New Yorkers are known for their attitude. And even though Harley Flanagan was born in San Francisco, he’s as New York as they come. With that status comes a certain way of looking at life, so I have to wonder if the Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt would have stuck with “the gentle art” if he had walked into the California academies of one of the other members of the Gracie family.
“They might have thrown me out,” Flanagan laughs, and that’s no surprise. Guys like Flanagan, Renzo and his late brother Ryan were intimidating to many in their various worlds, but they were kindred spirits, and if they were on your side, they were there for life. That all comes from Renzo, universally loved and respected by those that know him in the jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts community.
“Renzo doesn't judge people the way most people do, he really doesn't,” said Flanagan. “He's a really beautiful guy in that way. He treats people not based on their status or wealth; it's what you give. He feels it, and that's what you get from the guy. He's the best.”
And while Brazil is his home, NYC is a close second for Gracie, and it showed as he built his academy from the ground up in a city that is barely recognizable today from what it was back then. That goes for the world of jiu-jitsu as well.
“The dynamics of that world back then were pretty intense,” said Flanagan. “It was so in the early days of MMA that the only people who were training at the time were either people who wanted to be fighters, people who were bouncers or people who just liked fighting and fights; people who literally got in street fights. Over time, a lot of those guys wound up getting weeded out or they changed. I was one of those guys, as far as, I was training because I liked to fight and I sure wasn't training because I had any ambitions of becoming a professional fighter or athlete. I fought a lot in my youth and this was just something I wanted to learn. So it was pretty intense because back then - people were real protective of their secrets and camps didn't like to share info. There were not a lot of people training, so when the door would open and someone would come in, it was like the music from 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.' (Laughs) Who are you? Where are you from? If you came in and you had cauliflower ears, the room would go quiet. No videotaping, no photographs.”
Anyone who didn’t comply, well, the names in that room are enough to make it clear that folks complied with the rules of the academy. Gracie. Serra. Almeida. Danaher. That’s a murderers row of jiu-jitsu any way you slice it, and Flanagan knew immediately that it was a special time and one that would never be repeated.
“It was a beautiful time,” he said. “It was something that I'm so lucky to have been a part of. And you felt it. You felt it in the air, you knew it. The dynamic energy of the people in that room, you had to feel it. Anybody who's ever been around Renzo knows just how much fire that man has in his soul. Now you put him in a room with his brother Ryan on top of that, are you crazy? It was like a human dynamo in there. And then all the cousins, and everybody, and we really all loved each other. And that's the type of environment he created in there. Even the people who moved on and opened up their own places, everybody remembers those days as the good old days. Sure, the sport has developed and the future of the sport is probably gonna be even more amazing than it ever has been, but those days were so special. It was like being in the wild wild west.”
How wild? Well, there was the time when the academy’s home was in an abandoned building in Times Square that also housed a methadone clinic.
The craziest place, which we all remember fondly, was near 42nd street during the crack epidemic in New York,” said Flanagan. “So that whole neighborhood was nothing but crackheads and crack prostitutes and total madness. I was living in my rehearsal studio, which was right around the corner from there, and there were only two functioning floors in our building, which was an abandoned building. One of them was the academy and the other one was a methadone clinic. There was nothing else going on in this building except for fighters and drug addicts walking in and out. It was so nuts. We'd be in there training and the elevator would open and there would be two drag queens on their way to get their methadone, like 'Hey guys, can we come train?'”
Flanagan laughs, reminiscing about the days when the team wasn’t just learning jiu-jitsu, but forming a brotherhood. So when one of them fought, like when Renzo knocked out UFC vet Oleg Taktarov in Alabama in 1996, the whole gang was there.
“We piled into the car and we were crammed, there was no room,” said Flanagan. “We drove all the way to that, and there was some real passion. And there still is. And I'm so proud and honored to be a part of Team Renzo Gracie and that family.”
Oh yeah, there was some pretty high-level jiu-jitsu going on in the heart of the Big Apple, too.
“A lot of the Gracies were rolling through,” said Flanagan. “Rodrigo teaching when he was a brown belt, Ricardo Almeida when he was a brown belt, Matt Serra, I remember him moving through all the belts there, as well as John Danaher. Ryan Gracie, every time he was in New York, that was his home. It still is the Mecca of jiu-jitsu on the east coast. Yes, there's a lot of great schools, a lot of great professors, a lot of people with a lot of accolades, great fighters, great champions. But there's only one Renzo Gracie, and that legacy from his grandfather straight down to him, it's an unbroken chain. The energy in there has always been so great, so much fun, even back then. Back in the old days it was purely knuckleheads who were training, dudes who liked to fight, dudes who were bouncers, who were looking at a future in MMA. Jiu-Jitsu has a way, even with myself. Renzo used to laugh. He'd say it would turn even a savage into a gentleman. I guess there's a certain amount of humility and restraint that you learn over time of getting your ass kicked. It was a no joke school.”
Of course, no story involving Renzo Gracie and his academy would be complete without his brother Ryan, best remembered by MMA fans for his fights in PRIDE, where he compiled a 5-2 record and garnered a sizeable fan base for his fiery style and attitude. Gracie would tragically pass away at the age of 33 in 2007, but in his short life he left quite an impression, particularly on Flanagan, and the two became fast friends.
“My attitude when I was young was if you looked at me wrong or you looked at me too long, it was on,” he said. “And that's kind of how he (Ryan) rolled. But me and him never went out and got into trouble once. He used to come to my house straight from the airport before he'd even go to Renzo's house. We always just chilled. I'd help him with his English and we'd go to movies and stuff like that. No one had to impress anybody.”
But once on the mats, it was all business.
“This is how crazy it was back then,” said Flanagan. “Ryan was teaching class and he's like, 'Okay guys, when I say 'go,' everybody just grab somebody.' So basically it was just like go after whoever you saw. You just went after somebody, and when you submitted them, you went on and jumped in on somebody else. All of a sudden, it was two on one, then three on one, and it turned into this total freakshow of multiple people grappling against each other. As you get submitted, you're out until finally there was this one dude who didn't last, with everybody kicking his ass. That's how nuts it was. It wasn't grab a partner, shake hands, go.”
And no one messed with Ryan Gracie, as illustrated by the following story.
“There were a lot of people on the mats and Renzo got on the mats and said, ‘Okay, guys, I just want to let everybody know my brother's coming in today, and two things: Don't try to take his picture and if he tells you to get off the mats, just leave.’”
Flanagan laughs, then pauses before continuing.
“But if he loved you, he was the greatest friend in the world you could ever have. I miss that guy with all my heart.”
Another friend and teammate no longer with him is Anthony Bourdain. When you lived the life Flanagan has, there will be as many losses as there are wins, and the human losses are the toughest to come to grips with.
“I miss that guy a lot,” said Flanagan. “He, as well as Ryan, they still give me encouragement from the grave because it gives me the will to fight through the adversity, to not give in to the pressures of life, to not give in to any kind of self-doubt. We all suffer from different degrees of self-doubt or issues or whatever suffering we go through, but those guys give me the will to fight through it because I miss them so much that I wish that they would have made it and that gives me the fight to keep going. I always feel like whenever I'm about to get impulsive, I always think about, what would Renzo do, what would Ryan do. And I always feel like Ryan just shakes his head and smiles and says, 'Nah man, it's not worth it.' Which is exactly the opposite of what he would have done when he was here. (Laughs) So I have that angel on my shoulder always.”
It’s pretty evident that studying jiu-jitsu has never been a leisure activity for the founder of the seminal hardcore band, the Cro Mags. At first it saved him. Now it maintains his balance.
“I kinda laid off teaching after my surgeries, and once I got better and recovered, I started training again and I have not really gone back to the teaching because I realized how much I missed training,” Flanagan said. “So I've been training more and teaching less. Not that I don't love teaching and especially working with the kids, but it feels good to be alive again and not just teaching people how to be alive, but being out there in it.”
So was it jiu-jitsu that prompted the need for surgery?
“They were from life - like car accidents and stage diving and headbanging, all that stupid s**t that you do,” he said. “The surgeries are the result of all the things I did when I didn't think I was gonna live past 25. Now I'm 54, and I'm like, 'Oh f**k, maybe I should not have stage dived off that PA system.' ”
Flanagan laughs. It’s a good laugh, the laugh of a survivor.