At 12 years old, Ryron Gracie cleaned the mats in between matches at UFC 1 where Royce Gracie submitted every one of his opponents.
That event changed history and radically transformed the martial arts community. UFC 1 showcased Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to the world and planted the seeds for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to spread internationally.
“I had a pretty good idea how big the UFC was,” Ryron said. “Everybody at my school knew I was there and that my uncle was on TV.”
Twenty-five years later, Ryron is routinely recognized by people who are anxious to share their story of watching the early UFC fights.
“But it’s not about me,” Ryron emphasized. “It’s the name. Torrance is very much the city of the Gracie family.”
Ryron grew up in Torrance, California, where his father, Rorion Gracie, founded the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. Today, Ryron and his brother, Rener, invest their time and energy in Gracie University, where they continue to teach Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
“I was in a unique place while growing up,” Ryron said. “At a very young age I was surrounded by my father, uncles, and grandfather, all of whom other men admired. They became my heroes after I saw how much people respected my elders. I wanted that, so I followed my family.”
In adolescence, most kids rebel against their parents, but Ryron spent most of his time at his father’s academy.
“Most of my Jiu-Jitsu came directly from my Uncle Royce, and then my father, Rorion,” Ryron said. “But the mindset on the mat and philosophy of how to actually fight came from my grandfather [Helio Gracie].”
Ryron’s father wanted Ryron to attend college after high school, but to avoid school, Ryron asked to go to Brazil to learn from his grandfather.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Ryron said. “I didn’t want to go to college, but I was excited to go to Brazil and soak up time with my grandpa, train Jiu-Jitsu, and better my Portuguese.”
Ryron spent six months living with Helio. They spent every day together talking about life and training Jiu-Jitsu in the evenings on a small mat in Helio’s home.
“When I got there, he really simplified my Jiu-Jitsu and opened my mind about how to behave on and off the mat,” Ryron said. “Spending time with my grandfather when he was in his 80s is one of the main reasons I feel so safe when doing Jiu-Jitsu. His main objective was to teach me how to defend myself, and who better to teach me than someone his age who has been doing it for as long as he has.”
In those months together, Helio shared many of his life’s philosophies.
“I don’t fear the rattlesnake,” Helio told Ryron. “But I do respect it.”
“It’s the same as if you were going to fight somebody 120 pounds heavier—a monster of a man,” Ryron said. “You don’t fear the man, but you have to respect his size and what he is capable of.”
Every day, Helio prepared them a healthy breakfast.
“My grandfather gives a lot of credit to food,” Ryron said. “What you eat and drink can determine how you will live, so he woke up every morning at 5:30 and made us an amazing fruit smoothie.”
At 86, Helio was spontaneous and sometimes drove to the city to bring Ryron to the local Jiu-Jitsu schools to train.
“I watched my grandfather walking down the street in Brazil getting stopped many times,” Ryron said. “A 60-plus-year-old man walked up to my 85-year-old grandfather and said, ‘My father took me to watch your fight when I was a child. It was an honor to watch you. I can’t believe I’m seeing you here in person.’”
The UFC brought Helio back into the limelight with the Brazilian youth, but it was the older generations who had seen his fights in person, and Helio always made time to talk to them and make them feel special.
“Lots of people out there know his story,” Ryron said. “Helio was Brazil’s first national sports hero.”
Ryron returned to the U.S. and began teaching full time at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. He taught every morning and noon class, and his brother, Rener, helped teach the evening classes after high school let out.
At age 21, Ryron was awarded his black belt from Grand Master Helio Gracie. At that age, Ryron’s perspective of life and success was very different than it is today.
“I don’t really think success was on my mind back then,” Ryron said. “I just wanted to do what my family was known for—teaching Jiu-Jitsu.”
But like a lot of young people, Ryron also wanted to make money to buy things and have fun.
“I think people chase money because it feels good,” Ryron said. “It feels like you’re winning to see your income go up. It can be part of your self-worth.”
Years later, Ryron has a very different point of view.
“Today, with two children, in many ways, success is raising them,” Ryron said. “Having children has really simplified my life. Once you have a wife, kids, and a home, there are more things that require your attention, so it really becomes important to find balance, and balance doesn’t mean equal time for each piece of the pie. It just means giving each piece what it needs. I understand that now, and it’s not easy.”
Finding balance required Ryron to do more than prioritize his time.
“More than ever, success is being able to live very simply,” Ryron said. “Not necessarily having enough money to own six cars or fly first-class, but having just enough to live, eat well, and have a comfortable roof over my head.”
Ryron is a lot more aware of how he spends money, and today he’s living conservatively and planning for many years into the future.
“I do the same thing I do when I train Jiu-Jitsu,” Ryron said. “I want to be able to train for the next 40 years, so I don’t go out there and beat everybody up in a two-minute roll. I am practicing being a 70-year-old today by rolling slowly with lots of control, weight, and patience. I’m behaving the way I will need to in order to continue playing this game when I’m 70.”
Ryron used to do 30 private Jiu-Jitsu lessons per week and had 30 students on a waiting list.
“It became too much,” Ryron said. “I had to pace myself because Jiu-Jitsu is very demanding on our bodies. I’ve changed how I approach each roll. I’m not trying to prove that I’m the best every time I roll. I don’t need to prove it every day.”
Ryron does not mind letting the new guy, or even an experienced black belt, submit him. His students are there because of his ability to share what he knows, not because he can tap them out.
“It’s all about their energy,” Ryron said. “If I roll with a black belt and there is a good back-and-forth energy, they just want to flow. They’re not in this proving mode and they don’t care to beat me as much as they care to experience me. That’s different than if they’re rolling hard and want to beat me.”
Ryron said the ego is a confusing thing because it has a strong presence in everything we do.
“Even when I decide to play with my kids and not be on my phone, it’s my ego that makes me strive to be super dad,” Ryron said. “I just try to manipulate the ego in a way that best serves my goals in life.”
Ryron explained that many children are raised to believe their self-esteem is measured by their accomplishments.
“Maybe they were raised in a household where they got their sense of self-worth from winning a trophy or a better report card,” Ryron said. “Now as adults they continue that, and work is one way they can win, so they strive for validation through their career.”
When Ryron and his wife had their first child, they did a home birth, and Ryron did not leave the house for about 10 days.
“As a young father, going to work felt like going on a vacation,” Ryron said. “I had a wife and a child at home who I love very much, but I felt like I was drowning at home. I remember justifying that I needed to make money to buy my family nice things, but I needed a way out. When I went to work, I felt like I was in Hawaii.”
Ryron explained how exhausting and stressful it is having young children.
“I can only imagine how my wife felt,” Ryron said. “When you have children, you’re back at zero, starting as a beginner. You’re in this place where at home you have no idea what to do with a two-month-old, but in your work, even though there are struggles, it’s your game—you’ve been working there for a long time.”
Ryron said he can see why a father might want to escape back to work because it’s where they feel most effective.
“People tend to go where they’re comfortable,” Ryron said. “In Jiu-Jitsu we say you want to hang out in the uncomfortable to make it to where uncomfortable positions cease to exist.”
Ryron was raised to thrive in discomfort. When Ryron was 18 years old, his grandfather forced him to spend months allowing every one of his training partners to have the top position.
“I was not a big fan of people being on top of me when I was fighting,” Ryron said. “After a whole year of it I was frustrated. I didn’t understand it.”
Months later, Ryron was fighting a guy who got the top position that would have previously been a serious threat.
“It was no problem,” Ryron said. “Right then the lightbulb went off. My grandfather gave me the gift of comfort underneath anybody for the rest of my life.”
Ryron said that just like in Jiu-Jitsu, in business, people have a plan because they cannot afford not to.
“But at home, it’s trial and error,” Ryron said. “When it comes to parenting, if you do not have a plan, before you know it, you’ve missed the opportunities to give your kids the lessons they need to make decisions that are going to help them throughout life.”
Ryron has grown to share his wife’s belief that we can learn volumes from our children, which has taught him to appreciate the challenges of parenting.
“Learning these things from my wife has allowed me to feel equally rewarded staying at home with my children,” Ryron said. “Now when I stay home, I get a whole day to learn while I engage with them.”
Getting to that place as a parent required the same steps it takes to excel in Jiu-Jitsu and anything else.
“First you must acknowledge your discomfort,” Ryron said. “You have to be aware of where you’re uncomfortable and live in that moment.”
As Ryron grew as a father, the desire to escape the home decreased.
“I no longer feel like I’m not growing in my business, because instead, I’m growing at home,” Ryron said. “I still make money; I just stopped some of the things that are not giving me the most return. It’s important to know where to invest your time—and don’t spend a lot of time doing things that are not giving you the most return. And right now, with my kids being so young, I’m focused on growing my family currency.”
Ryron described how easy it is for busy parents to use the phone to bring their work home. With all the modern distractions, it’s easy to become impatient when kids compete for their parents’ attention.
“I’ve had to compromise, because if it’s in my pocket beeping every few minutes … ‚” Ryron said and then paused. “I just make it a point to put it on the counter and be present with my children, because I know that’s what we need. Playing with them with full attention for 30 minutes means a lot. Many parents don’t do that because it’s hard to do, but the kids notice it.”
Ryron mentioned the tug-of-war of family life that competes for time with his business. Both his family and business depend on him, but he depends on his family and business as well.
“I feel that success is finding balance,” Ryron said of all the things competing for his time. “Success is giving time to my wife to maintain the marriage, but also giving time to myself. And raising the children to become self-sufficient while also doing what I love and generating income.”
Ryron mentioned that we work hard for most of our lives. As kids, we are in school from ages 6 to 18, and then we go to work until we are about 70.
“They’re pitching this idea of retiring at 70 years old, which is crazy,” Ryron said. “I feel like at 70 you can’t even retire anymore. I want to be able to do yoga, kayaking, mountain biking, and go see the world.”
Ryron explained that teaching Jiu-Jitsu is very rewarding, but it’s taxing on the mind and body. Although Jiu-Jitsu does not feel like work, there will come a time when he will need to cut back, and hopefully that will come before he is 70.
Ryron is working to create passive streams of income through Jiu-Jitsu. The growth of their programs enables them to expand the reach of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu much further than he could through private and group Jiu-Jitsu lessons, while also providing a healthier family/work balance.
“We’re sharing something very valuable, and nobody else shares it like we do,” Ryron said. “It feels great to give what we’re giving on a larger scale.”
The transformation Ryron gets to experience from their students is what motivates him. Ryron described a student who was 70 pounds overweight, afraid to go to school, and would not make eye contact with people.
“How many kids were bullied, or grew up without much of a male presence, and then become adults who do not have much confidence?” Ryron said. “Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone—the student, the type‑A attorney, the bank clerk, and the mailman.”
Ryron said that part of the job of the male instructors is to provide some of the masculine energy that many people do not get to experience while growing up.
“Fighting is good for men and women, but it can be a very macho thing,” Ryron said. “The ability to defend yourself does a lot of healing. After three to six months, we begin to see them break free from these agreements they’ve made with themselves. It’s almost like they’ve agreed they’re weak, powerless, incapable, or whatever. Jiu-Jitsu is an injection of confidence. Jiu-Jitsu is medicine.”
Ryron said simply watching his students begin to stand up straight, hold a conversation, and make eye contact is very rewarding.
“That’s what drives us,” Ryron said. “Even though I’m going to work, it’s not work. It’s very rewarding.”
Ryron explained that if he were to inherit $40 million tomorrow, he would not stop teaching Jiu-Jitsu.
“The energy is too special around this,” Ryron said. “That energy is worth something. Even when I retire, I want to show up three or four times a week just to share my experience and soak in the energy that exists in the building. So, I guess that means I won’t be retiring.”
In many ways, according to Ryron, he has two wives.
“My wife makes me feel very special,” Ryron said. “She loves and cares for me, but so does my other wife—Jiu-Jitsu. It still gives me so much. Jiu-Jitsu will be here forever.”
Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is Ryron’s family, and it has been there his entire life.
“My grandfather is responsible for that,” Ryron said. “His name is my name, so every Gracie who is out there is fighting to push the Gracie name forward because it’s tied to something so special.”
Recently, while Ryron was walking in Beverly Hills, a man approached him to introduce himself and his friend.
“You’re standing in front of a legend,” the older man told his friend about Ryron.
“He’s not saying that because I’m a legend,” Ryron said. “It’s bigger than me. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu started with Helio and Carlos Gracie. What he’s saying is that you’re in front of 70 years of fighting history. I’m just one guy on the street in flip-flops, but he’s counting everything combined and giving me that credit. I’m just a messenger.”
Ryron is more concerned about promoting Gracie Jiu-Jitsu than self-promotion.
“That’s all I know. There is no me,” Ryron said. “I might win a Jiu-Jitsu match, but not for me. It’s more to prove the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu like everybody else before me has.”
Ryron attempts to deflect attention from himself but admits it’s hard to ignore the power and respect that come from being part of a legendary family of fighters.
Helio told Ryron there are three forms of power in the world: the media, money, and physical power.
“If you control the media, or have billions of dollars, you’re one of the most powerful people in the world,” Ryron said. “But if you put me in the room with that billionaire, even with all of his money, he is very aware of the physical imbalance, and there is power in that.”
Ryron explained that people gravitate to that type of power, which is why powerful people from all walks of life make their way to Jiu-Jitsu schools to associate with martial artists and fighters. Power attracts power.
“I don’t have the liquid wealth that these people have, but I have a wealth of Jiu-Jitsu, and that has a lot of value,” Ryron said.
There is a lot of responsibility that comes with the power of being a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt.
“I don’t call it humble as much as I call it a very clear definition as to what ego is,” Ryron said. “The more confident I have become, the more in control or aware I am of my ego. Because I am so well prepared for physical confrontation, my ego is less confrontational. I feel less of a need to prove myself. The ego is everywhere. It is a beautiful thing, but most people don’t talk about it enough to even understand it.”
Ryron explained that the word ego has a negative connotation, but if people talked about it, they would be more open to understanding how the ego drives us.
“When people get mad or argue about something, it’s usually about something deeper,” Ryron said. “I’m at the point where no matter what anybody says, I try to have empathy for that person. Everything is filtered through their life experiences and cultural backgrounds and then projected onto me. Nothing is personal.”
Helio had shared his philosophy that if someone were to attack his daughter and then run away, Helio would not hunt the guy down to retaliate.
“If I’m there and he comes to the house, that’s different. He’s got to go through me,” Helio told Ryron. “But if I weren’t there, it’s already done, and he’s gone. It’s in the past. It doesn’t matter.”
Years later Ryron read two inspirational books: The Four Agreements and The Power of Now.
“Years later when I was reading those books, my grandfather had already passed away,” Ryron said. “I was realizing that there are just so many things he said that are in those books. He was ahead of his time.”
Ryron kept thinking about The Power of Now and how it relates to Jiu-Jitsu.
“When people are fighting the take-down, for example, after they get taken down they continue to fight as if they were still on their feet,” Ryron said. “You fight on your feet because you don’t want to go down, but once you go down you have to become immediately present to the new position.”
Ryron said the two most common mistakes in all of Jiu-Jitsu are trying to escape too soon and trying to attack or advance too early.
“This tells us that people are uncomfortable in both the inferior and superior positions in Jiu-Jitsu,” Ryron said. “Ninety-five percent of failed submissions and lost positions happen because people are trying to beat their partner too early, or trying to escape the inferior position too soon. They attack too soon because they are filled with fear and want to secure victory. They rush to escape because they are afraid of an attack. Everyone is trying to be somewhere other than where they are.”
Ryron said the secret to success in life, on and off the mat, is to get back to the core of Jiu-Jitsu. For example, when Ryron first gets to the mount position, the submission is the last thing on his mind.
“What’s on my mind is keeping myself safe,” Ryron said. “I keep myself safe by controlling them. If I’m underneath somebody, I don’t want to get out. I want to make sure he can’t hurt me. There’s no hurry to escape.”
“The path to success in life and Jiu-Jitsu is to be completely present in the position you’re currently at,” Ryron said, “and this is the number one challenge of my life—and I need to practice it every day.”
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