I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Expecting a complete run-down of Jiu-Jitsu-MMA mumbo jumbo as hundreds of grapplers-in-training tumbled around me at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City, I practiced days in advance to be careful with my words. Sitting in the far corner of the gym (scrunched as tight as possible to avoid being engulfed by blue-belt fighters) with
As we sat and chatted, nearly all of the students in the class had their eyes on me (I'm guessing this was because I was one of about three people not dripping with sweat or wearing a Gi and I lacked the physical stature -- or anything remotely close to one -- that conveyed a jiu-jitsu contender.) and Renzo. I was informed on my first visit that "he's like the mayor here." Every time he walks in his own gym, people drop everything, part to create a runway and greet him with open arms and bags of gifts. The only thing missing was the paparazzi.
Once the evening class had ended, the students lined up and hovered around our designated corner, waiting to shake hands with their hero, whom they see quite often, as he's there most days of the week; a celebrity in his own home. One student carried over his gym bag, seemingly ready to shake hands, say hello and leave, but proceeded to kneel down and empty about six boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts brought back from Hawaii, 20 or so calendars and more goodies than seemed to physically fit in the bag. The occasion? A former student, who Renzo hasn't had contact with many years, used the New York student as his messenger to just say "Hi." And "Thank You" to Renzo. And, indirectly, but obviously, "You're my hero." That seems to be the common sentiment for anyone who walks within a few feet of Renzo.
And there I was, ready, and well-prepared, to interview "Sgt." Renzo Gracie at his boot camp-like academy. At first sight, he gave me a hug. And opened conversation with "So if I don't want to answer, I just tell you I don't speak English, right?"