Rolls Gracie is widely considered to the father of modern jiu-jitsu. His life was short yet spectacular, and his legacy is passed on to all of us currently training in the art. As a teenager, Mauricio began training with the legendary Rolls Gracie. Under Rolls' guidance, he became a highly successful competitor and won the absolute division of the Rio de Janeiro State Championships in 1981. Shortly after this victory Rolls would award Mauricio his black belt. The two were close friends and in 1982 started the process of opening a new academy together, but tragically Rolls died shortly before it would open. Rolls continues to influence Mauricio and his style and teaching of jiu-jitsu to this day.
The early life of Rolls Gracie
Rolls was born on March 28th, 1951, the love child of Carlos Gracie and Claudia Zandomenico; a young Italian air stewarded who worked for Lufthansa and lived in Rio. Because Rolls was born out of wedlock, Carlos's wife did not want to raise him, and Carlos entrusted his brother Helio to bring him up. For this reason, Rolls became a unifying force within the family and though a cousin to Rorion, Rickson, and Helio's other children, he was always considered to be a sibling to them. Rolls began his Jiu-Jitsu training while still only a toddler and his natural athleticism and passion for jiu-jitsu meant that he very quickly became an expert in the art and the star of the Gracie family in that era.
Rolls’ mother Claudia moved to the USA in 1962, and because she worked for an airline company, he was able to travel for free. He went back and forth between Brazil and the USA frequently, as well as to many other countries around the world. This enabled him to broaden his martial arts horizons and would expose him to many different facets of grappling that would change the art of jiu-jitsu forever.
Expanding the art of jiu jitsu
Rolls started training in other grappling styles at Carlson's academy, where he began training in judo, but when he was visiting his mother in New York City, he met wrestling coach Bob Anderson, and this would have a significant influence on him. After their meeting, he began training and competing in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. He would also later train in sambo, a Russian modification of judo.
At this time, jiu-jitsu was mainly taught based on Helio's style of using defensive grappling to wear opponents down and then submit them. Carlson had already started to modify the art, introducing a more aggressive style that was better equipped to meet the challenges facing jiu-jitsu fighters in Vale Tudo. But Rolls began incorporating new techniques learned from his training in other combat arts into his style of Jiu-Jitsu. He was particularly impressed with the work ethic of the wrestlers and brought that same attitude to his own training. Rolls would take his students on long runs, push the pace when rolling with opponents and was very aggressive in his pursuit of submissions. He always encouraged his students to train in other arts as he had, such as judo, wrestling, sambo and other grappling arts to expand their horizons also.
Rolls taught many notable jiu-jitsu athletes in his short time as an instructor including Rickson Gracie, Calros Gracie Jr, Royler Gracie, Rigan Machado. He promoted just six men to black belt before his death: Mauricio, Marcio Stambowsky, Romero "Jacare' Cavalcanti, Nicin Azulay, Paulo Conde and Mario Claudio Tallarico.
The Gracie family. (Rolls top row second from the left, Mauricio top row far right). Photo via The Onzuka Brother’ Gracie Family Pictorial.
The tragic death of Rolls
Rolls love for life and adventure led him to take up other exciting sports including surfing and hang gliding. On June 6th, 1982, Rolls borrowed a hang glider in the mountains of Maua. It was a bad day for flying though, with little wind and he took a bad drop and fell into the trees below. Rolls death was mourned by the Gracie family and his students. The day changed everything for so many people and many of his students felt very lost afterwards.
Rolls and Mauricio training together shortly before his death.
Mauricio recalls the day and the effect it had on him and the other students of Rolls in a recent interview:
"We were lost; we were completely lost. Some of us never put the Gi on again, and I think we all faded away a bit. Rolls was about to move gyms because we shared a little building with Carlson. Both schools were getting too big to be in the same place. Carlson was growing enormously, and so was Rolls. He was preparing me, Jacare, Tallarico, Rodrigo, and I think Marcio too, to all move to the new place and start teaching there. So, when he passed away, it was like losing a family member, like losing a limb, no-one knew what to do after that. I found myself in a very peculiar situation, my son Roger was just born, and I had my eldest Vanessa, so I had to find another form of work to sustain my family. I didn't stop training, Carlinhos took over for a while, but he moved to Barra, and that is where he started Gracie Barra, but it was too far from my house to Barra, and it was very difficult to get to. I trained here and there with a friend or two, but everyone went in different directions. But you never really stop, I loved jiu-jitsu, so I found my way back into the gym after a while."
The legacy of Rolls
The legacy of Rolls Gracie remains with all of us who train jiu-jitsu to this very day. He continues to have a legendary status in the jiu-jitsu community, and without him, modern jiu-jitsu would not exist in its present form. His cousin Royler Gracie once said: "There is an era before and another one after Rolls".
This article was written by Mauricio's student Marc Barton, who is the head instructor at his affiliated academy Kingston Jiu Jitsu