The truth about the most legendary family in martial arts

History is full of crazy martial artists who could rip your head off in five seconds flat. But none of these characters are quite so colorful as the Gracie family. A Brazilian dynasty dating back to the early 1900s, the Gracies invented their own fighting style and created one of the most popular sports in the world, but their twisty tale also involves everything from polygamy to psychic powers.

They invented Brazilian jiu-jitsu

When it comes to grappling, there's no more dangerous martial art than Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). Compared to other martial arts, though, BJJ is relatively young. Its roots date back to the early 1900s, when a Brazilian teenager named Carlos Gracie began taking judo lessons from a Japanese expert named Mitsuyo Maeda (aka Count Koma). Carlos's dad, Gastao, thought his rebellious kid needed a bit of discipline, and figured martial arts would be a great way to straighten out his son.

As for Koma, he was a guy who'd grappled his way around the world before settling down in Brazil, and he was happy to teach the young Gracie. In turn, Carlos eventually opened his own martial arts academy, training his younger brothers how to grapple. However, physical activity didn't come easy for the youngest Gracie, Helio. A sick boy who couldn't walk upstairs without fainting, Helio wasn't cut out for Koma's fighting style, with its reliance on strength and speed. Nevertheless, Helio was determined to become a champion-level fighter, so he instead emphasized elements like leverage and timing.

Helio's brothers were impressed with his ideas, and soon, the family began improving on their new method of combat. Wanting to take things to the next level, Carlos soon put an ad in a local newspaper, offering cash to anyone who could defeat one of the Gracie brothers. While Helio only weighed about 130 pounds, he quickly became a BJJ beast, defeating bigger men with a lethal combo of joint locks and choke holds. Thanks largely to Helio's performances, people flocked to the Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro, eager to learn the secrets of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The weird history of Gracie polygamy

While Helio was the face of BJJ, Carlos was the family figurehead. As blogger Pedro Olavarria put it, Helio was Luke Skywalker, and Carlos was Yoda. And just like the Jedi, the Gracie brothers had some … pretty bizarre beliefs.

For example, Carlos practiced polygamy, fathering 21 children by six women. When Carlos learned Helio's wife couldn't have kids, he convinced her to let Helio take a mistress. Out of this unusual union came future fighters Rorion and Rickson. Shockingly, nobody other than Carlos and Helio knew the identity of this mystery woman, and it wasn't until much later that Rorion discovered his real mother was actually his babysitter. Not what most guys have in mind when fantasizing about their childhood babysitter.

Stranger still, Helio had a secret second family, and out of that relationship came future UFC champion, Royce Gracie. In total, Carlos and Helio had 27 kids, and the two often raised each other's children. But despite all the baby-making, Carlos preached sex was solely for reproductive purposes. In other words, no fun allowed (booo). On top of that, Carlos had some pretty weird rules when it came to naming children. The jiu-jitsu master believed certain letters were more powerful than others, so Gracie names often begin with "R," "K," "S," or "C." After all, a successful athlete needs a strong name, something Sichael Jordan can readily attest to.

An athlete also needs to train non-stop, so the Gracies purchased a 21-bedroom compound outside Rio de Janeiro. This is where all the Gracies ate, slept, and trained, practicing their moves and establishing inter-familial rivalries. In short, the Gracie household was like a religious compound where everyone spent their days either making babies, or worshiping at the altar of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Carlos Gracie's psychic powers

In addition to his weird opinions on marriage, Carlos also claimed he had psychic powers. Stranger still, because he was a media darling due to his martial arts prowess, people actually believed his crazy claims.

According to writer David Samuels, the first person to learn of Carlos's "gifts" was a well-to-do banker named Oscar Santa Maria. The two men were friends and one day, they visited a psychic. For some reason, the medium claimed Carlos had major mind powers, and was in touch with a Peruvian spirit guide named Egidio Lasjovino

Carlos knew a good opportunity when he saw one, convincing Santa Maria he really was a psychic. The banker was so impressed, he agreed to start an import-export business with his powerful friend. Oscar would front the money, and Carlos would use his ESP to make business decisions. Thanks to his purported abilities, Carlos made enough money to finance his family jiu-jitsu regimen. Hey, we never said Oscar was a good banker.

When Carlos wasn't conversing with his spirit guide (nicknamed "The Fountain"), he was meditating in the forest, studying numerology, and wearing all-white linen. He also spent a lot of time convincing bankers and high-ranking Brazilians to follow his spiritual ideas, principles he referred to as "The Path." Even Carlos's own family bought into his mumbo-jumbo. If Helio wanted to open a new gym, he'd ask his brother to check out the building's aura first. Helio wouldn't even buy a car without his brother's guidance. Of course, no good scam lasts forever, and eventually, Santa Maria sued Carlos, after realizing the jiu-jitsu master was a phony. At least he figured it out eventually?

The Gracie Diet

If you're going to sport, you have to watch what you eat. That's especially true for the Gracies, who have a system of complex dietary rules, courtesy of Carlos.

According to the story, the family patriarch was suffering some pretty serious headaches when he decided to change what he was eating. The result was the Gracie Diet, a system that says you should only eat three meals a day (no snacks), you can only have one starch per meal, and you can only eat certain foods in certain combinations. According to Carlos, this prevents a "dangerous level of acidity" from messing up "the internal balance of your gastro-intestinal system."

In other words, if you can make the process of digestion easier for your body, then you'll have extra energy to divert toward jiu-jitsu. That's why acidic fruits have to be eaten all by themselves. So if you want an orange, the entire meal must be oranges and nothing else. And you can't put strawberries in your cereal, or honey on your bananas. And that cake you ate for dinner? A definite no-no.

When it comes to one starch per meal, you can't mix foods like rice and beans. The Gracies also believe it's a bad idea to eat pork, vinegar, pepper, or cinnamon, and if you're eating nuts, chicken, or shellfish, then you can't drink any milk.

While there's not a lot of science backing up the Gracie Diet, some argue there's lots of anecdotal evidence. For proof, look no further than Carlos and Helio — both men lived into their 90s. And the Gracie Diet is still practiced by the family today. It's championed on YouTube by Rener Gracie, and Rorion claims he'd pick the diet over jiu-jitsu any day. Dude must really like oranges.

Rorion in Hollywood

After Helio Gracie retired from martial arts, he passed the baton onto his sons and nephews. One of these new champions was his son, Rorion, and in 1978, the young Gracie moved to California. Rorion hoped to show the Yankees a thing or two about jiu-jitsu, and he spent his weekends teaching students out of a friend's garage.

Word of his unique fighting style spread across the state, and in 1994, he was asked to develop a fighting curriculum for the US Armed Forces. Rorion also trained celebrities like screenwriter John Milius (of Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian fame.) At one point, the man was training over 100 people each week, with 80 more on a waiting list. Rorion, like a drug dealer, always offered the first class for free, knowing people would come running back for round two.

Rorion also challenged the head honchos at various gyms across California, and he released videos showing his family members trashing other martial artists. It was all to convince Americans that Brazilian jiu-jitsu was superior to any other combat style. But while he was preaching the Gracie gospel, Rorion was also making a name for himself around the Hollywood scene. He first made a living appearing on shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and The Rockford Files. But after word of his fighting abilities made its way around Tinseltown, Rorion was brought on as a special advisor for Lethal Weapon.

Gracie was instrumental in the final battle between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey, and he showed Gibson how to use the triangle choke on his cinematic opponent. Rorion also worked on Lethal Weapon 3, even appearing as a mustachioed thug who gets destroyed by Rene Russo. At least he's willing to get the crap beaten out of him in the name of art.

The Gracies created the UFC

Wanting to show Americans the superiority of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Rorion Gracie devised a simple-yet-genius plan. He would invite a variety of martial artists to duke it out on TV, and then everyone across the country would witness the power of jiu-jitsu.

But first, Rorion needed the perfect ring. With the help of John Milius, he considered all sorts of wild ideas. Could they surround the ring with an electric fence? An alligator moat? Or how about a tank full of sharks? Thankfully, they settled on an eight-sided cage called the Octagon. The newly christened Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) held its first pay-per-view on November 12, 1993, and the card featured everyone from a taekwondo expert to a sumo wrestler, and representing BJJ was 26-year-old Royce Gracie.

While Royce had been competing in jiu-jitsu since age eight, he wasn't the best of the Gracies. Plus, Royce was smaller than the other UFC competitors. But Rorion was intentionally creating a David vs. Goliath situation — if stick-thin Royce could manhandle these bruisers, then jiu-jitsu was clearly the superior martial art.

Now, in 1993, the UFC was … different. It was a tournament, there were no judges, referees couldn't stop a match, and you could only win by finishing your opponent or forcing him to quit. Hoping to make it like a street fight, Rorion insisted everything other than biting, eye-gouging, and groin strikes be legal. Despite his size disadvantage, Royce defeated a boxer, wrestler, and a kickboxer to win the first UFC championship. And the rest is history, though we still dream of what could've been with that alligator moat.

The war against the UFC

After UFC 1, Rorion made things even more violent, doing away with rounds and time limits, legalizing groin strikes and discouraging the use of gloves, hoping to prove striking was bad for the hands.

As you might have gathered, this movie meant the UFC was gaining some powerful enemies. In the '90s, Senator John McCain convinced 36 states to ban what he called "human cockfighting." Damn near 75% of the country saying no to your sport was bad for business, so UFC officials were forced to make changes. They instituted weight classes, allowed refs to stop fights, developed a scoring system, and made gloves mandatory. They also banned moves like head-butting, hair-pulling, groin strikes, kicking downed opponents, and ripping out their still-beating hearts (probably).

However, Rorion was upset with the changes, as he wanted to put on "real fights," so he left the company. As for Royce, he returned to the UFC in 2006 to face welterweight champion Matt Hughes. But things had changed since Royce's day, and Hughes easily defeated the aging Brazilian … largely with Gracie jiu-jitsu. But this "defeat" was really a victory. Thanks to the Gracies, new athletes were mixing jiu-jitsu with wrestling and striking — their martial art had finally gone mainstream. As Rorion put it, his "mission was accomplished."

As for Royce, he was one of the first fighters inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. And when asked about the three-time champ, UFC president Dana White once said, "We all bow down and kiss the ring of Royce."

Rickson Gracie's incredible claim

Helio's third son, Rickson Gracie, is widely considered the greatest member of his legendary family. Much like Rorion, Rickson wanted to spread the message of BJJ, so he grappled his way across Japan. In 1994, he cleaned house in an eight-man tournament and then proceeded to beat his way across the country, like a tiny, agile, less-scaly Godzilla.

However, this didn't sit well with Yoji Anjo, a professional wrestler who confronted Rickson at his Los Angeles gym. The wrestler offered to fight Gracie in an upcoming bout in Japan, but Rickson demanded a battle right then and there. Moments later, Anjo staggered out of the gym, battered and bloody. This was a normal day at the office for Rickson — most of his matches took place outside the ring, like his famous fight with Hugo Duarte. A practitioner of Luta Livre, a rival grappling style, Duarte wasn't fond of BJJ, and enjoyed trash-talking the Gracies. Eventually, he went too far and, in 1988, Rickson found Duarte relaxing on a beach and slapped his face. The fight went to the ground — in seconds, Rickson was raining down with some serious ground-and-pound. The whole thing was caught on tape, and Rickson used the footage to encourage people to buy Gracie instructional videos. "Buy our tapes or this happens to you" was never used as a slogan, but almost certainly implied.

But while Rickson is a beloved BJJ artist, there's a little controversy surrounding his record. According to Rickson, he has an amazing 400 wins and no losses. But see, only 11 of those fights were professional. As Helio Gracie explains, Rickson counts every single contest he's ever been in, from amateur matches to street fights to probably thumb wrestling. On top of that, some say Rickson once lost a bout to a guy named Ron Tripp. Still, if Rickson has come anywhere close to trashing 400 people, sanctioned or not, then this a dude you don't want to mess with.

The great Gracie rivalries

Fight fans love a good rivalry, and the Gracie guys have seen their fair share of epic showdowns. Perhaps the most famous Gracie match occurred in 1951, when the highest-ranking judo experts in Japan sailed to Brazil to challenge a nearly 38-year-old Helio.

After choking out their second-best fighter, Yuko Kato, Helio was set to face Masahiko Kimura, the greatest judoka on the planet. As Kimura had 80 pounds on Helio, the Brazilian was predestined to take a major beating. But ever a champion, Helio made it to the second round before Kimura applied his trademark move, the kimura. Carlos Gracie threw in the towel on his stubborn brother's behalf, but while Helio lost, an impressed Kimura awarded him the rank of sixth dan in judo.

The next great rivalry came in 1955, when Helio fought Waldemar Santana, a student who'd turned against the Gracies. It was master vs. apprentice, only the pupil had 40 pounds on the teacher. After a nearly four-hour war, Santana knocked Helio out with a face kick. Furious, Carlson Gracie (son of Carlos) avenged the family name in four separate bouts, earning one draw and three wins. The Santana-Gracie rivalry spilled over into the next generation when Santana pitted his supersized student, Rei Zulu, against an 18-year-old Rickson. Zulu had nearly 45 pounds on the teenager, but after getting tossed out of the ring three times, Rickson won via rear-naked choke.

The most colorful Gracie rival, however, has to be Kazushi Sakuraba. Famous for wearing luchador masks and drawing fake muscles onto his body (and they say working out is hard), Sakuraba was known as "The Gracie Hunter." After all, he'd defeated three separate Gracies, including ex-UFC champion Royce. Naturally, everyone wanted to see the Japanese wrestler fight Rickson. Unfortunately, the dream match never materialized, as Rickson withdrew after the tragic death of his son.

The online Gracie academy

Grandsons of Helio, Rener and Ryron Gracie have taught UFC stars like Ronda Rousey, but when they're not teaching athletes, they're busy running Gracie University, an online school where students can learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Kind of.

Formed in the late 2000s, this internet academy provided instructional self-defense videos that taught approximately 70 moves. Once pupils mastered these basic techniques, they would film themselves demonstrating their skills and then send the footage to Rener and Ryron. If impressed, the brothers would promote their students through the belt system. It was basically America's Kickingest Home Videos.

But while Rener claimed "online study is more effective than traditional [study]," quite a few people were skeptical of Gracie University … especially other Gracies. Family members like Relson, Renzo, and Kron all slammed the school, and even Royce said "it's a shame when your family changes the concepts of everything you stood for…" Really, Royce's position is pretty understandable. If you're going to learn how to escape an armbar, you should probably be in a gym with other students and teachers, getting armbar'd.

However, things finally changed in 2016. Under the guidance of Rickson, Rener and Ryron changed their entire process. These days, students can earn a special belt after passing a self-defense course, but if they want to earn an actual BJJ belt, they'll have to do a little sparring before showing off their stuff at a physical Certified Training Center. It's still not exactly old-school, but at least you have to roll on the mat before putting on your belt.