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SAN JOSE, Calif. – When talking about growing up with the most famous last name in MMA, the legendary Renzo Gracie used to quote an old Johnny Cash song – saying it’s like being "A Boy Named Sue." In particular, it's the part about how you either get tough or die.
Roger Gracie, the family's current grappling star and arguably the greatest big man in the sport of jiu-jitsu in recent years, knows both sides of having the Gracie name.
The pressure breeds both a desire to honor the family name and what the previous generations have accomplished, and a mental toughness like the character in the Cash song.
"The family has been fighting for so long, when I was doing tournaments as a teenager, almost everyone in the crowd was against me most of the time," said Gracie, who fights veteran Trevor Prangley on Strikeforce's Showtime card at the HP Pavilion on Saturday night. "I was always a target for my opponent. Even the referees were going to give my opponent the benefit of the doubt. If there was a close call, it would go to my opponent. I felt like I was fighting everyone there."
That mentality served him well, since he was won the world championship in the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the Mundials, a record ten times. His most recent two, at both 211 pounds and in the open weight division, came in 2010.
His most dominant jiu-jitsu performance was in 2005, when competing at the Abu Dhabi world submission championships, he won both at 215 pounds and the open weight division, and in eight fights against world-class opponents, he submitted all eight. One year, he submitted every opponent with the exact same move, a choke from the mount.
Gracie has not been submitted in any form of competition since he turned 19. With the exception of his nemesis, Alexandre Ribeiro, hasn’t lost in major competition since 2005. His list of victims in jiu-jitsu world championship competition includes some well-known MMA names like Fabricio Werdum, UFC’s Demian Maia, Strikeforce middleweight champion Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki and 1990s MMA star Mario Sperry. Also among his victims are well known U.S. jiu-jitsu coaches like Rodrigo "Comprido" Medeiros (Brock Lesnar’s coach) and Robert Drysdale (who coaches a number of well-known UFC stars, including Forrest Griffin).
Though some who see all Gracie's submission wins and world championships in jiu-jitsu as a sign he’ll walk the opposition in mixed martial arts, Gracie notes they are two very different sports.
"Punching changes the game completely," said Gracie. "70-80 percent of what I do in submission competition I couldn’t do in an MMA fight. The moves will expose you to getting hit. So you have to limit your moves to the ones you can do safely where you don’t get hit."
Based in London, England, since 2002, where he runs the Roger Gracie Academy, Gracie, 29, brings his lifetime on the mat and relative inexperience at stand-up fighting into the cage for the fourth time on Saturday night.
Since Gracie (3-0) is still competing in the BJJ world championships, his striking training has been limited to certain only periods each year, so he’s still in the early stage with his standup game. But he has long reach for a light heavyweight, which has helped offset his relative lack of experience.
Thus far in his MMA career, Gracie has beaten three experienced names who were stars in the previous MMA generation, all by submission. He started with powerhouse Ron Waterman, who had him by around 60 pounds when they fought, but finished him almost as soon as they hit the ground. Next came the much smaller and quicker Yuki Kondo, a Japanese fighter who dates back to the Shamrocks and Bas Rutten era of Pancrase in the mid-1990s. In his last fight, his Strikeforce debut in May, he finished former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman.
Prangley (23-6-1), in recent days, has brought up that Gracie has yet to be tagged during a fight, and vowed to test whether he can stand up to hard punches.
Gracie said his game plan doesn’t change much based on opponents. The goal is to find an opening, take the opponent down, and work for submissions. Prangley, a national wrestling champion in South Africa in the mid-'90s, will have the goal to use his wrestling to keep the fight standing.
"I’ve seen quite a few of his fights," said Gracie. "We’ve set up a strategy against him. He’s a good all-around fighter. He doesn’t have great stand-up, but he’s got heavy hands. He’s a good wrestler, which is going to make him hard to take down. I have to be careful in how I set up my takedowns. If I make a mistake, he’ll take advantage of it."
Plus, Gracie noted, he can’t play the patience game on the ground, like he can in jiu-jitsu, because referees may be quick to stand him up if there’s a lack of action.
The Gracie name usually conjures images of undersized guys who rely on skill to combat size and strength. But this Gracie is 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, who for only the second time in his life is cutting weight, to make the light heavyweight division's 205-pound limit.
Gracie always fought at his natural weight in jiu-itsu, not feeling that facing a bigger man was much of a disadvantage. He noted that his long legs gave him an advantage on the ground in working submissions that the other family members didn’t have.
But in MMA, he sees things differently noting against a big heavyweight he would have to be on the defensive and wait for a mistake, and with so many much bigger men in the division, being a light heavyweight is a lot smarter.
As far as where he fits on the gigantic Gracie family tree, Roger’s mother, Relia Gracie, is one of the 21 children of Carlos Gracie, the older brother of the legendary Helio Gracie (Royce Gracie's father). Carlos was the first member of the family to learn jiu-jitsu from Japanese judo master and touring wrestler Mitsuya Maeda, and was Helio’s teacher. Roger’s father was a protege of the late Rolls Gracie, Relia’s brother, who was trained by both Carlos and Helio, and who legend had it was the best fighter in the world during the 1970s, a period when there was no real organized competition to prove that claim.
Roger started competing at ten, and said he really hit his stride at 16, when he said he seemed to improve faster than others who he said trained just as hard as he did.
"Every day I was improving. I was improving faster than people who trained just as hard as me, and even some who trained harder than me. All of a sudden, people who were giving me trouble, now I was giving them trouble."
Two years later, he won his first world championship, as a blue belt, and followed it up with world championships the next two years in purple and brown belt competition. In his first year as a back belt, at the age of 21, he placed second in the world championships and took the title for the first time the next year.