Born in October 1st 1913, Helio was the youngest son of Gastao Gracie, a third generation Scotsman. There were 9 brothers and sisters, and Helio stood out since the beginning due to his body type; tall and lanky he was the complete opposite of his brothers who were shorter, and stockier.
In the last years of the Gracies stay in Belem do Para, his older brother Carlos got to meet Misuyio Esai Maeda (aka Count Coma ), who was a Jiu Jitsu and Kodokan Judo black belt who had come to Brazil with the intent of divulging the Japanese Martial Arts. His brother started training regularly with Maeda and rapidly became one of his top students. All Carlos learn in the Jiu Jitsu classes he would then try and pass on to his brothers. They would spar regularly, however, Helio wasn’t allowed to be a part of the actual fighting as he was to fragile, instead he would stand aside and try to understand the mechanics of the Jiu Jitsu game.
A few years after the Gracies moved to Rio de Janeiro, in 1925, Carlos Gracie – the eldest managed to fulfil his dream of creating the first Jiu Jitsu Academy. To help him in this new challenge he invited his brothers Oswaldo, Gastao, Helio and George, to come and join him (both because he needed help in the academy and because he wanted to take his brother off their abusive father’s hands).
Helio started rolling (Sparring in Jiu Jitsu) with his brothers, hiding the fact from Carlos who was over protective of his younger brother and feared for his health. When he found out Helio was already advanced in his techniques and was a good spar for his brothers, Carlos allowed his training to continue and accepted him in their normal classes.
George Gracie was an excellent fighter, but lived a wild lifestyle and Helio soon became Carlos star pupil, so much that in 1932 Carlos gave him his first no-holds-barred (old school Mixed Martial Arts bouts were almost no rules were involved), He was 18 years old. the fight was against a boxer by the name of Antonio Portugal and the fight lasted less then a minute as Helio choked his opponent out.
Helio fought several times throughout the next 6 years trying to promote the Gracie academy together with his brothers. At one point George broke with the academy as he wanted to fight Helio to prove who was the best fighter in Rio de Janeiro and Carlos opposed to this.
In 1938 Helio’s career came to a hold as he left the rings and the mats to move to a different town for personal reasons. He came back 12 years later at the age of 38 after a challenge was made to him personally. His opponent was Landufo Caribé, the Bahia Jiu Jitsu Champion who had a different lineage from the Gracies, and to prove his point, Helio finished Caribé quickly.
A year later came the opportunity to fight the mighty Masahiko Kimura, the Jigoro Kano Judoka champion of Japan. The opportunity came after he challenged Mr Kimura a few months earlier, challenge which was refused as Kimura didn’t feel Helio worthy of the match. Helio was made to fight Kato (Japan’s number 2) in order to get to Kimura. Helio fough him and defeated Kato by means of Cross Choke from the closed guard. Only then did Kimura accept the challenge. In Reila Gracie’s book about the Gracie family, it is stated that Kimura was 35Kg heavier (77 pounds), however we were unable to confirm this 100%. Kimura was so convinced of his superiority that he stated to the press that if the fight lasted more than 3 minutes he would consider it a loss.
Masahiko Kimura defeated Helio Gracie by “Kimura Lock” (the submission was named after Masahiro after this match) in 13 minutes (far after the 3 minute mark) which impressed mr Kimura who ended the fight congratulating Helio on his toughness. This was a tough blow on the Gracies, and Jiu Jitsu which had earned a good amount of relevance in Rio de Janeiro. With this decrease in popularity, fights were scarce and Helio turned himself to teaching again.
Carlos Gracie had left the Rio de Janeiro gym, and moved to Fortaleza, Brazil to take care of businesses, he left his sons Carlson Gracie, Rolls and Carlos Junior (Carlinhos) to be taught by Helio.
Helio returned to the mats 5 years later after another challenge was raised by a former student, Waldemar Santana was his name and their fight would go to the record books as the longest no holds barred fight ever recorded (3hours 42minutes), Helio lost due to a soccer kick in the head which left him unconscious.
After this it took another 12 years for him to fight again, in the mean time he dedicated himself into teaching his sons and Carlos Gracie’s sons. Legends in BJJ like Rickson, Royce, Carlson, Rolls, Carlinhos, Relson, Rorion, amongst many others. He dedicated himself to the Gracie legacy, Jiu Jitsu. Along the years many came out against him and his hard nose ideas about BJJ, some of them were close family members like Carlson Gracie.
But even with all this turmoil there is no questioning that without him, BJJ would have definitely gone a different way and he will always be remembered as Grandmaster Helio Gracie, 10th Dan in Jiu Jitsu and founder of this amazing martial art that so many around the world practice and love.
Gran Master Helio Gracie died on January 29, 2009 (aged 95).