BJJ Dirty Dozen: The American Pioneers of Jiu Jitsu

Last updated on 08.12.2022 by

The BJJ Dirty Dozen is a term that refers to a group of 12 people who were the first non Brazilians to receive Black belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. These are their stories. 

The (Most) Important Piece of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu History

When the Gracie family started promoting their Jiu Jitsu brand in Brazil, it did not take long for the martial art to spread quickly. 

In a time when people were interested in figuring out which martial art was the best, the Gracies put together a brilliant marketing strategy to ensure their already effective art got to the top of this list.

They had everything they needed: an art that challenged every other art by claiming the age-old principle of never putting your back on the ground had no merit to it.

Moreover, they challenged anyone and everyone in an already competitive and violent culture to test their skills in no holds barred matches against their brand of Jiu Jitsu. The rest, as they say, is history. 

A huge turning point in BJJ’s history is the jump from Brazil to the USA. All other martial arts in the world took centuries to come to the general public of the west, where consumerism drives society. 

The moment BJJ hit US soil, the Gracies hit the ground running, with a proven marketing strategy (challenge everyone and beat them on the ground) already in place. Gracie garage stories, the first UFC’s, and dojo matches drew the public’s attention to Jiu Jitsu, which is all it took for the sport to spread like a pandemic, not just through the US but around the globe. 

As the Gracies pioneered the art in Brazil, America had its own pioneers – the BJJ Dirty Dozen. These twelve Americans are as influential in spreading Jiu Jitsu through the USA, and subsequently, the world, as the Graciesare for creating it and taking it out of Brazil. 

What is the “BJJ Dirty Dozen”? 

The BJJ Dirty Dozen is a term that refers to the first 12 Americans who got Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts. 

These are the people that took up BJJ before the UFC shined that all-important spotlight on it that made it global. These are people who got their black belts in the early and mid-90s, which means they started training in the early 80s. 

Back in those days of no social media, you had to be exposed to BJJ firsthand to start training it. That notwithstanding, there were hardly a few places where you could train in the US, all of them run by Gracie family members. 

The BJJ Dirty Dozen were all martial artists that took up training the art seriously and got a place in history by being not just the first Americans but the first non-Brazilians to get black belts in the sport. 

Some of the completed, others are people you’ve probably never heard of. A couple on the list will be extremely familiar, as they are still teaching today and still influencing the BJJ community. 

Throughout the years, there were many versions of the BJJ Dirty Dozen list. Nowadays, through meticulous research, it is possible to confirm who they really were, and their lineage. To be honest, the one thing that is difficult to confirm is whether the order in which they are listed is the actual order in which they got their BJJ black belts. 

The Male Pioneers of Jiu Jitsu in the USA

I refer to the following BJJ pioneers as the Male BJJ Dirty Dozen because there is also a list of the first female Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. Yup, you guessed it, that one is also in the works and will be available on Jiu Jitsu Legacy soon! 

1. Craig Kukuk

Craig Kukuk BJJ

Craig Kukuk is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Royler Gracie in 1991 or 1992.

Widely recognized as the first-ever American black belt, Kukuk was a student of Royler and was already a black belt before the first ever UFC event took place. 

He received his black belt at a ceremony in Rio at the Gracie Humaita academy (witnessed by Steve Maxwell). 

Kukuk had his own school in New Jersey and regularly taught seminars at other schools. He was an accomplished and capable grappler who remained largely anonymous because he was not too big on advertising his skills. 

Craig is also the co-author of one of the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructionals, alongside Renzo Gracie, dubbed “Renzo Gracie – Craig Kukuk Brazilian Jiu Jitsu”. This footage helped bring recognition and awareness to BJJ throughout America during the early days of Jiu Jitsu outside of Brazil. 

2. David Kama

David Kama BJJ

David Kama is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Rickson Gracie in 1995.

Not just one of the BJJ Dirty Dozen pioneer American BJJ black belts, but also the very first non-Brazilian to receive one from the legendary Rickosin Gracie. Kama trained throughout the 80s and headed several of Rickson’s affiliate academies after earning his black belt. 

He used to train in Gracie garages with both the Gracies and Machados in L.A. He has an academy in Irvine, still teaching to this day, but not making a big fuss out of it, much like Craig Kukuk. 

If you visit his academy, you will be treated to stories about training in the early days of BJJ in America and lots of insider Gracie garage info. 

3. John Lewis

John Lewis BJJ

John Lewis is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Andre Pederneiras in 1995.

In those early days, everybody who picked up training BJJ had a previous martial arts background. John Lewis is one of the few in the BJJ Dirty Dozen that came into JIu JItus already holding a Gene LeBell black belt in Judo

Lewis was a marauding BJJ student, starting with Rickson Gracie, before spending some time with the Machados and eventually ending up in Nova Uniao under Pederneiras. 

In something that is completely out of bounds in BJJ today, Lewis went from a blue belt (given to him by Rickson) immediately to a black belt. Given his grappling experience and the similarities BJJ and Judo still shared back then, this course of action is perfectly understandable. 

Lewis went on to be a UFC and ADCC veteran and coach of UFC greats like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddel, Randy Couture, Kevin Randleman, BJ Penn, and many others. 

Lewis himself holds MMA victories over Rumina Sato and Johil De Oliviera, and has a draw against Carlos Gracie Jr., which, at the time, was akin to drawing against Gary Tonon nowadays. 

4. Ken Gabrielson

Ken Gabrielson BJJ

Ken Gabrielson is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Reylson Gracie in 1995. 

Gabrielson’s 4th spot in this list was not his original one. In the earliest editions of the BJJ Dirty Dozen, he was second due to a photograph taken in 1992 where he seemed to be wearing a black belt. 

Reylson Gracie himself rectified the situation, giving a specific year for Gabrielson’s promotion. 

Ken started Jiu Jitsu in his 20s, with already large martial arts experience. Like many of the BJJ Dirty Dozen, ken trained in the Gracie garage, taking private lessons with Rickon. Gabrielson was an avid competitor even back then, when tournaments were scarce at best. 

He is still active, with his latest recorded outing in the IBJJF 2020 Pan Ams. 

5. Rick Lucero

Rick Lucero BJJ

Rick Lucero is an American BJJ black belt, promoted by Joe Moreira in 1996. 

Lucero was already an accomplished wrestler and a Judo black belt when he discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. True to his Dirty Dozen contemporaries, Lucero has kept his life quite private, and there is not much information available about him. 

He does have a quite popular instructional, originally released on VHS under the name “Wrestler Killer: Rick Lucero’s Advanced BJJ Techniques: It is one of the very first instructionals integrating BJJ and wrestling. 

He is still active, holding the rank of 6th-degree black belt, and heads his own academy Lucero BJJ in Arizona.

6. Marc Baquerizo

Marc Baquerizo BJJ

Marc Baquerizo is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Joe Moreira in 1996. 

A Judo and Hapkido black belt before adding the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt to his collection, Baquerizo is one of three people promoted on the same day my Moreira, along with Lucero and Boran. 

He witnessed firsthand some of the most famous Gracie challenge matches that took place behind closed doors in the Gracie garage. He also has a match against Thank Abbott.

7. James Boran

James Boran BJJ

James Boran is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Joe Moreira in 1996. 

Coming into Jiu Jitsu as a Taekwondo black belt, he had an unusual grappling experience – a linebacker for Columbia University. He spent some time training with the Gracies in Torrance before going under Moreira full-time in the US. 

He earned double gold at the 2006 Pans in the seniors’ division. 

8. Bob Bass

Bob Bass BJJ

Bob Bass is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Rigan Machado in 1996. 

Bass is currently a 5th-degree black belt. He is Rigan Machado’s first American black belt and became famous by beating the face of Gracie Barra, Marcos Feitosa, at brown belt in the 1995 Pan Ams. 

Bass also fought in n America vs. Brazil tournament and beat a Brazilian black belt opponent while he was still a brown belt. Bass came into BJJ with a wrestling background and a never-say-die mentality that had him terrorize his opponent’s in the 90s. 

He currently runs his own school, South Bay Jiu-Jitsu Academy, out of Hermosa Beach, California.

9. Rick Williams

Rick Williams BJJ

Rick Williams is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Rigan Machado in 1996. 

One more wrestler that successfully blended wrestling with BJJ, Willimas is a teammate of Bob Bass, Chris Haueter, and David Meer. In fact, he got his black belt in the same ceremony as Haueter and Meyer. 

He won the Pan Ams as a brown belt in 1996. He was a part of Bass’s South Bay Jiu-Jitsu Academy in California for a while. There is not much information available on his current whereabouts or training status. 

10. Chris Haueter

Chris Haueter BJJ

Chris Haueter is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Rigan Machado in 1996. 

This is arguable the most famous name on the BJJ Dirty Dozen list. He is very active to this day, teaching many seminars worldwide, and is a part of the BJJ Globetrotters team of instructors. 

He was all about competing throughout the 90 s and 1000s and was a force to be reckoned with in Gi Jiu Jitsu. Chris came into BJJ from a military background and brought some army traditions into the sport. 

Namely, he is the one responsible for the highly controversial BJJ promotion gauntlet, where students who receive a new belt get belt whipped by everyone else on the mats while walking the line.

Haueter was the referee at the very first s ubmission0only professional Jiu Jitsu tournament, Metamoris. He is also active shooting modern-style instructionals and is a frequent and very entertaining guest at some of the most popular BJJ podcasts

11. David Meyer

David Meyer BJJ

David Meyer is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Rigan Machado in 1996. 

The only one in the BJJ Dirty Dozen to take up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu while arriving from a background (black belt) in Japanese Jiu Jitsu. 

Like his teammates from the same period, Meyer was an avid competitor. He got 3rd place in the absolute division at the 1998 Worlds, making him the first American to ever medal in an IBJJF Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament. 

Meyer was still competing throughout the 2010s, racking up medals and titles along the way. Meyer is a known advocate of plant-based diets, and the man behind the Fuel For The Fighter project. The project is a platform where vegetarian and vegan fighters share tips on optimal performance while avoiding meat. 

Off the mats, Meyer founded Adopt A Pet – North America’s largest pet adoption website

12. John Will

John Will BJJ

John Will is an American BJJ black belt promoted by Rigan Machado in 1997. 

In the original BJJ Dirty Dozen list editions, John Will was not included because his recollection was that he got his black belt in 1998 WIth more and more people involved in BJJ at the time, and with black belts starting to emerge all across the US, it was a question of months that decided who is going to be on the list. 

According to Rigan Machado himself, John Will is the man that deserves the final spot among the dozen since he got his black belt in the early months of 1997, a few months before the likes of Rick Minter and Chris Saunders. 

Will was a Danaher-type of guy with extensive knowledge in many different combat sports and a knack for teaching. John was the founder of “Blitz” a martial arts magazine extremely popular during the 80s. 

He also pioneered Jiu Jitsu in Australia, producing some of the most famous UFC stars, from George Sotiropoulos and Anthony Perosh. 

Honorable mentions

The revisions of the BJJ Dirty Dozen list throughout the years, as well as the small margins in terms of days or weeks concerning when people got their black belts, means there are several more names often mentioned in cohorts with the American pioneers of BJJ. 

Honorable mentions include Chris Saunders (December 1997), Rick Minter (late 1997), Roy Harris (1998), Sean Alvarez (1999), Alan Mohler (1999), Chris Poznik (1999), and Matt Serra (1999). 

*A note on information accuracy: 

The list of the BJJ Dirty Dozen involves information about people in a time when record-keeping was scarce at best. While we did our due diligence in researching each name on the list, some of the information included above comes from interviews, people’s recollections, or student statements, which may not be completely true. 

If you have any evidence to offer on why someone wouldn’t be on the list in favor of someone else, please do not hesitate to contact us, and if corroborated, we shall make the necessary revisions. 

In Conclusion

The importance of the BJJ Dirty Dozen is big not just in the US but also in spreading Jiu Jitsu all over the world. Each and every member on the list had their own academies, and have coached hundreds of students, most of those black belts themselves by now. 

This influence did not just help the spread of Jiu Jitsu, but also helped diversify the sport. Most of the people on the list already had other martial art backgrounds and, unlike the Gracies who grew up in the system, blended those skills into their Jiu Jitsu game, helping the sport evolve rapidly.