Renzo Gracie New York: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the Big Apple

Published on by Nico Ball

Photo Credit: Jeff Chu @jeffreyschu

New York may be a notoriously rough city but the Gracie’s are known for being an incredibly resilient family. The fighting spirit runs through their veins and they’ve proven it time and time again in street brawls along the beaches of Copacabana, in front of thousands of screaming Japanese fans, and during the live T.V. broadcasts of the first ever UFC events.

Everyone knows the Gracies can scrap, but Renzo proved that in addition to revolutionizing the martial arts world, he could also build a successful business empire in a city that has shattered the spirit of many aspiring dreamers that come there seeking fame and fortune.

When Renzo first moved to New York, there was a noticeable costal divide in the jiu jitsu scene. The west coast was deeply rooted in the gi culture, whereas, the east coast thrived more on the inherently aggressive nogi world that appealed more to rising MMA fighters. Taking into consideration the fact that at the time Ryan Gracie, Ricardo Almeida, and Renzo were all fighting in MMA, its not surprising that Renzo’s first business model catered to nogi training style as opposed to the slower paced, technical rolls that are characteristic of gi jiu jitsu.

Renzo’s first academy was a rented sapce inside of a Kung Fu studio. Quickly growing out of that space, he moved to building that was shared with a methadone treatment clinic. It wasn’t uncommon to see guys with a gi rolling around with a bare-chested adversary that was preparing for his next stand up fight, or to have the class interrupted occasionally by a seedy character or two searching for treatment on the wrong floor.

“Nogi was survival of the fittest.” Rolles Gracie recalled. “It attracted a lot of wrestlers which was good for Renzo’s competitions team, but when it comes to growing the sport and the business, it was important to bring BJJ to everybody”.

In the beginning, there was no schedule or other apparent structure. There were just guys rolling everywhere and Renzo would be running around teaching moves. Renzo was a good teacher and a charismatic guy so he could easily draw people in with his stories of street fights in Brazil and keep them there for hours. When teaching, it never took him long to analyze and adjust his students game so that they were soon seeing improvement, but that didn’t change the fact that they still needed to make the sport more appealing to the masses.

“Part of growing the gym was developing the gi cultures,” says Rolles.

When that began to happen the academy grew from about 250 to 1000 students within 6 months.  Then they eventually moved out of the "meth clinic" and into the basement of their current location in downtown Manhattan with a small ring, mats, and some weights thrown off to the side. From there they began to grow upward to the 3-floor facility that they run today.

Despite their MMA activity, the Gracies continued to compete in gi tournaments and later developed a more basic gi program with a set schedule that minimized the amount of sparring and emphasized technical progression of students.  Organizing the gym more around gi classes helped bring in more clients that weren’t just looking for hardcore competition training and helped the business flourish.

Rolles also contributes Renzo’s charismatic fighting spirit to be one of the major catalysts and bringing the gi culture to the mainstream.

Now, Rolles says, Renzo Gracie NYC is probably one of the best academies with an overall concept of fighting styles, whether a student wants to learn gi, nogi, wrestling, muay thai, or MMA, they have it all.

The sport is always evolving and Renzo and his teachers are continuously striving to adapt to new techniques and new styles so that their students have a strong understanding not only of how to throw a punch or submit their opponents in a triangle, but also how to defend themselves in any situation.  After all, according to the Renzo Gracie patches on the back of every student’s gi, the best thing a man can have is a fighting spirit!