Royce Gracie, the first dominant UFC champion in its 16-year history, is far past any of the traditional motivators for fighting.
He doesn’t need the money, or the fame, or the students. There is nothing for him to prove. Life is pretty good outside the cage.
He’s sitting on the fence, though, about whether he wants to get back in.
The 42-year-old gets hounded regularly about when he’s going to fight next. Call it Gracie nostalgia: fans want to see the man who, at 170 frail pounds, tapped out a field of brutes a decade ago.
For most of the requests, he smiles and leaves it in the air – anything’s possible.
Gracie has had several stops and starts since leaving the Octagon in 1995. He returned to action in Japan, with an all-out battle with Kazushi Sakuraba in 2000 – one he lost – marking the apex of his post-UFC career.
In May 2006, he finally returned to the Octagon, looking suddenly very old against a younger, stronger, faster champion in Matt Hughes. Hughes, the next dominant welterweight in the company’s history, resorted to pounding the side of Gracie’s head after he realized the legend wouldn’t tap to an armlock that dislocated his elbow.
There was his appearance at Dynamite! USA in June 2007, where he defeated old nemesis and fellow legend Kazushi Sakuraba in a dull re-match and afterwards tested positive for steroids. A regulator later told MMAWeekly.com that the levels of drug found in his system were indicative Gracie didn’t know he was taking performance enhancers, or didn’t believe he’d be tested.
Since then, he has remained off the map, content to be out of the spotlight.
Fans and media mobbed him as he walked the corridors of the Mandalay Bay Event Center on the weekend of UFC 100. He felt ambiguous about being there; on one hand, the promotion had made it past the dark days of half-empty arenas and political scorn (well, mostly), and on the other, he wasn’t a part of it.
“One hundred is good, but it makes me feel so old,” he told MMAWeekly.com.
Unlike half-brother Rorion, Royce embraced the changes he says needed to happen for the sport to grow. Rorion, who along with Art Davies incubated the 1993 version of the UFC based on father Helio’s combat skirmishes in Brazil, once said he didn’t watch the event anymore.
Royce says that’s not true, though he shared Rorion’s wish to return to the days of no time limit bouts.
“I understand the changes that happen,” he said. “With the changes, it makes it legal all over the world. It’s sanctioned. You have to have the time limit; you have to have the weight division. As a fighter, you just have to adapt to that, but he likes the old idea. I prefer no time limit, too; don’t take me wrong. It’s just you can’t do it. Okay, let’s adapt to it.”
Most believe Gracie failed to adapt in his many returns. MMA had evolved into a hybrid sport, and he hadn’t put in the time to become well rounded in all of its dimensions. He could avoid being finished, but he couldn’t finish a fight.
Still, the public wants to see him. Nostalgia is reliable in a time of here today, gone tomorrow fighters.
But perhaps the biggest adaptation he needs to make is a lack of edge needed to fight. He doesn’t have the fire. He wants to compete, and says he’s physically fine. Something else is missing.
“(I) don’t feel the urge to fight,” he said. “I’ve never had a fight on the street, never hurt my opponents. But I don’t feel that edge, that urge to fight. Before, four, five, six months after the fight, I would call my manager and say, ‘get me in the ring, I want to train.’ I want to go into that concentration camp mode and just train for the fight. Now… eh, I don’t feel that.”
And he isn’t too concerned about whether he’ll get the fire back. Realistically, he knows he has a few years to decide. There’s no rush.
Gracie’s legacy was all over the action on Saturday night. Fighters took each other down, fought for position, and some got choked out. Royce watched from outside the cage, taking it all in.
Will he ever step back inside? Probably not. But anything’s possible.
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