Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art specializing in grappling (ground fighting.) Most MMA fighters who participate in contests like UFC are trained and highly competent in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
However, few people are privy to the origins of Jiu Jitsu and where and how the martial art was formed.
So what is the history of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? Modern-day Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) was, in large part, honed and created by the Gracie Family in Brazil (starting with Carlos Gracie Sr.) However, Jiu Jitsu is believed to have originated first in northern India by Buddhist monks who sought to protect themselves. From there, the self-defense grappling martial art spread to Southeast Asia, then to Japan, where it was used by Samurai, then eventually to Brazil where Carlos Gracie and his brothers would develop it into the martial art we know today.
BJJ is the fastest growing martial arts in the world. Students now study this form of fighting all around the globe.
However, understanding the origins of this martial art will better help a prospective fighter understand the ‘why’ behind much of this style of fighting.
Where Did the Art of Jiu Jitsu Originate?
It would be impossible to exclusively give one group of people’s credit for the sole creation of Jiu Jitsu, as various versions of this style of grappling have been traced back to historical battles as early as 2,000 B.C. Historically it is traced to Greece, Rome, India, China, and possibly even the Native Americas.
Most historians do agree that the present-day version of Jiu Jitsu most likely got its true origin from ancient Northern Indians.
Ancient Northern Indian Buddhist Monks
It may surprise you to learn that the origin of Jiu Jitsu is intertwined with the history of northern Indian Buddhist monks. Over four centuries ago, Indian Buddhist monks were roaming from town to town, trying to spread the divine words of Buddha, “the great enlightener.”
This was not always the safest of tasks, as not everyone takes kindly to missionaries, no matter the religion.
These Buddhist monks would often have to fend off attacks from local petty criminals and intolerant people.
Therefore, these monks developed a style of self-defense grappling which allowed for them to defend themselves successfully when attacked, specifically when taken to the ground.
The methods of defense they developed allowed these monks to subdue their attacker without killing them or causing severe injury. The goal was to neutralize aggression to continue to respect all life, even one’s enemies.
When one evaluates what is currently known about Jiu Jitsu, it makes sense then that it was developed by a smaller, weaker opponent’s need to defeat a physically stronger adversary.
For within its framework, Jiu Jitsu emphasizes the use of minimum force to subdue any size attacker. It was a way to fight without the use of weapons, which would strictly go against the moral codes of Buddhists.
How were these ancient Buddhist monks able to harness such power? They applied the laws of momentum and gravity, while utilizing leverage and equilibrium.
By using physical laws and embracing what they knew about the most vital points of the human body and its various weak and sensitive spots, they were able to invent this rather scientific art of self-defense.
The Migration of Self-Defense Grappling Through Asia
The original self-defense science of grappling, developed out of pure necessity by monks, eventually made its way across the globe (as we well know).
As thousands of Buddhist monasteries were built around India and then in neighboring regions, this ancient martial art made its way across Asia.
This ancient martial art made its way first to Ceylon, Burma, and Tibet (places where Buddhist temples and monasteries first appeared).
Eventually, it reached Southeast Asia, China, and, most importantly, Japan. It is in Japan that this grappling art saw true growth.
Japan & Jujutsu
It is believed that once this ancient art of grappling made its way to Japan, it was improved upon and eventually called jujutsu (though not until the 17th century, A.D.).
When Japan still ran on a feudal system and was policed by Samurai, this style of grappling was incredibly useful (and proved to improve one’s likelihood of survival if one was acquainted with it.)
The samurai utilized Jujutsu style self-defense grappling to subdue opponents who might have been both armed and armored, without the use of weapons.
This is not because Samurai were often unarmed. In fact, quite the contrary. A Japanese Samurai was always armed. However, striking against an opponent’s armor was not effective.
Instead, the Samurai had to disarm that opponent by learning unusual ways of getting them to the ground and using the opponent’s advantage against them.
In 1868, the Emperor Meiji defeated the Shogun, and a new era began. The Meiji Reformation effectively ended the Japanese feudal system. This era brought reform to Japanese politics, culture, and social hierarchies.
For this reason, the ancient Samurai lost their prestige and usefulness; they were no longer needed to protect their landowners and subdue radical tenants. During this time of change, the art of Jujutsu became an illegal form of combat.
Kano Jiu Jitsu
It was not until 1882, when a member of the Japanese Ministry of Culture and Martial arts, Jigoro Kano, gave Jujutsu a bit of a social facelift. Kano saw Jujutsu as an important martial art form that should be used to educate citizens in Japan and help them to harness their potential.
Kano adapted this ancient martial art into one that became safe to engage in, while still using training drills that we now recognize as sparring. Jujutsu’s reputation was revamped and seen very favorably by this new world Japanese society. This newer, safer approach, which sought to empower men and women, not just warriors, was known then as Kano Jiu Jitsu, and later as Judo. The Jiu Jitsu at this time was restricted to only a few moves to refine the art.
Unfortunately, this led to the ancient grappling art being paired down a little too much and losing the essence of true self-defense (as one would experience in a real-life attack). However, this basic version of Jiu Jitsu would evolve thanks to the Western World.
Modern Japanese Jujutsu
Two of the big key players in what will become Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are Mitsuyu Maeda and Jyoi (Geo) Omori.
Geo Omori was from Tokyo and joined the Kodokan Judo Institute (founded in 1882) in 1907. Omori received his black belt in 1915 at the age of 17 under his sensei Tokurgoro Ito.
One of Jigoro Kano’s students aided in the expansion of Judo. His name was Mitsuyu Maeda, and he studied with Kano and other ground fighting and self-defense skill schools. A remarkable fighter, he was later referred to as Count Koma.
Jujutsu Migrates from Japan to Brazil
Maeda traveled west and shared his love of martial arts, specifically Jiu Jitsu, to many diverse cultures. He visited Europe, the United States, and parts of Central America.
With a fellow group of male fighters, Maeda would compete in various matches and challenges around the world.
In 1914 Maeda went to Brazil. It was in Para, Brazil, that Maeda stayed in the home of Gastao Gracie.
Mitsuyu Maeda Tutors Carlos Gracie
Gastao Gracie’s son, Carlos Gracie, had attended one of Maeda’s many showcases, where he would compete in matches and perform demonstrations of Jiu Jitsu for crowds of curious spectators, in the hopes of sharing Japanese Culture to the west.
Gracie was dumbfounded by how Maeda was able to consistently subdue his opponents, who were often two times his size.
Carlos was only 14 years old at the time, and a bit of a wild child. His father thought he could benefit from learning this Japanese martial art as a way of learning discipline, respect, and using some of his excess energies.
Out of gratitude for Gastao’s help and hospitality, Maeda agreed to provide Carlos tutelage.
Carlos was only under Maeda’s tutelage for five years, but in that time, Carlos developed self-control and self-confidence and felt the art form had radically changed his life.
He taught his siblings the art as well, including his youngest brother, Helio.
When the Gracie family moved from Para to Rio De Janeiro, Carlos was 20 years old. He attempted to work normal 9-5 and government jobs, yet his ever-wild spirit made this difficult.
Gracie wanted to open his own martial arts school to teach others what Maeda had taught him. However, at the time martial arts schools were not in high demand, and Gracie was unsure how he would go about recruiting students due to the lack of information surrounded martial arts.
The one group of people who were interested in learning this self-defense art were the police officers in Brazil. Carlos saw the opportunity to teach Jiu Jitsu to Law Enforcement in the state of Minas Gerais. This was his first step toward making a life and career from the martial art he loved so much.
Carlos Gracie Creates First Brazilian Jiu Jitsu School
In 1925, Carlos Gracie created the first-ever Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 23-year-old martial artist had big visions for the future: Jiu Jitsu Gracie as a Brazilian sport, on a national level.
Using his minimal resources, Carlos began teaching out of a small house. There, he turned the living room into the training arena. The Gracie brothers (Oswald, Gastao, George, and Helio) all joined in the adventure and helped Carlos teach and grow the art of Jiu Jitsu.
Geo Omori Arrives in Brazil
Around this same time, in 1925, Geo Omori moved to Brazil. He taught Jiu Jitsu and Judo in Rio de Janeiro. Then in 1931, Omari opened the first Jiu Jitsu school in São Paulo. Omori is considered one of the founders of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and instructed another instrumental founder of the martial arts, Luiz Franca.
Luiz Franca was a student of both Mitsuyu Maeda and Geo Omori and would eventually go on to tie in a match against none other than Carlos Gracie!
The Helio Gracie Take Over
Helio Gracie, as we mentioned earlier, was the youngest (and smallest) of the Gracie brothers. His small size and weak physical condition made it more difficult for him to execute some of the moves required in the art of Jiu Jitsu. Due to this hindrance, Helio began researching new alternative Jiu Jitsu methods that could benefit him.
The new moves Helio developed relied heavily on leverage, momentum, and using timing vs. strength and speed. His specific techniques were ingratiated into the Gracie style of Jiu Jitsu.
Helio eventually took over the family business. By this point, the school was no longer taught in the living room of a small house. It was now a large facility in the hubbub of Rio de Janeiro.
Ultimately, all four Gracie bothers had an enormous impact on the growth and creation of modern-day Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Challengers Arise in Brazil
The Gracie’s were not the only family in Brazil who were practicing and developing the art of Jiu Jitsu. A man named Oswaldo Fadda had studied Jiu Jitsu in the military at the age of 17, under Luiz Franca, who was a pupil of Mitsuyu Maeda. Fadda was a ninth-degree red belt.
Despite the Gracie writing Fadda off as sort of illegitimate copycat, Fadda opened his own Jiu Jitsu academy on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in January 1950. There his students specialized in foot locks, an area to which the Gracie’s were slightly less equipped.
In 1955, feeling quite confident in his school, Fadda challenged the Gracie Barra school to fight. Numerous fights took place, and the Gracie Barra school won slightly more than Fadda’s Academy. However, one of the significant wins for Fadda was when his pupil, Valdemar Santana, beat the infamous Helio Gracie.
The Gracie Barra students were now wary of the Fadda foot locks and were ready to take on the Fadda academy again. To redeem the family’s honor and reputation, Carlson Gracie defeated Santana in their match. Nevertheless, the Fadda Academy won the overall contest. Fadda stated later in an interview that he felt “we put an end to the Gracie taboo.”
Carlson Gracie as Leading Family Champ
Defeating Valdemar Santana made Carlson Gracie the main fighter of the Gracie family for the next couple of decades.
Carlson went on to open his own Gracie Jiu Jitsu school, where he fostered a whole different level of competitiveness in the sport.
He fostered a team of athletes who dominated tournaments in the ’70s and ’80s.
Rolls Gracie and the 1970’s
Rolls (brother to Carlson, nephew of Helio) has been credited as being the mastermind between linking old school Jiu Jitsu to modern Jiu Jitsu still practiced today.
Rolls had traveled as a teen, acquired skills like Sambo, Judo and Greco-Roman style wrestling. He was a black belt by the age of sixteen!
In the 1970s, Brazil was experiencing great political turmoil, and as such martial arts were losing their steam. Rolls managed to re-ignite the passion people once had for Jiu Jitsu during this turbulent time.
In 1976 he participated in a vale-Tudo (“no rules”) match where he annihilated a karate master with his Jiu Jitsu maneuvers.
Rolls ignited a passion in a new generation and started a Gracie school of his own, like so many members of the Gracie family would continue to do over the many decades.
Carlos Gracie Jr. and the 1980’s
Carlos Gracie Jr (brother to Rolls) was a skilled fighter in numerous martial arts and became especially fascinated with health and nutrition as it related to the sport of Jiu Jitsu.
He became dedicated to developing what was known as The Gracie Diet. Carlos Jr. got his degree in Nutrition Science and sought to nurture the Gracie athletes as well as hopefully cure unnecessary diseases through nutrition.
Like his family before him, Carlos Jr. taught Jiu Jitsu at the downtown Gracie school in Rio de Janeiro, before relocating to Copacabana to take over for his brother Rolls, who passed away suddenly.
The school evolved into what is known today as the “Gracie Barra” school of Jiu Jitsu. The school went from having only 20 students in the first year to having 200 students the following.
In 1972, Carley Gracie moved to the U.S. to teach Jiu Jitsu, followed by Rorion Gracie, in 1978. The 1980s served to fuel the passion and fire for Jiu Jitsu by competing with schools and building a competitive drive around tournaments.
Jiu Jitsu Becomes a National Sport
In 1994, Carlos Jr. helped to establish the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation to help regulate the sport of Jiu Jitsu.
This gave legitimacy to the sport and led to uniform rules and regulations and the first official Brazilian National Championship of Jiu Jitsu.
This institutionalized Jiu Jitsu as a national sport in Brazil. Carlos Gracie Sr’s lifelong goal.
The Establishment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)
By the early 1990s, Rorion Gracie had been in the United States for almost twenty years. He was eager to continue his family’s dream of making Jiu Jitsu an international sport. It was part of his family’s legacy, and the martial art had continued to inspire him and impact his life for the better.
Drawing from inspiration of the challenge matches the family had done in Brazil (with the Fadda academy, and the “no rules” Gracie Challenges, Rorion sought to create a tournament in the U.S. that would integrate multiple martial arts in a cage match style competition.
With help from a business partner, Rorion laid the foundations for a tournament in which Brazilian Jiu Jitsu athletes could not only compete, but win.
In 1993, Rorion Gracie helped to co-found the first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). It was a contest between martial art athletes of all different styles.
The competition had few rules and cleverly pitted these athletes against each other in a one-night event, where each event was single-elimination based. Rorion was quite confident that the UFC would be the perfect competition to showcase Gracie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on an international scale.
Royce Gracie represented the family. When Royce defeated all his opponents using Jiu Jitsu, despite being lighter and smaller, martial artists from all over the world were clamoring to learn this specific fighting style. Royce Gracie had faced opponents skilled in boxing, karate, muay thai, wrestling, and taekwondo. He took them all.
Suddenly, Jiu Jitsu was a style of martial arts that every fighter had to learn if they hoped to ever win an Ultimate Fighting Championship. This is what created the huge Jiu Jitsu revolution around the globe.
Jiu Jitsu Goes Truly Global
After the 1993 UFC results, Jiu Jitsu instructors were in high demand. Qualified black belt Jiu Jitsu athletes were sought after to teach seminars and open schools around the world.
Many of these initial black belt instructors came straight out of the Gracie Barra school, all of whom helped to globalize the martial arts sport of Jiu Jitsu.
By 2005, the Gracie Barra school headquarters had moved from its origin point in Rio de Janeiro to Lake Forest, CA, U.S. Gracie Barra America outgrew itself, as it had previously. It eventually relocated to a 7,000 square foot location in Irvine, CA.
These days, the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) promotes tournaments around the world, in over 50 countries, with over 3,000 athletes competing in such events as the World Championships and UFC. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has positioned itself as one of the most instrumental forms of martial arts in the world.
The Creation of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
The term “mixed martial arts” (MMA) was first coined by a TV critic named Howard Rosenberg who was reviewing the first UFC fight in 1993. The term caught like wildfire and was used to promote UFC matches in September of 1995 by Rick Blume (CEO of Battlecade Extreme Fighting).
Under the leadership of Jeff Blatnick, the UFC officially adopted the term MMA as synonymous with the tournament itself. The MMA movement that we know today was directly rooted in the insurgence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the Vale Tudo (“no-rules”) events that the Gracie family started in Brazil.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federations
Since the birth of modern Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, various federations and organizations formed to legitimize the art and sport. The following are the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu federations:
- Jiu Jitsu Federation of Guanabara
- Sport Jiu Jitsu International Federation (SJJF)
- International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF)
Some of the most Influential Fights in BJJ History
- Royce Gracie Vs. Everybody – The first UFC tournament put Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on the map, as we have learned. Royce Gracie’s relentless display of total domination over his larger opponents had everyone floored. This was singlehandedly one of the most instrumental fighting tournaments to occur in the name of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
- Hugo Duarte Vs. Rickson Gracie – This was a showcase of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu vs. the immensely popular martial arts of that time, Luta Livre. This was not a planned fight. This fight broke out because Duarte spoke ill of Gracie’s family. Rickson overheard Hugo and slapped him hard. A fight invariably ensued and was caught on film by a tourist passing by. Rickson was able to mount Hugo, whereby he mercilessly socked him into submission. This accidental fight served to advertise the total effectiveness of BJJ. So, it was rather fortuitous that it occurred!
- Royce Gracie Vs. Dan Severn – A match between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Greco-Roman style wrestling. Severn was 80 pounds heavier than Gracie (which is no small difference in MMA fighting.) However, in one quick maneuver, Gracie managed to triangle choke Severn into submission. It was like watching pure magic.
- Helio Gracie Vs. Mashahiko Kimura – This fight featured two powerhouse fighters and was essentially Jiu Jitsu Vs. Judo. During this fight, Kimura repeated judo throws to knock out the much smaller Gracie. After 13 minutes of this, Kimura then applied a reverse shoulder lock (“ude-garami”). It was deep enough that it broke Helio Gracie’s arm, but Helio refused to tap out! Helio’s brother eventually threw in the towel. This type of shoulder lock was eventually named after Kimura, who had successfully defeated Helio Gracie.
The Key Take Away?
A self-defense grappling technique once developed by Buddhist monks, utilized by feudal Samurais, and now featured in the highly popular and world-renowned Ultimate Fighting Championship, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the most popular and effective forms of martial arts in existence.
A form of fighting that was developed out of pure necessity has been harnessed and shaped by the passionate individuals whose lives in drastically changed. Those who pathed the history of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, like Jigori Kano, Mitsuyu Maeda, Jyoi (Geo) Omori, from Japan, and the entire Gracie family from Brazil, made Jiu Jitsu what it is today–an indispensable martial art style and international sport.
There are countless BJJ academies where anyone serious in martial arts can master the techniques developed over many centuries. It is an excellent tool for knowing self-defense (since many fights end up on the ground), and for anyone wanting to be a UFC champ, mastering it is essential.