History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu History of BJJ.

Whilst some have argued that the roots of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s could be traced back beyond feudal Japan, but to Ancient China and India, but its widely accepted that the art was developed in Brazil in the early 20th century.

Compared to Kung Fu, boxing, Taekwondo and the various South East Asian kickboxing martial arts such as Muay Thai and Lethwei, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a fairly young martial art.

Mitsuyo Maeda and Kodokan Judo

The grappling discipline, derived from Kodokan Judo was introduced to Brazil by Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese immigrant. Kodokan Judo was a streamlined version of the Japanese art of Jujitsu and coincided with a time when Japan had opened its borders to trade both goods and ideas with the rest of the world. Maeda, a student of Judo’s founding father, Kano Jigoro was just one of many pupils sent by his master to spread Judo across the world. These pupils would demonstrate the efficacy of the art, whilst taking challenges from other martial artists.

Maeda, along with his fellow students would travel to the US in 1904 and demonstrate “Kano Jujitsu”, with his most impressive display against champion wrestler, Cadet Tipton at West Point. Despite catching Tipton in an armbar, and forcing him to submit, it was argued by the crowd and officials that Kano had already been pinned by the American.

After this, Maeda would travel to Europe and become known as Count Koma, a ring name he earned fighting in Spain, Belgium and France. He returned West and visited the island of Cuba, where he would instil a longstanding obsession with Judo into its populace. Throughout his travels, Maeda picked up various catch wrestling techniques which he would include in his judo practice.

Maeda finally found himself in Brazil in 1914. He would visit the country multiple times over the following seven years, accepting challenging matches before opening his own academy in 1921. In doing so, he aided the Brazilian and Japanese governments to make an arrangement which would enable Japanese immigrants to live in Brazil.

The Gracie Academy Origins

According to “Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation”, Maeda was demonstrating his discipline in De Paz Theatre in Belem, where he met Gastao Gracie. Gastao, a business partner of the American Circus, was of Scottish heritage and was quite concerned with the lack of discipline displayed by his teenage son, Carlos. This concern led to fourteen-year-old Carlos being sent to Mitsuyo’s judo classes. Gastao’s wish came true and Carlos would make Jiu-Jitsu his lifelong pursuit at the age of 22.

In 1925, Carlos opened the first Gracie academy in Rio de Janeiro. Carlos would teach his younger siblings, George, Gastao, Oswaldo and Helio. As a child, the young Helio had been sickly, prone to fainting spells and unable to fully participate in his older brother’s lessons. Helio’s frail body had great difficulty executing the movements Carlos had taught him and was forced to rely on timing and leverage. Through trial and error, the five brothers would develop the foundation of what they called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and later, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

This new art which incorporated both Kodokan Judo and the catch wrestling movements which Maeda had discovered through his travels would be developed further by the Gracie brothers, with a focus on the ground fighting stage, or ne-waza. Helio in particular was able to gain a greater advantage on the ground against his bigger, stronger brothers by utilizing superior leverage.

The Other Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Lineage

Whilst the Gracies still believe gaining and holding the top position is the most dominant and best method to win the fight, they explored other positions, including the trunk position, which was seldom used in judo. The Gracie’s examination of the trunk or dō-osae position would yield great results and would develop into the guard position, which allowed them to out grapple practitioners of other arts.

Whilst the Gracies are undoubtedly the most dominant name in the history of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s development, there is another lineage of instructors less commonly talked about. This lineage began with Luiz Franca Filho, who trained with both Maeda and another Japanese Kodokan Judo pupil, Soshihiro Satake, who followed Maeda’s journey three years after Mitsuyo left Japan. 

A black belt in judo and jiu-jitsu under Maeda and Satake, Franca would move to Sao Paolo to continue training under a third early pioneer of the art, Geo Omori. After training with Omori, Franca finally moved to the outskirts of Rio, where he would teach military personnel, police officers and poorer people living in the favelas. One of his students was a marine named Oswaldo Fadda, who after receiving his black belt from Franca continued to teach the poor, as the Gracies instructed the upper middle classes of society and charged high prices to their students.

Fadda would often teach Jiu-Jitsu in unorthodox locations such as beaches and public parks without charging his students a penny. Oswaldo felt that jiu-jitsu could help the physically and mentally handicapped, particularly Rio’s numerous polio victims. As his instruction provided no real income, Fadda was forced to place his advertisements in the obituary sections of local newspapers. 

Outcasted by the Gracies, Fadda would open his own academy in 1950 and would specialize in the use of foot locks, which had been ignored by the mainstream jiu-jitsu curriculum. 

Fadda came to challenge the Gracies in 1955, stating “We wish to challenge the Gracies, we respect them as the formidable adversaries that they are but we do not fear them. We have 20 pupils ready for the challenge.” Helio would accept and the Gracies would take on Fadda’s pupils in the Gracie Academy. The outcome of the challenge is unclear, with various sources providing dissenting results. 

In 1956, a luta livre (free fight, akin to early MMA) fight between Valdemar Santana and Carlson Gracie had a second series of Fadda vs Gracie challenges. Despite receiving heckles from Gracie students who would yell “sapateiro!” (shoemaker) for their use of footlocks, Fadda’s students defeated their rivals without the same controversy as before. In an interview for Revista do Esporte, Fadda stated “We put an end to the Gracie taboo.” 

Oswaldo would attain the rank of 9th-degree coral belt, which was the highest rank received by a jiu-jitsu practitioner of non-Gracie lineage. 

Various academies and teams have been born out of Fadda’s instruction, including the incredibly successful Grapple Fight Team which came about in the mid-’90s after one of Fadda’s students, Pedro Gama Filho helped push Jiu Jitsu onto the syllabus of the university he was director of.

Modern Day

Today Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the fastest-growing sports on the planet and it is unlikely this would be the case if it weren’t for the explosion of Mixed Martial Arts. Over the decades which followed Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s inception, the Gracies competed in various free-fighting competitions, such as vale tudo matches, luta libre and the Gracie Challenge fights which invited practitioners of other martial arts to test their prowess. This led to the Gracies, alongside Art Davie to set up an eight-man, single-elimination tournament to display their perceived dominance over other martial arts to the wider world.

The inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship took place in November 1993 and Royce, selected due to his comparatively-diminutive stature would represent the Gracies in vale tudo style rules. Royce’s dominance in the three UFC tournaments would attract eyes from all over the world, encouraging both fledgling and established martial artists to take up the art.

Today almost all high-level UFC fighters have BJJ as a significant part of their training regime, whether they are specialist grapplers or strikers. This has led to an explosion of new students and new academies appearing all over the world.

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