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To practice BJJ is to learn — little by little, day by day — to harden yourself to be able to withstand what life throws at you.

That’s what we learned from Master Rickson Gracie, a fighter who became synonymous with invincibility, boasting a record of 11 bouts and 11 wins in MMA – not to mention countless wins in BJJ as a black-belt.

In an interview with the folks at Ragga magazine in 2010, Rickson commented on the most devastating loss someone can have. Never before had Rickson spoken so candidly about the death of his son Rockson, found dead in a New York hotel in December 2000. This is how he replied to the question “What’s the worst beating you’ve ever taken?”

“Without a doubt, the loss of my son, ten years ago,” he says.

“I feel that his passing represented a lot, because I managed to deal with this loss,” Rickson adds. “Nothing is more significant than losing someone you truly love. When you talk about a loss, you may think of strength, perseverance, praying, the belief that there will be a tomorrow, all these factors, when a friend perhaps comes over and puts his arm on your shoulder. All these opinions are relevant, but the truth is that I came to the conclusion that none of that matters. When you lose something truly deep within you, you have to sit, cry, and accept that you’ve hit rock bottom.

“Deep down, you see a reason to shoot yourself in the head, to stop doing the right thing, to stop being a happy person. You may want to fool yourself, thinking, ‘It’s bad, but I can take it,’ and that’s the kind of lack of honesty that will never cure the wound. I hit rock bottom and decided, deep down, whether I would come back to the surface or not.”

Rickson, black-belt Renato Barreto, and Rockson. Photo: Renatobarreto.com.br

Rickson took many years in coming to terms with the tragedy, and changed the course of his life and the way he leads it. Part of his plan was to return to Brazil. Other foundations were family, the gentle art, and learning, even if through suffering.

“I went through the healing process with my family,” he says. “For practically three years I was focused on recovering this energy and seeking some reason for me to be happy again. And that reason is my three beautiful kids, my family, BJJ. To put the issue to rest in my head, I spent a long time looking for a bright side to this loss, something I could take away from this tragedy as an advantage. After much meditation, withdrawing to the woods, without feeling any desire to surf, play, train, I reached the conclusion that there was an advantage, a positive side. Up until that moment, I had never really valued time; I always thought I controlled my time, that I could put off talking to my son until tomorrow, that I could put off that trip or class until later, that time was just a question of reworking my agenda. I put off doing a lot of things thinking I’d be able to do them later. With my son’s departure, I understood that there is no tomorrow. We have to do everything as though there were no tomorrow.”

And again Rickson affirms that he is retired — he will not fight again. Indeed, the black belt hasn’t fought since Rockson’s death. The most heavily anticipated fight at the time was a matchup with Kazushi Sakuraba.

“That fight would have been the biggest payout of all time. They offered me five million dollars; it would have put me on easy street. He beat a number of Gracies, and it would have been a good fight for me, perhaps the best fight. He really was a thorn in the side of all the Gracies.”