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It's Tuesday night, and the Cesar Gracie Academy is packed. The gym, located in an L-shaped strip mall in Pleasant Hill, between an Outback Restaurant and a hair salon, is where Caleb and other local fighters come to train five days a week. Apart from some private gyms in San Francisco and San Jose, Gracie's is the only public place in Northern California where a would-be fighter can get expert training.
Cesar Gracie relocated his fight club from a smaller space seven months ago. The new space is clean and airy and looks more like an IKEA showroom than a brawl hall, but it's equipped with the telltale ring and punching bags, and on this particular evening a record 45 students, all males, are sweating through two hours of jujitsu instruction.
Gracie has the body of a fit accountant, and the face of a fighter -- a heavy brow and a nose that's taken some hits -- but he carries himself with a casual surfer vibe that belies his vocation. The 36-year-old trainer is delighted by tonight's turnout. "This sport is getting so huge!" he exclaims with open arms as he greets a visitor outside the gym.
So far, about a dozen of his jujitsu students have made the leap to no-holds-barred fighting. When they do, Gracie trains them in the grappling aspects of the brawl, and hires boxing and kickboxing coaches to hone those fighting skills.
In the insular world of no-holds-barred fighting, being trained by a Gracie counts for something. The name, to this small but growing community, is what Jordan is to basketball. Riordan Gracie, Cesar's cousin, more or less invented the sport. An expert in the Brazilian form of jujitsu, he teamed up with pay-per-view producers in 1993 to dream up the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Jujitsu is an old discipline, a so-called mixed martial art that blends judo and other disciplines with street fighting. Prior to the UFC, people mistook it for a brand of steak knives. But today, thanks to Riordan Gracie, an estimated 250 jujitsu academies are scattered around the United States.
Gracie's seminal idea was to bring together fighters of all sorts -- boxers, karate masters, jujitsu experts, wrestlers, barroom-style brawlers, and so on -- and pit them in a grand tournament to determine the superior method. The only rule was that there were no rules: Fighters could wear whatever they pleased, gloves were optional, and, eerily, there was only one round. A fight ended only when one fighter was "unable to defend himself," or conceded defeat by slapping the canvas twice. The event was straight out of the 1985 Mad Max sequel Beyond Thunderdome; its promoters even lifted the film's tag line: "Two men enter. One man leaves."
Seeking to boost their ratings, Gracie and the promoters glammed up the event with an eye toward WWF theatrics. They scripted fighter profiles to mimic monster characters from Street Fighter, the popular video game of the day. Barrel-chested Russian men weighing 300 pounds were dragged out of their dreary lives in the archipelago (or so the story went) and pitted against 170-pound masters like Gracie, who has since retired from fighting.
Yet this was no video game. The blood, for one, was very real, and so was the crowd's lust to see it spilled. While viewers expected to witness a gory pummeling at every turn and winced when it was delivered, the underlying appeal was watching Gracie outfox his larger opponents and wrap them in his strangleholds. One of the world's top practitioners of jujitsu, he could kick and punch from a standing position like a traditional judo master, but did his real damage on the mat.
Jujitsu fighters are masters of grappling, and one as skillful as Gracie could tie up competitors like a boa constrictor neutralizing its prey. His "arm bar" bent the rival's arm back at the elbow until it was ready to pop; the "triangle" wrapped opponents around the neck and chest, cutting off circulation. In his most exciting hold, the "guillotine," Gracie would leap onto his rival's chest like a small child, wrapping one leg around the waist and using the other one to drop him, painfully, to the mat. Tap-outs followed quickly.
Even when a heavier fighter would pin Gracie on his back, the position where most fights end, he'd somehow slither into an offensive position for the win. Sometimes he baited his rival into a false sense of dominance; it was like watching a rabbit fight a grizzly, with the hare getting the best of the bear every time. Gracie's jujitsu skills won him three straight UFC belts, and future fighters felt compelled to at least learn the rudiments of his discipline.
As the pay-per-view audiences and the sport's exposure grew, so did the chorus of detractors. No-holds-barred fighting was loudly protested and vilified as "barbaric" by parents' groups, television critics, and politicians such as Senator John McCain, who led a campaign against the UFC. McCain's tirades ultimately spooked advertisers, and promoters began having trouble locating host cities for the unsanctioned fights. Pay-per-view networks bowed to the political pressure and dropped the sport. Without the rules and regulations, its critics argued successfully, no-holds-barred fighting was technically assault and battery on a stage.
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