Sunday, June 17, 2007

Royce Should've Never Been There

Like everyone, I'm disappointed by the news about Royce Gracie testing positive for the banned substance, Nandrolone following the Sakuraba fight at K-1. All I thought about was how much I stress to the kids class I teach that jiu jitsu is about technique, not strength. I always submit Royce as proof because at the end of the day, he is the best proof. The little man in the gi who came in and applied his art softly in an event full of hard men. Like most people, Royce was my initial inspiration. I've never been in the greatest shape and I've always appreciated playing a thinking man's game.

As the years have gone by since the early UFCs, Royce's star has dimmed and brightened. I wasn't a fan of a lot of the rhetoric that came out of the Torrance Academy back in the day, but as we would all find out, the man behind the message was Rorion, not Royce. Royce was the public symbol, but he wasn't the politician. When he went out there full of bravado and got put to sleep by Wallid during the Rio Oscars de Jiu Jitsu, the first seeds of doubt began to creep into my mind about whether or not I'd been sold a bill of goods. Wallid, after all, was one of Carlson's boys. Carlson, who had made no secret of his ideology that jiu jitsu needed to be supplemented with strength and conditioning because technique was sometimes not enough. The same Carlson who had put his young protege Vitor Vieira Belfort into the UFC with ground skills and hands to match, though few doubted he was getting along sans "special supplements" around the time he fought and lost to heavy underdog Randy Couture. In those days when the internet was still coming together and information was a little more easily manipulated, Carlson represented the Dark Side of the Force. Seeing Wallid on the cover of Black Belt confirmed it. This wasn't the jiu jitsu I'd embraced.

My infatuation with Rickson began around this time as I felt he had the purest expression of jiu jitsu, but it was an inescapable truth that his genetic gifts bore no resemblance to my own lack thereof and in many ways were the key to his success. A strange Japanese fellow by the name of Sakuraba began slowly doing things that made Wallid's clock choke seem tame. He defeated Royler and then Renzo Gracie. He drew Allan Goes and punished Vitor Belfort. He tapped esteemed non-Brazilian grapplers like Carlos Newton and Tiger White. But the old Jedi would return and put an end to this rampage. Royce was emerging from semi-retirement (after a quick less publicized preliminary match with Nobuhiko Takada) to challenge the Gracie-Hunter.

I watched the edited version of their epic contest on DirectTV. It left me unsatisfied and confused as the chopping left room for interpretation. "Royce probably won on everything but endurance" I reasoned, figuring the editing had painted a grimmer picture than was possible. When I saw the full length fight and subsequent defeat of young Ryan Gracie at Sakuraba's hands as well, it was clear that there was no doubt Royce had lost and lost convincingly.

That fight, Royce's 14th, seemed indicative of a changing of the guard. Perhaps it was time for the legend to retire completely. In fact, maybe it was time for the Gracie family and BJJ as a whole to cede the mantle of most effective combat style. It was time to recognize that this was truly a new sport called Mixed Martial Arts that required proficiency in a number of disciplines.

That was the path ahead as I saw it. Ironically it was around this time that I started to ponder studying more orthodox Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as I'd been practicing a style more akin to shoot or catch-wrestling up until then. I guess I was seeking legitimacy in this new combat sports epoch. Royce wouldn't be heard from again for 3 years.

Why did Royce come back to fight Sakuraba? Prior to his entry into the Pride Grand Prix where he faced Takada, he hadn't fought for 5 years. His legend was relatively secure. He would never stop being a pioneer. It's never been documented that he or his family were even approaching hurting for money. So why did he do it? At the end of the day, it was about family honor. His brother and cousin had lost and he, being the most known and revered Gracie short of Rickson in the MMA world had to step up and be The Man. It was a role he was arguably never suited for. He was thrust into the UFC due to Rorion's machinations and became an unlikely hero in a family of superheroes. So the gunslinger whose ten gallon hat kept slumping on his forehead was now the fastest draw. Except Sakuraba was faster. The loss would haunt Royce more than any other and would change the way his family and their style was viewed around the fighting world.

The next time we saw Royce it was against another Japanese fighter, Hidehiko Yoshida. Royce had elected to answer a challenge from BJJ's parent art, Judo, on what was perhaps the largest MMA stage the world had ever seen. Pride/K-1 ShockWave/Dynamite 2002 featured theatrics aplenty, but perhaps none were so memorable as the odd stoppage of Royce's fight as Yoshida told the referee that he believed Royce had slipped unconscious in a choke. Video footage clearly showed otherwise, which lead to an uproar amongst both the fan base and the Gracie family. But Royce could only be so angry. The fight, while ostensibly promoted as a Judo vs. BJJ or Japan vs. Brazil showdown was actually little more than a stunt fight. There was no family honor at stake, nor did the match have any significance in the larger picture of MMA rankings. It was part of a show clearly designed to entertain. Royce, unfortunately ended up on the wrong side of the show business and few were interested in his talk of honor or fairness. After all, Pride had a new hero to replace the beleaguered Sakuraba and Royce was little more than the Kingmaker.

It was role I suspect Royce chafed in.

If memory serves, it was right around this time that Royce started to distance himself from Gracie Torrance and went his own way. His book with cousin Charles focusing on Self Defense Techniques was doing well and his network of Royce Gracie academies seemed to have finally coalesced into a legitimate whole. Ryron and Rener were seizing the reins at the Torrance Academy and Royce seemed determined to truly carve out his own niche.

The culmination of this was a highly personal rematch with Yoshida at Pride ShockWave 2003 which ended in a draw, but was a victory for Royce in the eyes of fight fans everywhere. Royce came in like a man possessed and did what he set out to. Realistically, that fight would have been sufficient punctuation to an already storied career, but Royce wasn't done. Around the time of the second Yoshida fight, something noticable had changed in Royce. It wasn't clear whether it was a renewed hunger to compete and prove he was the best or simply a hunger for more high paycheck fights. The Yoshida fights alone had netted him more money than he'd ever made as a pro fighter, even more than when he'd defeated 4 men in a night to claim the sophomore UFC title.

Royce's next few fights would seem to suggest it was the latter that primarily motivated him. He fought what was clearly a showman's match against sumo wrestler Akebono then fought late replacement lightweight sensation Hideo Tokoro to a draw (which many feel Royce lost). He would go on to be dominated by UFC welterweight juggernaut Matt Hughes at UFC 60, almost 2 years to the date after he had been inducted into the that organization's Hall of Fame.

If ever there was a time to hang up the gloves, that was it, but Royce assured fans that he wasn't done. His return would be a year later in southern California in front of friends, family and students as he worked to avenge the most devastating blemish on his career. The rematch with Sakuraba had arrived.

The fight was lackluster. That much is certain. Royce was aggressive enough in the eyes of the judges to get a decision. Announcers and commentators around the sport quickly became apologists as they defended these two legends who eked out a match worthy of TUF 2. But it was vindication for BJJers like myself who had never quite gotten over Sakuraba's dominance of the Gracie family. BJJers have beaten Sakuraba since, but it was Royce (or Rickson) who needed to get the W or it didn't mean as much.

Then Royce tests positive for steroids and the whole MMA and BJJ world is turned on its head.
Many crawled from the woodwork to throw stones at Royce (most notably those who christened him the ever-so catchy Hoids Disgracie). I was in shock, but not in as much shock as I suspect some others were. After all, as some contend, steroid use is rampant in professional sports and MMA is no exception. But there are certainly different classes of athlete who use performance enhancing drugs and Royce seems to fit a very particular profile.

Young athletes are often caught juicing because they're looking for the extra edge to distinguish them from the pack and make them into a superstar. Talent is an unfair qualifier. Hard work has to count for something and if you want to be able to work a little harder a little faster, why not dope? That is, if you can escape detection.

Older athletes, on the other hand, seem to juice for the same reason Sammy Sosa told us he was putting cork in his bat. The older athlete finds his performance slowly starting to decline. He doesn't have the same snap on his punches or the same power to his hip bump and he's got the fight of his life coming up against his arch-rival in a fight that will be the capstone of his career.

What do you do?

You retire with that last loss on your record, the voice of reason might say, but it's easy to suppress, particularly when you consider that this is the fight you want more than anything and that most people think your adversary is at his weakest. But what if you're weaker? Worse than getting pounded into submission by a younger man is the idea of losing a war of attrition akin to the last loss where essentially you quit because there was nothing left in the tank. It's an admission that the fighter you were is dead and even in decline, your worst adversary is still a better man than you. Too big a risk. Don't take the fight. But you have to take the fight. Your family, your friends, your students all want it. Fans are looking forward to it. Sure it's a stunt fight, but it's the only stunt that matters.

So you spike the vein and you tell yourself "no chances." And you go and fight a fight so conservative that you can't lose.

At 40 years of age, Royce Gracie has fought a total of 19 fights. If he were a boxer, he'd be a rookie in terms of experience, but barring either Bernard Hopkins athleticism or George Foreman doggedness, he'd be looking for a gym that would take him on as a trainer. He, along with his cousin Renzo, Randy Couture and a few others are holding the line in MMA, teaching us what the shelf life in this relatively new sport actually is. The fact that we can call 19 matches in anything a career, let alone enough to make one a legend seems crazy, but when a sport is still in its growing stage, those are the facts. Royce, Renzo, Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock are the only semi-active fighters from those halcyon days of MMA's formative years. While all of them have endured pressure in staying active, none have known it to the degree Royce has, as America's standard bearer for what an MMA champion is. He is unquestionably THE pioneer, but he is also undeniably past his prime.

MMA as a whole needs to do a better job of letting its legends go before true lethal danger becomes the rule and not the exception. Fighters like Severn who are still fighting as they approach the age of 50, do us more of a disservice than anything. As much as I have loved the rennaissance of Randy Couture's career, I would rather see him enjoying retirment and adjusting to life outside the wars of the cage. Everyone thinks they have one more fight left in them, but what besides spectacle makes fans pay to see it? Ask any MMA fan and his proudest boast is that this is a sport now. Spectacle should be left to the past.

The question will always linger whether or not Royce should have even been in the cage in 1993. But there can be no doubt that the man once known as the "greatest martial artist in the world" should never have set foot in that ring on June 2nd. The mistake he made while trying to push his glory days just a little further will tarnish one of the greatest stories in all of sports. David, not content with beating Goliath, ultimately didn't think he could be successful without becoming Goliath.