Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a fairly young art, compared to other martial arts. However, in the year it has been around, it has gone through a lot. Starting from the favelas of Brazil, the art turned sport managed to spread throughout the world, becoming something everyone can join into. This global spread has also brought about some negative aspects of the evolution of BJJ as well. That only leaves us guessing where the future of the Gentle Art lies…
The Mandatory BJJ History Lesson
What is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? It is a grappling martial art, turned sport, turned global phenomenon. Where it is going to end up is anyone’s guess, but we certainly know where it came from.
I will skip over the usual history lane trip and provide a different take on the history of BJJ.
Basically, it did not just come together in the head of a young Brazilian and his brother from learning Japanese Judo. On the contrary, Mitsuo Maeda, the Japanese instructor who allegedly taught the Gracies, already had a very distinct grappling style that was already departing from the Kodokan Judo he had learned in Japan.
Maeda had a background in no-holds-barred challenge fights (a predecessor to modern MMA) from all around the world and had added submission wrestling experience to his already distinct Judo. That simply means that what he taught in Brazil was already close to what the Gracies later exported as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
That said, the Gracies (along with Donato Pires dos Reis, Oswaldo Fada, and numerous others) certainly added their own modifications. The transformation of the guard into an offensive position was one such example. They built upon the submission-heavy game Maeda shared and emphasized the use of the gi, which was neither popular nor common outside of Japan.
What happened to Jiu Jitsu in those early days of its inception is still shrouded in mystery, which is fittingly romantic and enigmatic. Regardless of the details of its origins, BJJ has since gone on to become a global phenomenon that has radically altered combat sports the world over.
Jiu Jitsu Is For Everyone… Finally
One often-repeated phrase in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is “Jiu Jitsu is for everyone.” This phrase, while catchy, hasn’t always been true.
When Jiu jitsu left the Brazilian favelas it wasn’t a martial art or a sport. It was a combat system designed to allow its practitioners to win in single combat. If it wasn’t for the Gracies’ recognition of the need to make the sport more family-friendly and commercial, it could have been doomed to remain a niche and inaccessible sport. In those early days, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was definitely not for everyone.
Factors like training in the gi, the highly unlikely combination of events that led to that now-famous UFC 1 event, and the brains over brawn mentality of Jiu Jitsu allowed the sport to gain traction in the West. However, in the 1990s the sport was still dominated by a machismo fight culture that could easily alienate casual participants.
I would say that it was the early 2000s when Brazilian Jiu Jitsu truly began to welcome everyone. Basically, it is when the combat system, which had some markings of a martial art, transitioned into a sport. Becoming a sport made it accessible to the wide public, including kids and recreational athletes.
The one thing nobody realized at first though, was the incredibly therapeutic effect Jiu Jitsu has on everyone. Accustomed to the katas and routine of Karate and Taekwondo, people expected a workout and perhaps training moves that would one day help them defend themselves. What they got instead was a safe way to simulate murder against an actively resisting opponent.
This unique release helped people reach a mental state almost akin to meditation. In the midst of a roll, it’s impossible to ponder whether or not you need to buy more milk or reschedule your upcoming dental appointment. Instead, you exist purely at the moment, only considering the present.
Moreover, this unique quality of the sport meant that it managed to achieve what century-old martial arts and combat sports didn’t. It got people from all walks of life to enjoy exercise. It helped keep people fit while engaging their brains. An added bonus is that BJJ provides a tangible self-defense component, boosting self-confidence.
Unlike many sports, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu proved itself capable of globalization. Once the sport gained acclaim in the UFC, Pride, and other international MMA competitions it rapidly spread around the world. Nowadays you are able to travel to nearly any country and train with like-minded people and continue to grow both as a person and a martial artist.
The Curse Of Becoming A Celebrity Martial Art
No good deed goes unpunished, though. As BJJ spread around the world, there was a change in the way the sport was portrayed to the masses. The Gracies did talk about values like honor, discipline, respect, and hard work, but failed to demonstrate some or all of them. While this has switched in recent years, there are still those that would look at the sport as a means of obtaining profit or another type of personal gain, rather than upholding the core values it was built upon.
Charlatans and Fakes
Popularization of the sport also meant business opportunities, though, and when sport turns to business, you can’t expect such high values to remain in the forefront. While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu managed to avoid the fate of Karate and Taekwondo and did not get watered down and turned useless, it certainly yielded some aspects which are not really things to boast about.
As BJJ grew in popularity dishonest charlatans sometimes took advantage of public naivety – boasting of ranks and qualifications they did not have. Thankfully this trend seems to be dying down as of late – probably driven by the robust and global online community of Jiu Jitseros who are quick to flag potential offenders.
However, in a sport that is so widespread and offers plenty of legit business opportunities, there will always be those that try and cheat their way through. While there are certain systems in place to verify people’s belts, such as BeltChecker.com, fake belts remain a minor albeit real problem for the sport.
This problem is more pronounced in developing BJJ markets such as China and India. Hopefully, as the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community grows there these issues will be pushed out by legitimate coaches.
Sensationalism and Drama
However, one ugly thing about Jiu Jitsu that is currently prominent is sensationalism and social media drama. Turning BJJ into sport meant not just that it became available to the masses, but also that it opened up the door for professional athletes. While that is a good thing, the way in which some of these athletes have been conducting themselves lately is not.
MMA and boxing have embraced scandal as powerful marketing tools for decades. BJJ tournaments, on the other hand, have historically been marked by a modicum of respect and decorum.
The professional aspect of the sport, unfortunately, is going towards the direction of modern MMA, where trash-talking and violent outbursts are becoming common methods of drawing attention, all with the end goal of earning more money at the end of the day.
While it is great that people can be professional Brazilian Jiu Jitsu athletes, the ugly dramas that they create carry unfortunate consequences for the sport. Many people who would otherwise be interested in the sport find the celebrity personalities to be offensive and off-putting. Perhaps even worse are those who make role models out of these toxic personalities, perpetuating the negativity.
This current trend is challenging to balance, as it is undeniable that these hyperbolic, trash-talking personalities draw bigger crowds and more lucrative competition contracts. Ultimately some sort of equilibrium needs to be found in order to have BJJ continue to develop as a sport without poisoning itself in the pursuit of popularity.
A Look Into The Future Of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Anything I write here is going to be guesswork and conjecture. Nobody can know where Jiu Jitsu is going to go. We can, however, make educated guesses based on the available evidence.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is not making things easy, so any further development of the sport will wait for the resolution of the pandemic, as with most other aspects of life. That said, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has reached the widest possible audience, ranging from hobbyists, to children, to competitors, to celebrities.
The fact that people can make a living from BJJ, whether through owning academies, holding seminars, shooting DVDs, or fighting professionally is awesome. As long as we don’t lose sight of what made the art popular and approachable in the first place, which is its functional martial arts vibe and environment of community, BJJ will continue to grow.
What would I like? I’d love to see BJJ become a part of school or college curriculums. Additionally, I’d love to see it implemented as mandatory education for law enforcement – the sport is excellent for de-escalating situations safely and teaches its practitioners to respect the risks inherent in its practice. I’d love to see more workplaces offer it as an option at the workplace Basically, I’d love to see where Jiu Jitsu can take the world, provided we allow it.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is here to stay. So far it has prevailed every challenge that it has encountered, from emerging from the favelas of Rio De Janeiro to now being something that is available for everyone to train, no matter where they are in the world. This evolution did not come without a price though, and the popularity of the sport has produced certain directions and elements that are taking away from the core values in favor of sensationalism. However, if one thing is for sure, Jiu Jitsu is going to keep impacting people’s lives in a positive way, and there’s no limit to where we can take this sport.
Ogi is a brown belt and very passionate about Jiu Jitsu.
He is also the head coach of Carlos Maia BJJ Macedonia and Globetrotter.