Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu - 'The Grappling Art'

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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu - 'The Grappling Art'

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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is often considered to be the foundation of UFC and MMA but the story of this ‘grappling art’ begins many moons before Rorion Gracie and Art Davie sat down and invented the whole concept of The Ultimate Fighting Championship. We may be talking as far back as Ancient Greece; it has long been suggested that the wrestling techniques used in Jiu-Jitsu could well have been derived from those used in these Ancient times and probably stem from the sport Pankration, which was a mixture of boxing and wrestling. History tells us that somewhere between 356-323 BC  Alexander The Great conquered India and brought with him a Greek culture that was particularly sport obsessed. The pinning and throwing techniques that are synonymous with Jiu-Jitsu today are very similar and in some cases the same as those used in Greco-Roman wrestling thousands of years ago. There are of course some other theories which place the birth of Jiu-Jitsu in China. The one thing historians do agree on is that systemised martial arts techniques came from India along with Buddhism and that the Japanese were ultimately responsible for refining the art of grappling, which finally saw the birth of Jiu-Jitsu.

In the early 1880s a Japanese martial arts practitioner named Kano Jigoro developed his own martial art which he called Kodokan Judo. This new system was based around the Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu, Yoshin-ryu, Kito-ryu and Daito-ryu styles of Jujutsu, it also included sumo techniques and even incorporated moves used in western wrestling at the time. Kano was not the first to use the name ‘Judo’, it was a term that Terada Kan’emon the fifth headmaster of the Kito-ryu, had once used when he founded his own style Jikishin-ryu. In the late 1800s  Judo was a way to practise Jiu-Jitsu safely and realistically  using a form of sparring known as Rondori, which was based around a set of sportive rules. As Kodokan was heavily influenced by Daito-ryu Jujutsu, this meant they didn’t use Ne Waza (ground fighting techniques) but rather incorporated techniques that were composed of stand-up throws.

The problem with this style of fighting was highlighted at the turn of the 19th century when Mataemon Tanabe, a master of a classical style of Jiu-Jitsu known as the Fusen-ryu, challenged the Kodokan Judo. The Fusen-ryu fighters went straight to the guard position by lying on their backs in front of the Kodokan fighters. At this point they controlled the Kodokan by kicking at their legs and then upon taking their opponents to the ground, the Fusen-ryu beat their adversaries  into submission using holds. Every one of the Kodokan fighters was taken to the ground and it was immediately obvious to Kano what needed to be done and wisely he invited Tanabe to teach these superior grappling techniques to his students. Kano himself went onto develop the Ne Waza, which was sub-divided into: Kansetsu Waza (joint locking techniques) e.g. Juji Gatame, Shime Waza (choking techniques) e.g. Sankaku Jime and Osae Wazaz (pinning techniques) e.g. Yoko Shiho Gatame.

It was not long after the Kodokans defeat at the hands of the Fusen-ryu fighters that a 17 year old student by the name of Mitsuyo Maeda began his Judo training. Maeda had recently moved to Tokyo and had heard the numerous stories of how Judo was fast becoming successful and thanks to newly implemented grappling techniques was increasingly effective against all styles of Jujutsu. Maeda, a somewhat diminutive character was already proficient in the art of Sumo and also practised classical styles of Jujutsu. To illustrate that size was of no consequence to a Judoka (Judo expert), Kano designated Tsunejiro Tomita as Maeda’s teacher in the art of Kodokan Judo. Mitsuyo Maeda excelled as a student and soon achieved the status of Judoka, he was considered 1 of the top 5 groundwork experts in the Kodokan. These 5 ‘elite’ members of the Kodokan were sent overseas to spread the word and demonstrate the effectiveness of Judo.

Maeda travelled the world with Tsunejiro Tomita and Soishiro Satake and the trio ventured to the USA at the end of 1904, where they gave various demonstrations at Princeton and Columbia Universities, The US Military Academy and YMCAs around the country. The visit to the states was documented by the New York Times and an Atlanta based newspaper. After his US tour Maeda made a brief visit to Cuba with Akitaro Ono and Tokugoro Ito. In 1907 Maeda and Satake arrived in Liverpool England, they made their way down to London where they took part in several wrestling tournaments. Maeda stayed in England for just over a year, wrestling and giving Judo lessons to pay his rent before paying a flying visit to Belgium in March 1908. Eventually he moved onto Spain where he became known as ‘Conde Koma’; there is some ambiguity as to why Maeda adopted this nickname and it is generally thought that ‘Koma’ comes from the Japanese ‘Komaru’ which means ‘to be troubled’, this may have been a reference to Maeda always being broke. ‘Conde’ is a title of Spanish and Portuguese nobility i.e. Count. Later in Brazil he was given the title ‘Conte Conite’ or ‘Count Combat’.

After another brief visit to Cuba in December 1908, Maeda proceeded to Mexico City in July of the following year. It was here he performed at numerous theatres, challenging the Mexican people to step up and ‘throw’ him for money. Following a stint of tournaments in Mexico, Maeda returned once again to Cuba in July 1910 where along with Satake, Akitoro Ono and Tokujoro Ito, he competed against a whole array of individuals, spreading the teachings of Kodokan Judo throughout a country that was growing increasingly fond of these four Judoka, whom they dubbed ‘The Four Kings’. As a result, on January 8th 1912 the Kodokan promoted Maeda to 5th Dan, a move that caused a certain amount of controversy in Japan, as many did not approve of his involvement in professional wrestling.

In 1913 Maeda and Satake explored the rest of South America before finally landing in Brazil on November 14th 1914. The dynamic duo, along with others they had picked up along the way, put on exhibitions in Porto Alegre, Recife and Manaus, often welcoming challenges from the crowd. Later that year Satake was to become the founder of the first registered Judo academy in Brazil, a little over a year later on January 8th 1916 the Maeda-Satake partnership dissolved. After 15 years together Maeda boarded the SS Antony for Liverpool and Satake decided to settle in Manaus to teach the Brazilian people Judo. Mitsuyo Maeda would go on to tour across England, Portugal, Spain and France, before returning to Brazil in 1917 where he finally settled in Belem do Para and married D May Iris. Over the next few years, between travelling, exhibiting and teaching, Maeda became heavily involved in helping settle Japanese immigrants. It was whilst establishing himself in Para, that Maeda enlisted the help of local businessman and politician Gastao Gracie. In return Maeda offered to teach Gracie’s eldest son Carlos the Kodokan Judo, which he was by then calling Jiu-Jitsu. Gracie excelled in the art and was keen to pass on his knowledge to his brothers Osvaldo, Jorge and Gastao Jr. Despite being the smallest and skinniest of his brothers Carlos was undefeated throughout his career, even by his stronger younger siblings.

Carlos Gracie trained under Maeda for several years, until he opened his own academy in 1925 and along with his brothers established a solid reputation. They issued the famous ‘Gracie challenge’ which invited all fighters to challenge the Gracie’s in a ‘no holds barred’ match. The advertisement in a Brazilian newspaper read: ‘If you want to get your face beaten and well smashed, your arse kicked and your arms broken, contact Carlos Gracie at this address…’ Carlos, Osvaldo, Jorge and Gastao Jr were victorious against a whole host of fighters with varying styles.  However it was the youngest of the Gracie clan, Helio who would emerge as the Godfather of modern day Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Helio Gracie was a particularly frail child and as a consequence he could not take part in his eldest brothers’ teachings of Judo. Instead he would sit and watch, taking everything in and memorising the moves his brothers practised on each other. Helio observed his siblings with a careful eye for two years, before at age 16 the opportunity to prove his worth finally presented itself. When a director of the Bank of Brazil, Mario Brandt arrived for a private class at the Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro, he found his instructor Carlos Gracie was running late. Helio was quick to offer his services in his brothers’ absence and when Carlos finally arrived offering his apologies, the student assured him it was no problem and actually requested that he be allowed to continue learning with Helio Gracie instead. It was from this platform that Helio developed Gracie Jiu-Jitsu as an adaptation of Judo in order to allow his own progression, away from the many Judo moves he found so difficult to perform due to his frail nature. Realizing that he was at a distinct disadvantage, Helio developed the theory that you can control an opponent by technique instead of power and this made it possible for the fighter to go on for up to 30 minutes before tiring.

In 1932 aged 17 Helio Gracie accepted a challenge from self-confessed world class American wrestler Fred Ebert, the fight lasted for 2 hours 10 minutes and was stopped by the police. Helio later admitted a doctor had advised the fight be stopped due to a high fever helio had developed that was caused by swelling. Sometime later Helio accepted a challenge from an opponent who said he could beat him in a street fight. Helio agreed even though fighting with the use of kicks and punches was somewhat alien to him. Needless to say Helio Gracie was victorious and it is said from this fight Vale Tudo was born. 

The term Vale Tudo wasn’t actually used until the 1960s - it was the name of a TV programme which showed style vs style tournaments and was similar to the UFC of today. In 1967 the first federation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was created by Helio Gracie, it used a system of belts which is still in use today: white, blue, purple, brown and black. The Gracie Style is recognised as the most effective fighting art in the world – both in and out of the ring and branches of this style include Gracie Humaita, Gracie Barra and Carlson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be divided into 3 broad categories: Self Defense – This includes striking techniques and unarmed techniques against armed opponents. Free Fighting Competition – This is commonly referred to as Vale Tudo or ‘anything goes’ events, now known as MMA. Sport Grappling (with or without gi) – These matches include a whole range of submission holds but no striking. Sport grappling submission techniques are often based around the idea that they could be used in the street and will involve the fighter maneuvering himself into such a position from which a strike may be applied or defended against. The ‘position-submission’ strategy has proven to be the most effective for real life situations. Grappling techniques are heavily reliant on the concept that once you have maneuvered into a certain position, leverage will allow you to harness a greater, more efficient force in an attack.

In the late 1980s several of the Gracie family moved to the USA, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu became world famous. It was one of Helio Gracie’s younger sons Royce, who brought BJJ to the attention of the world through his astonishing wins in early UFC tournaments. Royce is widely considered to be the most influential figure in the history of modern MMA. The Gracie clan is vast and an abundance of family talent earns them the tag of the hardest family on the planet. Many other Gracie family members have been successful in MMA events across the USA and elder brother Rickson (now retired) ventured to Japan where he was undefeated in similar events, he was acknowledged by the Japanese for possessing the samurai spirit. Rickson Gracie is an 8th degree black and red belt and is often considered the ‘best of the best’, counting elite force members such as SWAT teams, Navy Seals and Delta Force amongst his students. The most recent family champion is Roger Gracie who is a multiple world champion and all round elite competitor. Roger Gracie now has his own academy in London, visit for more information.

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