Renzo Gracie, one of Brazilian jiu-jitsu's great ambassadors, has taken many trips to Abu Dhabi over the past two decades. In April, he'll journey back to the oil-rich Gulf state, where, for the past 14 years, he has served as the personal instructor to Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan -- son to the first United Arab Emirates president, creator of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship and newly minted 10-percent owner of Zuffa LLC.
"They're looking into helping the UFC grow," Gracie said of Abu Dhabi's investment into mixed martial arts' dominant brand, an estimated $100-150 million. "They like it a lot. The goal is to push the sport forward and bring it to that country. They're bringing all the big sports there. It's a great honor for the UFC. And it's an honor for me that I get to participate."
By the time he steps into the cage against Matt Hughes on April 10, Gracie, who turns 43 in March, three years will have gone since his last fight, a controversial bout against Frank Shamrock that resulted in a disqualification victory for the Brazilian.
Against Hughes, "one of the most dominant welterweights ever in the UFC" according to Gracie, the Brazilian was given a chance to avenge the 2005 loss of his cousin Royce.
"My conception is if a Gracie fails in a mission, another one is going to take over and go after it," he said. "I don't see it as revenge -- Matt fought a beautiful fight. But I do see it as me getting pride back to my family. I know if I fail I have another one right after me coming to go after him. That's the name of the game."
While Renzo (13-6-1) has established a legacy as the first Gracie of the modern era to incorporate techniques beyond pure jiu-jitsu into his fight game, his lasting gift may be helping spread his family's grappling art around the world. That's why, after seeing how Tahnoon, now a black belt, embraced grappling and made it a part of everyday life for children in the United Arab Emirates, he's incredibly excited by the prospect of Abu Dhabi partnering with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, and Dana White.
"Instead of regular physical education, they have jiu-jitsu lessons for every child," Gracie said. "The goal is to have a thousand instructors teaching jiu-jitsu in schools in the United Arab Emirates. The sport is growing there. They really admire the philosophy and technique. UFC was just the next step.
"We always bumped into politicians in Brazil who didn't see how positive something like that could be. When those ideas where brought to the Sheikhs, they're really visionaries. Sheikh Mohammed put all his energy and enthusiasm into doing that. We believe it's such a positive art that everyone should have access to that."
Considering the extent of the relationship with Tahnoon, a heavy investor in Gracie's academies in the New York area, it's no surprise that Renzo was signed to a six-fight deal with the UFC.
Before agreeing to fight again, Gracie said he spent two years on the couch eating potato chips and ballooning to 210 pounds. He's already down to 185, and shouldn't have a problem making the contracted limit at 170. He could even fight at lightweight if he wanted. The past two months were spent getting back in shape and building a base for the Hughes training camp, which will see him work with Igor, Gregor and Rolles Gracie as well as his students RicardoAlmeida and Frankie Edgar, who joins Renzo on the Abu Dhabi card for a UFC lightweight title shot against B.J. Penn.
"Everything in my life is guided towards this fight," he said. "For six months my life is like that. I'm concentrating on fighting him, and for this reason I feel I have 100 times better chance to beat him than Royce. I'm not jumping on a plane going everywhere for promotion. I'm not doing anything anything out of the ordinary until I get on a plane to Abu Dhabi to measure myself against Matt."
"We are jiu-jitsu," he finished. "For as long as we have a Gracie walking around, jiu-jitsu won't die."
Bob Shamrock, the adoptive father of Ken and Frank Shamrock, passed away Thursday after a long battle with diabetes. The driving force behind the Lion's Den was 68 years old, and spent his final days at Ken's home in Reno, Nev.
Best known for opening his home in Susanville, Calif., to hundreds of troubled youth -- including Ken and Frank -- Bob Shamrock may have had the biggest heart of any person I've ever met in MMA.
I remember one time in particular interviewing him and Ken in the vast Lion's Den gym in San Diego. As a young reporter, it felt like one of my first real gets. For some reason I can't quite recall, we pulled out high chairs to the middle of the facility's large grappling area to talk. Seated between Ken and Bob, we discussed myriad subjects, and all was well until I brought up Frank, who at the time was feuding with his adopted dad and brother.
Ken smirked at the mention of Frank's name. Not Bob. First he was upset, then animated, then emotional. It wasn't long before he began to cry. There I was, all of 24 or 25, petrified that I'd made Bob Shamrock tear up in the Lion's Den as Ken watched on. But that was Bob, pure emotion, and he never apologized for it. Later, Frank told me that interview created an even larger rift in the family.
Though they were never as close as Bob wanted, family ties were mended along the way.
"My dad had an unbelievable light with these kids -- I've never seen anybody able to take a defiant kid into their home, and handle them like my father could -- willing to get into a fight with them if he had to because of disrespect and then turn around and hug them and let them know, the minute you give me respect, I'll give you respect," Ken was quoted as saying on his Web site, KenShamrock.com. "Everyone that came in contact with my dad -- you could tell he made a difference in their life. I've never seen anyone have that much success with kids. I'll miss him and I'm forever thankful."
We'll all miss Bob. He was a great man.
The Virginia Professional Boxing and Wrestling Program on Monday closed an investigation conducted by the agency's compliance and investigations division of the criticized decision of an Oct. 3, 2009, bout between Mike Easton and Chase Beebe, "and did not discover any evidence to support changing the post-fight results," Mary Broz-Vaughan, the Communications Director for the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, told SI.com.
The five round decision was widely panned after Beebe, a former WEC champion, appeared to dominate Easton during a bout for the UWC bantamweight title in Fairfax, Va. Two judges -- Brian Cunningham and BrianCostello -- scored the bout 49-46 for Easton, the defending champion who hails from the Washington D.C. area. Most observers, including SI.com, tallied the fight 49-46 for Beebe.
D.L. Holland, the commission's executive director, requested the investigation after post-fight off-the-cuff remarks by Cunningham to referee John McCarthy that the champion should be given the benefit of doubt while scoring a fight.
"From my take on talking to the officials, there wasn't much hope" for the decision to get overturned, Beebe texted SI.com Thursday. "It's not right. I worked so hard and sacrificed so much for the win."
Beebe's record stands at 12-6, while Easton remains at 8-1.