Wed. Jan 19th, 2022

There’s a picture hanging in the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City that isn’t the typical one. It’s not a photo celebrating any of Gracie’s big wins over the likes of Oleg Taktarov, Maurice Smith or Pat Miletich. Instead, students of the renowned jiu-jitsu black belt see Gracie at a low point, a 2000 loss to Kazushi Sakuraba that ended via technical submission when the famed “Gracie Hunter” broke his foe’s arm.


“When you win, it’s easy to forget all the hardship that you went through to get the win,” Gracie told me in 2010. “You get so excited with the victory and the people around you congratulating you and hugging you, you completely forget all the mistakes you made in that fight. But when you lose, you know them, and you will never forget them. So I made sure I put that picture here, and actually that’s the only picture I have here, hanging on the wall. It’s to remind me constantly that a fight is only finished when the bell rings and the ref pulls you guys apart. Every time I walk in, I see that picture, and remember that I’m not perfect. I need to improve, I need to get better, and I need to make the people under me better, so they don’t go through that.”

THE WILD RIDE OF HARLEY FLANAGAN: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

That lesson isn’t lost on Gracie’s students, such as black belt Harley Flanagan.

“That picture says so much about Renzo’s character and what an honorable man he is,” said Flanagan. “Most people have a hard time, first of all, accepting defeat in life in any shape or form. But to be able to have your arm broken by somebody and stand up and shake their hand and smile at them and say, ‘Good job,’ it shows what kind of character he has that he can have that kind of graciousness in defeat, and we should all aspire to be more like that. There’s a saying in jiu-jitsu: you don’t lose in jiu-jitsu, you learn, and if could all take that with us in life, we would really improve our lives. He broke his arm, he was in a lot of pain. He wasn’t gonna let it show; he smiled at him and he shook his hand. To me, that says right there, that’s a bad motherf**ker. And God bless him, we should all aspire to be bad motherf**kers like that, to be able to suck up our losses in life and be graceful and honorable in victory and in loss. Life is nothing but  a learning experience and a lot of experiences, good and bad. If you know how to look at it, you can really appreciate it for what it is in there. I learned a lot about life from being with Master Renzo, and not just about jiu-jitsu. I learned a lot about myself and a lot about life.”

Flanagan lived a lot of life before he stepped into the Renzo Gracie Academy in early 1996. There were some good times, some bad, but all memorable. And while his life is as settled as it’s ever been at 54, with a Cro Mags tour in 2022, a documentary by Citizen Ashe’s Rex Miller, and a happy family life with his wife and two sons, the fighter in the New Yorker has always been there. And if not for the fact that the UFC arrived in 1993, when he was 26 years old and already established in the music world, he might have taken a different path in life.

“If MMA would have been something that was happening in the 80s, there’s definitely a chance that I would have wound up going that route,” he said. “I fought a lot as a kid, and in my neighborhood, it was kind of unavoidable. And if there would have been a platform to actually make a living and release some of that pent-up aggression, it would have been helpful. I probably would have done a lot less things on the street that I regret now in my adult life.”

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