The sport of Jiu Jitsu, and frankly sports in general, have seemingly progressed incredibly over the past 100 years. There has been much debate however on what is actually getting better. Are people just through hard work and dedication getting better or has science progressed us almost super-humanly?
In 1936 Jesse Owens, known as one of the best athletes of all time, ran his Gold medal 100 meter dash in 10.2 seconds. In 2012, Usain Bolt ran his fastest in 9.77 seconds. Does this mean that Owens wouldn’t have had a shot at Bolt? On the surface, it looks like Bolt would run away with it (pun intended) however with a closer look, you start to notice the many inequalities. The surfaces of the races were much different with Bolt having essentially rubber carpet, and Bolt having starting blocks, and Bolt having state of the art shoes.
Scientists took into account an analysis of the speed of Owens joints and found that given today’s technology, he would be within one stride of Bolt. Not as big of a gap as once thought. Let’s bring this back to Jiu Jitsu, what great leaps in tech have we seen? We don’t wear special Gis that allow us to strangle harder, and the surface on which we compete may be better, but negligible for our purposes on analyzing one fight.
With that framework complete, lets get back to the original question. Would Helio Gracie have stood a chance vs Ryan Hall? The answer is yes, I think he would have if you compare apples to apples. However, not if you picked Helio from 1951 and Ryan from today. Ryan today has a huge advantage in technology.
The tech BJJ practitioners have today is information access and open mindedness in training partners. Any grappler, at any time, can learn from the best coaches in the world via the internet. Whether you want to learn intricate details on the finishing mechanics of a guillotine from Josh Janis on BJJ fanatics (shameless plug) or mount control from John Danaher you can have that information in a few clicks.
The culture and view regarding cross training is different now. Ryan has had the ability to cross train with the best people in the world really anytime. I mean, any of us could go down to Austin Tx now and train with 10 of the best people in the world in just a few days. We can also go to BJJ camps all across the world like those of BJJ Globetrotters and learn from dozens of people a camp. If open to it, Ryan can learn and train with all sorts of styles and body types. Helio, back in 1951 would have only had the people from his school to train with. From what I understand you would never cross train at different schools as that was disrespectful.
So why do I think Helio would stand a chance? Because given the opportunities that Ryan has had, I believe that he would take them in order to be a better fighter. If he wanted to be the best fighter, he would cross train and be open to learning from others. That said, if Helio was to be stubborn, the technology Ryan has access to in the form of information would help him sub Helio quickly.
PS. I picked Ryan Hall because he is an incredible grappler although not the best in the world. He is relatively small and not a supreme athlete taking supplements that may not have been available to Helio ;)