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Bellator 222 on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York appears to be something of a family affair for the Gracies. Before Neiman Gracie attempts to become Bellator MMA welterweight champion in the main event, cousin Robson Gracie Jr. will compete in his second bout as a professional mixed martial artist. He takes pride in competing alongside his headlining cousin and representing the Renzo Gracie Academy inside the cage.
“That’s motivated me a lot,” Gracie told Sherdog.com, “especially with [Neiman] fighting for the title. I’m more excited for his fight than my fight. I want to fight as soon as possible, get my seat and watch the fight.”
Excitement aside, Gracie, 29, finds himself at the beginning stages of his MMA journey. For most would-be professional combatants, a stint on the amateur circuit often serves as a rite of passage. That was not the case for the Gracies, especially not for the brother of two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Renzo Gracie. Members of MMA’s First Family jump straight into the pro ranks on the back of Gracie Jiu-Jitus, their branded martial arts stock and trade.
“The opportunity to fight professional [was there], so I just jumped in,” Gracie said. “Everybody in my family jumped into [the] professional [end of the pool], so there’s no reason not to [do the same].”
Being part of the sport’s most famous family comes with a certain level of expectation. Even without competing in amateur bouts, Gracies are still expected to be dangerous competitors. Such expectations can lead to a sense of pressure on each combatant who enters the cage bearing that name. The reality remains difficult to avoid, but Gracie tried to quiet his thoughts as he prepared to face Bryson Bolohao in his pro debut at Bellator 212 in December.
“Of course, there’s some pressure [and] tension, but I try to turn it off,” he said. “I’ve been competing in jiu-jitsu [for a long time], so I think that helps a little bit, but when I’m inside [the cage], I try to turn it off because the Gracie name is not going to save me. My opponent is not going to give me the neck and say, ‘Choke me because you are a Gracie.’”
The newcomer also received some words of encouragement from legendary cousin Royce Gracie prior to his debut. The UFC 1, UFC 2 and UFC 4 tournament winner told him to worry less about the noise in his head and outside of the cage and more about focusing on the task in front of him.
“[He told me to] go in there to fight,” Gracie said, “not to entertain anybody. ‘You’re not hear to give anybody a show. You are here to fight for you. Represent the family, of course, but inside there, you’re going to be by yourself against another guy. Forget about the Gracie [name] and do your best inside there.’”
Even though Bolohao did not give him his neck freely, Gracie took it with a minute left in the second round. After a hand fighting battle, Gracie snapped on a rear-naked choke and earned something he had dreamed of since he was 13 years old: a professional MMA victory. He had admired fighters like his brother, his cousin, fellow Brazilians like the Nogueiras and old-school pioneer Dan Frye for much of his youth, and it was an honor to join their fraternity. Gracie entered his debut uncertain as to how he would perform from a cardio standpoint, as a pre-fight illness had robbed him of valuable preparation time.
“I was really happy with the results,” he said. “Nobody knows, but two weeks before the fight, I was on antibiotics because I was sick.”
Gracie’s next assignment comes at Bellator 222 against Oscar Vera, an untested Musuko MMA and Boxing Academy representative. He has centered his training camp on becoming a fully formed fighter, not on game planning for Vera. Gracie did not have to look far to find the value in molding one’s self into a complete martial artist.
“[Neiman is] fighting for the title because he’s a complete fighter,” Gracie said. “Every fight you see, his striking is getting better. Everything is getting better. If you want to be in the major leagues, you need to know about everything. You need to prove your game in everything, not just one specific skill.”
Gracie believes he has found the right path and credits the tutelage he has received from his older brother at his world-class training facility, which sits mere blocks from Madison Square Garden.
“[Renzo is] an amazing guy,” Gracie said. “He’s the kind of guy who can unite every kind of martial art. You see everybody loves him wherever he goes. At his gym, you see people from all over the place. I don’t need to go to another academy to train boxing, because I have a good boxing coach. He has everything here. The reason why I think a lot of champions come here is because Renzo brings people. Garry Tonon comes here all the time. [Georges St. Pierre] sometimes is here. We have David Branch. We have a bunch of fighters that visit the academy. This motivates us to keep pushing hard and training.”
Gracie expects to have the full support of those closest to him when he steps into the cage for a second time at Bellator 222.
“All the time, the family’s always together, always united,” he said. “Being inside there with [Neiman] is going to be amazing.”