Rolls Gracie is a name that is often invoked by many of the elders of the Gracie family as one of the greatest influences on the development of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Rolls is called the father of modern jiu-jitsu and was the teacher of Rickson Gracie, Carlos Gracie Jr., Royler Gracie and Romero "Jacare" Cavalcanti. Just about every Gracie that practices the family art can remember where they were on June 6, 1982 when they heard that Rolls had died at the young age of 31.
Son of Carlos Gracie, Rolls was raised by his uncle Helio and began training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at his academy at an early age. An heir to both Gracie traditions, Rolls took to his jiu-jitsu training with a passion first with Helio and then with Carlson Gracie, much to Helio’s dismay.
At Carlson’s academy, he began training in Judo but when Rolls was visiting his mother in New York City, he stepped into the greater world of grappling.
While in New York, Rolls met wrestling coach Bob Anderson and began training and competing in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling and then later in Sambo, a Russian modification of judo.
At this time, much of Brazilian jiu-jitsu was based on Helio’s style of using defensive grappling to sap opponents of energy and then apply submission holds. Carlson had created a more aggressive style more equipped to meet the challenges facing jiu-jitsu fighters in Vale Tudo, and Rolls had soaked up that philosophy of aggression and now paired it with the new techniques he was learning.
These experiences were very formative for Rolls’ view on Gracie jiu-jitsu, and not just on techniques in other grappling martial arts. At the time, Brazilian jiu-jitsu did not have truly formalized competitions that drew the best grapplers on a regular basis, and Rolls believed that high-level competition would benefit jiu-jitsu.
He saw the level of work ethic and training in wrestling and Rolls brought that attitude to his training. Rolls would take his students on long runs, push the pace when rolling with opponents and was very aggressive in his pursuit of submissions.
Rolls also did not view jiu-jitsu as a fully developed martial art with no room to grow; he insisted students of his train in judo, wrestling, Sambo and other grappling martial arts to expand their horizons.
As a result, Rolls was a highly accomplished fighter who took matches and championships very seriously. Helio Gracie, who loved Rolls like a son, was at somewhat disapproving at first of Rolls' departure from Gracie family traditions. This likely stemmed from Rolls' friendship with Carlson, but Helio did become more accepting of Rolls as Helio realized what a positive influence his nephew was becoming.
Rolls began teaching with Helio’s blessing and his students’ numbers grew quickly. In 1975, Rolls and several of his students took part in a series of matches against a karate school; these matches were filmed and became part of the first "Gracies in Action" tape.
What is really striking about these matches is how much the influences of Carlson and Rolls can be seen. The Gracie jiu-jitsu style of the 1950s of using the guard to wear down opponents is nowhere to be seen; instead, the jiu-jitsu fighters secure top position through a variety of takedowns, and then quickly advance position and secure submissions in under a minute with flurries of strikes and very physical control (full set of fights—about 6 minutes long.
Sadly, a hang-gliding accident claimed Rolls’ life in 1982, just as Rolls was in the early stages of teaching—only six men hold the high honor of being Rolls Gracie Black Belts. While he produced few black belts, Rolls touched many of his students and left a legacy that spans the entire martial art.
Rickson Gracie gives a huge amount of credit to Rolls for both developing his skills and fueling his competitive nature. Rickson embraced Rolls’ interdisciplinary training, and in his lifetime, has competed in Sambo and judo and has earned black belts in both judo and Aikido.
Rolyer Gracie credited Rolls for instilling in him the deep competitive spirit that would drive him to become one of jiu-jitsu’s first great champions.
Carlos Gracie Jr., a half brother of Rolls, studied under him and while he didn’t receive his black belt from Rolls, the competitive nature left a deep impression on Carlos. After Rolls' death, he founded the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation, which is the governing body of the largest and most revered competitions including the Mundials, the Pan Ams and the European Open. He also founded the Gracie Barra Academy, the single-largest chain of jiu-jitsu schools.
As one of the six black belts, Romero "Jacare" Cavalcanti also founded his own chain of academies under the name of Alliance Jiu-Jitsu. Today, Alliance and Gracie Barra are the two biggest rival schools and between them have been called home by the vast majority of jiu-jitsu world champions. They represent Rolls' most visible legacy and continuation of his belief that competition would strengthen jiu-jitsu.
Another of Rolls' black belts, Mauricio Motta Gomes would join Carlos Gracie, Jr. at the Gracie Barra Academy and would end up marrying into the Gracie family. Mauricio would move to England to open a Gracie Barra with his wife and son. Mauricio encouraged his son to no only take up Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but to also take the Gracie name.
Roger Gracie Gomes grew up training to compete in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is now considered the greatest living grappler on the planet, having won multiple world championships in both gi and no-gi grappling.
The growth of Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been astounding in the three decades since Rolls’ death. Modern sport jiu-jitsu is full of constant innovation of techniques that would likely make Rolls proud.
Nogueira, Raphael. "What We Learned From Rolls." Gracie Magazine 162 Oct. 2010: 22-33. Print.
"Rolls Gracie - Generations." Gracie Academy ®. http://www.gracieacademy.com/generations_rolls.asp
"Rolls Gracie | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. http://www.bjjheroes.com/bjj-fighters/rolls-gracie-profile