Spencer Fisher is sitting in a Starbucks, mocha in hand, trying not to get his hopes up. He’s flown across the country for this moment, but here in this Torrance, Calif., strip mall on a Wednesday afternoon, he’s not convinced it’s actually real.
Many people have told him not to expect his idol, Rickson Gracie, to come through. The jiu-jitsu master doesn’t do this with everyone, they said. He’s elusive, mercurial. He could just as well go surfing as teach.
It’s been Spencer’s lifelong dream to have a private lesson with Gracie, the fighter and grappler who inspired a martial arts journey that led him to the biggest stage of MMA. And so, after profiling the former UFC lightweight for a story about his struggles with head trauma, it’s been my mission to get him one. Just as important has been filming it so he would forever have a reminder that he rolled with his hero.
Until a hip replacement surgery seven months ago, Spencer had altogether sworn off jiu-jitsu, feeling too beat up to teach and tired of explaining his flagging balance to curious onlookers. The outpouring of support he’d received after the story ran was encouraging, and also a little bit exhausting. His wife, Emily, encouraged him — that’s the polite word for it — to get out of the house and stay active. She hinted there would be a big payoff.
An introduction via Bellator President Scott Coker and an assist from my colleague Guilherme Cruz got me on the phone with Gracie, who agreed to work with Spencer (and let us document part of the lesson). There were flights to arrange, COVID-19 tests to take, and a student of Spencer’s recruited to accompany him with the idea they’d tour local gyms on the trip. Emily and I broke the news to Spencer on a Sunday afternoon.
“Son of a….,” were his first words.
When they flew into town, young bucks at the SoCal gyms took one look at Spencer’s black belt, heard “UFC veteran” and attacked. He worried he wouldn’t be ready when, and if, Gracie showed.
We drove to a drab industrial park and waited outside a tan building in the California sun. Spencer fretted about his blue Gracie Barra gi, having heard that Rickson is a traditionalist and only accepts white ones. He’d brought one of those, as well, but a recent dryer cycle had made the backup a little too snug for his taste.
Rickson’s wife, Cassia, was first to arrive and opened the studio, a modest waiting room and office attached to a large dojo. The room is Rickson’s pandemic pivot, a place where he can do private seminars and produce content. There’s a full camera setup with a crane and wall-to-wall gray mats. All the Gracies have gone virtual, it seems.
Not sure exactly what to do, Spencer got dressed and stretched. How do you prepare for the moment you’ve waited for almost your entire life? Look busy. We were futzing around the office when Rickson arrived in a new black Toyota Camry. Wearing a black Gracie jiu-jitsu rashguard, Gracie marched right up to Spencer, and Spencer nearly fell over as he stood to greet the legend; when he’s excited or nervous, his balance gets worse. It was time to get to work, and time for me to go.
“Don’t worry about escape — worry about be comfortable,” Gracie instructed. “So bump first…STOP….stay cool there….cool…yes….so cool….everything’s cool….beautiful…if you can feel my energy, you can use my energy…YES.” Spencer flips him.
Nearly two hours later, we’re back at the studio to watch the end of the lesson. Rickson is in white, his ninth-degree red belt on display. Spencer remains in his Gracia Barra blue as they grapple.
“Make sense?” Rickson asked. “Is easy for you to control a plate.” He slaps one hand on another. “But if you lift this plate here, it’s…” He shakes his top hand. “So you have to make yourself in a position to play in the middle. Where my energy goes, you can take advantage.”
At 62, Gracie is no longer the taut warrior once profiled in the documentary “Choke” — he’s old enough to collect Social Security. This past August, he released his autobiography, “Breathe: A Life in Flow,” and unburdened himself of some apparent family secrets of the most influential martial arts family in modern history. He opened up about the loss of his son, Rockson, to a drug overdose, and the depression that took him back to his native Brazil. This past August, he did an interview for GQ that became a story titled, “Rickson Gracie No Longer Wants to Fight.” He looks a little world-weary. But here he is, still fighting on the mat, still pretzeling opponents who’ve come far and wide to learn from the master.
Just like Spencer, Rickson is dealing with chronic injuries (though, presumably, none to his brain). He still has a six-pack, though, and projects the same immovable aura of his younger days.
“I’m getting scared of you,” Gracie jokes with Spencer. Then, he adds: “You want to write this down?”
Sighing with acknowledgement, Spencer agrees and wobbles again getting to his feet. He’s been taking voice notes on his phone the whole time and scribbling in a notebook. He doesn’t want to forget any of this.
“It’s been a great experience for me to train with Spencer, because he’s an old warrior, and he’s capable to know what he did with his life, and also get in touch with the invisible aspect of jiu-jitsu, which was the plan today,” Rickson says.
In the sunset of his career, Rickson’s jiu-jitsu practice is not so much about the competitive or combat aspects of the art. This makes sense given his age. Instead, he talks a lot about these “invisible” things you sense and feel in your body, whether you’re moving through the world or leveraging your limbs in contact with another person. It’s less about hurting people and more about understanding yourself.
The most important thing for Spencer, according to Gracie, is that he remembers to breathe, deeply. When the brain is alive with oxygen, you can think more clearly. You’re on solid footing.
“People think just because you get slapped on your butt and start to cry when you’re born, you know how to breathe and stay alive,” Rickson says. “That’s true, in the matter of being alive, but it’s far [from] true in a matter of increasing your awareness, your capacity to overcome nervous, emotional breakdowns, or endurance for high-top athletes. So when you know how to use the diaphragm and breathe properly, you open a different dimension of understanding calmness, possibilities, control of emotions. And that goes not only [for] fighters or jiu-jitsu practitioners, but anyone in this universe.”
Some of the philosophy seems little nebulous. But if it’s ultimately about drawing confidence from within, it’s hard to find fault in that. In Rickson’s world, so many of our problems in life and jiu-jitsu come from the body’s response to fear. And from my many conversations with him, this is where Spencer finds himself a lot these days. With so much uncertainty about his health, his future, his brain, it’s easy for him to turtle up and withdraw. Medication and microdoses of psilocybin mushrooms have helped take away some of his symptoms, but there’s no telling when a dizzy spell will strike and he’ll have to lie down. Not long ago, he was teaching a class when the room started to spin and his students had to catch him. Another time, he got so stressed out by an argument he witnessed that he projectile-vomited.
Gracie, the old warrior, can’t wave his hand and take all of this away with breath. What he can do, on the other hand, is give Spencer a mission. All fighters, no matter their age, love a mission, something to push against.
“My balance is horrible, but he showed me some ways to keep my balance when someone’s coming toward me, you find a center of balance by weight distribution of my legs,” Spencer says. “Getting out of bad positions. It’s a lot of fun. I learned a lot, and I have to go back to my notes to get everything.”
“Let’s make official,” Rickson says.
They bow to each other and hug.
“No. 1, best of all-time,” Spencer says. “Thank you, Rickson.”
They pose for pictures, striking a serious, arms-crossed pose and then another smiling with thumbs up. This is not a dream, but a reality. It’s too cold and too late to surf.
Spencer doesn’t get a lot of time to reflect on the experience. Two days later, he sends me this picture.
A kidney stone had sent him to the hospital for two days. He was fine, but it made the trip back to North Carolina quite painful, and he still hadn’t fully recovered a week later. “Just my luck,” he wrote.
But he is back in his gym, day after day, trying to get back in shape. He is not entirely happy how he performed against Rickson, how a student caught him in his first submission in years at one of those SoCal gyms, and just how tired he was. The very next day after the lesson, before his kidneys started to ache, he was on the bottom, trying to fight his way to a better position. He was exhausted, overwhelmed. Then he remembered to breathe, and he could think again.