Where did Brazilian Jiu Jitsu come from?

Jiu Jitsu, or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as it is commonly named outside Brazil, is a grappling orientated martial art/combat sport that evolved from its Japanese roots in 1920’s Brazil, and continued to evolve for many decades after until its present format. This style though previously established in its native country, became highly popular within the northern hemisphere after a series of performances from BJJ fighter Royce Gracie in the early UFC’s (Ultimate Fighting Championship) where he battled against competitors from many different martial arts backgrounds in the no holds barred tournament, becoming the fighting promotion’s first champion. This event proved Jiu Jitsu’s efficiency and helped raise awareness all around the world, becoming one of the reasons behind the sport’s growth (but not the only one).


Jiu Jitsu’s Birth in Brazil

The history of Jiu Jitsu in Brazil mainly derives from one man, Mitsuyo Maeda – known in Brazil as Conde Coma (Count Coma). Maeda was a student of Jigoro Kano and his Kodokan School of martial arts. Though Kano is widely recognized as the father of Judo, his style of teaching was regarded in the early days as a branch of Ju Jitsu and not it’s own martial style. In fact, Jigoro’s branch of Ju Jitsu has been diluted from its original format over the years by consistent changes to Judo’s rules and regulations.

Mitsuyo Maeda was one of Jigoto Kano’s star pupils, and as such he was asked to help spread the word of his master’s style. Maeda travelled all over the globe displaying the art in arenas and circuses, travelling through the United States, England and many other countries before landing in Brazil. It was in Brazil that he met students such Carlos Gracie. Carlos was a troubled teenager that Maeda took under his wing and taught his style, though Carlos wasn’t the only student taught by Count Coma, nor was he the only one to develop his own Jiu Jitsu School, one other student of Maeda also spread his seed into Jiu Jitsu’s landscape, Luis França. There were other Japanese Jiu Jitsu masters teaching Jiu Jitsu in Brazil who were lesser known, though still relevant to BJJ today, people like Takeo Iano in the North of Brazil and Kazuo Yoshida in Bahia.

The Importance of the Gracie’s in Jiu Jitsu

Carlos Gracie was taught by Master Maeda in the city of Belém do Pará in Brazil, but due to financial difficulties moved to Rio de Janeiro. Mituyo Maeda also moved away returning sometime after to establish a school where his lineage is still very much alive, though he never to see Carlos again. In Rio de Janeiro, 1925 Carlos established his first school of Jiu Jitsu in the Marques de Abrantes Street, number 106. To help out with the school he brought in his brothers and taught them his master’s art. The brothers were: Oswaldo, George, Gastão and Hélio Gracie. Carlos and his brothers would go on to promote their academy through a series of challenges, some with no rules, where they would fight men of any size or weight proving their style’s superiority.

Though Helio became possibly the most famous family member of the Gracie brothers, it was George Gracie the one that held the family’s name highest competitively from that first generation of Gracie combatants. Helio Gracie did compete successfully also, but his two most famous fights were also his worst defeats, to Masahiko Kimura and Waldemar Santana, two fights he lost when he was already reaching his 40’s against bigger and younger men.

As Carlos Gracie got more involved with the business side of the family and George’s wild ways separated him from his brothers chain of thought, it was Helio that took responsibility in keeping the school a tight unit. Helio Gracie was also given the responsibility of raising most of Carlos Gracie’s household, teaching them the family martial arts trade. Since the 1920’s the Gracie family has been able to produce consistent talent through every generation, making it one of the strongest martial arts lineages in the world and the strongest amongst Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.


The Importance of Jiu Jitsu in MMA

The first steps of MMA were given in the 1920’s Brazil and this events were called “Vale Tudo” (anything goes). They were unsanctioned bouts with no rules (eye gouging and strikes to the groin were allowed) no gloves, no weight categories and most of the times they did not have a time limit either. It was in these bouts that the Gracie’s made their mark and created a name for themselves throughout the nation. As the sport progressed, a few tweaks were made to these Vale Tudo matches, but nowhere near what the sport is today.

In the early days, when these matches started occurring, Jiu Jitsu’s greatest opponent was Luta Livre, a style of submission grappling used in Brazil. As the popularity of Vale Tudo grew, so did the rivalry between these two opposing styles, so much that many street fights between students of both martial arts and even Dojo storming were common practice.

In the 1984 an attempt to settle the affair was made with the “Jiu Jitsu vs Martial Arts” event being held where several important figures of Jiu Jitsu were put up against fighters of other trades (but mainly Luta Livre). The result was inconclusive and the unfriendly Banta continued, until 1991, one of the most important events in the history of Vale Tudo/MMA was held to decide once and for all which was the best martial art in Brazil, the name of the event was “Desafio – Jiu-Jitsu vs. Luta Livre” (BJJ vs Luta Livre Challenge). 3 fighters were chosen from each style to compete against each other in a Vale-Tudo match with no time limits, the fighters from BJJ were Wallid Ismail, Murilo Bustamante and Fabio Gurgel against Eugenio Tadeu, Marcelo Mendes and Denilson Maia from Luta Livre. Jiu Jitsu won all three fights, a major feather on the cap of BJJ’s community who became broadly considered the stronger style, the dispute between the two styles had many ups and downs, as described on our “JJ vs Luta Livre” article, a dispute that ultimately led to the ban of Vale Tudo in Brazil.

While the Brazilian Vale Tudo panorama was roaring, the same was not happening in the United States. It was again through the Gracie family’s efforts that the sport was put in its place. The Gracie’s had seen a market for their Jiu Jitsu style in America, and they established an academy in California. In trying to prove that their style was the best martial art available, the Gracie’s developed a No Holds Barred event, the concept being designed by Rorion Gracie, this event was named Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and it had the same principle as the Vale Tudo events back in Brazil. The first champion to emerge from this event was Royce Gracie, who later became a UFC Hall of Fame. The brand name and the event itself would suffer severe changes to the rule set, such as the inclusion of gloves, the Kimono (Gi) being stripped, the time frame and striking limitations added and so on and so forth. With time the fighters became more well rounded learning all facets of the game. Today, though less relevant than it was in the past, Jiu Jitsu is still one of the most important disciplines in the sport.

If the sport started in the US in the early 1990’s, the same seemed to happen in Japan around the same time. Considered the birth nation of Martial Arts, Japan would seem to have a head start when it came to No Holds Barred; the Japanese were serious about striking martial arts and ground fighting with their Karate and Kosen Judo schools. Still, when MMA (Vale Tudo) emerged in Japan, another Gracie name rose above all others, the name of Rickson Gracie. Considered by many the greatest BJJ competitor of all time, Rickson remained undefeated throughout his career, and once again cemented the Gracie name and the Jiu Jitsu style in that country.

Important Figures in Jiu Jitsu’s History

Jiu Jitsu has not lacked charismatic and meaningful people people in it’s history, here is a small capture of some important figures in chronological order:

1920’s BJJ

Carlos Gracie: The founder of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Carlos was the visionary behind the movement that became the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Carlos opened the first Gracie Jiu Jitsu school and taught Jiu Jitsu to all his brothers.



George Gracie: The Gracie family’s first champion, George fought in several different styles (Jiu Jitsu – with kimono), Luta Livre (grappling), Wrestling and Vale Tudo (no holds barred). He fought for over two decades; he would also break his bond with his brothers and even compete against them in the end of his career.



1930’s BJJ

Helio Gracie: he had his first no holds barred fight in 1932 when he was 18 years old – win by choke within a minute. Helio would put a 12 year break in his career in 1938 at his prime due to personal reasons. He returned to run the Gracie school and also to compete, having two of his toughest career defeats in this second career turn (Santana and Kimuta), but also one of his proudest wins (against Kato).



1940’s BJJ

Pedro Hemeterio: One of Carlos Gracie’s most prolific students, the man from the Ceará region of Brazil fought and defeated numerous competitors in the name of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. He would also help develop the sport in the state of Sao Paulo in the 1950’s.



1950’s BJJ

Carlson Gracie: The son of Carlos Gracie was indeed one of the sports greatest icons both competitively and as a coach. He raised the bar of Jiu Jitsu competing for several decades. He was also a visionary coach, being the first instructor to have group classes rather then the one-on-one style of coaching utilized by his predecessors. His team would become one of the strongest in both MMA and BJJ in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.


Oswaldo Fadda: Was one of the first coaches outside Rio de Janeiro leaving behind one of the strongest non Gracie Jiu Jitsu lineages in the country with links in teams such as Nova Uniao, GF Team and many others.



1960’s BJJ

Osvaldo Alves: He had a strong Judo pedigree which helped raise awareness of this aspect of grappling amongst the Gracies. His technical knowledge was of great importance, and his close contact with Reyson and Rolls Gracie in the 60’s and 70s’ would help further develop the sport. He has also taught several BJJ world champions.



Ivan Gomes: One of the first “Vale Tudo” men to cross train in different martial arts, Ivan was a fierce competitor that helped elevate the Jiu Jitsu name. He was considered Carlson Gracie’s toughest opponent by Carlson himself. The two would open a BJJ academy together years after their bout.



1970’s BJJ

Rolls Gracie: The big name of the decade and one of the biggest names in the sport, period. His ideas on cross training in Judo, Wrestling and Sambo were visionary at the time, and they helped set the pace of the sport in the right direction while also developing it technically. He was a tremendous competitor and the family’s champion during the 70s and his BJJ lineage has left its mark and is one of the strongest in the world with Alliance, Gracie Barra, Checkmat and Brasa medalling consistently in tournaments around the world. His death came very prematurely and his relevance could have been even bigger if he had lived until today an age.


1980’s BJJ

Carlos Gracie Junior: After the death of Rolls Gracie, Carlinhos took the helm of his academy; he would later launch a Gracie Academy in what were the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro (today a famous and trendy neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca). This team would become one of the juggernauts of BJJ from the 1990s onwards. Carlos Gracie Jr also became the president of Jiu Jitsu’s federation and really put Jiu Jitsu’s name on the map at an international level.


Rickson Gracie: The Gracie family stud in the 1980’s and for the most of the 1990’s, Rickson is famed for his invincible record. After the disappearing of Rolls Gracie left a big whole in the family and the sport, Rickson was of tremendous influence, keeping the flame alive while bringing the sport’s awareness in other parts of the world such as Japan and the United States.



Marcelo Behring: The legendary Rickson Gracie disciple was a tremendous student of the game, being considered throughout his career as the number 2 ranked fighter in the world (pound for pound), second only to Rickson Gracie. Though his death was a tragedy to the sport, his legacy lived on and the wealth of knowledge he brought to Sao Paulo helped develop the sport in that region (which is today arguably the strongest in the world when it comes to BJJ).


Ricardo De La Riva: A creator and developer of positions, De La Riva was one of the strongest competitors of his generation having also contributed to the technical development of BJJ.



1990’s BJJ

Fabio Gurgel: The leader of the Alliance team was one of the strongest competitors of his generation; he was also of great importance to BJJ with his win over Denilson Maia at the Jiu Jitsu vs Luta Livre challenge. In the 1990’s he went from fierce competitor, to defender of Jiu Jitsu’s pride and founding member of one of BJJ’s most important schools.



Royler Gracie: Already an important figure of Jiu Jitsu in the 1980’s, Royler a Gracie champion of his own merit, setting the record for World Jiu Jitsu Championships and ADCC gold medals. Royler was the first king of the featherweight division and the first truly dominant BJJ’er in the new CBJJ/IBJJF era.



Royce Gracie: Royce probably brought more awareness to Jiu Jitsu then anyone on the planet. His wins at the early UFC’s put Jiu Jitsu on the cover of most martial arts magazines in the world.



Wallid Ismail: The Carlson Gracie champion made headlines numerous times throughout the decade. His wins over Gracie family members Ralph, Renzo and Royce helped put his name and the name of his academy on the map, but it was his back and forth antics with Ryan Gracie really kept the press working over time. Wallid was also one of Carlson Gracie’s most loyal students.



Roberto Correa/ Nino Schembri / Roberto Magalhaes: 3 very important figures for Jiu Jitsu all from the Gracie Barra academy, all 3 were world champions; however it is in the development of the technical aspect of the sport that they will always be remembered. Correa is regarded as the father of the half guard, having helped develop that position tremendously. Schembri also developed several important positions from the guard and will always be remembered as one of the sports most creative fighters, while “Roleta” Magalhaes developed the inverted guard (today also called tornado guard), another important position that came as a true puzzle when it was first introduced in the competition circuit.

2000’s BJJ

Tererê: Most likely the first star in sport Jiu Jitsu, the flamboyant black belt under Alexandre Paiva was one of the big stars at the turn of the millennium. He was always a very athletic fighter who loves a challenge, including fighting 4 weight categories above his weight class (in 2004) at the Word Championship, earning a silver medal for his effort.



Saulo Ribeiro/Xande Ribeiro: The Ribeiro brothers together have 11 world BJJ gold medals and 4 ADCC first spots; they have competed and won against the best fighters of their generation. They have also developed a fair share of interesting black belt talent through their academy in California.



Marcelo Garcia: A BJJ phenomenon, this multiple time world champion in Jiu Jitsu has proven his worth numerous times with and without the gi. His charisma has also gathered a legion of fans around him, and he is regarded as one of the most talented fighters to have ever competed in BJJ.



Ronaldo Souza: Anther amazing competitor that came from the city of Manaus (like the Ribeiro Bros), “Jacare” as he is known annihilated his opposition before turning to MMA.



Roger Gracie: There is only one Roger Gracie and in BJJ there are no adjectives that can quantify this man’s greatness within the sport. The amount of titles could speak for themselves, but the emphatic fashion in which he managed to pull off his wins is of tremendous significance. If it has been said that there was a time before Rolls Gracie and a time after Rolls Gracie, the same can be said about Roger Gracie.



2010’s BJJ

Rafael Mendes: The Atos standout really made a mark as the most dominant featherweight of his generation, establishing that status at the age of 20. He also developed (alongside his Atos camp) several positions, being the 50-50 guard the most significant.