This article was written by Marc Barton, who is a 2nd degree Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt under Mauricio Gomes. Marc is the head instructor at Kingston Jiu Jitsu.
Today Brazilian jiu jitsu is one of the world's fastest-growing and most popular combat sports. The number of people training is growing exponentially. It is recognised as not just being one of the most effective martial arts but also having immense benefits for physical and mental health. But how did we arrive here, and what are the origins and history of this martial art that we love so much?
What exactly is ‘jiu jitsu’?
The term jiu jitsu is derived from the Japanese 'ju', which means gentle, soft or flexible, and 'jutsu', which means art or technique. For this reason, many people refer to jiu jitsu as the gentle art. Jiu jitsu is the spelling used in Portuguese, whereas ju jutsu is a more direct phonetic translation of the Japanese words. Nowadays, 'ju jutsu' tends to refer to the original Japanese art, whereas 'jiu jitsu' tends to refer to the derivative Brazilian art. For ease and consistency, I will use the spelling 'jiu jitsu' throughout this article.
Modern Brazilian jiu jitsu is predominantly a grappling martial art with a particular emphasis on ground fighting techniques that use leverage and timing to achieve a submission on the opponent using joint manipulation and chokes.
Forged on the battlefields of feudal Japan
Jiu jitsu would evolve further in the 17th century during the Tokugawa shogunate when laws influenced by neo-Confucianism were imposed to reduce war. The civil wars of the Sengoku period ended, and a new era of stability arose. Unarmed combat became more popular during this period, and the practice of jiu jitsu became more widespread throughout society. By the early-1800s, there were hundreds and possibly even thousands of different schools of jiu jitsu, each with its own unique flavour and style, being taught in Japan.
The vision of Jigoro Kano and a new art
In 1874, a young student at an English-medium school in Tokyo began searching for a dojo where he could study jiu jitsu as a means of self-defence due to the awful culture of bullying that was endemic at the school. Unfortunately, during the second half of the 19th century, jiu jitsu became less popular due to Japan becoming increasingly westernised, and Kano struggled to find a school where he could train.
It would take him until 1877 to find a willing teacher, Fukuda Hachinosuke, who taught the Tenjin Shin'yo-ryu style of jiu jitsu. Fukuda died in 1880, and Kano continued his study of jiu jitsu at another nearby school under the tutelage of Iso Masatoma. Iso, however, also died in 1881, causing Kano to move to yet another school; this time, he would train in the Kito-ryu style of jiu jitsu under Iikubo Tsunetoshi. In 1882, Kano opened his own school and dojo at the Eisho-Ji Buddhist temple in Tokyo and in 1883, he was promoted to the rank of Menkyo by Iikubo Tsunetoshi, an official teaching grade, who supported him by regularly visiting his dojo. It was not long before Kano began defeating Iikubo.
Kano named his school the Kodokan Judo Institute, with judo meaning 'the way of gentleness'. Kano's judo style combined the various styles and teachings of jiu jitsu he had been exposed to, and added his own discoveries and ideas. Kano was an educator by profession, and he also managed to create a standardised syllabus of throws, newaza ground fighting techniques and kata with a heavy emphasis on randori sparring. He also introduced the teaching of Judo into schools.
The Kodokan started with less than a dozen students in 1882 but grew steadily and had to move locations on several occasions to accommodate the large numbers of students flocking to train there. By the time of Kano's death in 1934, the Kodokan was a 510-mat facility with thousands of students.
From Japan to Brazil
Following a short stint fighting challenge matches for a travelling circus, Miyako signed a contract with the Brazilian Navy and remained with them until 1912, teaching jiu jitsu to seamen and the military during that time. Legend has it that Sada Miyako competed in Brazil's first-ever Vale Tudo match against a Capoeira fighter called Cyriaco Franciso da Silva, which he lost in humiliating fashion.
A couple of years later, in 1914, another Japanese instructor arrived in Brazil, Mitsuyo Maeda. Maeda had spent many years training in judo at the Kodokan under one of Jigoro Kano's top students, Sakujiro Yokoyama. Maeda travelled to Brazil with four other students from the Kodokan. The group, like Miyako a few years earlier, spent time fighting challenge matches for a travelling circus.
Maeda was renowned for his ferocious newaza (ground fighting) based style of Judo. It should be noted that Maeda also still referred to Kano's style as Kodokan jiu jitsu, as opposed to judo. This was commonplace at the time, and hence the reason we train in Brazilian 'jiu jitsu' and not Brazilian 'judo' today.
Maeda continued travelling around Brazil for several years before finally settling in Belem in 1920, and around this time, he met and befriended a businessman and politician of Scottish descent named Gastão Gracie. Gastão helped Maeda establish a Japanese immigrant community, and as an expression of his gratitude for Gastão's assistance, he accepted his son, a teenager called Carlos Gracie, as his student.
A photograph of Mitsuyo Maeda taken in 1910 (public domain photo)
The Gracie Family take centre stage
Over the next few years, Maeda continued to teach Carlos, and in time Carlos would also share the art with his four brothers Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., George and Hélio. Hélio was smaller and weaker than his brothers and apparently had difficulty executing the judo-style techniques that had been passed down from Maeda. This led Hélio to adjust these techniques, focusing more on leverage and making them easier for smaller fighters to use successfully against larger opponents.
In 1925, the Gracie brothers, led by Carlos, opened Brazil's first jiu jitsu academy, and 'Gracie jiu jitsu' was born. Over the years that followed, the Gracie brothers would continue to refine the art and pressure-tested it regularly with brutal public challenge matches that pitted themselves and their students against practitioners of other fighting arts such as boxing, luta livre, capoeira, and luta romana.
The 1950s saw Gracie jiu jitsu rise to new levels of recognition, with Hélio participating in several high-profile challenge matches, including three against world-renowned judoka. Hélio fought Yukio Kato twice in September 1951, the first bout ending in a draw and Hélio won the second by choke. This led to the now legendary bout against the much larger Masahiko Kimura. The Gracie vs Kimura fight occurred in front of 20,000 people in the Maracanã Stadium in Ro de Janeiro. Despite fighting valiantly, Hélio lost via a gyaku-ude-garami armlock, now commonly referred to as a Kimura armlock. Despite the loss, Gracie received recognition for a spirited performance against a much physically larger opponent.
A photograph of Hélio Gracie taken in 1952 (public domain photo)
The next generations of the Gracie family
In the 1950s, Carlson Gracie would take up the mantle as the lead fighter in the Gracie family. Carlson was the first-born son of Carlos. Like his uncle, Carlson took part in many challenge matches and continued to raise the profile of Gracie jiu jitsu. Perhaps the most famous of these were his fights against the capoeira fighter Waldemar "The Black Panther" Santana. Santana had beaten Hélio in October 1955, and there was significant bad blood between Santana and the Gracie family, a former janitor at the Gracie Academy. Carlson and Santana would face off four times in high-profile fights, Carlson winning two and two ending in draws.
In the 1970s, Rolls Gracie rose to prominence. Rolls was born on March 28th, 1951, the love child of Carlos Gracie and Claudia Zandomenico, a young Italian air stewardess who worked for Lufthansa and lived in Rio. Because Rolls was born out of wedlock, Carlos's wife did not want to raise him, and Carlos entrusted his brother Hélio to bring him up.
At this time, Gracie jiu-jitsu was mainly taught based on Helio's style of using defensive grappling to wear opponents down and then submit them. Carlson had already started to modify the art, introducing a more aggressive style better equipped to meet the challenges facing jiu-jitsu fighters in Vale Tudo. But Rolls began incorporating new techniques learned from his training in other combat arts into his style of Jiu-Jitsu. He was particularly impressed with the work ethic of the wrestlers and brought that same attitude to his own training. Rolls would take his students on long runs, push the pace when rolling with opponents and was very aggressive in his pursuit of submissions. He always encouraged his students to train in other arts as he had, such as judo, wrestling, sambo and other grappling arts, to expand their horizons also.
Rolls taught many notable jiu-jitsu athletes in his short time as an instructor, including Rickson Gracie, Carlos Gracie Jr, Royler Gracie, and Rigan Machado. He promoted just six men to black belt before his tragic early death in a hang-gliding accident: my instructor Mauricio Motta Gomes, Marcio Stambowsky, Romero "Jacare' Cavalcanti, Nicin Azulay, Paulo Conde and Mario Claudio Tallarico.
The legendary Rolls Gracie, pictured with my instructor Mauricio Motta Gomes
The Ultimate Fighting Championship changes everything
The 1970s saw jiu jitsu travel across the ocean again, this time to the United States. In 1972, Carley Gracie, the 11th child of Carlos Gracie arrived there and was the first person to teach Gracie jiu jitsu in the country. Six years later, the oldest son of Hélio, arrived in California and opened an academy in Los Angeles.
In an attempt to increase awareness of his family’s fighting art in the United States, Rorion created the ‘Gracie Challenge’, an open invitation for challengers from other martial arts for an ‘anything goes’ match against a Gracie jiu jitsu student. These matches are now legendary, and many were videoed and can be watched online. These matches would also provide the inspiration for another challenge match event. Together with Art Davis, Rorion created the ‘The Ultimate Fighting Championship’ (UFC), which pitted fighters from various martial arts and fighting styles against each other in a tournament style event. These events would be the start of the hugely popular and successfully mixed martial arts (MMA) movement. Rorion chose his younger brother Royce to represent them in the inaugural event in 1993. Royce was not a big man, but despite his smaller stature, he won all of his fights by submission and was crowned as the first UFC champion. Royce would go on to win the tournament two more times, in UFC2 and UFC 4. His victories were eye opening for many people, who realised it really was possible to defeat bigger, stronger opponents using the Gracie family’s jiu jitsu. Another Gracie, Rickson, would take jiu jitsu to even higher levels in mixed martial arts. Rickson is the third oldest son of Hélio, and he would go undefeated in MMA, competing mainly in Japanese events such as the Pride Fighting Championships.
The Modern Era of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
After the success of jiu jitsu in the UFC and other MMA events, its popularity steadily grew. The Gracie family style of jiu jitsu started to become referred to simply as 'Brazilian jiu jitsu' (BJJ), and more and more people began to seek out and learn this exciting martial art that was dominating over other styles.
In 1996, the first ever BJJ world championships, commonly known as the 'Mundials', took place in Rio de Janeiro. In 2002, Carlos Grace Jr. founded the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), and BJJ started spreading rapidly from country to country. In 2007, the Mundials moved to California, where it has remained ever since, and over 6,000 competitors took place in the tournament in 2022. Roger Gracie, the son of Mauricio Gomes and Reila Gracie, would dominate the sport scene in the 2000s becoming ten-time world champion, and many believe that he is the greatest jiu jitsu competitor of all time.
Jiu jitsu continues to grow and evolve continuously, with new techniques and moves being constantly introduced. New academies are opening worldwide, and almost every large town now has at least one place to train. It has never been easier to find a place to train in this exciting martial art that started on the battlefields of Japan almost one thousand years ago.