compared to this. That swim was by far the most terrifying experience of my life because nature was working against me. Luck didn’t get me back to shore. I faced down primal fear and prevailed. The next day, I made myself go back to Saquarema, paddle out, and catch a few.  

PM What role did fear play in your surfing and your life?

RG There are times when you have to place fear on the shelf and take action without a moment’s hesitation, like the evening I was out alone at Saquarema. Curiosity coupled with courage has allowed me to go beyond my limits, venture into the unknown, and establish new limits I never thought possible. My curiosity has always overpowered my fear, but fear is also a good friend. People who say they aren’t afraid of anything are either crazy or stupid. Fear is a totally normal emotion that protects you, but sometimes you don’t need protection. You need to act. 

PM Why do you think surfers are so aggressive?

RG There are many factors—ego, competition, respect—but they all grow out of an insecure state of mind. Waves are like precious gems, and people get greedy. At some surf spots, there is a confrontation every set. Surfing in a crowd requires psychological balance. If you’re too nice, you get nothing. If you’re too greedy, you’ll piss off the entire crowd. In many ways, localized spots are simpler because the crowd knows each other and their position in the hierarchy. It works until an outsider paddles into the lineup, forces his way into the pecking order, and starts catching a lot of waves. That throws the dynamic off and there’ll be conflict.

PM What is your view of localism?

RG Locals are lonely warriors trying to protect something they think they own, but nobody owns the ocean. However, localism varies from place to place. If you get in a hassle in Brazil, it’s just “Fuck you!” and you fight in the water or on the beach. If you get in a hassle surfing in California, the first thing the other guys say is, “Do you know who I am? Do you know how long I’ve been surfing here?” They want to debate about how much respect they deserve! If you cut them short and say, “Fuck you! Let’s fight!” they look at you like you’re crazy and threaten to sue you because they’re protected by their money and the law.

PM How would you compare American and Brazilian surfers?

RG We are wild and sometimes lack respect, because Brazilians are much more emotional and follow their hearts. In America some people live their entire lives in second gear, never shifting to third or fourth gear, fifth gear. They are mellow because they can afford to be, but they never really express themselves fully because they don’t have to. In America, most of the time people don’t argue, because they are protected by the laws and police. In Brazil, if you don’t fully express yourself, you’re going to get trampled and die! Even a trip to the store can be a confrontation, so you are always operating in war mode.

Fear is a totally normal emotion that protects you, but sometimes you don’t need protection. You need to act. 

PM Why have the Brazilians done so well in pro surfing?

RG It’s the same reason why African fighters are starting to do so well in the UFC. First, they have passion. Second, they have need. They’re different from kids who grow up in San Clemente riding their bikes to Trestles. They’re hungry. Californians want soy lattes and Brazilians want bone marrow. Brazilians grow up in a harsher environment where it’s impossible to avoid conflict. When Brazilians get opportunities in surfing, they will die trying to win because they’re feeding their entire family. 

After Adriano de Souza became successful, he spawned the Medinas, Toledos, and others who caught up to the world’s best very quickly. They’ll practice giant aerials all day on doubled-up closeouts breaking in a foot of water because they know that if they don’t succeed, they’ll be digging ditches or cleaning fish. They don’t have new boards or fancy bikes, but they’re prepared to eat rocks and drink sand to survive. They remain focused and driven until they achieve stardom.

PM Who is your favorite Brazilian surfer of all time?

RG Of course you must give Medina, Toledo, and Italo their due. But my favorite Brazilian surfers are the pioneers who paved the way. Pepe Lopes. Renan “The Crabman” Pitanguy. Peche “The Rio Kid” Andrea, very stylish. Rico de Souza. I have deep respect and admiration for all of those guys.

PM Who is your favorite surfer of all time?

RG Barry Kanaiaupuni, Buttons, Larry Bertlemann, Rory Russell, Gerry Lopez, Cheyne Horan, Mark Richards, Shaun Thomson, and Tom Curren. Those were my gods. They had guts, understood positioning, and had beautiful style. However, if I had to pick one, it would be Kelly Slater. He kept up with the evolutionary process of surfing in order to stay the best. For decades he stayed at the top of the game of surfing, constantly evolving and expanding his arsenal. Having done this myself in fighting, I can tell you it’s very difficult when you’re only competing with yourself. I have a lot of respect for Kelly. He’s a very gifted guy.

PM What has surfing taught you?

RG It taught me, probably more than anything else, how to deal with the infinite power of things beyond our control. All of the emotional, physical, and spiritual elements I needed to surf big waves also applied to fighting. If I could survive the sea, there was no human I couldn’t deal with, because no man can bring the same level of panic and discomfort as the ocean. With fighting, I’m only fighting another man. I only have to be precise, smart, and, at some point, impose my will on him. 

I would eventually learn that my capacity to accept anything, especially death, was the key to my physical, mental, and spiritual growth. All three of these elements must be balanced, because sometimes you don’t break physically, you break emotionally. Sometimes you have the physicality and the emotional control, but spiritually you’re unprepared. Without a spiritual connection to both life and death, you can’t reach this next level of performance. In my early twenties, I realized that if I was going to dance on the razor’s edge, I might fall off it and die. That was the price of admission.

For more on Rickson Gracie, pick up a copy of his recently released autobiography, Breathe: A Life in Flow, coauthored by Peter Maguire, his longtime student and friend. Published by HarperCollins. —Ed.

[Art by Richard Chance for The Surfer’s Journal]