The True History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

How Jiu Jitsu Became Brazilian

Most people have a white belt understanding of the history of BJJ. They may have heard that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was created by the Gracie family, who themselves learned it from Mitsuyo Maeda. Is this wrong? Well, not wrong enough to correct a white belt over… but its also not the entire story.

However, the reality is that BJJ’s history is complex, and while it owes much to the Gracie family, many others played a vital part in its creation.

Table of contents

Before Jiu Jitsu was Jiu Jitsu

Jiu Jitsu literally translates to soft art. This style of martial arts is characterized by grappling and the underlying principle of using your opponent’s force against them. While the exact origins of Jiu Jitsu are hard to pinpoint, it was well established in Japan by the 17th-century. During this time, warring clans fought regularly and the warrior class, known as bushi or samurai, honed their combat skills into art.[i] Jiu Jitsu was a complement to sword fighting, offering a means of incapacitating armored opponents.

However, this glimpse into the history of Jiu Jitsu is almost completely disconnected from our modern practice. During the 1800s Japan underwent a dramatic political change, bringing about the rise of the Meiji period and its accompanying national conscript army. This led to a radical reduction in the power of the warrior class, culminating in Saigo Takamori’s disastrous samurai rebellion of 1877.

The decline of Japanese feudalism led to a parallel decline in martial arts throughout Japan. The story could end here, but Jigoro Kano (along with similarly minded individuals throughout Japan) made an effort to compile and preserve these ryu’s, or arts. Kano would become the founder of Judo, a composite fighting style built from those arts that he deemed to best fit his ideals.

In the days before it was called Judo, Kano’s art consisted mostly of takedowns and throws, but also included a significant portion of ground grappling, or newaza. Kano founded the Kodokan, known today as the Kodokan Judo Institute, in 1882 as a school to practice, refine, and propagate his new art.

A statue of Jigaro Kano in front of the Kodokan Institute.

Jiu Jitsu Crosses the Sea

In the early 1900s several of Kano’s students left Japan to spread Jiu Jitsu. Kano and his students at the Kodokan were engaged in a constant state of refinement through the early 1900s and when Kano’s version of the art left Japan it still went by the name Jiu Jitsu.[ii]

Many people are familiar with the mythic history of BJJ in which Mitsuyo Maeda traveled to Brazil and taught the Gracie family Jiu Jitsu, but this version is not the beginning of the story, nor entirely true.

The first Jiu Jitsu instructors arrived in Brazil somewhat accidentally in 1909. The Brazilian Navy cruiser Benjamin Constant spotted a shipwrecked crew of Japanese sailors while on patrol in the Pacific Ocean.

The crew was rescued and returned to Yokohama – except for 3 individuals who opted to continue onto Brazil. Among these three rescued sailors were Sada Miyako and Mme. Kakiara, both Jiu Jitsu practitioners and instructors.[iii]

Brazil already had a long-established tradition of grappling matches being a part of traveling circus acts. Prior to the arrival of Jiu Jitsu, luta romana or Greco-Roman wrestling was the most common style practiced. The format was simple: experts offered a challenge complete with a cash prize to any person who could throw them within an allotted time. Seeing an opportunity to make a living practicing Jiu Jitsu, Miyako joined with a local circus group and offered a similar challenge, promising 5 libras of gold to anyone who could throw him within 3 minutes.[iv]

Miyako and Kakiara left Brazil in 1910, leaving Brazil without any Japanese instructors of Jiu Jitsu. The country wasn’t completely bereft of Jiu Jitsu, with the Brazilian coach Mario Aleixo offering Jiu Jitsu instruction in Rio. Aleixo’s qualifications are unclear and he may have been self-taught from books like those authored by Irving Hancock.[v]

Conde Koma and the Establishment of Jiu Jitsu in Brazil

If people know anything about the history of Jiu Jitsu, it tends to center around Carlos and Helio Gracie. Those who know a little more may say that the brothers were taught by Mitsuyo Maeda, or as he was known in Brazil: Conde Koma.

While it is possible that this is true, this history of BJJ is radically oversimplified and omits the overwhelming majority of the story.

What is true, is that the story does involve Mitsuyo Maeda… and the brothers may have even trained with him!

Maeda learned Jiu Jitsu in Tokyo from Jigoro Kano’s student Sakujiro Yokoyama. In 1914, Maeda and four other Kano Ju Jitsu (as the art was still sometimes called) practitioners arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The group joined the circus circuit and, like Miyako before them, offered cash rewards to anyone who could defeat them in challenge matches.[vi]

Mitsuyo Maeda in 1910

Maeda traveled Brazil for a few years before settling in Belem in 1920. This is where Maeda allegedly met and taught Carlos Gracie. Depending on the source, Carlos trained with Maeda for 2 years, 4 years, or perhaps not at all![vii] Carlos may have received his instruction from Donato Pires dos Reis – the only Brazilian who was certified to teach Jiu Jitsu by Mitsuyo Maeda.

Depending upon who is telling the story, Carlos opened his own Jiu Jitsu school as early as 1925, or began teaching as an assistant instructor alongside his brother George Gracie, under Donato Pires dos Reis at Academia de Jiu-Jitsu, eventually taking over the school in the early 1930s.[viii] Upon assuming control of the school, Carlos renamed it Academia Gracie.[ix]

Carlos claims that he was teaching Jiu Jitsu to the Minas police as early as March 1928, but even Carlos’ biographer stated that he had a vivid imagination and at times seemed to have “difficulties distinguishing between his stories and reality.”[x] In 1929 Carlos had an exhibition match with the best Jiu Jitsu practitioner in Brazil, Geo Omori. After the exhibition (it was not a fight in a true sense, merely a demonstration of techniques for the crowd) Geo was reported to have said that Carlos knew nothing of Jiu Jitsu.[xi]

The Rise of Jiu Jitsu and the Gracie Mythology

Regardless of how exactly Carlos came to learn Jiu Jitsu, it is clear that he mastered the art. In 1930 he had a second match with Geo Omori, this time for real. The match was ruled a tie, and the newspapers reported that Carlos “put on a fine display of technique”[xii]

Carlos Gracie, 1951.

The 1930s are full of apocryphal stories about the rise of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Rorion Gracie claims that his uncle, Carlos, posted ads in the newspaper searching for opponents with headlines such as “If you want a broken arm or rib, contact Carlos Gracie.”[xiii] However, this is at odds with Carlos’ market of wealthy families and their children, and advertisements from the era primarily touted the health and spiritual benefits of the art.[xiv]

Around this time Carlos’ younger brother Helio entered the scene. While the Gracie family contends that Helio was scrawny and weak, in 1930 he was competing in swimming and rowing competitions in Rio. The legend continues with the implausible suggestion that Helio sat on the sidelines and primarily learned Jiu Jitsu by watching his brothers train.

The truth of the matter is hard to parse, but we do know that by 1930 Helio took over his older brother George’s teaching role at Academia Gracie. George Gracie would ultimately end up teaching at Donato Pires’ new academy Studio Scientifico de Defesa Pessoal in Sao Paulo.[xv]

The rest of the 1930s included challenge matches that pitted Jiu Jitsu against boxing, luta livre, capoeira, and luta romana. Carlos shrewdly negotiated the terms of many fights, skewing them in favor of Jiu Jitsu by requiring opponents to wear gis, disallowing striking on the ground, and requiring victory by submission.

A fight poster from 1915 showing Mitsuyo Maeda fighting against a boxer.

The following decades were not without controversy. The Gracie brothers engaged in several street fights against rival fighters, usually pitting multiple armed attackers against their surprised victim.[xvi]

World War II caused a shift in Brazilian sentiments towards Jiu Jitsu. Brazil sided with the allies, and thus Japan and Germany were her enemies. Brazil suffered relatively little during the war and emerged from it with a stronger economic outlook – but there were lasting impacts for the Japanese communities within Brazil.

This led to a decline in the popularity of Jiu Jitsu, which was still regarded as a Japanese art, during and immediately after the war. When they were able to, Jiu Jitsu practitioners switched to luta livre or catch wrestling. Even the Gracie’s were not immune to the pressure to switch sports, with George Gracie participating in numerous marmeladas, pro-wrestling matches with pre-determined outcomes, throughout the 1940s.[xvii]

The 1950s saw Jiu Jitsu return to prominence, with high profile matches like Helio Gracie’s bouts against the judoka Yukio Kato (the first match was a draw and Helio won the rematch) and Helio’s subsequent loss to Masahiko Kimura.[xviii] Despite the mixed results, the matches boosted the prestige of the Gracie family’s Jiu Jitsu.

Helio Gracie in 1952.

In 1951 Oswaldo Fada established a Jiu Jitsu school in Rio. While Fada and his school never had quite the level of publicity as the Gracie Academy, it was a hugely important development for the sport as Fada’s school produced students with the skills necessary to rival the Gracie’s.[xix]

Other notable coaches of the 1950s included:

  • Augusto Cordeiro
  • Yassuiti Ono
  • Valdo Santana
  • Waldemar Santana
  • Almir Ribeiro
  • George Gracie
  • Takeo Yono.[xx]

The 1950s saw the beginning of the codification of the rules of BJJ. Helio and Carlos preferred submission only rulesets, which critics argued (fairly) favored their style over the throwing or pinning victories of Judo and catch wrestling. Unfortunately, submission only matches could descend into hours long defensive matches that bored fans. George Gracie’s solution as a fight promoter was to introduce a point system where throws and minute-long pins were awarded 1 point each.[xxi]

While the 1950s were good for BJJ, the upward trend could not continue unchecked. In 1964, Judo was slated to become a part of the Olympics, and Judo’s rise corresponded to a decline in the popularity of BJJ.[xxii] Additionally, with the construction of the new capital city Brasilia, economic trouble via hyper-inflation, and subsequent military coup, Rio became a much more challenging city to run a financially successful Jiu Jitsu gym in.[xxiii]

Jiu Jitsu languished for much of the 1960’s with Judo and Telecatch (televised Catch wrestling, similar to WWE) competing successfully against it for the public’s attention.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu travels to the United States

Carley Gracie became the first BJJ instructor in the United States when he began teaching at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, VA in 1972.[xxiv] Rorion Gracie traveled to California in 1978 and began teaching private lessons almost immediately.[xxv] Rorion’s garage training sessions would become the subject of legends. Reylson Gracie, who had been alienated by the Gracie family in the 1960s for his open disregard for family traditions, opened a gym in Miami in 1979.[xxvi]

The 1980s presented both tragedy and success for BJJ. Rolls Gracie died at 31 years of age in a tragic hang-gliding accident in 1982.[xxvii] Rolls, according to Helio, had been the greatest Jiu Jitsu competitor of the Gracie family. Rorion’s gym in Los Angeles was doing well and during this time Chuck Norris became a proponent of BJJ. Rorion added further to the sport’s publicity by getting an interview puff piece with Pat Jordan published in Playboy in 1989.[xxviii]

BJJ Goes Mainstream

In 1993 BJJ made its debut onto the global scene when Royce Gracie dominated the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC, co-founded by Rorion Gracie and Art Davies, launched BJJ into popular culture.[xxix]

The UFC’s success drove BJJ’s popularity in the United States, as well as in Brazil. In Brazil, the chance to fight in the UFC was seen as a viable means to elevate oneself from poverty. Consequently, Vale Tudo tournaments, along with BJJ, spread like wildfire throughout the country.[xxx]

The modern UFC ring.

The first international BJJ competition came onto the scene 3 years later when the Confederacao Brasileira de Jiu-Jitsu, or CBJJ, (founded by Carlos Gracie Jr. and Oswaldo Alves) hosted the 1996 Mundials. The CBJJ is still around, although today it is better known as the IBJJF, and Mundials is still considered the most prestigious gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition.[xxxi]

In 1999 the Abu-Dhabi Club Submission Wrestling Championship, or ADCC, was founded. The ADCC, founded by Sheik Tahnoon Bin Zayed, is considered the most prestigious no-gi BJJ tournament in the world.

BJJ in the 21st Century

The past 20 years have seen BJJ grow tremendously. There has been a proliferation of gyms, competitions, and organizational bodies.

In the competition scene BJJ has grown a lot since the early days of Mundials in 1996. The sport has even seen a return to some of its luta livre origins with Eddie Bravo’s combat Jiu Jitsu allowing open hand slapping. Some pure BJJ grapplers did not take slaps seriously, but after Vagner Rocha defeated an opponent by TKO from slaps in the first Eddie Bravo Invitational Combat Jiu Jitsu Worlds people have begun to acknowledge how even a small amount of striking can drastically change the sport.[xxxii]

Unlike Judo, BJJ has no central governing body. In some ways the IBJJF is the de facto organizational body of BJJ, but it is by no means the only such group. Other organizing bodies such as the Sport Jiu-Jitsu International Federation (SJJIF), the Jiu-Jitsu Global Federation (JJGF), and the BJJ Globetrotters offer competing philosophies and services.

The SJJIF was founded in 2012 with the stated goal of seeing BJJ gain admission into the Olympics.[xxxiii] The JJGF was founded in 2014 by Rickson Gracie.[xxxiv] The JJGF’s goal is to bring BJJ back in line with some of the philosophies extolled by Helio Gracie (such as an emphasis on self-defense), which they contend are being lost in modern competition BJJ.

BJJ Globetrotters is something of an outlier here, in that they do not make any claims of being a governing body. Founded in 2012 on the principles of inclusivity, travel, and training sans affiliation, BJJ Globetrotters is almost an anti-organizing body.[xxxv] In any case, BJJ Globetrotters has tremendous reach with over 24,000 members and hundreds of affiliated academies.

It’s difficult to predict where BJJ will go next. It’s possible the art may fracture into three parts: self-defense, gi-competition, and no-gi competition. But, more often than not gyms teach all three of these components, only varying in their ratios. For now, the sport has a steadily growing international presence and the future is bright.

Timeline of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu History

  • 1877 Jigoro Kano begins studying martial arts
  • 1882 Jigoro Kano founds the Kodokan
  • 1909 The first Jiu Jitsu instructors arrive in Brazil
  • 1914 Mitsuyo Maeda arrives in Brazil
  • 1920 Allegedly, Carlos Gracie is introduced to Mitsuyo Maeda
  • 1925 The earliest suggested date for Academia Gracie
  • 1929 Carlos and George Gracie serve as assistant instructors under Donato Pires dos Reis at Academia de Jiu-Jitsu
  • 1930 Carlos takes over Academia de Jiu-Jitsu, Helio takes over George’s teaching role
  • 1951 Helio Gracie is defeated by Masahiko Kimura in a Jiu Jitsu competition in Rio.
  • 1964 Judo is first in the Olympics
  • 1972 Carley Gracie teaches the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes in the United States
  • 1978 Rorion Gracie moves to California and begins teaching BJJ
  • 1979 Reylson Gracie opens a gym in Miami, FL
  • 1982 Rolls Gracie dies in a hang-gliding accident
  • 1989 Rorion Gracie is interviewed by Playboy Magazine
  • 1993 UFC debuts, Royce Gracie dominates the competition using BJJ
  • 1994 Carlos Gracie dies at the age of 92
  • 1996 The first international BJJ competition, Mundials, is held
  • 1999 The first ADCC event is held
  • 2009 Helio Gracie dies at the age of 95
  • 2012 SJJIF and BJJ Globetrotters Founded
  • 2014 JJGF Founded
  • 2017 First Eddie Bravo Invitational Combat Jiu Jitsu Worlds Competition

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu History Resources:

Sources

  • [i] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Jujitsu.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., December 21, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/sports/jujitsu.
  • [ii] Roberto Pedreira, Choque: The Untold Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, Volume 1 1856-1949, (GTR Publications, 2014),
  • kindle location 3080.
  • [iii] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 507-564.
  • [iv] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 564-580.
  • [v] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 1331, 1446.
  • [vi] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 735, 1461; Slideyfoot, “History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ),” slideyfoot.com, http://www.slideyfoot.com/1982/06/history-of-brazilian-jiu-jitsu-bjj.html.
  • [vii] Renzo Gracie and Royler Gracie, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Theory & Technique, edited by Kid Peligro (Montpelier, VT: Invisible Cities Press in association with Editora Gracie, 2001), 7-8.
  • [viii] Slideyfoot, “History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.”
  • [ix] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 2019.
  • [x] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 1815.
  • [xi] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 1798.
  • [xii] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 1894.
  • [xiii] “Rorion Gracie Playboy Interview,” On The Mat, accessed April 2, 2020, http://onthemat.com/rorion-gracie-playboy-interview/
  • [xiv] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 1934.
  • [xv] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 2052.
  • [xvi] Pedreira, Choque Volume 1, Kindle Location 3401.
  • [xvii] Roberto Pedreira, Choque: The Untold Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, Volume 2 1950-1960, (GTR Publications, 2015), page 67.
  • [xviii] Pedreira, Choque Volume 2, page 41-60.
  • [xix] Pedreira, Choque Volume 2, page 34-35.
  • [xx] Pedreira, Choque Volume 2, page 67, 79, 115, 196.
  • [xxi] Pedreira, Choque Volume 2, page 163.
  • [xxii] Pedreira, Choque Volume 2, page 283.
  • [xxiii] Roberto Pedreira, Choque: The Untold Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, Volume 3 1961-1999, (GTR Publications, 2015), page 64-66.
  • [xxiv] “American Jiu-Jitsu History Timeline.” BJJ Heroes, August 11, 2019. https://www.bjjheroes.com/editorial/american-jiu-jitsu-history-timeline.
  • [xxv] Grant, T.P. “History of Jiu-Jitsu: Coming to America and the Birth of the UFC.” Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report, October 3, 2017. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/654500-history-of-jiu-jitsu-coming-to-america-and-the-birth-of-the-ufc.
  • [xxvi] Pedreira, Choque Volume 3, page 163, 170.
  • [xxvii] Pedreira, Choque Volume 3, page 163, 171.
  • [xxviii] Pedreira, Choque Volume 3, page 271.
  • [xxix] Pedreira, Choque Volume 3, page 232.
  • [xxx] Pedreira, Choque Volume 3, pg 232-235.
  • [xxxi] Pedreira, Choque Volume 3, pg 247.
  • [xxxii] Zahar, Chris. “Vagner Rocha Becomes First Combat Jiu-Jitsu Champion With First TKO Win In EBI.” Jiu Jitsu Times, November 14, 2017. https://www.jiujitsutimes.com/vagner-rocha-becomes-first-combat-jiu-jitsu-champion-first-tko-win-ebi/.
  • [xxxiii] “History of the SJJIF.” SJJIF. Accessed April 4, 2020. https://sjjif.com/publicPages/pages?pagesType=history_of_sjjif.
  • [xxxiv] “Rickon Gracie.” Jiu Jitsu Global Federation. Accessed April 4, 2020. https://jjgf.com/rickson.
  • [xxxv] The Story of BJJ Globetrotters. Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.bjjglobetrotters.com/the-story-of-team-bjj-globetrotters/.

About the author

Howdy, I’m Evan Meehan and currently I’m a digital nomad living in Medellin, Colombia.

I began training BJJ in 2004, and have spent about half of the interceding years training. Currently I am a purple belt, and prior to the CoronApocalypse I was training at Checkmat BJJ Medellin. In 2019 I began Judo, attaining the lofty rank of yellow belt and a 0/1 competition record. Teaching is one of my great passions and I was the head coach at Georgia State University’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Club as well as one of the head coaches for Odyssey BJJ’s kids program.

In 2018 I graduated with a Masters of Arts in History from Georgia State University and have been working as a freelance writer and editor from that point on. I’m happiest writing about the things I love (history and BJJ), wristlocking white belts, and making people tap to pressure.

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