History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or BJJ (also written as jujitsu or jujutsu) is a martial art of Japanese origin in which one essentially uses levers, torsions and pressure in order to take one’s opponent to the ground and dominate them. Literally, jū in Japanese means ‘gentleness,’ and jutsu means ‘art,’ ‘technique.’ Hence the literal translation by which it’s also known, the ‘gentle art.’ Its secular origin, as with almost all ancient martial arts, cannot be pinpointed precisely. Similar fighting styles have been verified in many people, from India to China, in the 3rd and 8th centuries. What is known is that its environment of development and refinement were the schools of the samurai, the warrior caste of feudal Japan. Its creation derives from the fact that, in the battlefield or during any confrontation, a samurai could wind up bereft of his swords of spears, at which point he would need a weapon-less method of defense. Since traumatic strikes were not sufficient in this type of showdown, as the samurai wore armor, takedowns and torsions began gaining ground due to their efficiency. Thus Jiu-Jitsu was born in contraposition to kenjitsu and other so-called rigid arts, wherein the combatants wielded swords and other weapons.

 Mitsuyo Maeda, a.k.a. Count Koma, sowed Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil at the start of last century. Since then the gentle art has grown vertiginously and born many fruits. The martial art gained new dimensions when a celebrated instructor from the Kodokan Japanese school decided to travel the world and prove the efficiency of his chokes and armlocks against opponents of all sizes and styles: Mitsuyo Maeda, a sumo fighter’s son born in Funazawa Village, located in Hirosaki City, in the Japanese prefecture of Aomori, on November 18, 1878, and deceased in Belém, the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará, on November 28, 1941. A lifelong champion of Jiu-Jitsu’s self-defense techniques, Maeda traveled to the U.S. in 1904 accompanied by other teachers from Jigoro Kano’s school. At the time, thanks to the political and economic bonds between Japan and the U.S., the Japanese techniques had many a noteworthy admirer on American soil. In 1903, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt had taken lessons from Yoshiaki Yamashita. In the U.S., the agile Japanese man began racking up thousands of combats and fallen opponents along the way in England, Belgium and Spain, where his poise resulted in the nickname by which he became better-known, Count Koma. Back in America, the fighter did many presentations and challenges in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. In July 1914, the valiant 5-foot-5, 68kg fighter landed in Brazil to settle down and change the sport’s history.

1906 Brazilian Newspaper.

A lifelong champion of Jiu-Jitsu’s self-defense techniques, Maeda traveled to the U.S. in 1904 accompanied by other teachers from Jigoro Kano’s school. At the time, thanks to the political and economic bonds between Japan and the U.S., the Japanese techniques had many a noteworthy admirer on American soil. In 1903, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt had taken lessons from Yoshiaki Yamashita. In the U.S., the agile Japanese man began racking up thousands of combats and fallen opponents along the way in England, Belgium and Spain, where his poise resulted in the nickname by which he became better-known, Count Koma. Back in America, the fighter did many presentations and challenges in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. In July 1914, the valiant 5-foot-5, 68kg fighter landed in Brazil to settle down and change the sport’s history. Maeda would go on to collect delicious stories on Brazilian land. After going around the country, the Jiu-Jitsu black-belt settled in Belém. 

 Carlos and Helio Gracie spread Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, developing a powerful network of academies and even promoting the gentle art through vale-tudo challenges. Photo: José Medeiros/O Cruzeiro A faithful student, Carlos Gracie embraced Jiu-Jitsu and, to the heartbreak of the mom who dreamed of seeing more diplomats in the prestigious family, he started infusing his brothers with the love for the art. One of eight siblings (Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., George, Helena, Helio, Mary and Ilka), in 1925 Carlos opened the Gracie family’s first BJJ academy. The ad in the newspaper was a marketing masterpiece: “If you want to have your arm broken, look for the Gracie Academy.” The grandmaster would go on to spawn 21 offspring, 13 of whom became black-belts. Each member of the family began, then, strengthening the art and adding one more link to the chain created by Grandmaster Carlos, founder and guide of the clan, as well as first in the family to launch himself in a rule-less fight, which he dubbed vale-tudo. It was in 1924 in Rio de Janeiro that Carlos Gracie confronted stevedore Samuel, a renowned athlete of capoeira. Helio quickly became the standout among the brothers due to the technical innovations he made as an instructor and the indomitable spirit that dissociated him from the skinny body. In consonance with the tactics of Count Koma, the Gracies continued challenging capoeira artists in Rio, as well as stevedores and other brave men of all origins and sizes. If these muscle men looked fearsome on their feet, on the ground they become easy prey to the pounces and chokes that defeated them as if by magic.

 In the 1960s, when Carlson Gracie had already taken his uncle Helio’s baton as the clan’s front line in vale-tudo, an important step was taken towards the consolidation of sport Jiu-Jitsu. In 1967 the Guanabara Jiu-Jitsu Federation, in Rio, was created under the authorization of the country’s National Sports Confederation. Among the still-primitive rules, moves like takedowns, frontal mounts with both knees on the ground and the back-take yielded one point. Match duration for the adults category was set at five minutes, with three minutes’ overtime. Jiu-Jitsu had gained time controls and a scoring system. The president of the Federation was Helio Gracie, and the president of the Consultative Council was Carlos. His first-born, Carlson, was the director of the technical department. The first technical vice-director was Oswaldo Fadda, and the second was Orlando Barradas – both of them Jiu-Jitsu professors. João Alberto Barreto, a notable pupil of the Gracies’, was named director to the teaching department, whose vice-director was one of Carlson’s brothers, Robson Gracie – each of them a grandmaster of the art nowadays.