Thursday, January 21, 2010

Two Gracie's Are Set For UFC Debuts In 2010, But Can Either Recapture Royce's UFC Gold?

Two members of the legendary Gracie Jiu Jitsu family, are set to debut in the UFC in 2010. Up-and-coming heavyweight Rolles Gracie (3-0 [pictured left]) will compete on the preliminary card at UFC 109: Couture vs. Coleman, while his cousin and frequent teacher Renzo Gracie (13-6-1) will appear in a main card bout at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi on April, 10th.

What does this mean for the UFC's bottom-line and how might these Gracie's fare against their scheduled opponents? Read on to find out.

Every MMA fan, casual and hardcore alike, is familiar with the legendary of Royce Gracie (14-3-30. His initial 12-0-1 run that began at UFC 1 and ran through UFC 5 epitomized the romantic martial arts notion of skill overcoming size and strength. Like Bruce Lee squaring off with Kareem Abdul Jabar in Game of Death (1978), Royce showed an almost mythical ability to defeat men quite literally twice his size. That incredible run of octagon success has since been rationalized by the common understanding that Royce utilized a highly-effective fighting system, Gracie-style Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, that few of his opponents had any clue about how to defend against. Nevertheless, even briefly contemplating Royce's unforgettable early 90's performances affects most MMA fans on a gut level to this day.

That said, the enduring recent image of Royce Gracie is of him suffering helplessly beneath a barrage of unanswered shots from to Matt Hughes at UFC 60. Royce showed remarkable toughness on that night, but suffered a first-round TKO loss-- his first ever octagon defeat. Many sensed in that moment that a new era had officially began, and most rightly assumed that the Gracie name would not regain UFC relevance anytime the immediate future.

Few would have guessed, though, that nearly four years and about fifty numbered UFC events later, two members of the Gracie family would be poised to make octagon debuts in 2010. This news came as only a marginal surprise, of course, to hardcore MMA fans who know that well over a dozen Gracie's have sought to emulate Royce's MMA success, with most achieving favorable results. Muc more important to the UFC's marketplace aspirations, however, is the casual fans' reaction. For the UFC, the powerful emotional attatchment the average fan has to the Gracie name means potential big money returns on their pair of recent Gracie family investments. Should either fighter achieve so much as a modicum of sustained UFC success in 2010, he would instantly become a bankable, international, MMA superstar and could easily become nothing short of the MMA story of the year.

So who are these torch-bearers seeking to reestablish the Gracie name inside the octagon and how should one view their chances in their upcoming fights?

Well, the first is a relatively young up-and-comer looking to give the Gracie name a fresh start in a brand new weight class. A three time Pan American Traditional Jui-Jitsu Champion ('99,'00,'06) and one time No-Gi Pan American Jiu-Jitsu Champion ('08), thirty-two-year-old heavyweight Rolles Gracie has already tasted competitive martial arts success. Standing at 6'4" and weighing 242 lbs., Rolles is also 3-0 in MMA with wins in the IFL and Art Of War promotions. All three of his victories came by way of submission, but his opponents to-date have a conspicuously non-threatening combined record of 19-16.

At UFC 109, Rolles will face another fairly unaccomplished opponent in England's Mostapha Al-Turk (6-5), who is currently 0-2 in the UFC with losses to Cheick Kongo (14-6-1) and Mirko Filipovich (25-7-2). That said, the experienced Al-Turk should provide the toughest challenge of Rolles' short career. Indeed, with finishes in each of his six career victories, including four (T)KO's, Al-Turk poses a credible threat to any UFC newcomer-- even a Gracie. At the same time, Al-Turk is just the sort of introductory-level opponent that Rolles may need to get acclimated to his new home in the octagon. At the same time, if, as the UFC clearly would like, Rolles scores a highlight-reel submission, Al-Turk also possesses the burly, intimidating look necessary to begin creating an aura of invincibility around Rolles.

Odds makers are likely to heavily favour Rolles Gracie, who is already being called "Gracie 2.0" by some members of the media. In addition to his world-class BJJ, the young Gracie's recent training with lightweight striking sensation Frankie Edgar suggests he has worked on his stand-up studiously enough to emerge from a showdown with Al-Turk showing minimal damage and, more importantly, with his hand raised. Who Rolles' is matched up with next, should he win at UFC 109, will demonstrate for fans how aggressively the UFC intends to fast-track his career. Regardless of their intentions, the promotion's lingering lack of depth at HW and the likelihood that Rolles will fight at least three times in 2010, means fans will almost certainly get to see how his skills really stack up sooner-rather-than-later.

The other debuting Gracie in the UFC circa 2010, Renzo Gracie, really needs no introduction to the MMA faithful. What many forget is that Renzo competed in, and won, his own one-night, eight-man, early-years MMA tournament at 1995's World Combat Championship 1. He followed that with better-remembered appearances in PRIDE, Rings, The IFL, K-1, and even EliteXC. While he is not as well-known as Royce, Renzo has competed more times since the year 2000 (ten matches to seven) and is currently on a three-fight winning streak. It is also worth noting, however, that Renzo has not fought as a pro since defeating Frank Shamrock via DQ in February, 2007.

Despite being advanced in age at forty-two years old, MMA fans will surely welcome Renzo back with open arms on April 10th. His opponent that night at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi wil be longtime UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes (43-7), who is five years his junior at just thirty-six years old. Some would argue that this fight bears little relevance to the current WW division, but a win over Hughes would position Renzo for a run at the division's elite contenders, which is his stated desire and something in which Hughes seems to have little interest. At UFC 112, Renzo Gracie will have plenty of support from the crowd. He has made dozens of trips to Abu Dhabi over the years and helped to organize their groundbreaking BJJ program in all public schools. Renzo has even served as the longtime personal BJJ instructor to Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who recently became a minority owner in Zuffa-- the parent company of the UFC as well as its sister-promotion the WEC.

Princely supporters or not, there's no denying that Renzo Gracie will be in for a tough fight against Matt Hughes, who, despite not being quite the dominant force he once was, has gone 3-3 against some of the highest quality welterweight opponents possible since dominating Royce Gracie in 2006. If Renzo hopes to win he will likely need to do it from the bottom since nothing suggests he can defend a Hughes take down. If Renzo does pull off a submission, it will surely be the assembled crowd's favourite moment of the night. That's really saying something, too, because UFC 112 will likely include two UFC title fights. There are rumours circulating that the lack of a suitable venue will lead the Abu Dhabi government to build an improvised outdoor stadium for this April's UFC 112. As that plan comes together, rest assured there's nothing its organizers would like more than to sit under the stars on a cool desert night and witness their national hero, Renzo Gracie, avenge Royce's 2006 loss to Hughes.

Similarly, there's very little Zuffa would like more than if either Rolles or Renzo Gracie can begin putting together a serious title run in 2010. There are very few MMA stories that would capture the popular imagination, or the attention of the sports media, quite like a Gracie positioned to reclaim Royce's crown as a UFC champion.

See videos featuring first Renzo, then Rolles Below:


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