Royce Gracie's Legacy, BJJ's Relevance on the Decline in Modern MMA
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Royce Gracie is undeniably one of the most accomplished fighters in MMA history. His heroics in the UFC's infancy did a lot for the sport, but they also propelled his fighting style, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, into a position where it was almost synonymous with MMA as a whole.
For a long while, in large part thanks to Gracie's dominance in the UFC's golden age, MMA was a grappling-focused sport. There was still striking, sure, but the tiny Royce Gracie (he ended up fighting at welterweight after the sport became fully regulated) slapping leg triangles around people with a huge size advantage gave everyone pause.
This caused prospective fighters to flock to learn from the Gracie family. From there, dozens of submission-focused fighters entered MMA in both the United States and abroad. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was the go-to discipline for a huge number of fighters.
Gracie himself ended up winning three of the first four UFC tournaments while various family members like Renzo, Royler and Rickson all entered the fray to mixed success. At the turn of the millennium, submission artists who were black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu were popping up everywhere in some of the world's most-watched events and were winning a lot more than they were losing.
This was the peak for the Gracie family and the martial art they made famous.
Following that, everyone scared of being submitted joined Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools to learn how to defend themselves from the at-the-time-unorthodox submissions. As Chuck Liddell became a serviceable wrestler specifically to defend himself from takedowns, many fighters were effectively neutralizing their opponents' Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with their own Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
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This was a successful strategy. Still, there were plenty of black belts in the style rising to prominence, but fewer and fewer were what one would call “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters.” Guys like Anderson Silva, BJ Penn and Nick Diaz, all masters of the style who were still more comfortable standing than on the ground, became the second wave of fighters to represent the art. All had black belts in the style, but they were quite content in keeping the fight standing.
More time passed. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialists were becoming fewer in number and were having less and less success. Fighters like Demian Maia, Gabriel Gonzaga and Thales Leites surged against lesser opponents, but they wilted against real competition. It became perfectly clear that this was simply not enough to reach the top anymore.
More and more, all the way into the present, the importance of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has been dwindling. This is not necessarily because of anything wrong with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Simply put, this is mixed martial arts. A fighter needs to be able to both strike and grapple and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, perhaps more than any other fighting style that has come through the Octagon, has fighters that refuse to evolve past one martial art.
Even worse for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the Gracie's legacy, a large portion of MMA's fanbase still ends up disappointed whenever a fight goes to the ground, regardless of if it is by wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Judo. Small-minded fans aside, knockout power from a fighter like Brian Stann will always be a bigger selling point for a card than strong grappling from a fighter like Jake Shields.
Regardless, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has been fading while wrestling has surged in popularity on the coattails of top fighters like Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, Chael Sonnen and Rashad Evans. Even among prominent Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, submissions have been becoming less and less common; the aforementioned Anderson Silva, BJ Penn and Nick Diaz have a combined three submissions since 2010, dwarfed by five electrifying knockouts.
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Adding to this, there is a distinct lack of influence from the Gracie camp in recent years. There are no members of the Gracie family actively fighting right now of note. Meanwhile, the Nogueira brothers have branded themselves as the foremost instructors in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, leaving the family with no clear place in the sport today.
Worst of all is the undeniably bleak future for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in MMA. Much is made of the “new breed of fighters” like Rory MacDonald, but they truly end up being the harbingers of the end of individual martial arts. Young fighters currently rising through smaller promotions who will eventually join the UFC go to gyms specifically to learn the entire sport, rather than jumping into MMA after finding success in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitions.
These fighters have no real connection to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but learn off the bat how to attack with or defend against the style's techniques. This, truly, spells doom for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in MMA and while it is still a sport unto itself, it is still approaching the proverbial exit when it comes to the public eye.
While Royce Gracie and his ancestors have a spot in history, their direct influence in MMA is rapidly approaching rock bottom. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not as feared as it was and this trend is incredibly unlikely to reverse course.
This, though, is the nature of sports. The game is evolving and, at this point, the Gracie family's contributions have been absorbed into the sport as a whole. While their influence can still be found in the sport's history, the name does not hold the weight it once did.
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