Jiu-Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, submission grappling, catch-wrestling, Gi, No-Gi… how did this crazy world of colorful pajama grappling that mimics life or death fighting come to be?
The history of BJJ is a weird one, to say the least, and I guarantee that along the way nobody was able to predict how thighs were going to unfold.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as it is well-known, or correctly-put, Jiu-Jitsu, is one of the youngest martial arts/combat sports that took the world by storm like no other grappling, striking, or no-touch martial art before.
How much do you know about the real history of BJJ and how it spread across the world in less than a century, affecting the lives of millions of people and creating one of the most unique communities in the world?
The History of BJJ 101
I have been involved in the sport of BJJ for the better part of 13 years to date. Throughout that time, I did many deep dives into the history of the sport, both because I wanted to know more, and because I was a martial artist long before discovering BJJ, and already knew a bunch of stuff about other martial arts.
I started with the same questions that you might have, like who created BJJ, how old is BJJ, how did the Gracies invent something so innovative, etc.
Summing up the history of BJJ, as young as the sport might be, is not something that I can do in several paragraphs. At least not in a way that would do it justice.
The best way to talk about the history of BJJ, much like the history of other things, is to divide all the meaningful events that defined and propelled the art/sport into major periods.
To that extent, I like to portray the history of the Gentle Art in three distinct phases:
- The roots of Jiu-Jitsu, going as far back as the very first versions of the art in feudal Japan.
- The birth and development of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, which is what most people know as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
- Modern Jiu-Jitsu, a.k.a. the phase that is still ongoing.
Let’s dedicate attention to each of these three phases, dissecting the unique road that BJJ has had so far:
The Roots of BJJ
I’ll touch upon the true root origins of Jiu-Jitsu as a form of combat that dates back to India, as per evidence that is anecdotal at best.
Going as far back as tribal times, men all around the world were using unarmed combat as a way to both prepare for the battlefield and kill time.
The Greeks had wrestling, in Iceland they had Glima, Mongolians had Bökh and in India, they had Ju-JItsu, albeit not by that name. Essentially, every culture had a version of folk wrestling.
We have the Japanese, in particular, the legendary warriors known as the Samurai to thank for Ju-Jitsu. Nope, it is not a typo, the Japanese version of the art is written Ju-Jitsu and stands for “Gentle Combat” (translated loosely).
The Samurai were elite warriors, which served the Emperor and were extremely well-versed in combat. As you’ve most likely seen in movies, they wore big armor and waged war with bows and arrows from a distance, and a selection of blades, which includes the famous Katana when battling at closer distances.
Being the complete warriors that they were, the Samurai needed a form of unarmed combat for the battlefield, in case they remained without weapons.
Striking made no sense against the heavy armor, so the unarmed combat they developed was centered around chokes, joint locks, and throws, which were highly effective despite the armor.
And so, Ju-Jitsu was born.
The Birth of Judo
As the socioeconomic policies of Japan changed, the Samurai warriors became obsolete and were shunned, resulting in their inevitable disbandment. Ju-Jitsu would’ve ceased to exist right then and there if it weren’t for the efforts of a certain Dr. Jigoro Kano.
A victim of school bullies in Tokyo, Kano started to look for a self-defense system to practice to fend off attacks. It was 1874, and Ju-jitsu was scarce, but not impossible to find. Kano managed, albeit it took him three years, and started practicing under the tutelage of Fukuda Hachinosuke, quickly excelling at it.
After the death of his master, Kano switched schools and had to repeat the same procedure after another of his teachers passed away. This was a good thing, as Kano picked up different perspectives and styles of Ju-Jitsu, which was far from standardized and was taught by people who were somehow involved with the Samurai.
Kano opened up his own school in 1883, dubbing it the “Kodokan Judo Institute”. He based his school out of a Buddhist temple in Tokyo and focused on creating a curriculum that he could teach over and over again, combining all the various knowledge he picked up from different schools.
Judo quickly took off and turned into a national sport, as well as becoming the official martial art of the Tokyo Police Department.
Dr. Kano, an educator by trait, is also the person responsible for the Gi, which he modified from the original clothes worn by the Samurai underneath the armor, giving it the distinct look it has to this day.
The Kodokan Judo Institute gave birth to some of the greatest grapplers of the time, including Misuyo Maeda. While not a direct student of Kano, he was mentored by one of the best Judokas to learn directly from Dr Jigoro Kano, Sakujiro Yokoyama.
Maeda decided to gain as much grappling knowledge as he could, so he traveled the world, taking part in challenge matches, most of the time traveling with a circus. He picked up a lot of grappling tips and tricks, eventually developing a very unique style of his own, which he referred to as “Kodokan Ju-Jitsu”.
It was a blend of Kodokan Judo, as taught by Jigoro Kano, but with a lot more focus on the groundwork, and lots more submissions, most likely a result of Maeda’s catch-as-a-catch-can escapades during his traveling challenge match as part of the circus.
The Arrival of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil
Maeda’s travels brought him to Brazil, where he kept traveling the country which already had an impressive and rising amount of Vale Tudo matches.
When Maeda finally settled, it was in Belem, where he decided to grow roots. He enlisted the help of a Scottish businessman to acquire the necessary immigration papers. That person was Gastao Gracie, the father of Helio Gracie and Carlos Gracie Senior.
The first Gracie to take an interest in Maeda’s teachings, which was how he earned a living, was Carlos Gracie.
While he was one of the first and most esteemed students of Maeda, it is important to note at this point that he was not exclusively trained by him, as Maeda had a school that also included other students.
The Creation of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (a.k.a. BJJ)
Carlos was teaching his brothers Geroge, Oswaldo, and Gestao Junior everything he picked up from Maeda.
There was also a fifth brother, Helio, who was weak and skinny, often sick, and Carlso refused to teach, on account of his condition. Helio, however, practiced in secret with his other brothers, using his intellect to adjust the brawny style of Kodokan grappling to his frail frame.
Rise of the Gracie Family
In 1925 Carlos Gracie opened a Jiu-Jitsu academy of his own, where he and his brothers passed on their knowledge from Maeda.
Helio started training at the academy, although his brother Carlos still disapproved of his involvement. Nonetheless, Helio learned from other students and ended up beating the majority of people on the mats, which forced Carlos to change his mind.
As Carlos Gracie focused on the business aspect of running the academy, Helio ended up being the person who took apart the techniques and tactics taught by Maeda and modified them so that even skinny people were able to use them in real-life situations.
Back then, all training was for the purpose of self-defense, or better said, street fight superiority.
Helio ended up a real force to be reckoned with, as he would later confirm with his iconic matches with some of the best grapplers in the world at the time.
The modifications he did to the Kodokan Ju-Jitsu brought to Brazil by Mitsuyo Maeda resulted in the unique style of grappling that was initially known as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and later, when it spread in the USA, as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The Gracie Challenges
Carlos Gracie was a great grappler, but an even better entrepreneur.
His approach to marketing the efficiency of the newly found Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was to invite anyone and everyone to no-holds-barred matches, regardless if they were masters of martial arts or just self-proclaimed street fighters.
It wasn’t really hard to find candidates in the violence-driven culture at the time, particularly as Vale Tudo was already a popular pastime of young men.
Thanks to Helio’s modifications, and in particular, the ability to effectively fight with the back to the ground (which we know as guard nowadays), something never before seen in martial arts, the Gracies made quick work of most of the challenges that dared to cross their path.
Back then, challenges were pretty chaotic, and often time what started as a no-holds-barred match between two people ended up as a massive brawl, oftentimes accompanied by the use of weapons. Matches took place in dojos or on the beach and were instrumental in making Gracie Jiu-Jitsu famous as a combat-clad way of, well, beating anyone.
As Helio, and all the students at the academy, which by now included the second generation of Gracies, in the form of Helio and Carlos’ children, became more proficient at their trade, Carlos Gracie Senior became better at promoting it, and what started off as dojo and beach brawls ended up as match-ups that filled up entire stadiums.
Lots of distinct Japanese Judokas wanted to test their skills against the new form of grappling, and the Gracies were more than happy to accommodate.
Helio’s legendary match with Masahiko Kimura, which took place at the jam-packed popular Maracanã stadium in Ro de Janeiro in 1951 really put Gracie JIu-Jitsu on the map, despite a significantly lighter Helio losing by way of submission (a Kimura lock) which he did not tap out to, resulting in a broken shoulder.
Gracie Garage Chronicles
What Carlos started in Brazil, the second generation kept doing, eventually expanding the trade to the USA.
Carlson Gracie, Carlos’ first son was the first of his generation to take over the mantle of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu representative, engaging in famous bouts in Rio, particularly with Waldemar Santana, before letting Rolls Gracie take over.
Carlson kept working on modifying BJJ, much like his uncle Helio did, but in a different direction. Helio made BJJ defensive to fit his needs, and he would use it to tire out much larger opponents and eventually win. Carlson went the aggressive route, making it a better fit for Vale Tudo.
This inspired Rolls, the new face of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to throw some wrestling into the mix, which was the final drop in the concoction that the world would meet as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu not long after.
In 1970, Carley Gracie took BJJ north, trying to emulate in the USA what his father Carlos did in Rio, and started teaching Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in America. His older cousin, Helio’s first son Rorion Gracie came a few years later and opened the first academy in Torrence, LA, which still exists to this day.
With Rorion, the already proven marketing strategy of challenge matches also traveled to the US. Most of the training took part in garages outfitted with mats, so the Gracie Challenges became associated with the Gracie Garages, places where people could either train with and learn from the Gracies, or challenge them.
While most matches took place behind closed doors, the Gracies did videotape most of them, with some of these tapes becoming available only in recent years. Rorion and his brother Rickson even let their students fight, proving how effective BJJ can be, rarely injuring their opponents, but rather only using slaps to open up chokes and put people to sleep.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship
While the Gracie Garages proved a popular way to advertise Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and draw people to train, it was far from effective, given the sheer size of the US. Rorion quickly came up with an idea that was the next obvious step from what his uncle Carlos did in Brazil – he decided to put the challenges on TV.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC as everyone knows it these days, was a brainchild of Rorion Gracie.
He put the entire event together, figured out how to get it aired, and decided to have Gracie Jiu-Jitsu represented by the smaller-framed Royce Gracie. This was both because it made their brand of Jiu-Jitsu a lot more effective, and because he could control Royce better than the much more athletic, but also stubborn Rickson Gracie.
The inaugural event took place in 1993, and most of you reading this have already seen it, or at least heard of it. It is the reason why you’re reading this and why Jiu-Jisu exploded into a global phenomenon like no other martial art before or after it.
Royce won all his fights in the first UFC, against representatives of other martial arts. There were no rules, no referees, no judges, and no gloves – everything was allowed in that first-ever event which was as close as martial arts came to Bloodsport as it is humanly possible.
PRIDE, Rickson Gracie, and the Globalization of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
The UFC did not go down well with most of the general public that did not practice martial arts, nor the policymakers who were in power at the moment. After a dozen events or so, the promotion got shut down, branded as barbaric and too brutal for TV.
That did not bother the Gracies too much, as they had already brought BJJ to the attention of the entire American public, and people started flocking to try and learn the crazy new martial art that could beat all other martial arts.
As far as MMA goes, this might have been the end.
Japan came to the rescue, though, in the form of PRIDE, an organization that took over where the UFC left off. They introduced rules, gloves, weight categories, and the like, and became an instant success, with fighters from all over the world trying to compete in the legendary ring.
Rickson Gracie was the Gracie family and BJJ representative, going on an unbeaten streak and firmly cementing the place of both his family and the art of BJJ in the history of martial arts. PRIDE later enabled the UFC to be re-born and emerge as the superpower it is today, giving birth to a whole new combat sport – mixed martial arts.
The First Evolution: No-Gi
Up until the early 2000s, BJJ was being practiced in the Gi, and then incorporated into mixed martial arts, or what constituted MMA back then. The one thing people were not doing, was practicing Brazilian JIu-Jitsu without a Gi, even though nobody except the Gracies competed in MMA with a Gi on.
Along came Eddie Bravo, an American martial artist who jumped on the BJJ bandwagon after witnessing Royce’s legendary performances in the first few UFCs. He earned his black belt in 2003 from Jean Jacques Machado, a cousin of the Gracies.
Bravo, a musician and artist by trait, wanted a more MMA-specific form of Jiu-Jitsu, something that would be exceedingly effective in the UFC octagon. He decided to completely get rid of the Gi and started developing a variation of BJJ done with the attire most MMA fighters used – nothing but shorts on.
Bravo was criticized and shunned by the Gracies, who claimed he was bastardizing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but was encouraged to keep experimenting by his coach Jean Jacques Machado. Bravo cemented his place in BJJ history when he defeated Royler Gracie via a triangle choke set up from rubber guard at ADCC 2003, while he was still a brown belt.
Back then, the Gracies were thought to be as unbeatable as someone could be, so this was a victory of epic proportions and one that allowed Bravo to launch his now very recognizable brand of No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu under the banner of 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu.
Eddie’s No-Gi Jiu-Jtisu developed parallel to that of the Gracies from the early 2000s onward, and his school now has schools in every country that has a Gracie-affiliated school.
While not the best version of Jiu-Jitsu for MMA, even though it is effective in the octagon/ring/cage, Bravo’s brand of Jiu-Jitsu played a pivotal role in the history of BJJ by demonstrating that the art was far from finished and had a lot more directions to evolve in.
The Second Evolution: Sports Jiu-Jitsu
While sports Jiu-Jitsu, governed by the Gracies, was a full-fledged sport, with tournaments, rulesets, and everything as far back as the early 90s in Brazil, it did not kick off as a stand-alone sport in the US, and eventually, the world, until the early 2000s.
The IBJJF (International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation) was founded in 1994 but the Gracies is the governing body of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the world. Up until a decade ago, they were the only organization putting together Gi Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments around the world, with the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) as their No-Gi counterpart, but not as globally spread as the IBJJF.
In the early days, most competitions took place in Brazil and the US, but with the growth of PRIDE, the re-emergence of the UFC, and the internet, BJJ quickly spread to Europe as well, and from there, every other continent.
The early 2000s saw a global expansion of BJJ, but the true explosion happened in the 2010s, when tournaments influenced it so much, that Jiu-Jitsu changed from a martial art into a full-fledged sport.
This, of course, affected the technical aspects of Jiu-Jitsu just as much as Eddie Bravo’s No-Gi (r)evolution did. Suddenly, the focus was not on self-defense, or supremacy in the MMA cage, but rather a way to beat people in a sports setting, with strict rules that people could use to their advantage.
Many things we take for granted these days, like Berimbolos and lapel guards, for example, emerged during this period of the metamorphosis of Jiu-Jitsu from a martial art, through it being a sort of combat system, into a highly-regulated combat sport that was unlike anything the world had seen until then.
An unfortunate side effect, as the Gracies so vocally pointed out, was that the self-defense aspects of BJJ got lost among the crazy number of emerging techniques that were only useful in a sports setting, at least when it comes to practicing the sport/art with a focus on self-defense.
The De-Brazilination of Jiu-Jitsu
I used to get slack for claiming BJJ is not Brazilian anymore, before other, a lot more influential people, like Keenan Cornelius, and later John Danaher and Craig Jones said the same and somehow, it became acceptable that BJJ is now just JJ. And that is a good thing.
The third evolution of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the de-Brazilination (sorry Brazilians) of the sport, as so many people poured so much knowledge, experimentation, and time into it, that it now has little to do with the original Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
But what this is, is not a devaluation of the sport, but rather a natural evolution, as BJJ’s history clearly demonstrates:
The original Ju-Jitsu initially morphed into Judo, which then was heavily modified to give birth to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. It was only natural for BJJ to follow the evolution pattern and become the base for the next big leap in submission grappling – modern Jiu-Jitsu.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu vs. Modern Jiu-Jitsu
We call it modern now, but I guess it is going to be named differently once another version becomes the modern one down the road. For now, modern Jiu-Jitsu is the grappling test lab for everyone in the world.
At this point in the history of BJJ people from all across the globe are contributing to the sport.
The Americans are not just catching up to the Brazilians on the biggest stages like ADCC, but they’re overcoming them and taking the number one spot. The last ADCC which took place just over a year ago was the first in history where more American athletes won the divisions than Brazilian ones.
Brazil remains one of the best places to practice Jiu-Jitsu, but the Meca of Jiu-Jitsu, at the moment is the USA. There is a crazy number of schools and people training all across North America, with more joining every day. The big names of Jiu-Jitsu nowadays, whether it is coaches or top athletes are mostly American, rather than Brazilian, and the name Gracie is not near the top for the first time in the history of BJJ.
Europe is not trailing too much behind the USA, with an incredible grappling scene developed all across the old continent.
The sheer number of ultra-high-quality coaches in Europe is just crazy, and with many huge BJJ camps taking place, mostly under the BJJ Globetrotters banner, people get a chance to learn from many of these coaches in one place, and further develop the community, as well as advance the sport.
The role of the Middle East must not be forgotten as well, with the UAE not just accepting Jiu-Jitsu, but going crazy about it.
In Abu Dhabi, Jiu-Jitsu is a national sport, taught in schools. The UAE has given birth to a new federation the UAEJJF (famous under the banner AJP) which is rivaling the IBJJF in terms of tournament organization on a global scale. They have taken over Europe and are conquering South America with incredible speed.
Finally, on the world map of Jiu-Jitsu, we can’t forget about Australia, the country down under, that has been producing world-class competitors and coaches for the better part of two decades.
Innovation and Different Approaches
The driving force behind modern Jiu-Jitsu is the creativity of people who accept that they don’t have to fit a mold and just practice Jiu-Jitsu in a copy-paste style like most other traditional martial arts are practiced.
Instead, people figure out their own ways to achieve the main objectives of Jiu-Jitsu, thus pushing the boundaries of the sport further than anyone thought possible.
John Danaher is one of the best examples. With a unique approach to Jiu-Jitsu, he pioneered an era of professional Jiu-Jitsu coaches and showed that going “against the current” can result in huge leaps forward for the entire sport, not just the athletes who are part of the innovative approaches.
The innovation in terms of leg locks that Danaher introduced, by opening the door to Judo, and more importantly, Sambo techniques in terms of a given subject, allowed people to look outside of Jiu-Jitsu trying to solve grappling puzzles and ushered the era of incorporating more than just the standing aspects of wrestling in the sport.
The Jiu-Jitsu of today could not be more different from the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu of Carlos and Helio, which itself was just as different from the original Kodokan Judo that Dr. Jigoro Kano came up with.
As more and more people contribute to Jiu-Jitsu, the sport evolves at an exponential rate, already being impossible to learn or figure out in a lifetime.
Expansion and Globalization of Jiu-Jitsu
Many things have helped the sport of Jiu-Jitsu become such a global phenomenon, but two aspects that are crucial to the growth are the growing number of tournaments around the world and the role of social media in spreading the word.
Tournaments are an invaluable tool for learning and expanding both the perspective on Jiu-Jitsu, as well as the ever-growing community. Jiu-Jitsu tournaments have grown from open tournaments that were available at a handful of locations on each continent twenty years ago to be present in almost every country in the world, both in an open and professional format.
Professional tournaments like EBI, Polaris, Who’s Number One, and similar have changed the landscape of Jiu-Jitsu in just over a decade, allowing the next generation of grapplers to entertain the notion of Jiu-Jitsu as a profession, rather than just a hobby.
Social media, and in particular, YouTube is another aspect of modern Jiu-Jitsu that has moved the needle massively. The sheer amount of information available on YouTube today, compared to when I started training 13 years ago is mind-blowing. People nowadays can find anything they’re curious about on their phones, or ask their peers or experts in countless social media groups like Reddit.
The New Breed of Athletes
Along with the rise of professional tournaments, a new breed of athletes emerged, in the form of professional grapples. 15 years ago, people in combat sports outside of boxing could only dream of having a career as a combat athlete.
MMA was the first combat sport to defy this logic, ending up rewarding multi-million dollar payouts for certain athletes. Jiu-Jitsu, currently only has one representative that has made millions by competing in Gordon Ryan, but where there is one, there are bound to be more.
At present, professional tournaments are popping up all over the world, and kids start Jiu-Jitsu as a career, not just a sport or a pastime. The best thing about it is that they have serious chances of making it as a grappling athlete, and my predictions are that as the sport evolves, the more and more chances there will be for pro grapplers to earn more than a decent living by doing what they love – choking folks out.
Bernardo Faria’s unique business idea of producing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructionals in DVD or digital format, accessible for everyone and featuring everyone in BJJ who has something to teach, from legendary competitors to modern Jiu-Jitsu professional coaches and up-and-comers, has revolutionized the amount of information available to learn Jiu-Jitsu.
As opposed to just a decade ago, people can now learn BJJ theory effectively – by watching BJJ instructionals. I often find myself giving people homework in the form of instructionals, as it can help people get to the bottom of things like no group class ever could.
The Future of Jiu-Jitsu
One thing is for sure, the future of this crazy sport that is Jiu-Jitsu remains open-ended. There is a lot more place for growth, technical, tactical, competitive, and professional, as a sport and as a self-defense system, as a martial art, and as a lifestyle of a worldwide community that numbers in the millions.
It may even become an Olympic sport one day (I don’t want that personally, as that would mean watering it down beyond recognition), but for now, it is a vehicle of personal and creative transformation like nothing else that modern-day living has to offer!