Commentary

Professional fighter gets royal treatment as prince's trainer

In the MMA world, the "Gracie" name is considered fighting royalty. So it's only appropriate that when the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emerates wanted to learn the art of jiu-jitsu, he turned to Renzo Gracie for training. Ryan Hockensmith writes how Gracie manages to balance life as a fighter, a coach, and a trainer to a prince.

Originally Published: September 27, 2007
By Ryan Hockensmith | ESPN The Magazine

The Crown Prince raises his hand, and the 10 or so Arabic-speaking men in suits hush.

"English only, please," the prince says under the Moroccan sun. "I want my friend to understand everything that's going on."

With that, all the millionaire men in the room turn and look at a scruffy, 168-pound Brazilian guy in a T-shirt and shorts. From that point on, the rest of the meeting was in English. That's the power of Renzo Gracie.

Several times per year -- including five times so far in 2007 -- Gracie has traveled to the United Arab Emirates, a tiny oil-rich nation nestled between Saudi Arabia and Oman along the Persian Gulf coast. Gracie flies to U.A.E., and when he gets off the plane, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is waiting. On his last trip, Gracie got off the commercial flight from the U.S. and immediately boarded the sheikh's private plane. They flew straight to Morocco, where the prince was closing on a business deal. As he has done many times before, Gracie watched and listened as the two sides signed off on the deal. After that, Gracie flew back to U.A.E. and took his suitcase to the guest's quarters, which has pretty much become Gracie's second home.

Then he and the prince spent a few hours training in Gracie's famous brand of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

"It's a pretty good deal," Gracie says. "I eat like a king, then we go at it."

The two first met soon after UFC's first event, back in 1993. Gracie says a smallish 20-something-year-old guy walked into his San Diego gym one day, looking for Brazilian jiu-jitsu training. He was shadowed at all times by an authoritative-looking guy who didn't say much. Gracie assumed the man shadowing him (and cleaning the mats after every workout) was some sort of bodyguard.

In what sounds like the story line to a "Coming to America" sequel, Gracie says he didn't find out until months later that he was training the crown prince of a country that exports several million barrels of oil per day. "He was quiet and he did everything we told him to do," Gracie said, "and that includes cleaning up the gym."

Over the ensuing year, the two exchanged lessons. The sheikh took Gracie to his multimillion dollar business meetings and taught the Brazilian how to seal deals, while Gracie showed the prince how to tap out opponents. Gracie put those business lessons to good use by starting his own Manhattan jiu-jitsu academy, and the prince grew from a decent blue belt into a lethal black belt. Now, after more than a decade of training with Gracie, the prince has become a vicious submission artist. Though the prince has cinched up his share of submissions on Gracie, the teacher still can sense what his student is looking to do.

"He's very good," Gracie says. "I'm a professional fighter, so he can't submit me. But he's come close."

And Gracie insists that's exactly what he still is -- a pro fighter. He turned 40 in March and hasn't fought since a February disqualification win against Frank Shamrock in an EliteXC event. Gracie is quick to point out that Shamrock was the fifth former UFC champion he'd defeated (Maurice Smith, Carlos Newton, Oleg Taktarov and Pat Miletich are the others).

His rivalry with Miletich has especially drawn attention. Miletich first tried jiu-jitsu more than a decade ago, at one of Gracie's seminars. The two have been good friends ever since. When Miletich took over as the Quad Cities Silverbacks coach last year, Gracie founded the New York Pitbulls. A "superfight" was quickly arranged between the two MMA legends. When they finally collided on Sept. 23 last year, Gracie entered a heavily pro-Miletich Iowa arena. "There were maybe 50 people cheering for Renzo," says Pitbulls heavyweight Bryan Vetell. "And the key word is 'maybe.'"

But by the time Gracie locked up a guillotine midway through the first round, the crowd had hushed, much like the crowd of businessmen in Morocco.

Miletich fought the choke but ultimately submitted. "It's like the old saying about a bear trap that's caught something," Miletich says. "Sometimes you come back with meat. But sometimes you get caught in the trap and come back with a stump. I came back with a stump that day."

Miletich's Silverbacks just faced a similar fate against Gracie's New York team in the 2007 IFL team finals. The Pitbulls eked out a 3-2 victory to secure their first IFL title and cap off an undefeated 2007 season, beating Miletich and his defending league champions.

Next up for Gracie's fighters: The IFL's Nov. 3 Grand Prix, pitting many of the league's best fighters in weight-class tournaments. The event will be shown that night on MyNetworkTV, the first MMA bout to be carried live on a broadcast network.

But as he gets his guys ready for that, Gracie is also looking to squeeze in a trip overseas to train the prince. When? Exactly where? Gracie doesn't know. "It happens pretty quick," Gracie says. "I get a call, I hop on a plane and I go.

"After that, I don't know what the trip will be like."

Ryan Hockensmith is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine.

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