It had been two years. Two years since Rolles Gracie set foot inside the UFC’s Octagon, only to leave with his head hung low and volleys of criticism heaved in his direction.
The date was Feb. 11, 2012, and there he was, ready to begin a new chapter, one where his name would prominently appear as a star of a growing promotion. He was in Indonesia, halfway around the world from Las Vegas and the location of his disappointing UFC 109 loss to Joey Beltran two years earlier. The heavyweight was ready to engage a once-intimidating opponent who was now infamous for his losses, rather than his size and ferocity. That opponent was Bob Sapp, and once the bell rang, Rolles managed to do something he had never before accomplished in his mixed martial arts career—he used his fists to finish a fight.
Sapp has endured an enormous amount of criticism of his own for recent performances where he seemingly gives up at the moment his opponent initiates any sort of contact.
“It’s really hard for me to judge him,” Rolles confessed in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “In our fight, I felt he came after the knockout, and when I put him on the ground, I got him with a few good knees in the temple area and a few really hard punches in his face. If he didn’t tap, he would have gone to the hospital.”
Usually, if “Gracie” appears in the same sentence with the word “hospital” in relation to a fight, it would be reasonable to assume a submission was the culprit behind an opponent’s immediate need to seek medical attention. Although that was not the case in Rolles’ finish of Sapp, the Gracie name is without equal in the world of mixed martial arts due to the family’s proficiency at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. With the legendary success of Royce Gracie, and the Gracie clan as a whole, there are a lot of expectations that come when a member of the family competes. Does this weigh on Rolles when he steps into the cage?
“This is probably the question I answered the most,” the 34-year-old said. “But I don’t feel pressured at all. I want to win regardless of my name and what I’m representing.”
And win, Gracie has. Although the early portion of his MMA career saw Rolles compete sporadically while focusing more heavily on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a run at the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship, the third-degree black belt has picked up six wins in MMA competition over the span of five years. Only once has he tasted defeat. Unfortunately, that came on the most famed stage of all—the UFC.
Two years before battering Sapp into submission with punches, Rolles set foot inside the UFC’s Octagon. He was only the third Gracie to step into the eight-sided cage, following in the footsteps of Royce and Renzo. The heavyweight, then 31 years old, squared off with Beltran at UFC 109. As he stared across the cage at Beltran, fans prepared for a new era where the Gracie name would once again rise to prominence in the UFC. Little did they know about the reality of the situation.
“That fight wasn’t supposed to take place,” Rolles explained. “My camp wanted to pull me out due to a couple of injuries that kept me from training right for the last five weeks of my training camp. I fought with a broken foot and an injured rib.”
The injuries hampered Gracie’s performance noticeably. After taking down Beltran early in the fight and working to mount, Rolles found his fortunes headed south. Just three minutes in, he was already exhausted. By the second round, Gracie was all but done, and Beltran capitalized by scoring a TKO finish. Following the fight, Rolles was on the receiving end of criticism from everyone, ranging from UFC President Dana White to his own flesh and blood, Renzo Gracie.
“I didn’t pay attention to that,” Rolles admitted. “I know who I am and what’s my potential.”
Rolles has since demonstrated that potential with three victories, including his quick finish of Sapp. The UFC is usually a goal for any fighter, and a loss there would seemingly provide more incentive for a fighter to claw his way back for a shot at redemption. However, Rolles is focused on what lies in wait for him on the other side of the globe, in the same cage where he defeated Sapp.
“My goal is to become One FC’s heavyweight champion,” the 34-year-old proclaimed. “I really believe [in] their project and I’m embracing it. I’m extremely happy to be part of it. One FC is my home now. They put on a great show, they have a lot of potential and they take really good care of their fighters. They are giving back to the sport, not only taking from it.”
Excluding Rolles’ loss to Beltran, his fights have ended in the first frame. In fact, all three wins since his ill-fated UFC outing have ended in less than two minutes. It would seem that the heavyweight’s UFC experience has given him a sense of urgency to finish his fights. Perhaps he is even concerned that letting fights go beyond the first frame would result in battling not only his opponent, but his own cardio.
“Not at all,” said Rolles. “If I can finish a fight in the first round, why should I fight two more? I train for three rounds, but because of my skills I managed to finish the fights in the first round.”
The first time Rolles ventured into the One FC cage, he was the only Gracie on the card. That will not be the case on Aug. 31, when Rolles travels to the Philippines to fight Tony Bonello at One FC 5: Pride of a Nation. This time, brothers Gregor and Igor will also compete. Gregor is scheduled to meet Nicholas Mann, and Igor is set to face Jung Hwan Cha.
“It’s an awesome experience,” said Gracie. “We’re all training hard and helping each other. We’re going there as a team after three wins.
“All three of us got our hands full. Gregor’s opponent is hungry and very strong; Igor’s is smart, calm and experienced; and Tony [Bonello] has really good skills. We’re going to have three great fights.”
Bonello presents an intriguing challenge for Rolles. The 16-1-1 Gun Fight Club product is no stranger to the Gracies. He has trained under the tutelage of Carlson Gracie and owned a Ralph Gracie Academy in Texas. Like Rolles, Bonello is a third-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“He’s a very experienced fighter with great skills,” Gracie offered as his assessment of Bonello. Despite Bonello’s time spent training with members of the Gracie family, the two adversaries have never trained together. Nor has Rolles sought advice from any of his family members who have trained with Bonello. “All the info I got on him, I got it from Google.”
Bonello has only competed once in the past four years—a 54-second win that came on the same weekend as Gracie’s UFC loss. Rolles doesn’t think ring rust will impact Bonello’s performance. However, there is the matter of Bonello’s 14 submission victories and the black belt he earned under Paulo Guimaraes, a second generation black belt under Rickson Gracie. Could Bonello’s own penchant for the ground game turn this into a grappling match?
“Sometimes when two grapplers fight, it becomes a stand-up war,” Rolles explained. “It doesn’t really matter if I think that my BJJ skills are better [than] his. I’ll have to test it [on] Aug. 31.”
What might be more concerning to Rolles is that Bonello shares the same characteristic tendency of finishing fights in the first round. That will make the opening stanza into what could be the most crucial portion of the bout.
“The first round is the most dangerous round,” admitted Gracie. “The fighters are fresh and [not] too sweaty, so it’s easier to pull out knockouts and submissions.”
If all goes well, it could be a huge night for the Gracie’s. Three fights, three potential wins. And how will Rolles earn his?
“I don’t usually give predictions, but the odds are of a first-round submission.”
Top Photo: Rolles Gracie (top) battles Bob Sapp (One FC)