Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or simply BJJ is one of the most influential martial arts of the modern day. It has touched the lives of thousands thought the whole world. But where and how has all of it started? Although the name of BJJ strongly emphasizes “jiu jitsu”, not everyone knows that it’s roots are actually that much closer to Judo, than one could think. It all started in Japan in the late 1800s, when professor Jigoro Kano started reinventing the traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu, which was strongly loosing it’s popularity because of the changing times of the Meiji Restoration and the end of the samurai class.
Sensei Kano was strongly influenced by Jiu Jitsu himself, which helped him become not only stronger, but also a better person, what lead him to the passion of sharing his experience. The more he taught the traditional Jiu Jitsu, the more he realized that he wanted to change the emphasize of his style so that it would be not only more efficient, but also more accessible and profound.
As his art grew and became widely known, he slowly started introducing the name of Judo (“The Gentle Way”), yet to most it was still known as simply Kano’s Jiu Jitsu. In 1904, one of the senior students of Sensei Kano, Mitsuyo Maeda, together with a couple of other Kano’s students, were offered a chance to move to the States, which they saw as a great chance to further promote the already increasingly popular Kano’s Jiu Jitsu. Their demonstrations were very well received across the whole nation and in the further years Maeda even traveled around Europe to give demonstrations there as well.
In 1914 Maeda ended up in Brazil where he continued to give demonstrations. A series of his demonstrations were presented in a circus in Belem, where he met Gastao Gracie, a business partner of the circus, and became good friends. In 1917 Gastao’s son Carlos Gracie, at the time only 15 years old, was so impressed by Maeda’s demonstration, that he decided to start learning from him. Maeda took on Carlos and a few other Brazilians as his students, teaching them his way of Jiu Jitsu.
Although technically it was already Judo, one of the brothers of Carlos in a much later interview said, that he learned of the name Judo only in 1950’s when Judo was introduced as a sport in Brazil and that Maeda himself referred to his style simply as Jiu Jitsu. Carlos Gracie dedicated himself to the study of this Jiu Jitsu and later on shared his knowledge with his siblings , from which, most notably, was Helio Gracie. Carlos and his brothers were often training, what sometimes involved even actual fighting, yet Helio was not able to join their brothers, since he was too frail and sickly.
Nevertheless, he continued to watch his brothers train and slowly started developing his own training methods and techniques which relied less on physical strength and more on skills. As the Gracies, alongside Helio, continued to develop their Jujitsu to be as effective as possible, Judo was slowly emphasized more as a sport, focusing less on ground techniques. With time these differences between the two styles became increasingly evident, what today, makes them hardly recognizable as once being so close to each other.
In 1925 Carlos opened the Gracie family’s first BJJ academy. The academy was managed by his family members, of which most, also practiced Jiu Jitsu. During this period, the Gracies not only taught their martial art, but also participated and even organized their own rule-less fights, which back then were known as Vale Tudo. The Gracies were able to win most of their fights and thus became famous.
Their students started including famous artists, architects, politicians and various doctors. Later on, members of the Gracie family move on to the States, to further promote their art. Here they started organizing the Gracie Challenges – open events which invited masters of different martial arts to challenge members of the Gracie family and their style of Jiu Jitsu. Rorion Gracie, son of Helio, even offered 100.000$ to anyone who could defeat him or his brothers in these matches.
Following the success of these matches, the Gracie’s became notorious in the martial arts world. To differentiate between the other Jiu Jitsu styles that were practiced in the day, they started referring to their style as the Gracie Jiu Jitsu or was sometimes referred to as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The fame of the Gracies was already high, yet Rorion wanted to make it even more popular to the main public. In 1993, this desire eventually lead to the creation of “The Ultimate Fighting Championship” or UFC, which was co-hosted by Rorion, a no “holds barred”event, similar to that of Vale Tudo and the Gracie challenges.
It was promoted to find out who would be the strongest fighter, bringing eight different practitioners of various martial arts to fight each other. Rorion hand picked Royce Gracie, his younger brother, to represent the Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Royce was able to win the tournament, mostly by using his Jiu Jitsu skills. The UFC proved to be very successful, thus bringing a huge amount of attention, specially to the winning style of the event. Although already relatively successful, after the event the Gracie’s Jiu Jitsu’s popularity skyrocketed.
Many people of the time, started seeing it as the most effective martial art with other fighters even implementing it’s skills to their regime too. These events lead to hundreds of thousands of people training BJJ not only in MMA, but also in it’s own popular sports form as BJJ tournaments. The Jiu Jitsu which touched the Gracie family and was developed by them, continues to be highly respected and further evolved not only by its family members, but also by dedicated people through the whole world.