Everyone knows the impact which the Gracie family has had on mixed martial arts (MMA), but it's been a while since anyone bearing that surname won a belt. That could all change on Friday night (local time) because Roger Gracie is challenging for the inaugural ONE Championship light heavyweight belt.
The sport of MMA has evolved rapidly and the Gracies are finding that BJJ alone isn't enough to be competitive at an elite level inside the cage. There's a perception that the family has been left behind and Roger will have a point to prove when facing Michael Pasternak at ONE: "Ascent to Power",
"I think when I become an MMA world champion it will be a big step for my family. A lot of people say that the Gracie’s are left behind or are not up to the standards… that will change though."
The fight is set for the Singapore Indoor Stadium and Gracie will be going up against an undefeated Polish opponent. Both men are coming off impressive ONE debuts and the Brazilian says he is not intimidated by Pasternak's perfect professional record,
"I’m fighting someone that’s fought 11 times and has never lost. For a weaker person that can play a lot on their mind because their opponent is undefeated but its not something that I care about. He could have 50 wins and no defeats it doesn’t matter. He’ll have his first (loss) when he fights me."
With the belt being on the line there is added pressure but Gracie knows all about pressure and is confident he will be able to cope with it better than Pasternak. It's something he has been dealing with all his life,
"To carry the Gracie name is heavy. It’s a lot of weight on your back, there is a lot of pressure on you, people always hope that you succeed. Everyone expects me to be good already. If you learn how to deal with it you can use it in your favor. If you don’t it's very hard to succeed."
Gracie's credentials as a BJJ black belt and multiple time world champion are well documented. But in his last fight he showcased a completely different aspect to his MMA game by finishing kickboxing and Muay Thai veteran James MCSweeney with strikes.
It's an outcome which no-one could have predicted but the Brazilian says he was in no hurry to get the fight to the ground,
"My last fight I wasn’t really trying to prove anything on the stand up, it was just something that happened. My strategy in that fight was keeping the fight standing up, not rushing to take the fight down. I was taking my time… I was feeling better and better on the stand up. I tried to shoot twice and he escaped and I saw him running away so I kept the fight standing."
Gregor, Igor and Roger Gracie have all fought for ONE Championship in the past while Kron Gracie is currently fighting for Rizin FF and Neimar Gracie is signed to Bellator. However the family doesn't quite dominate MMA to the extend that it did during the days of Rickson, Renzo and Royce and Roger puts his down to the modern rules and regulations,
"If you realize the whole idea of Gracie Jiu Jitsu is that it's a long fight, to neutralize your opponent until he’s tired or until he’s submitted, once you put time limits you don't have that choice. It becomes a lot more physical. It sort of takes away the principle of Gracie Jiu Jitsu but at the same time then it becomes more competitive and more equal because you don't have the advantage of just trying to defend and neutralize your opponent."
However Gracie can be quietly confident that his ground game is superior to that of any opponent he's ever going to face in MMA competition. So while he's getting more comfortable with his striking the Brazilian's unlikely to pass up an opportunity to take the fight to the ground,
"A TKO is not something I’m looking for (but) If there’s a big strike that connects obviously that's welcome. If there’s an opportunity for me to take the fight down then that will happen for sure. I think (Pasternak) is an intermediate level (grappler), not even expert level. But MMA is not a grappling match and that makes everyone dangerous you’re not only grappling with him, you’re fighting."
It's a lesson that Gracie has sometimes learned the hard way during an MMA career that has seen him compete under the banners of Strikeforce, UFC and now ONE Championship. But with the benefit of experience, he has adapted his style and the Brazilian believes he is the best he has ever been heading into ONE: "Ascent to Power",
"This belt came at the perfect timing.This is the best I’ve ever been there’s no denying that. Physically I’m in my prime, mentally I’m the strongest I’ve ever been. Today I’m the best fighter I’ve ever been."