The story of how the Gracies created the most potent martial art the world has ever seen began in the heart of the Amazon in 1913, in a city called Belém, or Bethlehem, which is the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Pará. The Gracies were a prominent upper-class family from Rio de Janeiro, the descendants of a Scotsman named George Gracie, who was born in Dumfries, Scotland, on August 14, 1801. George arrived in Rio at the age of 25 with four friends, one of whom died of yellow fever, according to Reila’s biography of her father, Carlos. “A man of Calvinist upbringing,” she wrote of George, “he was handsome and poised, with a shapely face, straight nose, very light skin, blond hair and blue eyes.”
Adventurous and gifted, the Gracies were eager to seek out new worlds. George’s brother Archibald had already emigrated from Scotland to Manhattan, where he became a shipping magnate and a friend to Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. He advertised his wealth by buying a piece of prime property overlooking the East River, where he built a grand house that bore his name. In 1896, the house was sold to the city of New York, which made it the statutory residence of the city’s mayor. In tribute to the tasteful opulence of its builder’s conception, the house retained the name Gracie Mansion, by which it is still known today.
Meanwhile, George Gracie prospered in Rio, becoming a partner in the trading company of Stockmayer, Gracie, Hobkirk & Co., and later a director of the Bank of Brazil. He married Mariana Antônia de Malheiros, the daughter of an elite Brazilian family, and had a son, Pedro Gracie, who also became a successful banker.
Pedro’s son Gastão was an aspiring diplomat who lived in Germany for 10 years. He spoke fluent German, Latin, Greek, and five other languages — none of which seemed to aid his career, which suffered because of his sharp temper, impulsive behavior, and lack of any appreciable aptitude for diplomacy. After missing out on a diplomatic post he badly wanted, Gastão returned to Brazil and embarked on a series of failed business ventures and tempestuous love affairs, in the course of which he fathered nine children, the oldest and wildest of whom he named Carlos. “I honestly did not have a moment of peace,” Carlos later remembered of his disorderly childhood. “My devilry got to a point that, even in my own neighborhood, I only felt safe when I ran through the streets along the streetcar rails. It was the only way of avoiding surprises from possible enemies.” During Carlos’s upbringing, the Gracies lived in nine different houses, and no two of his siblings were born at the same address.
Drawn to the jungle city of Belém by the Amazonian rubber craze, Gastão failed to get rich. He turned next to the manufacture of dynamite, which he stored in the house where his children slept. He also managed entertainers and ran the American Circus, which toured widely in southern Brazil.
On November 5, 1916, Gastão’s circus arrived in the port city of Manaus, where a member of the troupe, an Italian boxer named Alfredi Leconti, challenged a Japanese martial artist named Satake to a fight. As it happened, Satake was not the most distinguished Japanese martial artist in Manaus that day: He had arrived in town a year earlier with Count Koma, a Japanese judo master whose real name was Mitsuyo Maeda. Koma had fought more than 1,000 professional matches on four continents while suffering only two recorded defeats. As Satake fought Leconti, Koma watched from ringside, where he struck up a friendship with Gastão that would alter the history of combat sports.
Count Koma wound up in the Amazon after a chain of unlikely contingencies that parallels the emergence of Gracie jiu-jitsu as a global sport. The determined westernization of Japan by Emperor Meiji in the late 19th century led to the collapse of many aspects of traditional Japanese society, including the ancient art of jiujitsu, whose masters were forced to seek other forms of employment. Sekiguti Jiushin, founder of the Sekiguti style, wound up pulling a rickshaw in the street, while Kawanishi Iikubo of the Kito-Ryu style became a postal worker. “I am profoundly saddened by the agony that jiujitsu finds itself in,” lamented the jiujitsu master Tojuro Takeuchi, in a letter that is widely quoted by historians of judo. “A five-hundred-year-old tradition will likely disappear in my generation. Today, what we see in demonstrations is that the richness of the past is no more, they’ve reduced themselves to technicians and the poverty of those that remain is the general rule.”
In 1882, an idealistic young graduate of the Imperial University in Tokyo named Jigoro Kano conceived of a new fighting style based on traditional jiujitsu that he hoped might serve as a comprehensive source of physical education, intellectual training, and moral instruction for modern Japan. His interpretation of jiujitsu forbade traditional ground-fighting techniques like the ashi garami, a crippling joint lock that targets the leg of one’s opponent. Instead, Kano emphasized throws from a standing position. “When we talk about jiujitsu today, people often think of a technique in which one does only dangerous things, such as choking an opponent and bending his joints, or even, in extreme cases, killing him,” Kano later wrote, explaining what motivated him to create the ju-do, or “gentle way.” He was also determined to separate his new art from jiujitsu’s role as popular entertainment, which he saw as inherently debased. “There are also those who make jiujitsu into a sort of show,” he wrote. “They charge admission and have competitions at venues where sumo and acrobatics are held, so that people have become even more inclined to believe that jiujitsu is something uncultivated.”
Starting in a rented room at the Eishoji temple, Kano and his students founded the Kodokan, where hundreds of disciples would learn the high-toned art of judo, which they spread across Japan and then to the major European capitals and eventually around the rest of the world, where local variants soon emerged. In Russia, judo was transformed into the fighting style known as sambo, whose most famous student is Vladimir Putin.
Maeda, one of Kano’s finest students, made his way to Washington, D.C., where he and his companions arranged to put on a demonstration for President Theodore Roosevelt. The oldest fighter in the group, Tomita, insisted on personally representing judo in front of the American president, whose daughter Alice was wild about fighting and handpicked his opponent — a tall, powerfully built Afro-Cuban boxer named Bill Owens. The ensuing fight set back the cause of judo in America for decades. “Quick like a leopard,” one reporter wrote, “the black fighter completely dominated Tomita, who was literally flattened and unable to make any movement whatsoever, leading to his humiliating defeat in front of the President, his wife and daughter, members of the government, assembled athletes, reporters and members of the Japanese Embassy and expatriate community.”
In the hope of salvaging judo’s North American reputation, Maeda and Satake spent two years traveling across the United States, taking on more than 100 challengers and winning every recorded fight. They then traveled to Russia and continued west across Europe. In 1908, they reached Spain, where Maeda appears to have been given the title of Count Koma. As Maeda later told a European reporter, “An influential Spanish citizen, impressed with my victories, by my posture and my way of being, perhaps to be nice or without meaning to, gave me that title that later spread everywhere.” In 1909, Count Koma and his companions boarded a ship to Mexico City and then fought their way south, until they arrived in the Amazonian port of Manaus on December 18, 1915. The ensuing spectacle was recorded by a local newspaperman, who wrote: “Arriving today, aboard the yacht Pará, is the troupe of Japanese ju-jitsu fighters who come to delight the audience of the popular Politheama Theater. This troupe, led by Count Koma, world champion of ju-jitsu, will disembark wearing Oriental robes and be paraded through the streets in an automobile.”
The Count was eager to demonstrate his judo for the locals; he also appears to have coveted the fertile river basin as a future Japanese settlement. Gastão Gracie helped the Japanese fighter settle in Belém, a nearby city of perhaps 150,000 inhabitants. There, Maeda opened a martial arts school in a wooden hut on the grounds of the town’s rowing academy. (The successor to Maeda’s school in Belém is directed by the judoka’s great-grandson, Professor Alfredo Mendes Coimbra.) Grateful for Gastão’s help, the judoka taught a version of his centuries-old fighting style to four of the Brazilian’s sons — Carlos, George, Oswaldo, and Gastãozinho.
Hélio, the fifth and youngest Gracie brother, was judged too frail to receive active instruction, so he learned judo by watching his brothers practice. Abandoning judo’s showy throws, he modified Count Koma’s teachings to suit his lighter frame, creating a Brazilian variation that reemphasized wrestling techniques and elevated the mastery of mechanics over physical strength and agility. And so Gracie jiu-jitsu was born.