The Origins of BJJ

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the world’s fastest-growing martial art. Athletes and people alike are taking up this art for self-defense, health, and fitness. Although BJJ has only gained fame in the past three decades, its roots can be traced back to centuries. Today we are going to unearth the true origins of BJJ.

2000 BC

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date of BJJ’s origin, however grappling can be traced back to places like Rome, India, China, and South America.

Jiu-Jitsu is not just a set way of techniques but an intuitive way of fighting. Locks, chokeholds, takedowns, and mounts have always been a part of combat sports. In an informal way jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and all martial arts had been prevalent wherever human civilization was present.

Jiu-Jitsu in Japan

To formally introduce the gentle art, Jiu-jitsu took birth in feudal Japan in the 18th Century. The country was divided into different clans and feuds with each family taking up its system of self-defense. There were two types of warrior classes in Japan: The Samurai and The Ninja. The Samurai were a noble class whereas the Ninjas were a group of mercenaries. 

Jiu-Jitsu started to grow under the Samurai umbrella. To defeat an armed attacker, grappling was the most essential part as striking was ineffective. Pins, locks, and throws proved to be effective because that involved using an attacker’s momentum against him.

However, after the Meiji Restoration, the feudal system was put to an end, and the Samurai lost all their prestige in that process. Jiu-Jitsu survived in the hands of a few because it was deemed illegal as Japan was trying to transform into an industrial country that had no place for any combat sport.

Jigoro Kano - 19th Century

When Jiu-Jitsu was about to become extinct in the 19th century, Jigoro Kano, a Japanese athlete, also known as the founder of Judo, played an imperative role in rescuing the art. He understood the importance of a combat sport and its health benefits.

Kano felt the need to use Jiu-Jitsu as an educational tool that gave life to Japan’s cultural heritage. Under his vision, Jiu-Jitsu turned into a refined sport. He adopted new training methods, removed what was unnecessary, and added drills for his students to practice.

The concept of sparring as we know it today originated from Kano’s methods. Day by day Jiu-Jitsu started to create a positive impact on Japanese society and helped Jiu-Jitsu regain its long-lost reputation.

Grappling was not limited to merely stand up, takedowns, locks, and chokes. An important aspect of Jiu-Jitsu is the ground game, where fighting on the ground and being able to maneuver from your back is a crucial element. This was introduced by Kano.

One of his students, Mitsuyu Maeda got inspiration from his ground fighting skills and inculcated other art forms in his philosophy to replicate real-life combat situations.

Maeda was later sent to different parts of the world to spread the knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu. Being exceptional in the art form, he visited different cultures including North America, the USA, and Europe. Finally landing in South America in 1914

Jiu-Jitsu arrives in Brazil - 1914

An exceptional student and a warrior in his own right, Maeda took it upon himself to spread Jiu-Jitsu. He and his few men landed in Para, Brazil to establish the first Japanese colony in that region.

Settling in another country was a difficult task and Maeda had to do whatever he could to make a living. Whether it was demonstrating his fighting skills, doing shows, or performing in circuses.

In one of these circuses, Maeda and Carlos coincidentally met. Carlos was immediately taken by Maeda’s ability to defeat bigger and stronger opponents just using skill. Being a young disobedient kid, Carlos’ father decided to enroll Carlos in Maeda’s class so that he could learn discipline and self-control.

Carlos Gracie - 1916

At the age of 14, Carlos slowly started gaining skills under the tutelage of Maeda. He realized the level of self-control and self-confidence Jiu-Jitsu had taught him was unlike anything else he had experienced.

Jiu-Jitsu allowed Carlos to develop his mind-body connection, find his weaknesses, his strengths, and his limitations. Jiu-Jitsu has a calming effect on people; those who train would know how addicting it can be. After getting enough skills from Maeda, Carlos could not stay away from the game and when he moved to Rio de Janeiro, he realized he could not live without his passion. 

Being able to maintain a day job, working from 9-5 just wasn’t good enough for young Carlos. So, he decided to scratch that itch and open a Dojo. His desire to teach his art allowed for the inception of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Initially, not many people were attracted to Jiu-Jitsu, but seeing its effectiveness, law enforcement officers started taking an interest. This allowed Carlos’ school to become self-sufficient and kept it running. 

The First Gracie School - 1920’s

The first Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school was established in 1925 in Rio de Janeiro. It was important for Jiu-Jitsu to grow and making the Gracie school was the first brick in the building.

The school was located at Marques de Abrantes. Starting with humble beginnings, Carlos rented a small house where he and his brothers would train. They converted the living room into a small dojo in the day and their living space in the morning. Starting with humble beginnings, Carlos took his younger brothers on board and started training in the living room of a small house. In that small house, resources were meager but their will was unbreakable. Thus, came the pillars of the Gracie Clan. Oswaldo, Gastao, George and Helio.

The Helio Gracie Era - 1930’s

Helio Gracie was just 12 years old when he started helping Carlos out with his school. Carlos would be busy teaching his students and managing the family. Helio was a bright student with an innate talent for Jiu-Jitsu.

Due to him being relatively smaller than his older brothers. Helio had to find out new techniques and methods to use leverage as his advantage over bigger opponents. These adaptations were finalized with the help of trial and error and finally incorporated into his arsenal.

Helio participated in multiple fights and tournaments which grew his and his family’s name. Slowly but surely, the Gracie school started to grow and all the brothers divided the responsibilities among themselves.

The brothers made up the first generation of Gracie fighters and contributed enormously to giving life to the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Carlson Gracie - 1950’s

In 1955, a former student of the Gracie school Valdemar Santana had a falling out with Helio Gracie. They both agreed to settle their rivalry in a Vale Tudo (no holds barred) match. The fight went on for more than 3 hours and resulted in a knockout of Helio via a soccer kick. 

This violent end caused much hurt to the family and the Gracie name. To avenge the loss of his brother and bring back the family reputation, Helio’s nephew Carlson stepped up to the challenge to avenge his uncle.

Carlson was able to defeat Santana and earn a name for himself. His battles in the ring made him famous all over the country. The momentum from his wins allowed Carlson to open his branch of a Gracie school in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro.

Under Carlson’s training, emerged an entire league of fighters who contributed to the Gracie name and remained victorious throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

Rolls Gracie - 1970’s

Rolls was a remarkable athlete in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu realm. He was one of the most important figures in the ’70s when there was political instability in Brazil. It was a dark period for the country and Rolls was able to keep Jiu-Jitsu afloat despite the harsh circumstances. Due to his charisma, leadership, and talent, he was able to keep Jiu-Jitsu in the spotlight and influence another generation to live a healthy life.

Rolls was inspired by his uncle Helio and learned from the Gracie school. His relationship with his brother Carlson allowed him tremendous exposure to the intricacies of Jiu-Jitsu.

Talented from a very young age, Rolls was determined to become a fighter. To test his mettle, he traveled all over the world to learn Sambo, Judo, and Greco-Roman wrestling. Rolls soaked in all the techniques of the grappling arts to add to his combative arsenal.

The confidence he gained from his Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling and Judo allowed Rolls to compete in the Vale Tudo. Rolls and his team were up against Karate practitioners and they were able to secure their wins with ease. Following this feat, many people saw the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu and joined the Gracie school.

Unfortunately, Rolls could not live long due to a hang-gliding accident in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro. He made enormous contributions to sport and his legacy still lives on.

Jiu-Jitsu becomes a national sport in Brazil - 1990’s

Jiu-Jitsu was initially started by the Gracie’s and the family had spread all over Brazil to open their respective schools. Carlos and Helio were the ones that opened the first schools in Rio de Janeiro and the others like Oswaldo and George moved all over the country.

Each branch was located in a different part of Brazil which trained generations of fighters and instructors alike. These schools would come together in competitions which further accelerated the fame of the sport in places outside the country.

Their tournaments served as a catalyst for the exponential growth of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil. The inter-school rivalries fueled the athletes to perform better and better over time. These dynamics earned Jiu-Jitsu the respect & legitimacy it deserved,  paving the way for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation to be formed in 1994.

Carlos Gracie Sr. along with the BJJ Federation and Brazilian Confederation came together to define the legalities of the sport and engrained Jiu-Jitsu as a national sport. The legacy of Carlos Gracie Sr is still alive due to his role in achieving this feat.

The UFC Era - 1993

As BJJ gained legitimacy, there was still a lot to do in the global arena. The Jiu-Jitsu Federation and its fans wanted to expand globally. Even though Jiu-Jitsu had proven effective in live combat situations it was not given the exposure it deserved.

Other sports such as Kung Fu, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Judo had their fair share of respect in the combat world but Jiu-Jitsu had far more applicability.

In 1993, Royce Gracie took part in the first installment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It was an open-style tournament that pitted styles vs styles. All kinds of fighters poured in to answer the most asked question of all time: Which Martial Art is the Best?

The whole world was shocked when a lightweight with a small frame such as Royce started to defeat his opponents by only his technique. Nobody expected him to stand a chance against the vicious strikers, boxers, and kickboxers that were taking part. Yet he was able to choke and dismantle all of them on his way to winning the tournament.

The Globalization of BJJ - 2000’s

After Royce's win, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu started to spread like wildfire. The fighters from the Gracie clan went on to dominate all Mixed Martial Art events and other tournaments such as Vale Tudo.

Fighters realized that in order to win in the MMA arena they had to inculcate Jiu-Jitsu in their arsenal otherwise they would get mauled by the one that understands the ground game. Hence new gyms started to pop up all over North America. Gradually Jiu-Jitsu started to spread in Europe and the Middle East as well.

With the Abu Dhabi Club Submission Wrestling or the ADCC, the trend for No-Gi tournaments also began. In today’s world, Gi and No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu are two divisions of BJJ.

Jiu-Jitsu in today’s world

The last two decades are a witness to Jiu-Jitsu’s tremendous growth. There are international organizational bodies, thousands of gyms, and hundreds of tournaments happening every year. Although BJJ lacks a central governing body the IBJJF is claimed to be the de facto body that controls BJJ. There are other bodies such as the Sport Jiu-Jitsu International Federation (SJJIF) and the Jiu-Jitsu Global Federation (JJGF).

It is one of the basic pillars for any MMA fighter along with Boxing, Muay Thai, and Wrestling. The sport has immense practicality and is taught to some of the elite special forces in the world including the Green Berets, SAS, and SSG.

The future of BJJ is steady and ever-expanding. With the decline of traditional combat sports, Jiu-Jitsu takes precedence due to its effectiveness. 

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has the potential to grow globally not only in an athletic capacity but as a self-defense tool for men, women, and children. For all know Jiu-Jitsu can become an Olympic sport as well, but that may take some time and effort from the caretakers of the sport.

Thanks for reading!

Until the next one,

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