Published: January 6, 2023

The history of Brazilian Jiu JItsu

Brazilian Jiu JItsu History

BJJ is a grappling-based martial art developed largely by Helio Gracie and Carlos Gracie. Brazilian jiu jitsu uses distance control, leverage, positioning and a variety of submissions developed to control and submit bigger and stronger opponents. Here is a brief history of this amazing martial art. We’ll describe its origins, and how it came to Brazil through this article. 


Who are the Gracies and how did Brazilian Jiu Jitsu come to be?

Much of modern day BJJ is attributed to Helio and Carlos Gracie. The BJJ world recognize Helio as the father of modern BJJ because of his contributions and development to the martial art. In truth, it was Carlos who brought judo into the Gracie’s lives and changed the family profoundly. Helio Gracie was the youngest of eight Gracie children. He was physically smaller and frail. He suffered poor health that physicians could not diagnose. Because Carlos was bigger and stronger, when Helio began, Helio was forced to look at the martial arts from a different perspective 


In an interview, Helio stated that: “I adapted the jiu-jitsu to my characteristics. I was weak and awkward, light [with 1,75 meters (5’7”) of height, and never passing more than 63 kilos (138.6 lbs.)]. I could not manage to do what my brother [Carlos] did, because his jiu-jitsu depended on strength and ability. I had neither the one nor the other of those. Then I made that which is known today. I perfected the flawed technique of my brother on behalf of weaker people, using the principles of physics, like force and the leverage. You, for example, can not lift a car with the strength of your two arms, but with a jack you can lift a car. That’s what I did. I discovered techniques of leverage that optimize the force. These modifications made a form of jiu-jitsu that is superior to the jiu-jitsu that existed before that, and today the jiu-jitsu that the entire world knows is my jiu-jitsu.” 


In 1914, Carlos Gracie, at the age of 15, saw Mitsuyo Maeda fighting in Brazil. Carlos was immediately impressed and joined Maeda’s school. Carlos began to learn Kodokan Judo, sometimes referred to as Kano Judo. Mitsuyo was an immigrant from Japan who moved to Brazil in the mid 1900’s. Maeda was a master in Kano Judo. Maeda spent a great deal of time traveling to various countries as a challenger of any martial arts or fighter, continually testing his judo and exposing the world to Kano Judo.


Jiu Jitsu, or as it is originally known, “Ju Jutsu” dates back to Japan between the 16th and 17th century. Ju Jutsu/Jiu Jitsu translates in English as ‘gentle or soft (JIU) art or technique (JITSU)’, Jiu Jitsu is a martial art distilled from multiple martial arts which focuses on hand to hand combat to be employed on the battlefield when weapons could no longer be effectively used. The difficulty in identifying the origins of jiu jitsu resides in the fact that during this time in Japan many schools and concepts were being defined and refined at the same time.


The three schools of Japanese martial arts:

  • Nage Waza – throwing techniques
  • Katame Waza – grappling techniques
  • Atemi Waza – Striking techniques


The challenge is an age old question of ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Jiu jitsu or judo? Tracing jiu jitsu lineage is hazy at best. At the time these disciplines were being defined, there were only the three schools of thought. Training naga waza and katame waza were both being intermixed and it took until the 1900s to begin to see the branches shoot off into their more defined and individual disciplines. 


Original Judo

The original form of judo was based on throws but employed limb locks and chokes once the opponent was put to the ground. Vice versa jiu jitsu had to have throws and sweeps to get the opponent to the ground. So you see the conundrum. 


Kodokan Judo is more specifically an offshoot of the original Ju Jutsu. Kodokan Judo (Kano Judo) was developed by Dr Jigoro Kano of Japan in the 1800’s. Why is it important to Brazilian jiu jitsu? Great question. For the sake of argument, Jigoro would be considered by most the Father of modern day Jiu Jitsu even though he focused on throws. When Mitsuyo took Kano Judo to Brazil, it ultimately inspired the Gracies to take the grappling portions and redefine them into what is now Brazilian jiu jitsu.


Kigoro at 5’2” and 90 lbs was beaten up so often by the local bullies that he was motivated by desperation to find a way to defend himself.  Kigoro was obsessed with learning anything that could help hone his art. Kigoro believed that the smaller opponent could subdue the larger, even more skilled combatant. Kigoro learned about the human body’s physiology and talked to experts in the medical world to gain more insight. With his study he formed what is now known as Kodokan Judo. “He dedicated himself to formulating a system of reformed ju jutsu founded on scientific principles, integrating combat training with mental, spiritual and physical education.  Both Kigoro and Maeda saw Judo as a perfect circle to improve all levels of ones live not just self defense.”  He distilled these borrowed techniques into what is now known as Kodokan Judo. 


Carlos began to bring the techniques he was learning from Maeda home and showed his brothers what he learn each day. The Gracies then took the grappling aspects of Kodokan Judo from Maeda and distilled it down to intense and effective grappling techniques.  


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu uses leverage, grappling techniques and submissions developed over the last century to effectively take away the opponents basic weapons e.g. their fists and feet and submit them using the bodies physical limitation and ultimately submitting the opponent.

Published: January 6, 2023

Categories: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Culture

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