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?"
Jhabvala: Sure that'll work. How did you learn English, though?
Gracie: I started learning by watching movies. In [Brazil], the movies had subtitles. So I was doing two things to learn: one was watching movies, the other was [listening to] James Taylor, my favorite singer. I would listen to his songs and then start translating them. He's playing my hometown, Holmdel, New Jersey, on June 20 and I got first-row seats. I used to teach his son. He said his name was Ben Taylor, and I was like 'Oh, like James Taylor,' and he said 'Yeah, that's my dad.' To be sure it wasn't just another James Taylor I asked who his mother was. He said Carly Simon. [Ben] can sing, too. He can sing exactly like his father, exactly.
Jhabvala: So you taught him how to fight; did he teach you how to sing?
Gracie: That's one thing I can't learn. I tried. When I was little I tried playing guitar. For six months I tried, then one day my teacher said, 'Look, I love that you're trying, but for some reason I don't believe you will learn.' And I think he was right.
Jhabvala: What movies did you watch to help you with your English?
Gracie: Everything. I used to watch five movies a day. Raging Bull, I like a lot. I love the movies by Guy Ritchie. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch. I like the recent one, Revolver. There's so many I love but have forgotten. TheGodfather trilogy I love.
Jhabvala: Guy Ritchie, he's Madonna's man.
Gracie: Yeah, I used to train him, too. I put him in touch with my cousin who has a school in London, and when he stays in New York, he trains here. You know I'm Going To Tell You a Secret, Madonna's record? It was a DVD of the show and a CD, so you bought both together. In the DVD, it shows me training him. I'm written in as "Renzo Gracie ... Guy's Hero." It was very nice.
Jhabvala: Madonna's pretty ripped. Does she fight, too?
Gracie: No, I don't believe she does. She's very lean, though.
Jhabvala: You were introduced to fighting at such a young age. Did you ever not enjoy it?
Gracie: From the moment that I could formulate a thought about what I wanted to do in my future, I thought about this. I knew I was going to be a fighter.
Jhabvala: How many Gracies are there? Who's the best fighter?
Gracie: There are a lot of Gracies. To give you an idea, at one point -- a long time ago -- we counted just the grandkids, of my grandfather and there were 75 of us. That was a long time ago. My father has 21 brothers and sisters. I have 12 -- I'm the fifth of 12. I just have three kids, though.
Jhabvala: Do you train with your family members?
Gracie: Unfortunately now, since we moved to America, we live very far apart from each other. But when we were in Rio, we would see each other every-day. We would train together every week. Now, it's difficult, like one of my brothers lives in San Francisco, one in L.A. So I'm not able to do it every week anymore.
Jhabvala: So why did you chose to live in New Jersey?
Gracie: I always liked New York, and when I came, my partner with whom I started the business, lived in Jersey. There, I found a good school system for my kids, and I decided to stay. Now, I like it so much there that I'm opening a big school. I just talked to my lawyer today and we're just waiting on getting the last few permits before starting construction. Once we start construction, it'll take about six weeks to get it up. It's going to be 8,500 square feet of nothing but open space. At the school in New York City, we're already at capacity. We have 950 students there, but we're trying to buy the top floor of the building so we can add 600, maybe 700 students. So the flagship academy will stay [on the lower West Wide] and I'm opening another one on the Upper West Side, because I want to teach kids, too, and there's a huge population of kids up there.
Jhabvala: What do you think of all the controversy over kids competing in mixed martial arts?
Gracie: I think it's very stupid. I think the best thing is to regulate and oversee it, and you can build unbelievable athletes in this sport. It's a very safe sport, you know. I've done it my whole life -- in shape and out of shape. And I'm fine. I don't have any missing teeth, no cuts on my face. The problem is when people start doing it in their backyard or something, and they don't do it safely. Accidents can happen crossing the street. So, for sure you have a better chance walking across the street and getting hurt than you do here.
Jhabvala: What do you enjoy more: teaching or fighting?
Gracie: I like everything. I just wish I could fight for the rest of my life. I wish I could be 80 and still fight. At the same time, I know I will always be fighting because I'll be fighting for those who I teach, who I've helped to get there. So I'll still be with them. I'll be fighting through them. I know at one point I will have to stop fighting myself, but fighting, it's not only a way to measure yourself, it's also a way to bring the sport to a higher level.
Jhabvala: Do you ever think about when you might retire?
Gracie: No. When I can no longer train, then I'll stop. But while I still can train and roll with my guys and feel comfortable, and not feel like they're overpowering me too much, then I'll stay in the ring.
Jhabvala: What's the biggest risk you've taken?
Gracie: Honestly, it was the move to America. You see it every-day, with aliens moving to the country. To me, it was different, though. I had everything back (in Rio de Janeiro). I couldn't walk in the street without being recognized. I had many offers and business propositions, I was on TV every month. And then suddenly I move to a place where nobody knows me. MMA wasn't big back then. I came here to bring the sport to New York, and I've been here 13 years.
Jhabvala: Do you ever regret the move?
Gracie: Never. I think it was an unbelievable move, and when I look around at the competition just from our schools, we have 500 competitors. So to see something like that is very, very rewarding. And to be able to speak to you in better English than I knew back then, it really pleases me. I think it was a positive change and I see only growth for our gym.
Jhabvala: Who would say is the best talent to come through your gym?
Gracie: We've had a lot of good people. I was lucky to have worked with some unbelievable athletes since I've been here. I've had guys such as Matt Serra, Ricardo Almeida, Georges St. Pierre. I've had Jamal [Patterson], I have Deividas Taurosevicius. So many good people it's hard to remember them all right now.
Jhabvala: Your current team, the New York Pitbulls, struggled in their first season (2006), but bounced back to become undefeated champs in 2007. What can we expect for the rest of this year?
Gracie: I knew that was going to happen. It was just a tune-up year (in 2006). We worked very hard to build them and give them the right mindset, and they continue to just answer. I think we're going to do very well this year. We've been training really hard, and we're going for the title again.
Jhabvala: Be honest, who is the most overrated fighter in MMA?
Gracie: I always thought it was Tito Ortiz. For some reason, I never liked him too much and I thought that when things got tight, he would just ask for the check so he could leave.
Jhabvala: Who is the most underrated?
Gracie: Matt Serra. People take him very lightly. Matt is one of the most talented guys I've ever seen in my life. He was the first American to win the Pan American Games in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And you have to understand, he was competing against unbelievable people who grew up with the sport. He came out as the winner, and people take him lightly. When he beat St. Pierre the first time, people thought he was just lucky. He wasn't. I bet money on him and I made money on him because of that fight. People don't realize how good he is.
Jhabvala: Five things few people know about you ...
Gracie: Um, well my wife is the boss of the house ... I love surfing.
Jhabvala: So you've got a bit of Kelly Slater in you, huh?
Gracie: Oh, I love surfing. I met him a few times, actually. Great guy. He invited me to a premier of a surfing movie in New York.
Jhabvala: Do you train him, too?
Gracie: No my cousin trains him. My cousin was hired by Quiksilver to teach all those surfing guys.
Jhabvala: Are you a good surfer?
Gracie: Yes, I used to be a professional. A guy that I beat in a surfing competition his name was Victor Ribas. He was fifth last year. Surfing would surely be my other job if I weren't fighting.
Jhabvala: OK, so you got three more things here.
Gracie: The toughest person that I ever met is my daughter because they empty my wallet without any sweat. I'm the easiest guy to approach. And I have the most beautiful wife in the world. [Sorry, Renzo, I think putting that part in bold would be too obvious.]