Brazilian Jiujitsu today has exploded in popularity. Jiu jitsu is currently a staple in MMA and it is a sport that has continuously grown in popularity. Almost in any city, you will most likely find a jiu jitsu academy. Nowadays, you have black belts earning serious money just by putting up their own schools and even by doing seminars in different parts of the world. Though it is possible for jiujitsu athletes today to live the dream, it wasn’t always this way.
How did BJJ start and how did it grow to what it is now? How did this sport come from Japan get transformed in Brazil to become the martial art loved by many in different parts of the world?
From JuJutsu to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Jiu jitsu history can be traced originally in Japan when the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, had students spread the art in different parts of the world. The term jiu jitsu comes from the Romanization of its original name written in kanji as “jujutsu”. Ju meaning gentle and jutsu translates roughly to “art” or “technique”.
When one of Jigoro Kano’s student, Mitsuyo Maeda left Japan, judo was still known as “kano jiu jitsu” or just “jiu jitsu”. The origin of the name was discussed by Higashi who is the co-author of Kano Jiujitsu in which he wrote:
“Judo is the term selected by Professor Kano as describing his system more accurately than jiu jitsu does. Professor Kano is one of the leading educators of Japan, and it is natural that he should cast about for the technical word that would most accurately describe his system. But the Japanese people generally cling to the more popular nomenclature and call it jiu jitsu”.
Jigoro Kano later changed the name from Jujutsu to Judo after refining the techniques that he used in the martial art. He believed that though Jutsu stands for “art” or “technique” while the martial art consists of physical techniques. And from here, he decided to change the second character to “do” which means “way” or “path”. From here, it gave birth to what is known as Judo. What it did is give a more philosophical context to the martial art.
Mitsuyo Maeda and the Gracies
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu today has become synonymous to the Gracies. It has been popularized especially in the 90s when Royce Gracie successfully defeated fighters from other martial arts in the inaugural UFC. However, the development what is Brazilian jiu jitsu today goes way back when Mitsuo Maeda decided to travel to Brazil.
Mitsuyo Maeda is a student of Jigoro Kano who left Japan to travel to different parts of the world including the United States, Europe, Cuba, Mexico, and then Brazil. He was able to rack 1,000 free fights and even retired without losing any of those matches. When Maeda settled in Brazil, he decided to open a jiu jitsu academy where he will play a pivotal role in the birth of BJJ.
Carlos Gracie became one of his students. He was able to study with Maeda extensively during the 1920s and decided to open his own academy in 1925. Carlos Gracie trained with his brothers George and Helio. Helio Gracie has become the known father of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu today given his application of techniques despite his small physique.
Born in 1913, Helio Gracie engaged in sports such as swimming and rowing before he discovered martial arts at 16 years old where he trained judo during the time when it was still known as Kano Jiu Jitsu. He also learned a bit of catch wrestling too under the tutelage of Orlando America da Silva together with his brothers George and Carlos.
Helio started teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when Carlos Gracie was late for a private class with Mario Brandt who was the director of the Bank of Brazil. When Carlos Gracie arrived and apologized to Brandt, his student assured him that it wasn’t an issue and requested to continue training with the then 16-year old Helio Gracie instead. From here, Carlos Gracie agreed and Helio Gracie started to become an instructor.
Helio Gracie along with his brothers made a reputation with their brand of Jiu Jitsu by issuing what is known as the Gracie challenge. Here, challengers from other martial arts were welcomed in no-holds-barred matches. In most of the matches, the Gracies emerged as the winners of these challenges.
Helio Gracie would later become the father of prominent Gracies including Rickson, Royler, Relson, and Rorion who would later be the co-founder of UFC.
The Non-Gracie Lineage
Oswaldo Fadda is another key figure in the origins of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu today. He offered the alternative non-Gracie lineage that gave birth to modern prominent teams such as Nova Uniao and GFTeam. Oswaldo Fadda learned from a former student of Mitsuyo Maeda named Luis Franca. Franca is known to have acquired grade as an instructor around the same time as Carlos Gracie.
Oswaldo Fadda has been known to teach jiu jitsu in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike the Gracies that catered jiu jitsu to the elites, Oswaldo Fadda was able to teach in the favelas and poorer sector of Rio de Janeiro. Fadda also played a role in spreading Kano Jiu jitsu/judo in different parts of Latin America as well. He also taught in Mexico but left in 1910, which was the same year as the Mexican Revolution.
Gracie vs. Fadda
Fadda was considered an outcast among jiu jitsu practitioners during his time. In 1951, Fadda decided to issue a challenge to the Gracies. Helio Gracie then accepted the challenge. Oswaldo Fadda’s team won utilizing footlocks which were dubbed by Helio as a “suburban technique”.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the US
In the 1980s, the Gracies immigrated in the US teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in their garage. The Gracies struggled to be accepted by the American audience then due to the proliferation of kung fu movies, especially in the 60s and 70s. And with its popularity, it has reduced grappling martial art as an inferior to striking martial arts which were considered flashier.
It was during this time when the Gracies issued Gracie Challenges again and the videos of these matches were used to promote the use of BJJ in real fight scenarios. Though it has gained some traction and even made it possible to get students like Chuck Norris to try Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it still isn’t as popular as they hope it was.
It was during the 90s when Rorion met promoter Art Davie through John Milius who was a filmmaker. Together, they were able to come up with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. This one-night tournament pitted different martial arts. Representing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the undersized Royce Gracie. From here, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu increased in popularity in the US and later in different parts of the world.