Discover BJJ’s Origins: Who is Carley Gracie?

Last updated on 26.04.2022 by

When talking about who was the first BJJ practitioner to teach in the US, many people seem to think it was Rorion Gracie. In reality, Rorion Gracie was not the first Jiu Jitsu black belt to teach in the US.

Instead, that honor went to the great Carley Gracie. Master Carley Gracie doesn’t get enough credit for what he has done in Jiu Jitsu and all that he has accomplished, and that’s why today we’re going to tell you a little about Carley Gracie and his legacy. 

Carley Gracie’s start in Jiu Jitsu

Carley grew up in the Gracie family’s country home in Teresópolis, outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The 11th child of Carlos Gracie, Carley was passionate about horses and worked in his father’s stables, and it is perhaps this early passion that meant he didn’t start training BJJ as early as many of his Gracie relatives. Carley didn’t begin training until his early teens, under the tutelage of his father Carlos Sr.

Carlos taught Carley the family trade until he stepped down from teaching. Carley’s older brother Carlson then became Carley’s teacher and during this time his abilities skyrocketed.

During this time, Carley and Carlson were the champions of the family, competing successfully in numerous Gracie challenges and BJJ competitions.

Carley’s feud with Hélio Gracie

For years, Carley Gracie had a feud with his uncle Hélio Gracie, who he didn’t get along with. Helio was reputed to have often said mean things to Carley that would make his sons laugh.

One time at Carley’s father’s home in Teresópolis, the two came two blows. This fight was detailed in Reila Gracie’s book about her father, Carlos Sr.

The fight started when Hélio said that Carley “is as dumb as the horses that he took care of.” This comment made Hélio’s son Rorion laugh, but Carley was not happy.

He told his cousin if he laughed again, he would hit him. Hélio then said “then pretend I’m not your uncle and we’ll settle this right now!” 

Carley’s Uncle Hélio then took a swing at him and the fight was on. The young Gracie brought down Hélio with a double leg takedown and began landing punches on the founder of Jiu Jitsu.

By the time they were separated Carley had opened a cut above Hélio’s eye. Hélio, feeling some remorse, commented that “he faced a buffalo full of adrenaline.” 

This would not be the last time that Carley fought with this side of the family.

Carley Gracie moves to the US 

When Carley was in his twenties, he was approached by members of the US Marines. These Marines were stationed in Rio de Janeiro and heard about the Gracie family’s fighting prowess. 

They offered Carley an opportunity to come work for the US Marines in their HQ in Quantico, Virginia. Carley saw this as the biggest opportunity of his life – allowing him to travel the world and teach Jiu Jitsu.

He accepted the Marine’s offer and made his way to Quantico in 1972. This makes him the very first Gracie to travel to the US and teach Jiu Jitsu.

Carley worked through his contract with the Marines and taught out of their HQ for a few years. After finishing his contract, he stayed in the US and began traveling the east coast.

During this time, Carley made money by giving seminars and taking challenges against other martial artists.

Carley Gracie opens his Jiu Jitsu school

In 1979, Carley traveled west to California. Once there, he decided to settle in San Francisco and opened his own Jiu Jitsu school. This has been Carley’s main school ever since and has been open for over forty years.

Carley Gracie’s legal dispute with Rorion Gracie 

In 1994, the feud between Carley Gracie and Rorion Gracie heated up once again. Rorion obtained a US federal trademark for the name ‘Gracie Jiu Jitsu.’

All other Gracie family members could no longer use their names for their schools. This caused a lot of anger towards Rorion from the other Gracie members, including Rorion’s old rival Carley.

On behalf of many members of the Gracie family, Carley took Rorion to court over this trademark. This legal battle lasted for years and cost both sides a lot of money.

At one point, Carley and Rorion almost came to blows in a mediation meeting. Rorion challenged Carley to a fight to settle the dispute, but later backed down.

Then after years of court battles, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Carley Gracie’s favor. The judge in the case declared that Rorion Gracie’s trademark registration was not valid and ordered it to be canceled.

This has allowed other members of the Gracie family to continue growing their own Jiu Jitsu schools in the US. If Rorion had won this case, there would be a lot fewer Gracie Jiu Jitsu schools in the US!

Carley Gracie becomes a BJJ red belt

After decades of dedicating his life to Jiu Jitsu, Carley Gracie was awarded his BJJ red belt. According to Renzo Gracie, a red belt signifies someone “influence and fame takes them to the pinnacle of the art.” It’s undeniable that Carley epitomizes this description.

Without Carley, Jiu Jitsu in the US would look a lot different than it does today.

FAQs about Carley Gracie

When did Carley Gracie start training? 

Carley Gracie first started training as a teen under his father Carlos Gracie Sr. Later trained with his older brother Carlson Gracie Sr.

What has Carley Gracie accomplished in competition?

Carley competed in both BJJ and Vale Tudo competitions, becoming a champion in both styles of fighting.

When did Carley Gracie first travel to the US and teach? 

Carley Gracie first traveled to the US in 1972 and taught Jiu Jitsu lessons up and down the east coast.

When did Carley Gracie open his BJJ academy?

Carley Gracie opened his own BJJ academy in 1979 and it is still located in San Francisco, California. 

Who are Carley Gracie’s children? 

Clark Gracie Carley Gracie Ralston Gracie
Clark Gracie(left) and Ralston Gracie(right)
Credit: Carley Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy

Carley Gracie has two sons. Ralston Gracie and Clark Gracie, who is an expert at the omoplata.

What rank does Carley Gracie hold?

Carley Gracie is one of the few Jiu Jitsu practitioners that holds the rank of red belt in the martial art.

The legacy of Carley Gracie

Carley Gracie does not get enough credit for everything he has done for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He was the very first Jiu Jitsu practitioner to teach in the US and opened the first Jiu Jitsu school in the United States. By fighting for the freedom to use the family name in connection to the sport he allowed the Gracie family to be represented by the entire family instead of a small branch.

Gracie dedicated his life to Jiu Jitsu and he was rewarded with his 9th rank BJJ red belt. BJJ students owe a great deal of gratitude to Master Carley for all that he has done growing the martial art.