While learning the history of BJJ won’t necessarily help you win in competition, it is still important to know where the sport has come from! Take our short quiz to see how much you know about the history of our sport:
A Brief History of BJJ
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, like most modern martial arts, is relatively new. While other martial arts make big claims about being thousands of years old, BJJ can trace its lineage just past living memory – arriving at Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo.
Kano was born in a time of transition in Japan, where the Japanese shogunate had lost power and there was a rise in centralized imperial power. This led to a rapid decline in knowledge of martial arts as their usefulness waned in this post-feudal era.
Kano, a teacher and lover of history, traveled around Japan, attempting to collect and preserve the knowledge of these old arts which were quickly being forgotten. His goal was not, in fact, to create a fighting system, but instead to create a physical education program for children. He believed that martial arts could instill virtues that typical fitness and sports were otherwise incapable of.
Jiu Jitsu Becomes Brazilian
During the early 1900s a few of Kano’s students traveled outside of Japan, bringing Kano Ju Jutsu as it was then called, with them. The earliest of these to arrive in Brazil were actually rescued by the Brazilian coast guard when their boat became stranded. Instead of returning home, they took the opportunity to travel to Brazil and began demonstrating their unique fighting style in Brazilian circuses.
At the time of their arrival, Greco-Roman wrestling and Brazil’s home-grown fighting style luta livre were popular circus attractions – and the new Japanese art fit right in. From these early days the fighting style was pitted against real opponents who were highly incentivized to win – if you were able to defeat these Japanese masters you would win a substantial amount of prize money.
If this was Brazil’s only exposure to Jiu Jitsu nothing may have come of it, but one of Kano’s star pupils, Mitsuyo Maeda, arrived in Brazil in 1914 along with a few other Kano Ju Jutsu experts.
The story here becomes fuzzy, with the truth having been obscured by effective marketing and legend building. The Gracie family adamantly states that Carlos (and perhaps Helio) were taught directly by Maeda, legitimizing their claim to the title of founding family for the Brazilian martial art. The truth is harder to discern, and its undeniable that the Gracies were merely among the first practitioners in Brazil.
In these early days the sport was often pitted against Brazil’s other grappling style: luta livre. In order to give Brazilian Jiu Jitsu an advantage, the Gracie family usually fought with rules that favored their gi-based style of fighting – not permitting strikes on the ground and requiring victory by submission. In some ways this solidified the rift between gi Jiu Jitsu and no-gi Jiu Jitsu, and the two styles would never truly reconcile their differences.
While the Gracies are the best known name of this story, some other early names to remember are Donato Pires, Geo Omori, and Oswaldo Fada. The Gracie family has done a wonderful job of self promotion, but it is vital to remember that the sport was never dominated by a single family and has always grown through competition and collaboration.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the United States
During the 1970s BJJ made its way to the United States, first with Carley Gracie who taught the fighting style in Quantico, Virginia at a Marine Corps base. Later, Rorion and Reylson Gracie would travel to the United States and begin teaching.
The sport really took off after the amazing success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC’s promotion of BJJ was no accident, as the project was co-founded by Rorion Gracie! Rorion recognized that his sport only needed visibility – and he believed (correctly) that BJJ would dominate traditional martial arts under the newly created rules of mixed martial arts.
Instead of choosing the most physically imposing fighter of the Gracie family, the more slender Royce Gracie was chosen to represent the fighting style. Despite his smaller size, Royce soundly defeated his first slew of challengers – creating a mythos of the invincibility of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in MMA.
The Development of Modern Jiu Jitsu
Over the past three decades BJJ has continued to grow and change. The modern competition scene came into its own during the 1990s, with the rise of the IBJJF and ADCC. These two organizations are still two of the best known competitions, although in recent years other tournaments like EBI, ADWP, F2W, and others have risen in prominence.
Briefly it looked like there may be a unification of gi and no-gi Jiu Jitsu, patching the nearly century old rift between luta livre and BJJ – but the rules of the two sports have continued to diverge. Today there are some people who argue that the two systems have become their own sports, or at least are on their way to becoming their own sport. Its undeniable that this bifurcation is happening – but for now many (maybe even most) Jiujiteros practice both.
Evan is nomadic brown belt, currently living in Germany. He enjoys pressure passes and tacos.