Breathe: A Life in Flow, is the official autobiography of Jiu Jitsu and MMA legend Rickson Gracie, with help from writer Peter Maguire.
The title of the work is appropriate, as it is really a breath of fresh air in the genre of mixed martial arts biographies. The same competitiveness and unbreakable belief that they are the best, that allows the best fighters to strive in their sport, often materializes as difficult to read when given a chance to describe their own careers. The other autobiographies I have read to this point have been filled with what I believe to be now cliches in the genre such as “I shouldn’t have taken the fight at that point…” or “they refused to engage with me in real fighting…”, or personally my favourite “I may have lost that day but I proved I was more skilled”.
Thankfully, Rickson Gracie in his older age seems to have mellowed out and become a bit more detached from this part of himself. This allows for a very insightful and humble reflection on the past decades filled with spiritual, philosophical and physical lessons. One of the biggest criticisms of the Gracie clan which has been whispered over the years, is the commitment to the perfection of the family, and an unwilling ability to self criticize as a whole. Although it is common knowledge that the family branches have fought, ultimately the history has been held in a mysterious cloud upon a pedestal never questioned.
In the book, Rickson makes a balanced decision to acknowledge the problematic mindset behind his father and uncle, but thoroughly describes why these things were needed in order to bring Gracie Jiu Jitsu to the forefront of the global consciousness. He describes a chaotic childhood in which Helio fathered children to multiple women in order to create his army, and raised them as such. He takes care to point out that this was a burden on his adoptive mother, and even worse his true mother- a babysitter who later left the family she was never really a part of.
At the same time however, Rickson also describes a father who only wanted success for his children, to create warriors that could flourish on their own. Although extreme in his strategies of parenting, Helio is written as someone who always allowed for some freedom and wanted his children to grow on their own. He didn’t over emphasize winning but the warrior mindset behind winning, which ultimately carried into Rickson’s view throughout the book. At the same time however, Helio seems to act as a sort of example in which Rickson draws and discards from, as his father did, he throws his children in the air as infants to test their spirit. Unlike his dad, he acts as a progressive who wants as much for his daughters as he does for his sons.
In the middle section of the book, Rickson, the man who most believed was the best example of a modern samurai, tells stories of his rebellious teens, hiding pot and meshing with the wrong crowds. It makes the legend a man but absolutely makes the man much more relatable to the legions who look to emulate his warrior persona.
By the time we get to the Vale Tudo years, Rickson has spilt a lot of facts so far not known to most fans of Jiu Jitsu history, particularly regarding what it was like growing up in the early years of the Gracies. As we get into the actual fighting, it is important to remember that he did go undefeated – therefore the opportunity to not acknowledge his failures literally in his career isn’t really as present. That being said, he is very willing to give all credit to his opponents, and to admit when he was a hair away from losing it all. Particularly describing a moment between rounds against Rei Zulu where he all but begged his father to throw in the towel and recounts a harsh realization that he wanted to give up. Although he didn’t, this side of Gracie, in which he faces adversity in the ring, is unseen in the actual fight footage and past recounts; up to now his figure has always been absolute stoic.
One bizarre addition to the book however is a critical segment on Ronda Rousey that seems out of place. Rickson makes a point about staying focussed on fighting, using figurative blinders to the stardom and distractions that come along with success. While he is correct and Rousey may be a good example of that, a book that is otherwise relegated to personal and familial examples feels somewhat random when picking on Rousey, in a platform where the intricacies of her situation cant be recounted by her. Right or wrong, this particular piece doesn’t seem to fit with the flow of the book as a whole.
The first three quarters of the book are fascinating. It reads a bit like family gossip, alot of physiological philosophy and fun stories of a martial arts youth in the wild streets of Rio. As his days of fighting come to a close, the book shifts to a more personal atmosphere as he delves into parenting, particularly intriguing after reading all the oddities which came from his childhood.
It takes a much darker and intimate tone as he watches his son Rockson descend onto a difficult path of drugs and illegal activity. While Rickson condemns his son’s actions and writes in real sadness, a twinge of some element of pride can also be found in his comparison between his son and his late brother Rolles who also lived on the edge. The family dynamic ultimately seems to fall apart as his immediate family splits and Rickson finds himself journeying home to Rio to start almost anew in his fifties. The interesting thing is, the mellowness he writes with today comes to play into the figure of Rickson as the book goes on, and it quite easily blends into what we expect him to be as the book comes to a close.
Ultimately, it is a very well written book, with a good balance of figurative and literal material. The insight into growing up in Martial Art’s greatest family hooks you right away and the subsequent warrior years are just as fascinating. Better than that however is the man behind the mask and the deep trauma and struggle as well as tragedy behind the usually stoic figure. Peter Maguire’s ability to dig deeper into Rickson than the usual fighter mentality is refreshing within the genre of Mixed Martial Arts biographies and it’s definitely worth a read.