MAM: The Gracie system is often perceived to be principally a ground fighting art. Do you agree?
CG: No. What's happened is that most of the other styles are weak in groundfighting techniques, so that's what students coming from other styles are most interested in learning. As a result, some of the Gracie members teaching in the United States have been focusing mostly on ground techniques. However, the style developed by my father, Carlos Gracie, actually places equal emphasis on standing techniques because we feel it's very important for a fighter to be well-rounded.
MAM: The Gracie challenge has been the subject of some controversy. How did it get started?
CG: The Gracie challenge started with my father Carlos Gracie in the early 1920's. When my father first started teaching Jiu-Jitsu, people questioned his ability as a fighter because he was small and not very muscular. There were fighters from other styles, such as Greco-Roman wrestlers, who looked much more powerful. My father fought with these other stylists to prove the superiority of his style of Jiu-Jitsu. He was so successful as a fighter that he began to have trouble finding opponents; no one wanted to lose. That's where the challenge came in. Eventually, my father put an advertisement in a newspaper that went something like this: "If you want to get your face beaten and well-smashed, and if you want broken arms, look for me at this address." ...an open challenge to all fighters and tough guys to test our system of fighting.
MAM: What do you think was his motivation for issuing that kind of open challenge?
CG: It was partly to promote my father's style of Jiu-Jitsu by showing its superiority as a fighting style, and partly to continue the process of improving the system. You see, once my father had learned traditional Jiu-Jitsu, from the Japanese point of view, he adapted it to a more practical style for street fighting. The advertisement was part of the method that he used to find out what worked and what didn't; as he practiced his art against new competitors, some of the traditional Japanese moves were completely eliminated, new ones were added, and others were modified in order to make the system more efficient. For a smaller person, like my father and many of his students, it was important to use energy efficiently; the beauty of our system is that technique compensates for differences in size and weight, and allows the smaller person using the Gracie style to overpower a larger, stronger opponent from another style.
MAM: Some observers have put forth the idea that the Gracie challenge is unbudo-like, that it does not fit with the spirit of the martial arts, and you shouldn't go around challenging people. What are your thoughts on this?
CG: Well, I'm not really in favor of public challenge when it is used to humiliate other people and styles. However, I think the reason the challenge goes on here is that some martial arts live in a fantasy world. Some people go to school for years and when they get attacked in the street or the ring, they don't know how to defend themselves. The challenges wake these people up to reality.
MAM: Are you, in fact, the first Gracie family member to teach your system in the United States?
CG: Yes. I came to the United States and began teaching Jiu-Jitsu in 1972. I was actually invited here to teach by American marines. This happened because when I was in Brazil during my time as national champion, I was teaching a group of American marines who were in charge of security of the American consulate in Rio. After those marines returned to the United States, they continued to practice martial arts, and it turned out that the fighters I trained in Brazil were beating men returning from other countries. When the officers learned where my students had been trained, they contacted me to come to America to teach the Gracie system. Since 1972, I have taught the Gracie style of Jiu-Jitsu in Virginia, Connecticut, Maryland, Florida and California, where I have lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu since 1979.
MAM: Since you came to the United States, have you participated in any challenge matches?
CG: Yes, many times throughout America, but never in public. My opponents were usually instructors of other styles, and I don't feel it's right to embarrass them in front of their students. However, these private challenges are also important to satisfy their curiosity and also to show the effectiveness of our style of Jiu-Jitsu.
MAM: Do you have a personal philosophy regarding martial arts training?
CG: Yes. I believe it's better to learn three things well than to know a little bit about a lot of things. One well-executed move can finish a fight, but many poorly-done moves will get you nowhere. As an example, I remember being on the second floor of a high school in Brazil overlooking a recreation yard when I saw a smaller boy with thick glasses being punched and kicked by a bigger boy. The smaller boy kept backing up and everybody was screaming for him to fight back. Finally, the smaller boy put one hand on the larger boy's collar and with the other hand, grabbed the opposite collar. Soon, the aggressor stopped punching and fell to his knees.