Roger Gracie Gomes is a Gracie, but he did not grow up training in his father's gym.
He did not know since he was a boy that he would compete in jiu-jitsu. He lives in England with his Polish wife, far from his Brazilian kin. He has never felt thrust into a position to defend the family name, which he has through his mother, Reila Gracie, who split from his father, Rolls Gracie black belt Mauricio Motta Gomes, when he was 5.
Everything the 29-year-old has done in jiu-jitsu, he chose to do.
"Every other Gracie who did well in the family, he had always trained in his father's school, his father supported him a lot, pushed him for years," Gracie tells Sherdog.com in a telephone interview from his London home. "I never had that because my father never had his school. Even though he was a great jiu-jitsu fighter and was really good in his time, he never taught. It was harder in a way, but I got to make my own decision. It was, like, up to me to push myself more."
When Mauricio Motta Gomes did open his own academy, it was in the United Kingdom, a world away from the Rio de Janeiro streets where Roger grew up playing as much street ball as jiu-jitsu. Working with an English partner he met while in Japan, Motta Gomes built interest in jiu-jitsu from the ground up in the U.K. after opening his doors in 1998. Roger soon followed his father across the ocean, away from mounting pressure.
"Your friends, friends of your father and family, your uncles, everybody everywhere you meet, the first thing they ask is, 'Oh, how you training? How much you training? You train every day?'" Gracie says. "That's the sort of thing you hear all the time. If you say, 'Oh I'm not training much,' [they say] 'What? Why not? You're a Gracie. You have to train.' That's the thing that every Gracie boy deals with his whole life."
It was not until he was about 16 years old that Roger decided to forgo college and devote his life to jiu-jitsu. Based in the U.K., he became a 10-time champion in world competition, in both the super heavyweight and open weight divisions. He is generally regarded as one of the best competition jiu-jitsu players there has ever been.
One of his father's early students was Steve Finan, a former manager of the chart-topping U.K. pop act All Saints and a former business partner of "American Idol" provocateur Simon Cowell. Finan has watched Roger grow from a lanky young adult with a laser focus on jiu-jitsu to a developing MMA fighter, one just as quick to knock down a wrestler like Kevin Randleman with a knee as he is to snatch submissions after being taken down himself.
"When you're part of the thing as it's evolving, the one thing you realize is that these guys need experience, they need experience in every sort of area," says Finan, who today serves as Gracie's manager. "The rest of it doesn't come overnight. You've got to do the fights. You've got to take your time. You've got to make sure you get into the habit of being professional about the training. I think Roger will just keep going forward, all the time. He always likes to push himself hard. He always likes to spar with the best there is."
Last year, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre traveled to London to see a friend. He heard that the accomplished Gracie ran an academy in the city, so he paid a visit.
"I got my ass kicked pretty bad," St. Pierre remembers. "I had to stay, and it started from there."
A heady exchange of knowledge commenced, and a partnership was formed. Gracie helped St. Pierre train for his 2010 fights, and St. Pierre traveled to London this month to help Gracie prepare for his bout against Trevor Prangley on Saturday at Strikeforce "Diaz vs. Cyborg" in San Jose, Calif.
"[Roger] is very good at bringing the fight where he wants it -- on the floor," St. Pierre says. "He's a lot better than people think. He's not only a jiu-jitsu guy. Roger, he's a true mixed martial artist."
Working with the sport's best wrestler was not the only chance Gracie had to spar with elite talent in preparing for Prangley. The son of retired Welsh boxing great Joe Calzaghe trains at Gracie's academy and was drawn to a recent training session when word spread that St. Pierre was in town. The undefeated Calzaghe ended up offering Gracie his assistance and some tips to defend Prangley's stout right hand.
Gracie anticipates Prangley trying to keep their fight standing. He has been stressing his stand-up defense and working a jab that will help him capitalize on his reach advantage -- a bit with Calzaghe, but mostly with U.K. boxing pro Clay O'Shea.
"It's not a miracle. I'm not going to get amazingly good in striking in a few months," Gracie says. "But I hope it will be good enough to keep [Prangley] away, just taking my time and just waiting for the right opportunity to shoot and take him down."
Gracie frankly breaks down his shortcomings. That is a bit against the grain for a Gracie, who, as a tribe, are more known to spout a funny quip or pearl of wisdom to deflect discussions of their weaknesses. He's far from there yet, but Roger believes that someday he will be able to impose his will as well in the MMA cage as he did on the jiu-jitsu mat.
In racking up a record number of jiu-jitsu titles, Gracie was particularly brilliant in his mount attack, lining up what appeared to be basic, fundamental chokes against top competition. Throughout his training life, Gracie was a natural on top, a position he noticed brilliant guard players had trouble defending. He worked obsessively on getting to mount, one of the hardest positions to achieve in sport jiu-jitsu. He finished his opponents in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 world finals with chokes from the mount.
"That, in my opinion, is what the fighters lacked," he says of mount defense. "There's a huge imbalance there. You'd see great jiu-jitsu fighters with great guards, very hard to sweep, but when you put them in [a position] to defend the mount, they're not as strong. A lot of people you see, they get really good and suddenly they stop, you don't see them improving more. And that never happened to me. I've never had to reach my peak."
While a strong top game came naturally to Gracie, it was his ability to read opponents and walk through an opening that put him in a different category altogether. Gracie admits he finds it much harder to finish from the mount in MMA, so he is shifting, trying to find different patterns and consistent holes among MMA fighters.
One of his earliest adjustments was the decision to compete exclusively as a light heavyweight. Gracie's first MMA fight, against heavyweight Ron Waterman in 2006, drove this point home.
"When you fight a guy much stronger and heavier than you, you have to play a defense game," he says. "When I fought [Waterman], I couldn't impose an offensive game. I had to play defense, because otherwise I would get tired too quickly. But fighting at light heavyweight, [opponents are] not [going to] be much heavier than me. I can attack a lot more. I can try to take them down."
About four minutes into his MMA debut, Gracie secured an armbar from the bottom and submitted Waterman, a UFC veteran in his 20th professional fight. Gracie only fought one other MMA fight before signing with Strikeforce last year, defeating Yuki Kondo in Sengoku Raiden Championship, a promotion to which he is no longer tied. The Prangley fight will be the second bout on a three-fight Strikeforce contract for Gracie, who has the leeway in the deal that will allow him to compete in the 2011 Mundials in June. He plans to avail himself of the option.
"The same mind that I have fighting jiu-jitsu, I have fighting MMA," he says. "S--t happens in your life, but I'll be the best fighter I can. If I can't be the champion, I'll do something else."
Gracie lives in London with his wife, whom he met in the U.K., and their 18-month-old son, Tristan. His father, whom Gracie says lost interest in BJJ after his instructor's 1982 death in a hang-gliding accident, moved back to Rio de Janeiro to care for a prematurely born son.
It has been a tough time for the Gracies. Royce Gracie lost luster after a decisive loss to Matt Hughes in 2006 and a positive test for steroids in his last fight against Kazushi Sakuraba. Renzo Gracie fell decisively to Hughes in his first UFC fight in April. Rolles Gracie was cut after one Octagon appearance, a meltdown of a performance against Joey Beltran in February.
Gracie is mindful of this, but, due to his upbringing and career track, he is not weighed down by it. At his academy in West London, a world away from his noted brethren, Roger Gracie Gomes is focused on making his own way in mixed martial arts.
"In the end, it's just a last name," he says. "It's whatever you do that makes the difference."
Jack Encarnacao is a contributor to Sherdog.com.