A dream fulfilled: Spencer Fisher gets a private lesson with Rickson Gracie


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 have warned him to not expect Rickson Gracie to be there. They said that the jiu jitsu master isn’t like everyone else. 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. After profiling Spencer, a former UFC lightweight, for a story on his battles with head trauma and getting him one, I set out to find him one. Filming the story was equally important so that he could always remember how he played 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. He found the outpouring support after his story was published encouraging and exhausting. Emily, his wife encouraged him to move around and keep active. It would pay off big, she said.

An introduction by Scott Coker, Bellator President and a help from Guilherme Cruz got us on the phone to Gracie. She agreed to collaborate with Spencer (and allowed us to document a portion of our 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 arrived in town, the young men at SoCal’s gyms saw Spencer’s black belt and heard that he was a UFC veteran. 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 had also brought one, though the dryer cycle made it a bit too tight for Spencer’s liking.

Rickson was the first person to arrive. His wife Cassia opened the studio. It is a small waiting area and an office that are attached to a larger dojo. Rickson can hold private seminars there and create content in this room, which is his pandemic pivot. The room has a complete camera set up, including a crane as well as wall to wall gray mats. It seems that all the Gracies are now virtual.

Not sure exactly what to do, Spencer got dressed and stretched. What can you do to prepare for that moment in your life you have waited for? Look busy. Rickson came in his new Toyota Camry, a black Toyota Camry. We were just fumbling around at the office. 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. I had to leave, it was time for work.


“Don’t think about escape, worry about being comfortable,” Gracie advised. “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, in white with his ninth-degree redbelt on display. Spencer remains in his Gracia Barra blue as they grapple.

“Make sense?” Rickson asked. It’s not difficult for me to hold a plate.” Rickson slaps his hands on the plates. “But if you lift this plate here, it’s…” He shakes his top hand. You have to be able to move 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. He released “Breathe” in August. It included some family secrets that he claimed to have learned from the family of one of the most prominent martial artists families in recent history. Rockson’s death from a drug overdose and his depression led to him returning to 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. He’s still here, fighting on the mat and still prezzeling his opponents, who have come from far to learn from him.

Just like Spencer, Rickson is dealing with chronic injuries (though, presumably, none to his brain). He has the six-pack and still projects that immovable aura from his youth.

” I’m becoming scared of you,” Gracie laughs with Spencer. He then adds, “You want this down ?”

Spencer sighs with acknowledgment and he stumbles back to his feet. His phone has been recording voice messages and Spencer is jotting down notes in his notebook. He doesn’t want to forget any of this.

“It was a wonderful experience to train with Spencer because he is an old warrior and can also know his past and get in touch the invisible side of jiu jitsu. This, Rickson said.

In the end of Rickson’s career, Rickson has decided that jiu jitsu is no longer about fighting or competitive aspects. This makes sense given his age. He talks more about the “invisible” things he feels and senses within his body. This is true regardless of whether you are moving around in the world, or using your limbs to contact 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. You can think clearly when your brain is full of oxygen. You’re on solid footing.

” Many people believe that just because someone gets slapped on the butt or starts to cry at birth, it means they know how to breath and keep alive. “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. This applies to [for] fighters and jiu jitsu practitioners as well as anyone else in the .”


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. Rickson believes that fear is the root of many problems, both in life and in jiu jitsu. 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. Although medication and microdoses psilocybin have been helpful in relieving some symptoms, there is no way to know when the dizziness will return and he will have to lay 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 is an old soldier who can’t just wave his hands and let all this go with a sigh. 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. It’s not easy to get out of poor 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 get official,” Rickson states.

They bow to each other and hug.

“No. 1, best of all-time,” Spencer says. “Thank you, Rickson.”

They pose for photos, with one arm crossed and the other smiling, 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. He sends me the following picture two days later.


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. Although he is unhappy with his performance against Rickson and how one student caught him at one of the SoCal gyms for the first time in many years, he also was tired. 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. His body was tired and he felt overwhelmed. He was exhausted and overwhelmed. Then, he began to remember how to breathe again.