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Helio Gracie and his seven duels with death

“I think it's silly for a guy to be afraid of dying. He should be afraid of being born. I’ve already told my children that when I die, I want a party — with no booze, nothing excessive,” said Helio Gracie in one of his many memorable interviews. 

The party, indeed sober and well behaved, took a while to be held, such was the health of the red-belt. But Helio Gracie’s (1913–2009) flirting with death was intense and constant, in tune with the lifestyle led by the fearless samurai. Read on to learn about seven episodes in which the master looked danger right in the eye and came back to tell the tale, before finally dying of natural causes.

1. Collision with a bus, 1933
Right at the beginning of his victorious career, before he could even claim more than three wins, Helio had a bad accident in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Humaitá, when his motorcycle crashed into a bus. According to Reila Gracie, in her book Carlos Gracie, Creator of a Dynasty, the damage to the leg and knee was so severe, that doctors recommended amputation. Brother Carlos said no, and Helio’s career resumed a year later.

2. Swimming with sharks in Abrolhos
When he was a beginner, Joe Moreira was practicing self-defense and started taking consecutive backward steps against an opponent, retreating excessively. Then he was lovingly slapped on the neck by Master Helio, who was leading the session. “‘Son, are you a crab?’,” Helio said, according to a recent interview given by Joe to Portal do Vale-Tudo. “Jiu-jitsu fighters only walk forward. Go on — grab the guy and take him down.” The story, which is from a good four decades ago, sums up the grandmaster’s life philosophy pretty well. That’s why in the summer of 1947, during a trip between Rio and Fortaleza, Helio jumped out of the ship Itanajé to save a man who had fallen overboard. None of the seamen was willing to save the man, due to the sharks, but Helio jumped, brought the guy back in one piece, and won a medal for bravery from Standard Oil.

3. On the edge versus Kimura
In the book Helio Gracie, a Brazilian Superman, the grandmaster tells friend, student and journalist José Amádio that entered the fight against a much heavier Masahiko Kimura, in 1951, to kill or die, and that he was under no illusion that he would beat a younger champion of that size. “I went in there to get to know my own limit,” he said. Before the bout, he told the newspapers, “A fighter never runs from the arena. Kimura may break my bones, but not my morals.” Before President Getúlio Vargas, Helio even lost his senses during a takedown and came back. In the end, he had his arm bent in an armbar, but didn’t tap out. The towel thrown by Carlos Gracie marked the end of the glorious match at the Maracanã.

4. Accident in Petropolis
An audacious driver, in the 1950s Helio had another bad crash when, on a day of thick fog, his car collided with a tank truck near Quitandinha Hotel in Petropolis. He broke his left kneecap and his nose, losing lots of blood. Helio was confined to a hospital room for a while — no big whoop.

5. The three-hour, forty-minute fight with Valdemar
Helio was already retired from the rings in 1955 when an argument with his former student and employee made the news, and again he didn’t back down. After nearly four hours of vale-tudo, Helio took a kick to the face from Valdemar Santana, causing the referee to intervene. “Legend has it that even the daily government show the Brazil Hour was interrupted on the radio to report the result,” journalist Fellipe Awi wrote in his book A Son of Thine Flees not from Battle. “The picture of Helio, with his right eye deformed, was shocking.”

6. Skydiving
At 86, Helio couldn’t say no. Invited by his children, he jumped out of a plane for the first time in his life — and landed laughing.

7. Landslide in Itaipava
A year before he passed, Helio and his wife Vera were asleep at the famous Itaipava ranch when they were awoken by a loud noise. A landslide caused by a flood had taken a part of the house away. The mountain stopped just short of coming through the door, and Helio once more walked away without a scratch. “It was like nature knew who was in that room and showed respect,” son Royler Gracie said afterwards.


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