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As the number of gold medals keeps growing larger around the neck of Rayron Gracie, so too do the comparisons between the soft-spoken Brazilian jiu-jitsu prodigy and the BJJ legacy left by his larger-than-life father.
Based on pedigree, brashness would be expected to flow thick through the veins of the 19-year-old only son of the late Ryan Gracie, considered by many to be the original bad boy of mixed martial arts. However, Rayron is quietly and humbly digging down and working even harder to fulfill his family BJJ legacy.
Rayron (pronounced Hi-Ron), came to New York six years ago. The intent, as he originally planned, was not to follow in his father’s BJJ footsteps, but to better his English skills before returning home to Brazil. Upon arrival, he inherited a vast academy of BJJ educators more expansive than most Ivy League institutions—a Gracie family full of world-class champions, including his uncle, legendary jiu-jitsu icon Renzo Gracie (Ryan’s brother).
His temporary stay has now become a long-term success story. As a purple belt, Rayron earned his first world championship a year ago. But as a sport that requires dedication, practice, and patience, and perhaps most important, humility, finding and fixing the flaws become most paramount — even if it’s only Rayron only noticing the weakness. To help build up his off-the-mat intangibles — namely strength and recovery — he’s enlisted a team of elite strength coaches and physical therapists to help fill the gaps he can’t fix on the mat.
His success, however, takes a backseat to maintaining a cosmic connection with his father, who he lost more than 13 years ago. Since the age of 6, Rayron has made been writing letters to his father a consistent ritual. The healing chronicled in the recently released documentary Letters to My Father, reveals his experiences growing up without his father through these letters he’s written to his father.
“I don’t have any brothers, so he was the only one who I’ve ever really looked up to,” Rayron says. “He was my hero. And once he passed away, I had questions and wanted to find the answers. So I started writing letters as a kid, to somehow continue to communicate with him.”
While the United States wasn’t finally beginning to welcome MMA into its mainstream, Ryan Gracie was already a rock star in Japan during the early 2000s. Both polarizing and popular, he was an antihero fan favorite for both his ferocity in the cage and bombastic aggression behind the mike in that nation’s PRIDE organization, MMA’s precursor to today’s worldwide reign of the UFC.
In his shortened career, he scored two knockouts and a pair of armbar submissions in compiling a modest 5-2 record. But his over-the-top verbal assaults thrown at Japanese fight legends Kazushi Sakuraba and Hidehiko Yoshida, at the time more suited for WWE, made him beloved in Japan and helped paved the road for MMA stars to embrace and market their notoriety today, such as former UFC champion Conor McGregor.
Outside the cage, controversial and troubled would best describe Ryan. But to Rayron, he was simply Dad, a human security blanket who would toss his child on his shoulders, would take him swimming or to the park, or bring him to his MMA academy in Brazil, where he would admire his father from afar.
On the evening of Dec. 15, 2007, Ryan was found dead in a Sao Paolo jail cell, reportedly due to an over-prescription of medication prescribed by his psychiatrist in order to calm him following an arrest. His death came just over a week after Rayron celebrated his sixth birthday.
“He was the only person I really looked up to,” Rayron says. “And once he passed away, I had questions, and as a child I needed answers…I really didn’t know what death was at that time. So I started writing these letters as a kid, to somehow communicate with him.”
As he described in the Allen Alcantara-produced doc, he communicated with his father almost daily. Upon the hundreds of letters that he has kept, backed up, and secured contain passages and poetry based on every type of emotion —“Where are you?” “When are you coming back?” “I had a good day at practice” — that can flow through the mind of a child, adolescent, and gold medalist.
“I actually had quite a few epiphanies while I would write these,” Rayron says. “It actually felt like I was talking to my dad. Not just my dad, but even communicating with the happy little kid who was having fun with his day. It’s an amazing way to deal with these types of feelings you’re having.”
One of his most recent messages came in 2020, after winning the gold medal at last year’s PanAm Games, the same prestigious tournament his father won more than two decades ago in 1998. “We’re world champions, Dad!”
Rayron has already added a pair of golds in 2021, and although he continues to steamroll through his division in a quest to surpass last year’s mark while still working toward BJJ’s ultimate diploma, a black belt, with success comes the need to work on deficiencies opponents have been honing in on to unseat the current No. 1 ranked purple belt.
While the 6’2’’, 220-pound star’s BJJ skills continue to grow stronger, his most noticeable weakness, he says, is his overall strength. He noticed this while sparring with former NFL Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Cushing. “The hardest fights I had in my career were against football players,” he says. “They’re the next level of athleticism — super strong, super agile. Of course, jiu-jitsu is about technique, but being strong helps a lot. I had to find out what they were doing.”
To match the raw power he needs when he faces top-tier super heavies, Rayron reached out to strength coach Joe DeFranco, Cushing’s former trainer who’s currently working with UFC welterweight contender Mickey Gall.
“What led him to me was the fact that he was having the most trouble with former football players who took up BJJ,” De Franco says. “In his words, their ‘strength, power, and takedown speed’ was ‘different’ than anything he’s ever felt.”
DeFranco first addressed common mobility issue faced by most BJJ athletes — posterior chain tightness. To do this, each warmup would begin by performing hip thrusts and reverse hyperextensions to help strengthen that area.
Knowing the amount of time Rayron spends on the mats, DeFranco had to be cognizant of both helping him maximize his strength and rate of force while at the same time not risk overtraining his athlete. The program: DeFranco put together what he calls a two-day condensed variation of a conjugate training system, in which Rayron would repeat the same movement patterns, but have the movements switched up.
“Rayron has made incredible strides in strength and explosive power during our first two months together,” DeFranco says “He’s already added four inches to his vertical jump and his grip strength [measured with a hand dynamometer] has improved by 21%.”
With little time to rest now that competition season is near, Rayron makes the time to visit recovery expert and renowned New York City-based physical therapist Dr. Fabian Garcia. While incorporating a structured mobility program to help relieve muscle tightness and joint stress, Garcia adds a holistic element to his patients, including Rayron. Each two-to-three-hour session begins with LED red-light therapy to nourish mitochondria.
With the amount of stress done to one’s joints and muscles, Dr. Garcia stresses the need for lymphatic drainage via ACE Medicupping. Fluids from the application of negative pressure rise to the body’s surface, leading to a mobilization of inflammation proteins via the lymphatic system. This normalizes fluid dynamics in the body. This is followed up with an individualized mobility session. Dr. Garcia emphasizes that in order to get the full effects of lymphatic drainage, don’t skimp on time, adding that a process can take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes to complete.
“Medical professionals need to see their patients with a telescope, not a microscope, to look at the big picture in order to deliver the highest level of care,” Dr. Garcia says.
The perfect Hollywood conclusion to this story would have Ryan sitting proudly in the arena watching his son continue to carry the Gracie torch, but reality says the best Rayron could hope for is a sign that he’s watching proudly. “I look to the crowd to see if I could find your smiling face,” Rayron says in the doc, tears streaming. “I haven’t found it yet, but I know you’re there.”
Since his arrival. in New York in 2016, both Rayron’s English and jiu-jitsu have flourished. And as he put it, his commitment to the Gracie legacy, once in doubt after Ryan’s passing, continues to strengthen tighter than his grip on his opponent’s gi. Where he takes his next venture — a future in MMA is a long-term possibility, he says — remains open. The choice is his, and he’s confident it’ll play out the way his father would’ve wanted.
“I think that my life was supposed to happen in the way that it is happening,” Rayron says. “Once you follow the path you’re destined to, great things can happen.”
As part of his conjugate system of training, strength coach Joe DeFranco has Rayron perform two workouts each week. The first includes a dynamic effort lower-body move supersetted with a max-effort upper-body exercise. He will add both an upper- and lower-body accessory move.
Day 2 features a reversal and described in the following workout, a dynamic upper-body move followed by a max-effort lower body exercise followed by accessory work. Both workouts end with a finisher including either sleds or farmer’s walks.
1a. Medicine Ball Chest Pass (either kneeling or diving) into Plyo Pushup: 5 sets, 3 reps
1b. Hand-Supported Safety Bar Bulgarian Split Squats: 5 sets, 5, 4, 3, 3, 3 reps (each leg)
2a. Bentover DB Row (with Fat Gripz): 3 sets, 10 reps (each arm)
2b. Barbell Hip Thrust: 3 sets, 10 reps
3. 10-yard Prowler Push (using heavy weight): 8-10 rounds