The testosterone is almost tangible as the group of young men wait expectantly for Royce Gracie to arrive. They flex their biceps, bounce lightly on their feet and stretch their legs in a way that suggests they rather fancy their chances of taking on the Brazilian fighter.
"There are only a few people in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Hall of Fame, and Gracie is one of them. He is an all-time great," enthuses 23-year-old Tommy Hughes. An avid fan of Gracie since he was a child, Hughes practises mixed martial arts (MMA) at the MMA Academy in Dubai. The former army soldier from Northern Ireland is one of many fans of UFC in the UAE. As Gracie arrives, bodies push eagerly forward for the chance to shake hands with a hero. Gracie greets the crowd with a Hollywood-white smile. The Brazilian champion, in the capital to promote jiu jitsu and MMA in the UAE, knows how to turn on the charm and aggression when required.
"It is about spreading the word of Gracie Jiu Jitsu," said Gracie. "Why? Because I think the self defence style we have, anyone can benefit from it. Not just by giving yourself defence moves, but by giving yourself confidence." Poised, calm and measured when he talks, Gracie's 6ft 1in body is packed with muscle and built for fighting. His career is impressive. Gracie is an MMA and Brazilian jiu jitsu champion. He holds the record for the most submission victories, with 11 in MMA. He was the original UFC champion, winning three of the first four tournaments. In a sport where legends are often too quickly created, he is the real deal.
The 42-year-old was in Abu Dhabi to run a seminar in jiu jitsu after being brought in by MMA enthusiasts in Dubai. The Gracie name is synonymous with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the family having been responsible for introducing the sport to the South American country. "My grandfather was doing business with a Japanese man. In exchange of good relationship the man taught my uncles the art of jiu jitsu," Gracie explains. "My father couldn't do it because he was very weak, he couldn't do one press-up, so he just sat back and watched, and memorised. What he did was add leverage into the moves."
Gracie says he was the "chosen one" in the family, the one who would prove to the world that jiu jitsu was the superior form for martial arts. The family devised a challenge to put their theory to the test. This challenge became what is known today as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, of which Gracie was the first champion. "In the beginning there was a question, a question to which martial arts was the best," said Gracie. "The only way to find out was to put two men in a ring, no rules, no gloves, no time limits. Take away all the rules and see who was the best. We beat opponents twice our size, from all different types of martial arts."
Gracie laughs as he recalls the ease with which was able to defeat the Japanese sumo superstar, Akebono Taro. "About two years ago I fought Akebono, who is 6ft 8in and 35st. I arm-locked him, head-locked him and made him submit within three minutes," he says, and the records back him up. The Gracies have since handed over the reins of the UFC, which has developed into the MMA sport known today. "In the beginning is was pure style against style. Sumo against karate, jiu jitsu against judo. We proved our art was the best out there," Gracie said. "It has changed now. Now it is athlete against athlete, as all the other fighters had to learn grappling. The grapplers had to learn how to hit and kick."
It is only when Gracie clinches an opponent in a headlock that you appreciate the power he has. Pinning 20-year-old Polish student Michael Tlalka to the floor, he demonstrates a headlock that looks harmless and light but allows extreme control over an opponent. "It's often a rookie error," explains Tlalka, who has been practising jiu jitsu for 16 years. "When you first start you don't respect the strength and power of the grips. If you don't tap out early enough you'll pass out within seconds."
New safety measures have been introduced into the sport since the Gracies relinquished their control of the championship, including time limits on fights. Fighters have to wear gloves and penalties for dangerous moves have been introduced. Gracie is in two minds over the changes. "Do I like it? No, but do I understand it, yes," he said. "I like it raw, it is a fight, but I understand the changes needed to make it legal all over the world. "