By Can Sönmez

Rener Gracie is the second son of Rorion Gracie, the man who did so much to trigger the global expansion of jiu jitsu. Rener has continued his father's legacy, taking over the Gracie Academy in Torrance, along with his elder brother Ryron. Jiu Jitsu Style contributor Can Sönmez travelled to Torrance earlier this year (read his full-write up here), where he had the chance to speak with Rener. The charismatic face of Gracie University had plenty to say about his family's history and the current state of jiu jitsu.

You’re 29, so weren’t yet born when your father started teaching here in 1978, but I was wondering, what are your earliest memories of jiu jitsu in Torrance?

I was born in the Gracie Garage days. That’s when it all began, man. So what were my earliest memories? Well shoot, being a kid who could walk and just waddle in from the house into the garage, while people were just training all day, every day. 10 hours, private classes. So I would just be around it my whole life. There is no memory without jiu jitsu in the garage.

And do you remember what it was like when it became a more formal Academy?
Yeah, in 1989, I remember the academy opening on Carson Street, about 4 miles away from here, which was the original spot. 1989 is when it really went down, it was a big exciting thing. I was seven years old, we had an academy now, my uncles were teaching there, Royce, Rickson and Royler. All these guys were here helping with the teaching and the school was growing.
It was fun, training with my uncles at that stage, seven years old. It was all good, you know. Learning jiu jitsu as a kid, from them, was fun. I remember feeling extreme pressure, on myself, being a kid in the Gracie family.
Coming to class, I’m the son of Rorion, nephew of all these legends, Helio’s grandson. I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve got to uphold the legacy,” and I’m seven and a half years old. I go to class and I get fricken mopped up by kids that are nine. Choked out relentlessly!
It really became prominent when I was around eleven or twelve. I had one arch nemesis, who every single time I came to class, she would smash on me. Her name was Teri. It was pretty disheartening. I tried to quit several times because of Teri.
But then what happened? I got better, twelve years old, I finally caught her. She quit. I never saw her again.
Oh really? That’s a shame.
No, not so much of a shame! [Laughs] Yeah, it was all good. Anyways, that’s what it was like growing up. The funny part is, looking back, I have little brothers now who are that age range. They feel the same thing: they finish sparring, they go to the office and cry. “I don’t wanna go anymore!”
I’m like, “Bro, nobody cares that you lose, at all.” Now, I can’t really say that because I remember feeling the same thing. The truth is, the pressure and the hype you’re creating is all inside your own head. Every Gracie family member tries to quit between eleven and fourteen years old. Tries to quit at least ten to fifteen times.
I would be like, “Dad, I don’t want to go to the academy,” and he would reply “Ok, you don’t have to go. Just stay in your room and don’t move until I get back, six hours from now.” So I’d say, “Ok, I’ll go, but I’m just going to watch.”
I would get there and Royler would say, “Rener, put a gi on!” Growing up Gracie, that’s what it’s like. Eventually, thirteen years old, what happens? You’re a young teenager, but you tap out your first adult, and now you’re like, “Wow! That’s what life could be like?”
By the time I’m sixteen, I’m tapping out black belts, when I’m a blue belt. I had all those years built up, it’s like credit. When the time comes for you to unleash, and you have a little man strength at sixteen years old, finally you’re a young man, you start putting that to work? Oh man, it’s on. Then all the adults pay for the abuse that they put me through. It comes back! [Laughs]
Now I’m the guy giving them their black belts. The same guys who tapped me out when I was sixteen, got black belts from me. So I tell them, “Guys, if you’re a blue or purple belt right now, and you roll with my little orange belt thirteen year old brother, be nice. He’s going to give you your black belt.”
Around 2001, there appears to have been several high profile members leaving the Gracie Academy to set up on their own, such as Caique, Royce and Relson, taking a number of Gracie JJ Training Associations with them. Do you have any recollections of that time and the impact it had on the Academy?
Yeah, it was interesting. I was just graduating high school, I was eighteen, Ryron was nineteen. Caique left, Royce left... it’s not an uncommon thing in jiu jitsu. One building can only sustain so much, can only pay so many bills.  You have six hundred students, but still, I have a family, you have a family, five or six families.
So, it’s not uncommon, it happens everywhere to everybody. Guys spread off and do their thing. I didn’t like it as a kid, it was very upsetting to me that this whole separation had to happen. Seeing my Dad and Royce go through it, who were like this [intertwines his hands], they couldn’t be tighter. My father was like Royce’s second dad, because Royce came here at like seventeen. You know what I’m saying? Royce left high school to come out here. He spent more time under my Dad’s tutelage than under his own father.
That being said, it was very disheartening to see them separate, so late in the game and so unnecessarily. When I was a kid, I made it my goal, around that time, I thought to myself, man, when I take this thing over, my dream is going to be to create a situation big enough that we don’t have to separate, me and my brothers and my Dad. We can work with each other in harmony, make enough money, help enough people and expand globally that we don’t need to be separate to pay our bills, live our lives and raise our families.
That was my dream, a very distinct dream that I had around eighteen years old. And I did it. Here we are. I know that, ultimately, money pays bills and bills have to managed, or you can’t raise a family. It wasn’t the money that I was after, it was the ability to multiple families supported by one enterprise, and that’s what drove me to create Gracie University, to create and expand to having Certified Training Centres all over the world.
I learned a unique philosophy very early. If you help enough people get what they want, you can have anything you want. That’s the philosophy I bought into as a late teenager, early adult. I went for it. I figured, what’s the value that the Gracie Academy brings and how can we get that value in as many hands as possible?
That’s what really spurred the expansion, certified instructors, the Gracie University, and it shows, it’s working. We have tens of thousands of people, almost a hundred thousand people, who are having access to jiu jitsu, many of whom would have never otherwise had access. Not only do they have access, but they are dedicated and are going at it. They’re training every day in their Gracie Garage, in the middle of fricken Kansas where there is nobody else training, and they’re pursuing Gracie blue belts.
You know what I’m saying? Because the curriculum is that tight. I’m just glad to be able to open up the window to give people access to that type of growth. The financial benefit and the comforts of life that come as a result of that are not the reason for it, they are byproducts. I’m very glad the way things turned out and my dream of keeping us together because of the expansion we spurred they are certainly possible.

2003 provides at least three examples of early submission only competition, following on from the famous Wallid vs Royce match in 1998: the So Cal Pro-Am, the Ultimate Submission Showdown and the IGJJF Open Championships. There was no time limit, but you could win either by submission or if you were able to score 12 points. You were involved in all three of those, so do you have any memories of the genesis of those events and your experience taking part?
All of them were pursuing one thing, like Metamoris, which is that hopefully fights can be guided by submission rather than by points and holding on. Based on the last performance at Metamoris, we still haven’t hit the mark, we still missed. Five fricken judges’ decisions! It just takes more shuffling of the deck, it’s a very elusive target, this submission only.
You’re always trying to get good guys to roll with, you’re always trying to make it to where you can incentivise a submission. Making winning by points so difficult, exhausting and challenging, with either no time limits or twenty minutes, giving points for the simplest things. Or better yet, make points the most difficult things to earn, make it more focused on submission. The formula is still yet to be discovered, but the vibe has always been the same. Try to get the best competitors, put them on stage, see how they look with no points, or maybe points but with a submission emphasis.
I was eighteen or nineteen years old when those tournaments originally went down, I had just got my black belt. It was good times. Even if someone doesn't win by submission, having a chance to grapple with good guys in a format like that is always of benefit for the competitors. Whether it is entertaining or not is a different story. Like I said, the formula is yet to be discovered, but Ralek and I have already talked about some changes for Metamoris III.
For many years, I and several other people – such as Seymour Yang - have been trying to establish who was the first woman to earn a black belt in BJJ. The earliest we’ve managed so far is Patricia Lage, who earned her black belt in 1995. What memories do you have of women training in BJJ?
I don't really have any leads. Shoot, women black belt from this academy are very slim. There is a female brown belt right now, but I don't think the Gracie Academy has yet awarded a woman a black belt. They either haven't stayed long enough, or they have changed schools before getting their black belts. They may have started here, but moved on.

Your generation of the Gracie family is significantly larger than the ones which came before: e.g., Rolles Jr, Roger, you and your brother Ryron are all well over six foot. Would you attribute any of that to the Gracie Diet? Or is it the other reason I’ve heard, which is marrying tall women?

It's from my Mom's side. My uncle on my Mom's side is like 6'3", big guy. A cousin on my Mom's side is like 6'7", so there are just some tall genes over there, it's all genetics. That's the only thing. I'd be lying if I said it was the watermelon juice, you know? I have jokingly said it on YouTube videos, but no, it's just my Mom's side is so tall.

Rory Miller once wrote that in self defence "skill at fighting is the least likely to affect your survival in a sudden assault," because "the physical part has never been the hard part of self-defense. Knowing when to act, trusting your judgment, giving yourself permission to do what needs to be done and doing all this from a position of physical and mental disadvantage while surprised-- that's the hard part.” Following on from that, I wanted to ask how you address issues like dealing with adrenaline, different environments, legal consequences and so forth?
Jiu jitsu by nature is a calming art. There is nothing that gets you calmer in worst case scenarios than jiu jitsu. I have a student who is eleven years old – his name is Nicholas – who has been training with us for five years. He started when he was six. He was at a pool party with his friends. His friend was drowning. Nicholas told me this yesterday.
He said, "Rener, he was drowning, so I jumped in, went underwater and he was grabbing me. I couldn't grab him because he was pulling me under with him, we were both going down. I decided to close the distance, clinched him, grabbed his hips. Then I sunk us to the bottom and pushed off the floor to raise us up. We both went up and I got him to the edge of the pool, where he held on."
That's a panic situation right there! You could easily have lost your cool and freaked out. To say, "Don't panic and train for that," it's easier said than done. There is nothing better to prepare you not to panic in worst case scenarios than getting in a worst case scenario and not panicking. That's what we do every single day in the gym. I don't panic. No matter what it is, I'm not going to panic. It's going to be ok, we're going to figure it out.
I've been put in too many worst case scenarios which very much warranted panic, so we don't even have to tell people not to panic in worst case scenarios. They learn it every single day, not to panic in worst case scenarios. The abrupt assault, yeah, that's going to be tough no matter who you are, but jiu jitsu teaches you to take a crazy thing and slow it down. Control.
Now, the idea of running first, yes, we also teach that. In my video on multiple attackers, that's the first thing I address. Distance management, know your surroundings, know the exits, get out of there. De-escalate. We talk about this combative interaction. Every interaction between two people has degrees of combative interaction. Right now, it is zero with us. But if there was a little bit of negativity or I had some beef with you, it would be at like fifteen or twenty out of a hundred.
If it is all out spitting in your face yelling at each other, pushing and bumping chests, that's a hundred, it is about to go down. How to de-escalate the combative energy of an interaction we talk about as well, what to do, what to say, what not to do. So, we do teach these things. But, when it's all said and done, we are here for when the guy doesn't agree and he is swinging at you, or disrespects your wife, or he grabs her or pushes her. You stand up for yourself and he just swings.
The idea of just avoid and live in this peaceful world of non-confrontation with anybody and avoid it as the best option? I agree. But all it takes is one bad apple to ruin that day for me, and he decides it is going down. When a man decides he is going to rape a woman, I don't care how much you think we've got to de-escalate, he is going for it. You better be calm in that worst case scenario and have the techniques.
So, everything Miller is saying makes sense, but the reality is you have to know what to do when you are put in the worst case scenario. If you are an advocate for getting comfortable in worst case scenarios, not panicking in the face of chaos, an aggressive, surprise onslaught? There is nothing better than jiu jitsu. It puts you in those suffocating, uncomfortable situations and every single day you learn more about yourself because of it. That's my belief: it is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Pick up Issue #16 of Jiu Jitsu Style Magazine, which goes out to subscribers from September 6th, to read the rest of this interview, where Rener goes into depth about his teaching and what the Gracie Academy expects of its instructors and students.

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Issue 16 featuring cover star Andre Galvao goes out to subscribers from September 6th! More details HERE.