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Three times a week, Neiman Gracie makes the short trip from Queens, New York, to Manhattan, where he trains to the best of his capabilities while observing restrictions imposed during the social distancing era.
“Yeah man, I’m in the worst place to be I think,” Gracie told Sherdog.com with a laugh. “The city is empty. Nobody’s around. It’s much different from the New York that I’m used to. It’s crazy, man.”
There are perks to being the nephew of Renzo Gracie, though, not the least of which includes a set of keys to the gym.
“I’m able to hit some mitts. I’m able to get at least one guy and do a little bit of sparring. I’m doing what I can to stay in shape,” he said.
It’s a familiar refrain during the coronavirus pandemic, as athletes have been force to make the best of an unusual situation. The difference for Gracie is that he was forced out of action a few months before the virus outbreak, when a broken hand caused the 31-year-old to withdraw from a proposed bout against Kiichi Kunimoto at Bellator 236 on Dec. 21.
Fortunately, Gracie was able to avoid surgery and stayed in a cast for approximately a month and a half. Still, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace was denied the chance to rebound from the first loss of his professional career, which occurred at the hands of Rory MacDonald in the semifinals of Bellator’s welterweight grand prix.
“That sucked because I broke my hand one week before the fight,” he said. “I was in one of the best shapes of my career. Coming back from my loss, I really wanted to fight. Now it’s good again. It took a while for me to recover. But now it’s 100 percent again, and I’m ready to go.”
Gracie has been so ready, in fact, that he has been in contact with Bellator officials about potentially competing on the first show once the promotion resumes its schedule. There have been rumblings that could happen as soon as July in production space owned by Viacom or CBS. Nothing
“I sent a couple messages to Bellator and I told them I want to fight in the first show that they have,” Gracie. “I really want to fight, man. I hope they will put me on the next show that they have.”
Prior to his appearance in the welterweight grand prix, Gracie was viewed as a product of favorable matchmaking as he cruised to eight consecutive victories against unheralded opposition. That changed when he submitted highly-touted wrestler Ed Ruth in the fourth round at Bellator 213.
“I think it was a pretty good lesson because I was able to fight with two top guys,” he said. “I was being criticized by people saying that I didn’t fight good [opponents]. I was able to show everyone that I’m a good fighter. It was also really good mentally because I was able to show myself that I can fight against the best. I think the next time I fight for the belt, I’ll be able to keep the belt.”
The loss to MacDonald in the next round, when he spent the majority of the fight on his back, was a valuable experience in a different way.
“I think I stayed too much in guard. I would try to get back up and don’t stay too long on the bottom. Even if I’m attacking on the bottom, it seems to the judges that I’m losing,” Gracie said. “I think I would try to get back up and get the takedown more. I think I attacked a lot in the fight, but it didn’t count as much just because he was staying on top.”
Gracie would like to continue to face high-level competition when he returns to action, and he already has a couple names in mind.
“In my next fight, I want to get into the mix again,” he said. “I want to fight someone that is close to the title. Maybe one or two fights, we fight for the title again. Maybe fighting one of these guys they’re saying are close to the title like [Yaroslav] Amosov or maybe Michael “Venom” Page. After that fight, if I win, go straight to a title shot.”
Despite the rich history of his family name, Gracie has long favored the outlet MMA provides when compared to competitive jiu-jitsu. That said, Brazilian jiu-jitsu remains the foundation for his game, and he believes his skills in that discipline compare favorably to anyone else in the sport.
“I don’t want to sound cocky or anything, but I think I have the best jiu-jitsu in MMA right now,” he said. “I think me, [Rafael] Lovato Jr. and Demian Maia have the best jiu-jitsu in MMA. Lovato is not fighting anymore, Demian Maia is about to retire. So I think I have the best jiu-jitsu in MMA right now.”