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MMA legend Royce Gracie on the roots of fight, as told in a recent Fishtown appearance

Regarded as one of the best mixed martial artists ever, Gracie has now assumed the role of instructor. Nearly 100 area grapplers came to hear him speak on a recent visit to Philly.

Royce Gracie, regarded as one of the best mixed martial artists of all-time, was in Fishtown recently to speak to a group of students at Balance Studios.
Royce Gracie, regarded as one of the best mixed martial artists of all-time, was in Fishtown recently to speak to a group of students at Balance Studios.Read moreKerith Gabriel

Amid the hoopla that was a Phillies World Series run, the Union forging a path to their first MLS Cup final, and the Eagles continuing to carve up the NFL, another great moment in sports happened inside a tiny Fishtown martial arts studio this fall.

Royce Gracie, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu wizard whom many in the fight world consider one of the top mixed martial artists of all time, played the role of educator to nearly 100 Philly-area jiu-jitsu students. Gracie spoke at Balance Studios, the fight factory along Frankford Avenue, the brainchild of Phil and Rick Migliarese, former fighters turned teachers themselves.

» READ MORE: Watch how a Philly gym trains UFC fighters

From white belts to multi-degree black belts, grapplers of all levels packed the gym for the two-hour session in which Gracie, 56, shared stories, exacted moves, and imparted the knowledge that led him to become a three-time UFC champion in various divisions and an eventual UFC Hall of Famer.

“Over the last 35 years of my training, Royce has been the best representation of his father’s jiu-jitsu,” said Phil Migliarese, who teaches the Gracie family system originally invented by Royce’s father, Helio Gracie. “The Gracies have always preached the importance of self-defense, but with the proper instruction, courage, and humility.

“One of the main reasons I trained with Royce for over a decade was that I had a passion to bring what I learned and teach it here in Philadelphia. Honestly, I didn’t feel comfortable teaching Gracie jiu-jitsu without his stamp of approval. So to have him here means a great deal to me that he can impart much of what we’ve been teaching to our students.”

Those students include Justin Rosenberg, the founder of Honeygrow, who, when he’s not overseeing a growing multimillion-dollar restaurant empire launched in Philadelphia, can be found “getting a roll,” on the mats at Balance.

“This is great,” said Rosenberg regarding Gracie’s appearance. “Royce is a legend. Whether you’re in this practice to learn and get better or you are competing as a fighter, having a legend like Royce provide you with his technique is going to either inspire you or motivate you. I think for many of us in here [tonight], he succeeded in doing both.”

Following the event — one that went on way longer than the two hours for which it was scheduled — Royce stayed to take selfies with students, give autographs, and sign memorabilia. He caught up with The Inquirer to talk the transition from fighter to teacher, the fight game as it stands, and what he knows of the game here in Philly.

There wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t thank you for coming. How does that feel?

Royce Gracie: Yeah. I feel like I educated them, and that feels awesome. [Since my career ended], I feel like I’m here to educate people. I’m a teacher. I’ve always felt that there’s no such thing as a good student or a bad student. There are good teachers and bad teachers.

Can you talk about how the sport of mixed martial arts has changed and evolved since you were a fighter and just how much more the infusion of Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been a part of it all?

Gracie: In the beginning, was a style against a style. Today, it’s a fighter against a fighter. All the grapplers [have learned] how to stand up, and all the standup fighters learn how to fight on the ground. So it’s not a style against a style anymore. But it’s about who is better at the strategy of self-defense, right? A right hook is still a right hook. A roundhouse kick is still a roundhouse kick, and a jab has been a jab for the last hundred years. None of that has evolved, but what did was the strategy of defending against it. That along with food, diet, how to cut weight the right way, all of it.

So what can you say about the fighters who come from Philadelphia? Their passion, their hunger to learn?

Good fighters come from all over the world, not just Philadelphia; there are talented people everywhere. But it’s how you stay a good fighter. And the problem is people who don’t pursue, don’t follow through. Everywhere you go, you find talent. There are talented people everywhere. But without discipline, you’re not going to be on top forever. You have to just get up in practice. It all goes away eventually. Talent goes away; toughness goes away. You have to have discipline.

Someone who wants to get into jiu-jitsu but doesn’t know how: How do they get started?

This is a big commitment and can be a life-changing commitment. [But as a basic idea], it’s just good to learn self-defense, to learn how to defend yourself in a street fight situation. Not because you’re going to compete, not because you see you’re going to be fighting. For me, this has never been about teaching people how to fight. You teach them self-defense and discipline and where they choose to take it will follow.