He has competed in and won numerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments; he twice won the Abu Dhabi Combat Club's submission grappling tournament in his weight class; and he has had a long and successful career in mixed martial arts (MMA), with memorable wins against Carlos Newton, Maurice Smith, and Pat Miletich, among others.
Renzo has coauthored two books on Brazilian jiu-jitsu:
And is the subject of the documentary:
He was recently named "Best Pure Grappling Coach" in MMA by the bleacherreport.com
I sat down with Renzo in the office of his academy in midtown Manhattan to talk about Brazilian jiu-jitsu, MMA, and the "philosophy of the mats."
YZ: Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Japanese jiu-jitsu and judo?
RG: Traditional jiu-jitsu was a form of martial art that didn't have sparring sessions; it was just based on kata. So as fighters they were very weak.
[Jigoro] Kano was a Japanese jiu-jitsu instructor and from that he started doing Judo.
Actually his first book was about jiu-jitsu. Then he decided to create judo, which consists of a lot of sparring and training to take your opponent down. So judo evolved a lot.
A Japanese champion [Mitsuyo Maeda] went to Brazil to work as a diplomat there and he ended up teaching my grandfather [Carlos Gracie] and granduncle [Helio Gracie] the art of jiu-jitsu, which back then was judo—the take-downs—and the ground fighting that came from traditional jiu-jitsu.
And my family ended up adapting jiu-jitsu and here I am, three generations later, trying to teach my son.
YZ: How has Brazilian jiu-jitsu evolved over time?
RG: It's a constant evolution. It's amazing--to the point where if you stay out a year, and you come back, you are going to see so many things that you won't believe. It's a beautiful martial art. It's constant motion. The only thing that resembles Brazilian jiu-jitsu—in terms of evolution—is the internet.
YZ: Can you tell us about the tactical aspects of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the intellectual side of the art: the chess game?
RG: It's a very smart martial art. It's a martial art designed for you to win even if your opponent outweighs you by over fifty pounds, or even if you are tired and he is fresh. So there is a mind game and a chess game that you play to make him tired and make him open an opportunity for you to win the fight.
YZ: How have you contributed to the art?
RG: I dedicated my whole life; I trained my brothers and my cousins, and all those around me and at the same time I tried to produce one of the best teams in the world. We have over twelve hundred students now and this is a center of constant evolution. We're here studying how to improve the art, and fighting to make everything better, and it's been working extremely positively.
And I keep working with the promoters to make better competitions and better events. I've tried to enable people who don't have access to a jiu-jitsu academy to learn by putting lessons on the internet. We present it to them in the best way so that even if they only have a garage to train in they'll still have access to the knowledge that we're producing here.
YZ: What particular techniques have you developed?
RG: I developed a lot of submission, especially from across-side. I was able to improve control from across-side, and guard passes. There were a lot of little details that I was able to contribute to make the art better.
It's funny because a lot of the moves I taught some of my students, the general public named the finishing hold after them, even though I showed that to them seven years earlier, but because they used it in a competition it was named after them, but I was doing that fifteen years ago.
YZ: There's a law called Arnold's law, which is that everything is named for the wrong person.
YZ: And someone pointed out that Arnold is not, in fact, the person who came up with that law.
RG: Yeah, really? [laughs]
YZ: You have had success in MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu; for those who don't know, can you tell us about how these differ?
RG: The regular Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a way of life; it's something that you can do until you are ninety years old. My grand-uncle [Helio] used to do it at ninety-five, my grandfather [Carlos] at ninety-three.
It's a martial art that you can study and improve and teach throughout your whole lifetime.
MMA is more of a competition where you put into practice everything that you train.
It's normally a conflict of different styles of fighting and martial arts.
I was successful in both because I was a very good competitor at the amateur level and that led me to become an MMA competitor and I had a very successful career.
YZ: Did you prepare differently for competition in Brazilian jiu-jitsu versus MMA?
RG: MMA is much more physical: you have to be in shape; you have to be fast because there are many aspects that are dangerous, like how to shoot on someone if he can hit you or if he's a better take-down artist than you, if he's a better wrestler; you have to know how to play from your back. So you have to be a very tough person and very well trained to be able to be a champion in MMA.
YZ: How would you compare the physical with the mental conditioning that you need in order to be successful?
RG: You see to be successful, the mental is the most important thing you can ever have—in any area, not only in our sport.
But you have to understand, the mental becomes strong through hard work. The harder you work the better mentally you will be.
I always had a very strong head; even when I was out of shape I would be fighting. I would be accepting fights even coming out of injury; I wouldn't mind.
But the right way to do it is to get strong mentally by working hard, by really exercising and pushing yourself to the limits so you know them. That gives you the confidence to step into an MMA ring and perform well.
YZ: How important is heart in MMA?
RG: In MMA heart means a lot; even if you don't have the technique, heart will take you a long way.
YZ: MMA is still illegal in New York State; can you tell us about the effort to change this law?
RG: Yes, we went to the congress; we spoke to a bunch of senators; we set up a whole-nine-yards to move that forward. We recently had one more step forward: we were approved once again.
Now we're depending on the last episode of this soap opera and I do believe that we're going to end up in a positive way.
We already passed two trials and everything went fine, so it's just a matter of time. And you have to understand, Elvis Presley couldn't be filmed dancing on television from the waist down just a few decades ago.
People, just because they're politicians doesn't mean that they're not ignorant.
So a lot of times they hold you back but they can't stop the machine that this sport has become; it's just a matter of time.
Foreground: Olympic Athlete and MMA manager Ali Abdel-Aziz
YZ: How has MMA changed since the days you were doing vale tudo in Brazil?
RG: It became a sport. It became an unbelievable sport with rules. Back then when I was fighting it was bare-knuckles; anything was allowed; even low blows were allowed.
Now they make it very clear that this is a sport and they worry a lot about the physical condition of the athletes to make sure that they stay healthy. So it's a great sport. If one day my son decides to do it I'll be very proud.
YZ: What happened at that fight in Brazil that was called off because of a riot?
RG: What happened was actually people from outside—they had over two hundred people that invaded the area—they surrounded the ring. They were supporters of my opponent, so every time I went against the fence, they would hit me and kick me. So that ended up escalated into a fight outside: my supporters fought their supporters. It was an unbelievable night—I had a great time.
YZ: You have trained many MMA fighters, including Matt Serra and George St. Pierre; how do you approach training others, as opposed to preparing yourself for a fight?
RG: I think the same way. I enjoy fighting as much as I enjoy teaching. And every time I see the individual that I'm training improving it makes me very proud; it's like I'm improving myself. I love teaching and I try to clarify and to share my experience. I've been doing this since I was five and I'm forty-four now so that means thirty-nine years of experience. I try to bring that to my students so they can learn from that.
I think there's nothing better than grandpa teaching you how to behave in life so I try to do the same thing here in the martial arts.
with students under a portrait of Carlos Gracie.
YZ: I was watching the kids' class and I love it! I love the fact that they learn to bow to each other, to shake hands, to respect their teachers and their opponents. Can you tell us about the culture and discipline of Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
RG: Like I was telling you, this is a way of life. After I moved to America I saw a lot of racism; I saw a lot of prejudice; I saw a lot of people looking down on others and I'd never seen that in my life because all my culture came from this: these mats are the most scared place and you are as good as the technique that you give to your students, and they are as good as they try to apply that technique and to share it with each other. So here we don't have a black person, we don't have a Hispanic person, we don't have a Chinese, we don't have color, creed, we have people who want to share knowledge. When you are training with your partner, you are trying to make him better, and he is trying to make you better. And I learn from my students, and the guys who share the mats with me. I learn from them; I learn not only Jujitsu, but I learn about life. So to be honest, I think these mats have more philosophy in them than any Ivy League school. It's a great place!
YZ: What do you think the future holds for Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
RG: I think it will grow--this art is going to keep growing. I plan to expand and open more schools, and be able to prepare more instructors here, to run them, to make them more successful. So for sure, I think it's just growth. Growth, and it will be touching the hearts of a lot of people. That's my goal.
YZ: For people who have never trained in Brazilian Jujitsu, do you recommend for them to try it?
RG: They've got to be careful. It's like eating chocolate: very addictive! [smiles] It's difficult to let go once you begin. It's a great art!
YZ: What do you like to do outside of Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
RG: Surfing! I love surfing, another great sport!
YZ: Thank you!
RG: My pleasure; any time!
Further Reading: A Brief History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by Gideon Egger
Top photo taken by Lucas Noonan. To see more fight photos, please visit www.lucasnoonan.com