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I remember reading in a Black Belt magazine a number of years ago an interesting in hindsight comment by Royce Gracie. He said that because his family had been holding NHB fights for so many years that his family would always have the edge over everyone else. That while everyone was trying to land on the moon, they'd be landing on the sun.

Of course we now know that the complete opposite is true. That the techniques and athleticism evolved so rapidly in MMA that the one-dimensional athletes of just a generation or two ago would be completely overmatched by todays fighters.

So why were these fighters able to hold their dominant position in Vale Tudo in Brazil for so long? Why were fighters representing only BJJ able to be relevant in Brazil for half a century only to be eclipsed in a decade after UFC1? Why would a Rickson Gracie be able to hang with anyone in Brazil in the 80's, but most likely not be a match for an Anderson or a Wanderlei today?

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    I don't have sources in front of me, but I suspect a good bit of it is that the Gracies inflated their win record by reporting more on their wins than their losses. Gracie BJJ is good, but they were defeated several times, even in their challenges where they established the rules in a way that helped them stay on top. And, while the Gracies were fond of describing their fights as being pure BJJ, much like the dominant Capoeira fighters of the time, they knew when to drop their "pure" style and just scrap. Jun 20 at 17:22
  • I am not so much talking about the Gracies themselves, but the larger BJJ scene itself. It's my perception that the fighters who we're successful still came from a primarily BJJ or Luta Livre background. The type of really well rounded fighters wee see today really weren't a thing yet. So I am assuming there has been a definite evolution of Brazilians fighters where fighters in the last two decades are way ahead of where they were the previous 75 years or so. I am wondering why no one figured out how to beat BJJ or LL in Brazil in 75 years, but it only took a decade here. Jun 22 at 4:49
  • @Rageforthemachine People tend to forget that the majority of martial artists, including very good ones, do not like to fight for no good reason. It is not that nobody figured out how to beat them, it's that a) that's what the Gracies like to tell us (bias) and b) that there never was much incentive to fight them. Fights being public across a large number of martial arts venues and money go a long way here. Jun 22 at 12:08
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    @Rageforthemachine: Acknowledging that this source seems to have its own biases, evolve-mma.com/blog/the-history-and-origins-of-luta-livre seems to indicate that BJJ and Luta Livre evolved side-by-side, with both employing a mix of grappling, wrestling, and striking. BJJ "won" by virtue of having a well-established school that was good at publicity, thriving during the time when Luta Livre was being stamped down on due to a prominent riot. Jun 22 at 13:22

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There are three factors at play here:

  1. As already mentioned in the comments, the Gracies have never been the unbeatable martial arts superpower they claimed to be. They sure trained and fought a lot so they became extraordinarily good at fighting but theres always someone as strong or stronger.

  2. They fought and picked their fights in a particular cultural and geographic context. Current MMA is a big melting pot of different styles from all over the world. You can't expect one country or rather one network of rather local people to have a similarily fast development and variety. The Gracies were confronted with a certain recurring pool of styles and backgrounds of the fighters. So they had the possibility to adapt. Also, they certainly knew which fights to pick and which not because they knew what they had to face. Imagine you're the local superhero of martial arts. You know there's this nobody, Al, next door who could absolutely wipe the floor with you because he is simply a freak. Would you pick a fight with him? No. Not much chance to be that picky in public limelight when others bring fighters to you. So it's evolve or lose.

  3. When looking at the UFC, you basically got a bunch of absolutely freak peak athletes in terms of build, training, and natural gifts. The first UFCs were about some people wanting proper fights and testing themselves etc. There certainly were good fighters among them but as soon as a business with loads of money grew around that, you started to have the absolute best from all over the world drawn into that. This includes the means of training, top coaches, and training science that come with it, adapting fast and adding all kinds of skill sets into the game, all at top level. Expecting that one family, no matter the quality of their style, can match that consistently is delusional.

So basically, what you see here is that professionalisation with an insanely big talent pool from all over the world naturally overcomes anything some local lineages can ever produce.

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