Until the 1990s the Gracie family remained largely unknown in the U.S., despite their reputation in Brazil. Aside from rumors about the “Gracie Challenge” and grainy VHS tapes showing some of their victories over opponents from other styles, the Gracies, and their style were still generally shrouded in mystery.

Looking for an opportunity to showcase their art on a larger stage, the Gracies, along with other investors, began to develop the concept of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). They sought to create a martial arts tournament that would replicate true combat as closely as possible, and thus determine which style was the most effective. The UFC was to be a tournament in the truest sense, requiring fighters to advance through several rounds of matches in one night. There were to be no weight classes and no time limits, only biting and eye-gouging were forbidden, and wins could only come by knockout or submission.

The concept finally came together in 1993, and the tournament was set to air live on U.S. pay-per-view. Competitors from several different styles enlisted to represent their arts, which included Sumo, Savate, Shootfighting, Boxing, Karate, and others. Rickson Gracie, the family’s most proven fighter, was expected to be the logical choice to represent Gracie jiu-jitsu, but his younger brother Royce, at a slight 175 lbs., was deliberately chosen to show that the techniques could be used to defeat much larger opponents.

In the U.S. at the time of the first UFC, grappling arts were a distant second in popularity to striking arts. It was expected that strikers would dominate the competition, and Royce was generally considered to be an underdog. In spite of these doubts, Royce was able to impose his will and his game plan on his opponents, who often found themselves out of the match as soon as the fight hit the mat. He sustained very little damage, dished out even less to his opponents (despite opportunities to do so), and ended each of his fights cleanly by submission. Royce won three straight fights to capture the tournament crown that night, and in the first few years of the UFC, he went on to accumulate 11 wins by submission and was the tournament champion of UFC 1, 2, and 4.

Royce’s victories drew attention to the effectiveness of not only Gracie jiu-jitsu in particular but grappling in general. The early UFC tournaments were largely contested by fighters who specialized in only one aspect of combat and grappling proved to be the most effective single strategy. Interest in grappling arts surged, and in turn, grapplers sought to maintain their edge by training in striking arts. Today’s mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes train in several different disciplines, and with this cross-training and the implementation of standard rule sets, the look and style of MMA fighting has changed; however, a foundation in jiu-jitsu is still considered an essential element for any serious competitor.

 Under new ownership, the UFC continues today and has grown to be the premier MMA organization. And Royce, now in his 40s, is still a competitive fighter.