These days, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely heard about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It is one of the fastest-growing forms of martial arts in the world. One of the reasons for this is that it can be practiced by almost anyone. Almost any age, gender, or body type can find a place for themselves in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Whether it is for fitness, friendship, self-defense, or competition reasons, many people find a home on the BJJ mat.
A good part of the fast growth of BJJ is due to the popularity of mixed martial arts competitions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship or UFC as it’s more commonly known. However, new it may seem, though; the reality is that the origins of BJJ can be traced back for centuries.
Although formed in Brazil, the roots of BJJ came from Japan.
Origins in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu
Originating from the battlefield, Jiu-Jitsu came from the Samurai of Japan. These warriors fought on horseback and were typically well armored. However, the art of Jiu-Jitsu was created as a back-up fighting method, should the warriors find themselves disarmed and on foot. While protected by armor, their mobility and was limited, but their bodies protected. Unarmoured, they needed to rely on physical skills like choking, joint locks, and throwing to outwit and outfight their opponent. Over the years, various styles began to form as the focus shifted from armed combat to self-defense. Despite these differences, there was an overall constant focus on throws, strangles, and joint locks.
By the time the mid-1800s rolled around, the Jiu-Jitsu of the battlefield had broken off into various styles of what was called “Ryu”.
Eventually, one particular man’s style rose above the rest. His emphasis was to obtain maximum efficiency with minimal effort. His name was Jigoro Kano, and he was a student of traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. In 1882, he founded a martial arts school that would eventually be known as the Kodokan. Kano was the principal instructor, and he taught his students what he felt were the most effective techniques. One of the unique aspects of his style -which would ultimately lead to what we know today as Judo, was his emphasis on live sparring. This live sparring, also known as randori, was a combination of takedowns, joint locks, and chocks against the opponent. Before Kano’s focus on live sparring, the philosophy of the time was more centered on compliance-based drills over full-contact sparring.
In 1914, Maeda traveled to Brazil, where he befriended a businessman named Gastão Gracie. Maeda would eventually accept Gastão’s son, a teenager name, Carlos Gracie, as his student. Carlos studied Maeda’s newaza-based style of judo for several years, eventually sharing his knowledge with his younger brothers. One of his brothers, Hélio, had difficulty executing judo’s techniques due to his diminutive size and lack of strength. Consequently, he began to alter and adjust the judo techniques he had learned, refining them until they could be applied by anyone, regardless of size or strength. It was from these innovations that BJJ was born.
From Japan to Brazil: The Gracie Family
For thirty years, Judo flourished in the east. Eventually, one of Kano’s students would journey to Brazil and start a chain of events that lead to the BJJ of today. This student was Mitsuo Maeda but was known as Count Koma (as in the Count of Combat), and he moved to Brazil in 1914.
Maeda had trained with Kano since 1894. He was very well trained in throws and takedowns, and his specialty was ground fighting, which was known as newaza. His journey to Brazil and subsequent immigration was assisted by a local politician George Gracie, whose own family had been immigrants to the country. In exchange for his help, Maeda began to teach Jiu-Jitsu to George Gracie’s son, Carlos. Carlos, in turn, shared this new-found combat knowledge with his brothers, and together, they opened Brazil’s very first jiu-jitsu academy in 1925.
Carlos and his brother Helio were the two brothers that played the biggest role in the development of the style. They and their students worked on their craft through no rule fights and public challenges. Submission ground fighting was the focus because it enabled men of any size to challenge each other regardless of their physical stature.
The art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu continued to evolve in the 1970s with Rolls Gracie. He incorporated various moves from wrestling into the art and devised a rules system for the competitions. As the years went by, Rolls Gracie and the family refined their art even further and created contests where they and their students fought against other martial artists. Due to their innovative techniques, the Gracies rarely lost a match.
Wrestling and grappling became part of the curriculum, and the sport grew even more. Despite the fame it gained in Brazil, BJJ was still relatively unknown outside the country. That was until Helio’s son, Rorion, moved to the United States. After that, the world was their stage.
From Brazil to the United States: UFC -Ultimate Fighting Championship
It was the late 1970’s when Rorion Gracie arrived in the U.S. He felt it was his duty to spread the word of BJJ and his family’s unique take on the sport. He took in a business partner Art Davies, and together they founded what is known today as the UFC -The Ultimate Fighting Championship. This was a new type of contest, unlike anything seen before. Very few rules and all kinds of martial artists were set to fight each other. One against the other, various skills and techniques in a single-elimination tournament. Rorion believed that this would get the attention of the world at large and be the perfect way to showcase the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that had been developed by his family.
The very first UFC was in 1993. Rorian his brother Royce to be the public representative of BJJ. He was smaller, slender, and unassuming. This was the public look that Rorian wanted to showcase. It emphasized even more how the small, unassuming BJJ fighters could still beat out their larger opponents. When did Royce won as Rorian knew he would- it showcased how with the proper technique and leverage, anyone no matter their size, could easily defeat an opponent using the BJJ techniques. Royce went on to win again and again and soon martial artists from around the world began to approach the Gracie’s to learn their techniques. Finally, after all these years and the many people who had a hand in developing the sport, BJJ was ready for the masses.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Today
The popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is now at the forefront of the current trends, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu continues to grow with it. BJJ has exploded across the globe and grown in its popularity. So much so that there is an international organization to control it. The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Foundation (IBJJF) which runs a busy competition circuit around the globe. What is incredible is that the reason BJJ was so effective at the beginning of its growth is still the reason that MMA fighters win today. All MMA fighters require a working knowledge of BJJ in order to stand a chance in any competition. It has proven the test of time and is still today, the reason that anyone fighter wins over another. And it continues to grow, just as the art was molded and refined in the early years, fighters continue to adapt and refine it, even today.
One of the best ways to truly understand Jiu-Jitsu is to see it with your own eyes. And this doesn’t mean watching UFC. UFC is the professional version, but BJJ is for everyone. From kids to adults, for reasons of self-defense or fitness, BJJ covers it all. So even before seeking out your local school, take a look at the multitude of online videos. These will give you a great foundation and realistic expectations before you even set foot on the mat. Start HERE!
How to choose a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu School
Now that you’re ready to start your BJJ journey, the next step is to choose a school. Many people question whether or not they should choose base on the instructor’s belt level, their past success in competition, or their current students' skill levels. But the reality is that none of this will matter. Unless, of course you are ultra-focused on winning in a particular position and a certain instructor in your area, is known for his success with that position. If this is the case, then yes, this will be the basis of your choice.
However, if you are a beginner or don’t have any specifications like the above, then it’s really about personalities. How will you mesh with the instructor? Are his teaching methods conducive to the way you learn best? Will you get along and have fun together? The reality is that the better you can get along, the better your training will be, and the longer you will stick with it. The same goes for your goals. If the school has goals for its students that align with your personal objectives, it will be a great match.
So, what to do?
- Visit all the schools in the area. But don’t just walk in and look around. Get on the mat and do a couple of drop-in classes. This gives you the chance to see if you will mesh with the other students as well as the instructor.
- Spend time talking to the head instructor. This will be someone that you will spend quite a bit of time with if you sign up, so make sure that it will be a good fit. His skills and competition results are not as critical as how much he will care about your well-being and your progress.