Rickson Gracie, one of the greatest jiu-jitsu artists of this or any time, has laid bare the truth about his art's efficacy in modern mixed martial arts. And the picture he paints isn't a pretty one for any of the stalwart fans from Brazil who once chanted "Zhoo Zheetsu" aloud at events worldwide.
Rickson, who made his reputation spreading his family's martial system across the world, often selling it at the end of a balled fist, forcing acceptance with a tap, has determined something many of us noted years ago. MMA is no longer about an art. MMA is about the man.
“You may use like 30 percent of jiu-jitsu,” Rickson told Brazil's Tatame. “You can’t put Royce [Gracie, Rickson's brother and an early UFC champion] or any other guy only using it… Technology has changed the sport a lot in terms of how much you train, the capacity of losing weight to fight… It’s completely different. You can use many jiu-jitsu things, but the body is your main element.”
The body is you main element. For a sport built on technique, on the principle that a smaller man can beat a larger one with the right tools, this is a paradigm shift of the largest conceivable magnitude.
UFC champions aren't built with knowledge anymore. There are no more Jeremy Horns, marginal athletes who succeed at the highest levels by being savvier and more skilled than the opposition.
The UFC is an athlete's game now. Rickson specifically mentions Anderson Silva, who defends his title at UFC 148 against Chael Sonnen, as one of the astounding athletes that didn't exist in his MMA. Silva and his ilk force a different set of questions for any fighter looking to succeed.
How strong are you? How fast? How much weight can you cut? How easily do you bounce back from that cut? These are physiological factors. And in a sport where you have 15 minutes to succeed or fail, these factors are just as, if not more important than how much you know about fighting.
Of course, Rickson hasn't completely torn his own legacy to shreds. It's the time limits, he contends, that have changed the sport so dramatically. "They impose a rhythm to the bout," is how he explains it, no doubt in delightfully broken English.
In other words, in a world where you fight to the finish, jiu-jitsu is still king. With no artificial time constraints, it's still possible for pure jiu-jitsu to prevail. Gracie and his contemporaries were playing the long game. In a different atmosphere and environment. With different and more realistic rules.
Rickson Gracie might not have been a champion in today's MMA. But in the street? With limited rules? With enough time to play his game, spring his traps? Rickson by armbar. Some things never change.