Kron Grace

A Love Letter

From A Blood Letter


Written by Erik Rasmussen 

Photography by Kenneth Cappello

Kron Gracie is among the best of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners. Since 2005, he’s earned fourteen international first place competition finishes, and with his recent transition into mixed martial arts, is currently undefeated. He’s also only 28 years old. His highlight reels are like cocaine to Jiu-Jitsu students, easily racking up half a million hits on YouTube. Chief among them his 2013 quarter finals match at ADCC — basically the World Series of submission fighting — in which he competed against the fast-rising Garry Tonon.
Tonon was winning on points, doubling Kron’s, with ninety seconds left in the ten-minute match. Kron found himself under heavy top-pressure and pretty much immobilized. But then Kron, spitting out his mouthpiece, took a quick look at his father, the legendary Rickson Gracie (a hero to probably every competitor present), who was sitting nonplussed in the stands and calling out the time: “you got a minute.” 
Kron scrambles to a neutral position nearly out of bounds. The ref restarts them, center mat. Forty-five seconds left. Kron works to pass Tonon’s guard, which he does a little too easily. Perhaps Tonon’s thinking ‘I’ve got this, there’s only half-a-minute to endure.’ But now Kron is climbing onto his back, working a hand under Tonon’s chin for the mata leáo, AKA the “rear naked-choke.” The crowd’s looking from Kron to Rickson so frequently it’s like they’re watching a ping-pong match. Tonon muscles to his feet, carrying Kron like a monkey. The choke is cinching Tonon’s arteries into ever smaller apertures, stemming the now-panicking flow of blood. Ten seconds. Kron’s basically welded to Tonon’s back. Both men are making faces seen only in such struggles. Tonon drops, looking to roll out of bounds for another reset, securing the win. Too late. Shop’s closed, and so are the pathways between his blood supply and brain. With two seconds left, Tonon taps out, defeated. A galaxy of elite Jiu-Jitsu competitors look on in awed silence.
Kron went on to submit all four of his opponents; an unlikely feat in a points-driven tournament at the world-class level, equivalent to say, winning a baseball game by hitting only home runs. It was clear that day that a new generation of Gracie had emerged, wearing gold around his neck. So why wasn’t he happy?


“Ice Cream” Kron is sitting mat-side at Kron Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Culver City, California, where for the past five years he’s been the head instructor. His motto, “Keep cool under pressure,” is printed on the wall. He’s finished the first of the day’s training sessions. His wrists, fingers, ankles and knees, even his biceps, are taped. He’s surrounded by an array of liquids: bottled waters, sparkling and still; a recovery shake; Gatorade, roughly the equivalent in volume to the sweat dripping from his face and arms, gathering in pools around his toes. “If you only reward yourself for winning, then you have no value when you lose,” he says. “For me, the most important thing about Jiu-Jitsu is to gain a deeper understanding of the techniques, and through them a deeper understanding of myself. That takes away the emotional need to win, and to become a champion. The art becomes pure. I don’t have the attachment that I used to have. I did that my whole life. And slowly, it killed me. It took away from my soul, and I didn’t become my best. If I lost I thought, ‘Fuck, I let everybody down.’ And if I won, ‘Thank God!’ It was a roller coaster. My happiness depended on one day of competition. But the reality is, that didn’t matter.”

Kron is the latest in line of a fighting family dynasty. His grandfather, Helio Gracie, a 135-pound weakling, founded Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil a century ago, boiling Judo down into principles of leverage, then applying them where everybody’s equivalent in size: on the ground. Long before MMA had become the world’s fastest growing sport, Helio’s sons and nephews spread word of their burgeoning art as their Grandmaster had before them — through open challenge.* If you thought you could scrap, and were willing to risk having your joints snapped and your lights choked out, you had a standing invitation to a Gracie family academy, where you could test your technique against the head instructors’. Indeed, the Gracies take-all-comers ethos was the inspiration behind the first UFC.
The Gracie name was broadcast into the American psyche in 1993, when ninety thousand households tuned in to Pay-Per-View to watch a full-contact, mixed martial arts event called The Ultimate Fighting Championship. There were no weight classes, few rules, and lots of blood. There were no judges, no points system, and a clear winner: Royce Gracie; Kron’s uncle, the smallest and arguably least athletic of the competitors. Royce’s smothering control and saliently strike-less dominance was sobering — even confusing — to an American audience dazzled by choreographed Kung Fu flicks and boxing’s above-the-waist bell ringing.
I was watching. I was 16. I was electrified. Most of all, I was eager to learn the secrets of so called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu: like Royce, to be confident in the face of aggression, and to be comfortable where the danger was greatest. At that time in my life, the likelihood of being thrust into a fistfight was staring down 100 percent, and I wanted to know how to choke someone with their own bicep. There were no Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academies where I lived on Long Island — yet. So, armed with an instruction manual, a bootlegged Gracies In Action VHS, and a key to the Hofstra University gym, some wrestler friends and I began an ancient quest: to see what we were made of.

Though I didn’t know it then, I’d first seen Kron on another bootlegged VHS cassette — Robert Rapheal Goodman’s 1999 film, Choke, which documented Kron’s father, Rickson, preparing and participating in a full-contact combat tournament in Japan. In the opening scene, Rickson is in bed surrounded by his four small children when Kron, the youngest, attacks him with a surprisingly well-executed arm bar. In the film, Rickson goes on to win the tournament, submitting all four opponents via rear naked-choke. Hence the film’s title.

“When I was a little kid, I thought, ‘My dad is a great fighter. So I’m going to be a great fighter, too.’” Admittedly, Kron was more likely to be found skateboarding in the parking lot outside his father’s school than sweating it out on the mats with his students. “One day my brother [Rockson] told me, ‘put your energy into something 100 percent. You can do whatever you want. But right now you have the opportunity to learn Jiu-Jitsu from the best. You have the best resources.’ He told me that and then he passed away.” Kron’s about halfway through peeling the tape from his wrists. “Fuck man, I wanted to do this for my brother, because he’d be proud. I wanted to do it for my dad because he didn’t have my brother anymore to represent the family.”

Kron put down the skateboard and put on the gi. At 19 years old, he earned his black belt from his father. That was the last time they trained together. “My dad has the best foundation, and everything I have comes from it. But I had to find my own answers. I had to develop on my own, physically and spiritually. That’s the natural order.

“I was good at Jiu-Jitsu,” Kron continues, “but I needed to work harder. And not blame anybody for my mistakes. When I did that, I started to see results. I started to win. Then I started to get money and to get everything that I thought was important. But I realized it was making me more unhappy. So what made me happy? Do I have to attach myself to winning for my father, my brother, and for my grandfather? No, I had to find another way.” But ways have a tendency to find Kron.




A few years ago, Kron sat down to breakfast. Pancakes, maple syrup and coffee. It was a normal morning until he felt nauseated. “Sick to my stomach,” is how he tells it today. “I ran outside and started to hallucinate.” There, in the California sun, he collapsed. He saw moments from his life appear as pictures; his family, his trophies, his travels. All the while he’s thinking, “Oh shit, I’m going to die.” The pictures shrunk to little square frames, lined up, and stacked like an iPhoto mosaic, revealing a larger, singular image. “Don’t die! Don’t die,” he pleaded with himself. A light broke through the pictures, clear and bright and all-consuming. Then there was nothing. Kron was dead.

“I was gone for a long time,” he recalls. When he woke up, he was choking on vomit. A friend was kneeling over him, pumping his chest.

The science around the moment of death is fuzzy. When exactly does the mortal coil spring? What’s the point of no return? And then there’s the philosophical implications of “remembering” what-all happened after death settled in. What does the recollecting: the physical brain, or something immaterial? The immediate question concerning Kron’s personal death at the time was the same as yours or mine now: What the hell just happened?

“I still don’t know what caused that. If I had been in a car accident it would’ve been easier to [mentally] come back from,” Kron says of the experience. “I’ve climbed mountains. I fight to the death. It didn’t make any sense. I was just going to die at breakfast like that, on a normal day?”

His sweat is nearly dry now. He’s finished his recovery drinks. Once in awhile he stretches a part of his body that’s cooling too quickly. He doesn’t remember what happened on the other side of the light, but something in his mind had turned on — an epiphany, is how he describes it. “We’re all from the same energy, before and after life,” he says with considerably more enthusiasm than he’s had for any discussion about Jiu-Jitsu technicalities. “As a physical form, we have the illusion that we’re separate from each other. But we’re the same. Us, the environment: it’s one energy. You can live with this energy, or you can separate yourself in a duality, where you don’t care about the world or yourself — you just live for money, for this or that, and you self-destruct.”

Kron says that a few realizations upon returning from, well, whatever happened on that sun-soaked lawn outside his pancake breakfast, effected real changes in what he’s begun to see as an infinite journey. “I honestly don’t think I’m going to be here for long,” he says. “I realized I’d been living my whole life filled with resentment, carrying it with me every day. There were so many people who thought that I had a problem with them. And I didn’t, it’s just that our energies didn’t make sense at the time.” He describes a process of reaching out to those presumed scorned, ringing them on the phone. “Hey man, I’m sorry. I want to square things up,” he told them. “You don’t have to be my friend, just understand it’s all good. I love you.”

This, of course, was not what I’d expected from an interview with Kron Gracie. I’d come to talk about armbars and chokes, what sweeps he uses most frequently, and the tricks he’s got up his sleeve. How has the fight game changed since his father was king? And if he could fight anybody, who would it be? I’m a Jiu-Jitsu buff, and I wanting to geek out with Jiu-Jitsu royalty. 

But the bigger questions — what really matters? What makes you happy? How much did you take advantage of each day? How much did you love? — these were the magesteria Kron was going to discuss, whether or not he was asked. Martial arts 101: play your game, not the other fellow’s.

“When I almost died that day,” Kron continues, “all I could think was, the love that you leave here is the only thing that matters.”

Kron loves love. Love is what he’s after. “I know what that is for me, and I know that it’s not going to be tricks,” he says. “It’s not going to involve things that will get me to feel low. Truth is, in the beginning we have great relationships because we don’t expect shit from each other. Keep it that way as you grow, it becomes natural. The moment we start expecting stuff, and trying to change each other, it becomes bitterness, and that grows, too. I’ve got girlfriends all over the world, and I tell them, ‘Love is free, and I’m loving to you, and I’m loving to anybody who is loving back. If I can give it, I will give it, but I’m not going to control you, and I’m not going to be controlled by you. I’m not going to become something that you want me to be, because I’m much more. I’m light.’”

It’s the same with women as with men, and with his Jiu-Jitsu students, Kron explains. “Relationships can be based on control and manipulation, or they can be based on love. If it’s real love, it’s easy. If it’s anything else …”

You can live with this energy, or you can separate yourself in a duality, where you don’t care about the world or yourself — you just live for money, for this or that, and you self-destruct.

For example, around the time his friend Nate Diaz inked a contract to fight in UFC 196, Kron had been drinking daily. He wanted to stay in the house and just not move. “I was super fucking depressed,” he says plainly. “Nathan called me up. ‘Dude, I’m fighting Conor McGregor.’ And I was like, boom, ‘I guess I gotta get out of my depression. Right now. And go train with him. I have to do it because I love him, and that’s the most important thing.’ It wasn’t difficult,” he says. “At that time you could have offered me $50,000 to do something and I would have said ‘no,’ but driving six hours north for nightmarishly hard training sessions was easy because I have that feeling for Nate.”

Kron is right, the love you leave behind matters. It’s what the world needs now. Especially when you consider, which Kron does, the state of environmental health and what that means to future generations, not just to Gracies, or to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s legacy, but to everybody. There’s a more concrete and objective component to what is actually “left” when Kron talks about love and the leaving of it.

Insofar as energy is eternal, Kron realized we are immortal. We’re put in this physical stage of life as if in a movie. He was put here through the conditions of the Gracie family, by what his grandfather, his father, and his brother left. “What’s really important is the environment. Oceans, the trees, those are parts of us,” says Kron. “I love my art. I love competing. I love expressing myself, but I can’t just do that, and then watch the earth get destroyed. What is my purpose if I become the best, if I become everything I want to be, but then my nephew and the next generation doesn’t have a next generation? If I can be good energy, that’s the least I can do. I was put in this situation to make a change,” he says. “It’s been coming for a hundred years.”

As Kron walks me to the door, shirtless, shoeless, with the tape’s adhesive still clinging to his arm, I could’ve been leaving a BJJ training session: unsure what exactly went down, controlled and submitted — choked out of my interview — and feeling the better for it.

“The last thing I want to talk about is Jiu-Jitsu,” Kron says.

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