In so many ways, Neiman Gracie is just an average New Yorker.
He moved to the city after finishing school. He takes the subway on his commute from Long Island City, Queens, to his office in midtown Manhattan. He’s thrilled that Amazon backed out of its planned headquarters in his neighborhood and won’t cause his rent to skyrocket. He loves taking his 1 1/2-year-old daughter, whom he calls "the most precious thing I have," to the park, or taking his dog for a walk around the block. He’s about to headline an event at Madison Square Garden.
OK, that last one is unique to Gracie, who is set to face welterweight champion Rory MacDonald on Friday in the main event of Bellator 222.
"When I came here 12 years ago, I was always looking at the Garden," Gracie told amNewYork on Wednesday at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. "The Garden is two blocks from my gym, and now headlining here is something special for me."
Submission grappling royalty
The 30-year-old Brazilian, who emigrated from Brazil as a teenager to hone his skills at uncle Renzo Gracie’s midtown gym, is at the fore of a new wave of martial artists from the most famous family in both submission grappling and MMA. His great-grandfather, Carlos Gracie, founded Brazilian jiu-jitsu with brother Helio. His great-uncle Rorion co-founded the UFC in 1993, when the first tournament was won by his uncle Royce.
Like dozens of his extended family members, Neiman Gracie is a black belt in his family’s martial art. Among his past accomplishments in that realm are a bronze medal in the 2013 IBJJF World Jiu-Jitsu No Gi Championship, when he competed in the heavyweight division among black belts.
That same year, Gracie turned pro in MMA and he has accumulated a 9-0 record with eight submission victories ever since. MMA had been the long-term goal, even during his competitive grappling days. He had been training in the sport full-time since arriving in New York a dozen years ago.
While Gracie acknowledges that adding a world title from a major North American MMA promotion — something that has eluded his family since the sport largely moved away from single-day tournaments in the 2000s — will be more of a boon for his own standing in the family than it would be for his famous clan.
"I don’t think it means that much for the family, because I think we already did what we are supposed to do," Gracie said, referring to the spread of their martial art. "But, for my legacy inside the family, I think it’s big."
‘He’s the heartbeat’
Neiman Gracie is joined on the Bellator 222 lineup by cousin Robson, who will compete on the undercard of the event. The two grew up together in Brazil, competing with regularity in the martial arts-focused family. Robson, 29, told amNY that fighting is considered as normal a thing in his family as "going to the supermarket."
As someone who grew up in step with Neiman, Robson believes he knows what makes this weekend’s headliner unique among the Gracies.
"He’s the heart. He’s the heartbeat," Robson said. "… I don’t care about results after, but I see he’s going to come stronger. If he gets the belt or not, he’ll come [back] stronger."
Robson compares his cousin’s unflappable nature in the cage to that of their uncle Renzo, who was among the top mixed martial artists in the world around the turn of the century.
"Renzo, he never gets frustrated with the fight," Robson said. "If he wins or loses, he never gets frustrated because that thing motivated him more. And I see the same thing with Neiman. I saw the same thing with all the older generation, [such as] Royce."
Grappling is in his blood on both sides of Neiman’s family. His mother, Carla Gracie, married noted BJJ black belt Marcio Stambowsky (their son’s full name is Neiman Gracie Stambowsky). He was raised Jewish like his father, and he is proud to represent his heritage as one of MMA’s most notable Jews, even if he said he doesn’t practice as often anymore.
Like the descendant of many Jewish families who fled across the Atlantic to escape the Holocaust, Neiman heard stories from an uncle who survived it. He described how his uncle’s pregnant wife was brutally killed, while the uncle was sent to a concentration camp. According to the stories, at the time of his liberation, a friend he left with weighed about 66 pounds.
Hearing the tragic tales served as inspiration for Neiman.
"I see where the other side of my family comes from," Gracie said. "It’s just, [they are] warriors."
Chasing gold and green
While the stakes in his bout this weekend pale in comparison with that of his father’s family, Neiman Gracie knows he’s in for a tough task against the champion MacDonald (20-5-1). His 29-year-old opponent first fought professionally nearly 14 years ago, made his UFC debut at age 20, and came within 4 minutes of claiming the UFC championship four years ago.
Fighting has been a way of life for both men since their youth, and Robson Gracie sees similarities in his cousin and MacDonald.
"He’s another guy who has the heart of a fighter, because just fighting is not easy," he said. "Anyone can be there in the cage, but to be a true fighter is different."
The mentality of MacDonald, who has been in several grueling fights over the last few years, was the source of speculation after his draw with Jon Fitch seven weeks ago, stemming from comments he made immediately after retaining his title.
"It’s hard to sometimes pull the trigger now, I guess," MacDonald said in the cage on April 27. "I don’t have that killer inside [of me]. I don’t know. It’s really hard to explain. I hesitate a little bit now. … It takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain and suffering. I don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore."
Yet MacDonald opted to fight on, continuing with the planned bout against Gracie that was scheduled, pending a successful title defense against Fitch. Prior to that contest. Gracie-MacDonald is the semifinal matchup in the promotion’s yearlong Bellator Welterweight World Grand Prix Tournament, the winner of which will be awarded $1 million.
Like most New Yorkers, Gracie joked that he can’t imagine that winning such a seven-figure prize will make it any easier to afford living in the city.
"How much is a two-bedroom apartment in New York?" he said. "I cannot buy an apartment. I think I gotta win, like, three tournaments to buy my apartment."
Friday’s winner, in addition to being the Bellator champion, will advance to face former promotional champ Douglas Lima in the tournament final at a later date. Although admittedly superstitious — and presumably biased — Robson Gracie foresees his cousin winning, thanks to the family’s grappling acumen.
"I think Neiman is gonna get the submission," he said.