The Complete History Of BJJ

Confident on your Jiu Jitsu history? How about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? It’s a fascinating story, so grab onto your Gi and come along for the ride across millenia. Here, we’ll chart right back to where it all began with the Buddhist monks, cross borders to ancient China and finally Japan. The fighting skills were honed by samurai warriors and Jiu Jitsu was even deemed a national secret, remaining so for centuries...until a few teachers headed to South America in search of a prosperous new market. Destiny was waiting, when a Brazilian businessman and a Japanese Jiu Jitsu master met. The rest is history!

The History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Like me, if you’ve watched any MMA before, you may have wondered about some of the origins of these exotic, awe-inspiring martial arts. One such example is that of Jiu Jitsu, which seems to hold a kind of rare mystique that not many other martial art possesses.

Because of it’s supreme dominance in the early years of UFC under the charges of the Gracie family, this ferociously effective form of defending oneself remains an acute enigma. Here, I will tell it’s story and how it came to become one of Brazil’s own national treasures.

From Humble Beginnings

Being a Buddhist monk 2,500 years ago in India brought its own occupational hazards. This was a time of frequent hostilities from Mongolian aggressors in the North, where marauders would often plunder and thieve mercilessly.

Beni Hasan Tomb Egypt - Wrestling Hieroglyphics

Worried for their own safety, the monks developed a non-violent technique based on the principles of balance and levers. This meant they avoided the use of force and weapons, which were strictly prohibited by those practising Buddhism.

And so, the earliest known form of Jiu Jitsu was created.

To the Land of the Rising Sun

Two centuries later and Buddhism, followed closely by Jiu Jitsu, was losing strength. Due to the strong influence of local religions, Buddhist monks were forced to leave India, having to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Ceylon, Burma, Tibet. Later, they had scattered across all of Southeast Asia, including China and finally Japan, where their knowledge of Jiu Jitsu gained the most traction.

At that time in Japan, the social class division was very evident and marked - the nobles and samurais were the creme de la creme - and it was in the samurai class that Jiu Jitsu built momentum and developed further throughout the centuries and over countless battlefields.

Yōshū Chikanobu Kabuki -Samurai Fighting

Now, how incredible would it be to glimpse these ancient warriors teaching and practising early Jiu Jitsu? I can safely say this is a side of History we’re never taught in school!

In fact, Jiu Jitsu became so important to the Japanese government that it was even forbidden, by imperial decree, to be taught outside the country. Whoever didn’t keep this law was severely punished. Pretty crazy, right?

The Ancient Art Enters the Modern Age

The great modernisation of Japan in the late nineteenth century, forced the country (until then, shut off from the West) to open its ports and give access to foreigners. It’s secret fighting art, Jiu Jitsu, was placed in serious danger of being revealed.

From here, a period of great social change began in Japan. Because of this "Westernisation", the penetration of foreigners (mainly European and American) had brought a serious problem for the Japanese: how to keep Jiu Jitsu a secret?

Like a script from a Hollywood movie, the government brought in a famed Jiu Jitsu teacher and Japanese Minister of Culture, Jigoro Kano, to create a ‘fake’ Jiu Jitsu, so as to keep the real version from prying foreign eyes.

Jigoro Kano - Creator of Judo

What Kano did in fact, was create what was later to be christened Judo. This was then exported to the West, where it became a wildly popular sport in its own right.

However, the world was changing. The twentieth century was dawning and mass communication and travel was becoming notably more widespread. The true arts of Jiu Jitsu could no longer remain a secret.

Jiu Jitsu Reaches Brazilian Shores

Today, we have Google to help us uncover knowledge. Back at the tailend of the 19th century, the wise folk had to travel around to teach others. And so it came to be, that a group of Judo and Jiu Jitsu masters migrated from Japan to other continents. They made a healthy enough living off the teaching of the martial art and of the promotional fights that they carried out.

Ease of travel, relaxed laws on emigration and a chance of economic freedom certainly helped in their decision making. One such practitioner was Mitsuyo Maeda. Maeda was one of the great Kodokan judokas at that time and one of the masters who traveled the world, in search of fame and fortune.

Mitsuyo Maeda - Fighting Poster

He left Japan in 1904 and visited several countries giving Judo classes and accepting challenges from different fighters of boxing, savate, wrestling, fighters, and several martial artists. The date of his arrival in Brazil was on November 14, 1914 in Belem do Pará - a place where the Conde Coma Academy now exists. It was there he stayed in a house of the Brazilian aristocrat, named Gastão Gracie. Enter the Gracie Dynasty So far, I’ve taken you on something of a whirlwind, spanning samurai warriors, continents and countless centuries. However, it is now that modern BJJ finally starts to set its roots.

Gastão Gracie was a descendant of Scottish ancestry and was also a diplomat of the Brazilian government and a very influential person in the society of that time. He was a business partner of the American circus in Belém at the time, and helped the Jiu Jitsu master Maeda in his exhibitions and businesses.

The children of Gastão Gracie saw a demonstration by Maeda at the Da Paz Theatre and decided to learn Jiu-Jitsu. Maeda accepted them graciously as his students.

The Original Academy

Another important date occurred in 1925, Rio de Janeiro, where the first Gracie academy of Jiu-jitsu was opened. Gastão’s son, Carlos invited his young, yet eager brothers to help him promote his academy and for this they developed an unusual commercial strategy. They challenged anyone who doubted the effectiveness of Jiu Jitsu in a fight without rules or time and weight limit.

Carlos Gracie and Joao Alberto Barreto - The Unbeatable

Success for the effectiveness of this system began to give prestige to Jiu Jitsu and more and more people showed up at the Gracie brothers academy to train. Meanwhile, in his spare time, Carlos took charge of raising and educating his younger brothers named George, fourteen years old, and Helio, aged twelve. Since then, Carlos shared his knowledge with his brothers, and they adapted and perfected the techniques, given their own conditions.

He also taught them his philosophy of life and the concepts of natural nutrition, being a pioneer in the creation of a special diet for athletes. You may have heard of the Gracie Diet, which became synonymous with health within Gracie Jiu-Jitsu as a whole.

By training and developing an effective technique for self-defense, Carlos Gracie saw in the art of Jiu-Jitsu, a way to train and become a more tolerant, respectful and humble man. In order to demonstrate the superiority of Jiu-Jitsu and create a family tradition, Carlos challenged the greatest boxers, and fighters of his time; and then went on to manage the careers of his brothers, both as teachers and competitors.

Hélio, the Unlikely Hero of BJJ

It’s not often realised, but Hélio Gracie, Carlos' younger brother, never had the athletic conditions (by medical recommendation) to perform the practice of Jiu Jitsu. But this did not prevent him from acquiring the necessary knowledge.

Carlos and Helio Gracie - Demonstrating BJJ

One day, a student of Carlos presented himself at the Botafogo Academy - where the Gracies had now established their Dojo - and Carlos had not arrived in time for the class. Not wishing to turn the student away, Hélio offered to teach the young man and take the class himself, based on the techniques he had memorised through observation.

The student was so delighted with Hélio's explanations that he asked to continue with him as an instructor from that moment on (the student turned out to be the president of the Bank of Brazil at that time). Hélio soon realised that the techniques he had apprehended did not always work due to his lower physical capacity, so he had to correct and adjust many of the positions, creating what was initially known as Gracie Jiu Jitsu. This is the technique which later became popularised and expanded worldwide with the name of BJJ.

Hélio VS Kimura

To show you how big a deal martial arts were in this part of the world, we have to go back to October 23, 1951, in the colossal, cauldron-like Maracana stadium. Hélio Gracie faced Masahiko Kimura, considered world number one in Judo at that time. This was no back alley gentleman’s club or downbeat Dojo.

The fight was preceded by a series of challenges between the Gracie and Kimura students, in which the Japanese group had been defeated. These challenges had begun due to the fame that the Gracie family had acquired in the world of martial arts. This had no doubt quickly reached the ears of Kimura.

"Yes Hélio, if he survives against me for more than three minutes, he should be declared the winner!” So overwhelmingly confident in his victory, the Japanese Judoka dismissed any possibility that Hélio could last with him.

Helio Gracie Vs Masahiko Kimura - Fight Photos

Thirteen hard fought minutes were needed for the Japanese to manage to subdue the slightly built Brazilian. Kimura’s physical superiority (weighing 35 kilos heavier) showed out eventually. Despite this and for the surprise he experienced, Masahiko Kimura hastened to declare Hélio as the winner of the fight, something the Brazilian refused.

The Next Generation

The Gracie dynasty was expanded over the years (Hélio would have up to 7 children) and would end up forming a team of fighters completely dedicated to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. One of his nephews, Carlson Gracie, was responsible for shaping and structuring the new sport inside Brazil. In 1967, he created the Federation of Jiu Jitsu of Guanabara, in Rio de Janeiro under the auspices of the National Confederation of Brazilian sports.

The Gracie Family - Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

It didn’t end there though. The man to break BJJ into the mainstream was just around the corner. 1978 and Rorion Gracie, Helio’s eldest son, upped sticks from Brazil flew to America. His mission was to share his father’s techniques with the largest, richest audience in the world.

Even on arrival, he soon saw that most Americans had no appreciation for just how effective Jiu Jitsu could be. Even those who had background knowledge of martial arts would confuse the Gracie system with old-fashioned Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, which had been around in America since the 1950’s. So as to truly put home the clear distinction between both disciplines, Rorion had the name Gracie Jiu-Jitsu trademarked.

Rorion was a dedicated man. For years, his garage was where he taught students, whilst fronting a single-man campaign to cast open the minds of American martial artists to the power of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. However, this almost proved an impossible task. Rorion didn’t have many more chances to prove his point - that the most simple and effective martial art was his family’s brand of Jiu-Jitsu. So he sought a way of showing it and with help, formed the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The Octagon Opens the World’s Eyes

Jiu-Jitsu came to prominence worldwide thanks to television in the nineties, when Royce Gracie, son of Helio Gracie, exponent and expert in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, won the first title in 1993, won again in 1994 and again in the fourth UFC championship, which were then by simple elimination.

Royce fought against opponents often much bigger and who practiced other styles, such as boxing, shootfighting, kempo, wrestling and Taekwondo. Once again, as his father Helio Gracie did in Brazil 40 years earlier, the Jiu-Jitsu represented in this case by Royce Gracie demonstrated his great efficiency by winning the tournament. Since then, it has become a staple art for many MMA fighters, drawing their attention to and considering the importance of fighting on the ground.

The “soft art” has already spread all over the world, with academies in countries such as the United States, Canada, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Italy, Australia, Japan, Finland, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela among many others. And you’d have a good argument to say that the Gracie family, undoubtedly, had a stellar role in inspiring the rise of mixed martial arts, which keeps on growing year on year.

Currently, Jiu-Jitsu is going through a period of expansion around the world that seems to know no bounds, thanks to the televised effectiveness of its technique and the Brazilian brothers who decided to show the world what they could do.

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