Unfortunately, Roy Nelson was not the Kung Fu Master…

Before there was the UFC, there was “the Gracie Challenge”. Dating back to 1920, the Gracie Challenge was an open invitation to martial artists of all disciplines to face a Gracie, or Gracie student, in a vale tudo fight.

High-profile challengers could even necessitate the use of Brazil’s national soccer stadium as a venue.

Although it seems crazy now, up until the last few decades, martial artists from separate disciplines rarely fought. The Gracies sought to change this however.

The UFC itself was originally a Gracie challenge in the form of a tournament. Former UFC owner, Art Davie, was inspired by the Gracie home video series, “Gracies In Action”, which featured Gracie jiu-jitsu students taking on martial artists of all disciplines.

Art Davie partnered up with Rorion Gracie, Royce’s older brother, and in 1993 the UFC was born.

Dawning of the Gracie Challenges

Carlos Gracie was the first to issue the Gracie Challenge, having done so in 1920. As these bouts occurred close to a century ago, little information is available on them. It is said however, that Carlos retired undefeated.

Carlos’ real legacy will be his family however. When he died in 1994, Carlos had fathered 21 children, 106 grand-children, and 128 great grand-children. 13 of his children reached the rank of black belt as well. He was 92 when he died.

Helio Gracie was Carlos’ younger brother by 11 years. It is believed he was the 2nd Gracie to issue the challenge, when he did so in 1932. Helio needed all of 30 seconds to defeat boxer, Antonio Portugal, in his first bout. Future challengers would sometimes fair better however.

Masahiko Kimura vs. Helio Gracie

One of the most famous Gracie challenges of all time occurred in 1951, between Masahiko Kimura and Helio Gracie. Kimura is considered one of the greatest judoka of all time, and Helio one of jiu-jitsu’s great pioneers. Public interest in the bout was immense.

Maracana Stadium, which had been built the previous year to host the 1950 World Cup, would host the fight. Brazil would defeat Uruguay inside the stadium to win the World Cup that year, but Helio Gracie would not be as lucky.

Kimura submitted Helio in 14 minutes with a double wrist lock chicken wing hold. The move would later be commonly referred to as a “Kimura”.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Royce Gracie vs. Kung Fu Master

The video below shows a pre-UFC Royce Gracie taking on a Kung Fu master.


Often the challenges would involve a Gracie taking on a much larger opponent. It is believed that Royce was chosen to represent the family at UFC 1 in part because of his small stature.

The Kung Fu fighter who accepted the Gracie challenge didn’t stand a chance, but should be commended for his efforts anyway. At a time when few martial artists were venturing outside their own discipline to fight, this guy did.

Fighters who accepted the challenge wanted to find out how their style would hold up in an actual fight. In many cases, martial artists found out that without a background in at least one grappling style, they stood little chance against a jiu-jitsu practitioner.

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Ian is a MMA writer based out of Toronto, ON Canada. An avid mixed martial arts enthusiast and passionate fan since he was born, Ian has been writing about mixed martial arts for over 5 years.


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