Title: Breathe: A Life in Flow
Author: Rickson Gracie (with Peter Maguire, foreword by Jocko Willink)
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Few people have made such an impact on martial arts as the Gracie family. Since Royce Gracie stunned the fight world by winning the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, students have flocked to academies to get to grips with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The Gracies became household names in the martial arts world alongside big names such as Mas Oyama (founder of Kyokushin Karate) and Bruce Lee. Amongst this warrior clan comes Rickson Gracie, a legend in his family’s fighting styles and an undefeated champion in competition fighting.
You can get your copy of “Breathe: A Life in Flow” in hardback, audiobook and other formats via Amazon!
The story of MMA warrior and Jiu Jitsu master Rickson Gracie is told by the man himself to his student and friend Peter Maguire, with a foreword by retired Navy Seal officer turned-author and podcaster Jocko Willink.
The grappling legend recounts his life story alongside the larger family history of the Gracie dynasty. Rickson candidly talks about his growth and training from a young age to become his family’s greatest fighter, life in Rio, falling in love, family tragedies, and the mission to take his family’s Jiu Jitsu to America and the world.
Let’s face it, a book about the greatest Gracie fighter of all time, as told by the man himself through a long time friend and student, was never going to be boring. There was never going to be any question of grabbing and holding the reader’s interest be they devout fans or, like me, late to the party that is the Gracie phenomenon.
However could this stoic grappling warrior’s tale be captured in all its glory; his battles, what it’s like to bear the weight of a remarkable legacy, family struggles and tragedy, and coming out the other side as a revered legend who helped change the face of modern martial combat?
Jiu Jitsu: A Family Affair
The book is a ‘road map’ of Rickson’s family lineage and history of the development of Gracie Jiu Jitsu – it very much reads like a sit-down interview.
Imagine Rickson sitting in a comfy chair opposite a leading chat show host pouring out insightful and humble reflections about his incredible life. Throughout, Rickson is candid about his life casting a critical eye on some of his actions during his youth.
Whilst he was highly egotistical – and what young man during those years wasn’t – Rickson was also an esoteric seeker for a spiritual outlook be it through his love of surfing on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to his time with renowned Yogi Orlando Cani (from whom he learned the now famous diaphragmatic breathing).
During his reflections Rickson acknowledges the problematic aspects of the Gracie patriarchal mindset. He is particularly critical of his late father Helio and Uncle Carlos’ mantra of going forth and multiplying which he blamed for the alienation of both his real mother and his adopted one, Helio’s wife.
He also attributes his later infidelities whilst married to his first wife Kim, and pulls no punches in being critical of both men’s behaviour. Yet he sees them as necessary for the evolution of Gracie Jiu Jitsu and its impact on the world.
This juxtaposition of admiration and dislike continues in his language, choosing to call him ‘my father’ when reflecting fondly to calling him ‘Helio’ when being critical. He describes Helio as someone who wants success for his children, instilling in them a warrior mindset.
Yet what’s surprising is how Helio didn’t emphasize winning itself. He recalls his first jiu jitsu competition at age six, and his father’s advice before stepping onto the mat; “Rickson. If you lose the fight, I’ll give you two gifts. If you win the fight, I’ll give you one.”
This advice challenges what is often assumed about a family dedicated to being the best fighters in the martial arts world. It proves to be such an eye-opener that this warrior embraces losing as much as winning – a true martial approach to combat.
In raising his children, Rickson acknowledges his father’s emphasis on giving his children freedom to flourish and find their own way.
Fierce Warrior vs Stoic Seeker
When talking about his fight history – be it on the street against rival fight clubs, including the Luta Livre clubs, or on the mat – Rickson is not quite so humble. His undefeated record is beyond legendary although even his own father at times disputed his son’s claim. In recounting his Vale Tudo battles Rickson packs plenty of action-packed, and emotionally-charged detail like a steely-eyed fight commentator.
However whilst it is rich in technical insight, there lacks a little humility with no reflection on his failures – at least in the ring. He is however gracious enough to his opponents and is not ashamed to reveal when he was moments away from potential losses.
There is much stoic reflection when talking about his first fight outside of Rio – the David and Goliath match-up between himself and ‘King Zulu’. Rickson admits the fight was so hard he all but begged his father to throw in the towel, and wanted to give up. His attention to detail is so rich it places the reader vicariously right in the ring with him, almost feeling his fear so when he in fact wins one can’t help but punch the air in delight. The fact that Rickson did not give up battling for a hard-earned victory sums up the legendary Gracie resilience.
Battles and Tragedies in America
Rickson takes time to reflect on the lighter and darker stories of his life from meeting his first wife Kim to the death of his brother Rolls killed in a hand gliding accident. It was a tragedy he weathered but more was to follow Rickson especially when he moved to America to usher in the birth of the UFC.
His time in America is an interesting contrast to his upbringing in Rio. Where for example, as a child he was disparaging his schoolmates’ less than nutritious lunches, in the US his family partake of the very food to which he turned his nose up.
The move was to signify a renewed hope to repair his marriage which was in decline with a fresh start. The early years in the US feature a mix of stories which, although opened up opportunities for Rickson, also let in ever-increasing family divisions, more tragedy with the death of his son Rockson, and the inevitable breakdown of his marriage.
The Jiu Jitsu Warrior Battle’s Japan’s Finest
After helping his brother Royce Gracie make history in the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship, Rickson finally sees a dream come true. Fans of the UFC might not appreciate Rickson’s less-than-favourable view of modern MMA, preferring the grittiness and danger of its predecessor Vale Tudo.
Leaving his brothers to continue the UFC journey, Rickson signs up to big money fights in Japan, and like with his earlier battles, Rickson drags the reader into the ring with him as they experience what he did in those fights be it against Nobuhiko Takada at Pride 1 in 1997, Nobuhiko Takada or Masaukatsu Funaki in 2000’s Colosseum event.
Despair and Rebirth
In between recounting his battles, Rickson shares the not-so-happy and exciting times. He recounts the continued breakdown of his marriage and the increasing descent of his son Rockson into the world of criminal activity including drugs.
There is a tinge of sadness in his recollections which grow more sombre with his son’s death and the end of his marriage. He never speaks disparagingly of Kim attesting his failing as a husband to his upbringing – as he did earlier when citing his numerous affairs early in their marriage.
Retirement followed and in these recollections one can feel the overwhelming sense of loss and absence of direction of a formidable fighter.
It is perhaps the hardest part to read as Rickson has been so open and critical about his failing, the arrogant, cocksure fighter comes across as not whole. This detachment from his younger self sees Rickson more humbly reflective explaining his decision to return to Rio de Janiro leading to his eventual rebirth.
It is a sombre, yet hopeful conclusion to Rickson’s turbulent life, but with his feeling that there is still much to be done in promoting his family’s Jiu Jitsu, one can’t help but want to stay on the journey long after the final page has turned.
Red Belt Ceremony
“Breathe: a Life in Flow” is everything you’d expect from the biography of a global martial arts icon.
From his birth into a familial machine dedicated to creating a warrior clan, to his battles in and out of the ring, it all reads like the most far-fetched, fantasy scenes from kung fu movies; family martial arts systems, warring schools, gruesome matches and the personal conflicts that all that entails. The mere fact these are true-to-life makes it even more of a compelling read.
In many ways, much of the recollections don’t differ from what a little research could dig up, but these mere factual tales are given real depth and color via Rickson’s narrative. The personal insights into his battles and tragedies are so riveting that it makes it a book that’s simply hard to put down, and continues to surprise on repeated reads.
The mellow, reflective tone of his writing reflects the man he is today, burdened with regrets and carrying the scars of his chaotic upbringing and heartbreaking tragedies. Yet there is renewed faith too, having rebuilt his life and a hopeful feeling that Rickson is back on the right path.
- “Helio was a master, not a dictator, and he led with passion and love.”
- “As I began to absorb and learn, I realized that I was in a position to be the greatest Gracie fighter of all time because I had both the physical and the mental attributes.”
- “Jiu Jitsu students choose to step into an environment where the natural constraints are turmoil, confusion, fear, and aggression. Jiu Jitsu can bring together people who have natural antagonisms towards one another.”
- “You will do fine. You are prepared and I will be there for you every step of the way” I said. “Now breathe. Let’s get ready. It will all be over soon. The hard work is over Royce. None of these guys will be worse than training with me.” (On helping Royce Gracie prepare for UFC 1.)
- “My decision to fight or not to fight has never been based on money, pre-fight hype, or whom I was channelling my anger toward. I am guided by my personal code of honor.”
- “I spent a long time trying to find something positive that I could take away from his tragedy. After much meditation, I realised that I had never really valued time. I thought that I controlled time and could put things off, like talking to my son until later.” (On the impact of his son Rockson’s death.)
- “My goal today is to create a form of Jiu Jitsu that will empower the entire person, both on and off the mat. If I can make a nervous person feel more relaxed than they’ve ever felt before, I’m changing them from within in a way that a psychiatrist or a pill never can.”
- The patriarch of Jiu Jitsu, Helio Gracie, had nine sons of which Rickson was the third.
- The Gracies also share their Jiu Jitsu lineage with the Machado brothers, their cousins. All five brothers have won championships in many of the grappling world’s major contests.
- In his fight career Rickson never fought in the UFC, though he helped train his younger brother Royce for UFC 1 resulting in his legendary win.
- Rickson holds an undefeated MMA record of 11 fights all by submission.
- His only loss was in 1993 against world Sambo Wrestling and Judo Champion Ron Tripp.
- Rickson was inducted into the MMA Hall of Fame in 2014.
- Robert Goodman’s 1999 documentary “Choke” featured Rickson and two other fighters competing in Japan’s Vale Tudo contests.
- In 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk” Rickson can be seen teaching Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) – on the run and hiding in Rio – his famous breathing technique. (This is covered more fully in the book “Breath Magic”.)
- A feature film depicting Rickson’s life and his family heritage is currently in production co-written by Peter Maguire.
- Titled “Dead or Alive” the film will star Cos Raymond as Rickson with ‘Narcos’ director Jose Padilla at the helm.
- Rickson’s son Kron Gracie, his youngest child, is also an MMA fighter, training under UFC 5 champion Nate Diaz, a student of Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Kron has fought in six matches, won five by submission and lost one by decision. He also holds a 1st Dan black belt in Judo.