Mandalay Sports Media/IMG Bring UFC Founding Father Rorion Gracie’s Story To Screen

Flavio Scorsato

EXCLUSIVE: Mandalay Sports Media through its IMG joint venture has set a feature film about the formation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Robert Specland will write Gracie, a drama that will tell the story of how the Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rorion Gracie co-founded the UFC as a way to give traction to a new martial arts form. The film will be produced by MSM’s Mike Tollin and Mason Gordon, and Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray.

The film has funding through MSM’s co-fi deal with IMG, which comes under the Endeavor umbrella that owns UFC. Taught jiu-jitsu in Brazil by his father Helio — who pioneered the Brazilian style — Rorion Gracie came to the U.S. hoping to elevate the popularity of a self-defense system designed so that smaller men and women could use leverage to defend themselves and prevail over much larger opponents. Rorion became one of the martial artists who choreographed the climactic Lethal Weapon battle between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey and would go to dojos all over, challenging experts who would be forced to submit.

“No one could beat him,” said Ciardi, who called the movie “a crown jewel of sports stories.” Gracie finally realized that if he was going to spread his father’s system faster than one dojo at a time, television would be the best medium. With Art Davie, Gracie conceived the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a no-holds-barred competitive fighting tournament featuring contestants from every conceivable discipline, with clashing styles leading to an overall champion.

He needed someone with youthful everyman appeal to represent the Gracie system, and Rorion enlisted his younger brother Royce. He became UFC’s first star, skillfully demonstrating the style’s effectiveness even though he was often at a decided weight disadvantage in matches. No matter how hulking the combatant, once Royce clamped onto an opponent’s neck, arm or leg, it became a matter of time before the pain of his submission holds became too much and the opponent tapped out. Royce won three of the first five UFC tournaments, fighting to a draw in the finals in a fourth.

Rorion Gracie was a purist who favored battles that lasted as long as it took for a winner to emerge, and he bowed out of his UFC ownership stake early, as timed rounds and a faster pace became required to build the sport as a business. The UFC switched hands several times, most recently bought by Endeavor-owned IMG and WME for $4 billion in 2016. Initially dismissed as “human cockfighting” by Sen. John McCain because of the violent ground fighting, UFC has supplanted traditional boxing in popularity.

Said MSM’s Mike Tollin: “Gracie is the latest film project to take shape under the MSM/IMG output deal. Considering the close relationship between the Endeavor Content Group,  IMG and UFC, this immediately becomes a priority project for us.”

The film reunites Select Films’ Ciardi back with his former Mayhem Pictures partner Gray, who separately are working together on another inspirational sports tale, the Brad Ingelsby-scripted The Has-Been, which Ben Affleck and Miracle director Gavin O’Connor are circling along with Warner Bros. Ciardi has a long association with the Gracie family, and screenwriter Specland has trained under the Gracie system. The scribe made the 2015 Black List for Nyad, a spec on marathon swimmer Dianna Nyad, and he scripted The Impossible War about Jonas Salk’s race to discover a polio vaccine, for Black Bear Pictures and Pacific View.

IMG exec Will Staeger are overseeing. Specland is repped by UTA, Peter Dealbert of Pacific View Management and Felker Toczek Suddelson. Rorion Gracie is repped by Neal Tabachnick of Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro.

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