Rose Gracie Looks to Shed Light on the Shadow Looming in MMA: CTE

Rose Gracie grew up as part of the most famous family in mixed martial arts, now she owns her own school and is looking to shed light on the threat approaching contact sports: CTE.

First off, I once heard you say that the women in the Gracie family are so much tougher than the Gracie men.  Why is that?

“I think women, whatever family they’re in, being a Gracie or not a being Gracie, are usually the glue that holds that all together. They have the passion, they have the love, and the genuine care for their family. They’re just wired a little bit differently. So, that whole protection thing that the women have is very good.

The men of the family, you’re probably gonna get your ass kicked for like a couple minutes, which is cool. But the women in the family are very different because they look at things in a very logical way, but with a lot of love in their heart. But, they make sure that things get done the way things should be. They’re definitely tougher. There’s no questions about it.”

Now, we saw you recently at the Knockout Fight League event held by Antonio McKee.  How long have you known Antonio and what did you think of the event?

“Oh, I love Antonio and I’ve known Antonio for many, many years, and we’ve worked together in a couple different little projects. I think he’s an extremely talented fighter and a very hard worker and amazing coach. I have nothing but great things to say about Antonio McKee.This is the first time I went to the new show.  I thought it was great. He did a great job matching up fighters and everything.

Although I really liked the show, there are a couple of things that I saw that nothing to do with Antonio at all, but more related to the athletic commission in how they are doing things. There were couple fights that I thought went a little too long, which concerns me very much especially in the simple fact that I’m so connected with the CTE and brain damage right now. I’m studying so much about it. That was a little concerning to me.

I’ve reached out to the athletic commission. I’ve learned even more and more about it, kind of going in and digging a little bit of the dirt and trying to sort out what’s actually happening with the Athletic Commission in the U.S.A., not just ABC, but also the California State Athletic Commission. Because I’m so close to California, this makes sense to me to kind of look into what they’re doing, too.”

I’m glad you brought up the study of CTE.  Being a Gracie I’m sure you’ve spent your whole life around people where bumps to the head are part of the job.  What made you want to get started in researching that part of combat sports?

“Well, I started noticing that friends of mine and people that I care for much deeply were going through these issues and situations where I would notice the basic symptoms of CTE. The fighters always joke, ‘Come on. What do you expect? I get punched in the head for a living.’ It’s a joke that they say, but it’s actually very true that the problems and issues are associated with the traumatic injuries to the head.

I got into it because everyone I know and everybody around me is involved in the sport. My children will be doing this, my grandchildren will be doing this, my nephews, everyone around me and everyone that I love is involved within the sport. I wanted to obviously get a little bit more understanding about what was going on and I felt like I was teaching everyone that I know. I want to be the one that if I dig into something, I wanted to know the bottom line of it. I would probably be the best one to sort it out and figure out how to not just raise awareness to it, but also educate my people on the good and bad and what that situation really is.”

MMA is obviously a relatively young sport compared to football and wrestling so I know research being done is still new compared to the other sports.  What can you tell us about the impact CTE has on MMA fighters?

“Number one, you got to understand is this: The study of CTE is still in a very early stage.  Not just in MMA. People think if they haven’t had a concussion, that means they don’t have to worry about it. But CTE is not just about concussions. CTE is also a result of a repeated or subconcussive hits to the head. Imagine if your head is an egg and the yolk is your brain. It doesn’t matter if you have a harder shell. When you hit the yolk, it’s still gonna be shaken inside.

What happens is the brain is not fully developed until you’re about 25, 26 years old. These people by that age, they’ve been getting hit in the head for way long. They start at wrestling right now at five, six years old, when they go to train they cap the back of the head in a wrestling match, all these things are moving your brain inside.

Another thing is that there’s no known cure for CTE. The people that are donating their brains for CTE are people that usually think that they already have something wrong with them.

And then, they’re like, “You know what, something is wrong with me. So when I pass away, then I’m gonna give my brain to be examined.” The problem with that is that you are getting a very high number of CTE when you actually get the brains. It’s like 98% of the people have it. But the problem is that not all brains are getting studied. So, there’s a lot of people that don’t feel like they have anything, they actually have CTE. But, they would never know because they never thought that they could have something. It wasn’t brought up to them to think that, “Hey, I need to get my brain checked afterwards to see if there was damage.”

There’s no really accurate data of what’s actually happening with MMA. Even jiu-jitsu alone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be MMA. Again, this can happen to wrestlers, military, you name it, anybody. It’s not strictly just MMA, boxers, and football players where you receive blows to the head. That has to do with anybody that has repeated, but anything that it makes your brain shake inside of your head at any point.”

Something I’ve seen is that while many athletes know that CTE could well be a consequence of training and competing, there’s also often a willful ignorance.  No one wants to get into the sport thinking “I may have these issues at the end of my career.”  How do you discuss CTE and talk about it with the people around you who compete?

“Some symptoms of CTE are impulsive behavior, emotional instability, substance abuse, suicidal thought, and short-term memory loss which is a big one. Then there’s cognitive impairment, irritability, vision and focusing problems, trouble swallowing, weakness, tremor, loss of muscle movement, speech or language difficulties, aggression, irritability. Those are all symptoms of CTE.

People think it is a normal thing of your daily life because everybody now thinks that everybody has ADD, everybody has depression, everybody is like crazy you know what I mean. That’s what they diagnose and they give you a little prescription to just make things go away. But actually to some of the fighters, it sounds like characteristics to them where they think that’s just the way they are.

If you are dealing with fighters all the time, you’re gonna know that they have impulsive behaviors. They sometimes difficulty thinking about simple tasks, and they go, “I get punched in the head for a living.” Also, irritability and aggression. These are all things that people just think it comes with the fact that the person is a fighter, but it could actually be something a lot deeper than that.

As I’m studying this stuff and as I dig more, it’s almost like I’m peeling an onion, and everyday I take the new layer out of it and discover a little bit more about it. Somebody just asked me, ‘Hey, do you know somebody that can sign off on a fighter going from an amateur to a pro?’ And, I’m like, ‘What do you mean sign off?’ And, he’s like, ‘Yeah. You have a friend of yours that can sign it off. Can you talk to him?’

When I went over to the athletic commission to find out how actually people go from amateur to professional, I found all you have to do is send in $200 to the athletic commission with an application. Somebody in the athletic commission looks it over to see if the application is legit, and now, you’re basically the person that is going to authorize somebody from being an amateur to be going into a pro. And, most of these people are not qualified or don’t have something developed for the fighters to make sure that they have enough information to be able to go from amateur to pro.

I know that someone is developing something like this right now, which is almost like coming to the end of it and I think it’s gonna change the game because I will make sure to fight to make sure that that basic foundation is laid out for them so that they have to know these things before they go into fighting.

At the very least, you need to explain to them and make them aware of things like CTE. Most of the fighters when you talk to them, they have never even heard of CTE. They don’t even know what it is. So, the lack of education, the lack of information for them in that area is something that is very concerning to me because the fact they don’t even know that that’s something that could be happening to you right now is a scary thought.  Not just for the fighters, for the families too because their families suffer a lot with this.”

Certainly, this is all very informative.  To shift gears, while you are passionate about the study of the effect it can have that is not to say you are against competition or the activity altogether.  Tell us about the school you run in Rancho Cucamonga.

“Yeah, I have a school in Rancho Cucamonga, which is called Gracie Combat Alliance. It’s actually a new concept. I’m not really the biggest fan of the system now.  You see, I grew up around jiu-jitsu. To me, I don’t see the teams or anything like that. There are a lot of politics in jiu-jitsu. Because I’m involved with pretty much everyone around jiu-jitsu, it doesn’t matter which team or where they’re coming from and whatnot because it all comes from the same place anyways.

Even through my involvement with the sport, most people would think that it’s just associated very much with my family. I actually grew up with friends, with people from all sorts of different teams in the sport. I have access to a lot of people. So, I wanted to create a school with a different concept where my school is like an open grounds for all schools to come in and collaborate together. It’s more of a collective.It’s more of an alliance of everyone together in the different systems inside of one school as opposed to just one. So, it’s kind of like Switzerland.”

So you don’t adhere to say, the 10th Planet System of jiu-jitsu, for example?  You more take from several and implement what’s most effective.

“Yes, it’s a hybrid of a lot. I have classes on Gracie Jiu-jitsu which are the fundamentals of Gracie Jiu-jitsu which is a very similar curriculum to my grandpa’s curriculum. Basically what it is, it’s just jiu-jitsu with a strike defense. And then, I have 10th Planet Jiu-jitsu a few days of the week too. I have Muay Thai also. And now, I’m looking for someone to do just basically sport jiu-jitsu, which I don’t like here. I honestly can’t stand sport jiu-jitsu. But, I respect the fact that it exists and I want my guys to be able to be exposed to it. It’s more of a school where you can learn all the different styles of jiu-jitsu in one building.”

I wanted to speak to you about that because I read you are very against sport jiu-jitsu because you feel it’s a lot of point fighting and not realistic.  You’re a big advocate for submission only competition, am I explaining that correctly?

“Correct. When I started the Submission Only Movement, it’s because I didn’t want the point system or sport jiu-jitsu to be the only one. People have a misunderstanding of what jiu-jitsu is all about. Most people think jiu-jitsu is a sport, or jiu-jitsu is a competition. There are no strikes in sport jiu-jitsu. There’s no really aspect of self-defense in jiu-jitsu and it’s completely gone within the sport.

I’ve been an advocate to bring those roots back to life so people can be aware of them, so they know how to defend themselves in case of a bad situation. Sometimes, you’re not looking for the fight, but the fight finds you. Then you’re in it, so how are you gonna get out of it? You have to learn how to defend yourself.

There was a quote that I read today. My dad said this quote and I was like, “Wow! This is so 100% true.” And, he mentioned that self-defense is not just a set of techniques, it’s a state of mind, It begins with the belief that you are worth defending it. With that in mind, we can’t be promoting sport jiu-jitsu so much because it’s not a self-defense jiu-jitsu. The jiu-jitsu that I believe in is the self-defense jiu-jitsu more than anything else because I think that’s the core foundation, and then you can build anything on top of that. But you need to have that core and a strong foundation in the bottom so you can build whatever you want on top of it, whatever choice you do, or whatever package you choose to go after that.”

You’re going to be bringing this to an event coming up also.  The Kid’s Jiu-Jitsu festival in Pennsylvania.  What made you want to hold such an event?

“Yeah, so, I’m doing that in convention with the Fitness Expo. They’re going to Philly for the first time and there’s going to be an event the day before where we have some super fights and it’s a jiu-jitsu tournament. I’m not running that event. Somebody else will. I’m running the second day, which is the Kids Day. Basically, I wanted to find a way to have kids be exposed to the beautiful things of jiu-jitsu without having to pay for it because I wanted jiu-jitsu to be free for children. That’s kind of one of my own personal battles that I have on making sure it happens eventually.

I think jiu-jitsu is really good for children just because it helps them so much. We do a little introduction to calisthenics for a whole hour or the World Calisthenics Organization goes over calisthenics exercises and movement for the children. It’s not just the jiu-jitsu part of it, but it’s also things that they can do to exercise using the mats or in their jiu-jitsu schools.

My cousin is doing a movement class. I have Daniel Gracie and he owns most of the schools in Philadelphia and the jiu-jitsu is under them. Then they are teaching self-defense. I’m also gonna have Chad George to teach some of the combat jiu-jitsu and he’s a combat jiu-jitsu champion. I’m doing some yoga and then games in the event. That pretty much it. It starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. So there’s just things happening all day for the kids, fun games and whatnot. It’s a free event because I want the kids to just be able to have a day of jiu-jitsu that’s just fun without them having to compete against each other.”

Besides the event, what other projects do you have coming up?

“So, I have a podcast starting. It’s gonna be called The G Word and it’s gonna be on Sherdog. But you can look it in on Sherdog for sure.”

 Check out the Kids Jiu-Jitsu Festival on April 29, 2018 in Philadelphia.  Registration here



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