Wed. Jan 19th, 2022

New Yorkers are known for their attitude. And even though Harley Flanagan was born in San Francisco, he’s as New York as they come. With that status comes a certain way of looking at life, so I have to wonder if the Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt would have stuck with “the gentle art” if he had walked into the California academies of one of the other members of the Gracie family.

“They might have thrown me out,” Flanagan laughs, and that’s no surprise. Guys like Flanagan, Renzo and his late brother Ryan were intimidating to many in their various worlds, but they were kindred spirits, and if they were on your side, they were there for life. That all comes from Renzo, universally loved and respected by those that know him in the jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts community.

“Renzo doesn’t judge people the way most people do, he really doesn’t,” said Flanagan. “He’s a really beautiful guy in that way. He treats people not based on their status or wealth; it’s what you give. He feels it, and that’s what you get from the guy. He’s the best.”


And while Brazil is his home, NYC is a close second for Gracie, and it showed as he built his academy from the ground up in a city that is barely recognizable today from what it was back then. That goes for the world of jiu-jitsu as well.

“The dynamics of that world back then were pretty intense,” said Flanagan. “It was so in the early days of MMA that the only people who were training at the time were either people who wanted to be fighters, people who were bouncers or people who just liked fighting and fights; people who literally got in street fights. Over time, a lot of those guys wound up getting weeded out or they changed. I was one of those guys, as far as, I was training because I liked to fight and I sure wasn’t training because I had any ambitions of becoming a professional fighter or athlete. I fought a lot in my youth and this was just something I wanted to learn. So it was pretty intense because back then – people were real protective of their secrets and camps didn’t like to share info. There were not a lot of people training, so when the door would open and someone would come in, it was like the music from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.’ (Laughs) Who are you? Where are you from? If you came in and you had cauliflower ears, the room would go quiet. No videotaping, no photographs.”

Anyone who didn’t comply, well, the names in that room are enough to make it clear that folks complied with the rules of the academy. Gracie. Serra. Almeida. Danaher. That’s a murderers row of jiu-jitsu any way you slice it, and Flanagan knew immediately that it was a special time and one that would never be repeated.

“It was a beautiful time,” he said. “It was something that I’m so lucky to have been a part of.  And you felt it. You felt it in the air, you knew it. The dynamic energy of the people in that room, you had to feel it. Anybody who’s ever been around Renzo knows just how much fire that man has in his soul. Now you put him in a room with his brother Ryan on top of that, are you crazy? It was like a human dynamo in there. And then all the cousins, and everybody, and we really all loved each other. And that’s the type of environment he created in there. Even the people who moved on and opened up their own places, everybody remembers those days as the good old days. Sure, the sport has developed and the future of the sport is probably gonna be even more amazing than it ever has been, but those days were so special. It was like being in the wild wild west.”

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