It is difficult to say precisely at what point in time or where exactly Jiu-Jitsu originated. Despite the efforts of many historians and evidence pointing to Buddhist monks in India, basic elements of grappling can be traced back to places like Greece, India, China, Rome, and even Native America.
When trying to understand the ultimate source of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, one must avoid the simplification of attributing its creation to a person, group, or period in time. Jiu-Jitsu, as we understand it today, is a natural and intuitive way of fighting that has rudimentary manifestations in various cultures in different historic moments.
But a martial art is comprised of more than just techniques or fighting strategies. The philosophy that defines the purpose of practice, and the moral code of the practitioners, is a powerful element that determines not only the direction of technical development, but the survival or death of the art itself.
Looking from that point of view, it then makes perfect sense to associate Buddhist monks in India around 2,000 B.C. with the origins of Jiu-Jitsu.The Buddhist value system of deep respect for all forms of life allowed the development of such a system of self-defense that aimed to neutralize an aggression without necessarily harming the aggressor. Wrapped around important Buddhist principles like acting in a non-harmful way, and the pursuit of self-mastery and enlightenment, Jiu-Jitsu served well the self-defense needs of monks and spread throughout Asia towards China and later Japan, following the Buddhism expansion on that continent.
While it is safe to assume that rudimentary versions of Jiu-Jitsu appeared in many cultures in different points in time, it was the feudal Japan of the second millennia A.C that the art encountered a fertile environment, allowing it to flourish and establish itself as a widespread style of combat.
In a country fragmented by the feudal system, with each feud having its own set of warriors – the samurai – Jiu- Jitsu became a necessary fighting skill for combat survival. But the term “Jiu-Jitsu” (jujutsu) was not coined until the 17th A.C century, after which time it became a blanket term for a wide variety of grappling-related disciplines.
Jiu-Jitsu evolved among the samurai as a method for defeating an armed and armored opponent without weapons. Because striking against an armored opponent proved ineffective, practitioners learned that the most efficient methods for neutralizing an enemy took the form of pins, joint locks, and throws. These techniques were developed around the principle of using an attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it.
However, with the Meiji Restoration, a political movement that put an end to the Japanese feudal system and triggered the industrialization of that country, the prestigious class of the samurai lost its primary importance.
The radical political, cultural, and social transformations that took place in Japan in the 19th century, made Jiu-Jitsu gravitate from a reputable art of combat to illegal practice, as the government made efforts to reprimand the bloody combats that were taking place from the jobless former Samurais and their disciples.
Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), member of the Japanese Ministry of Culture and Martial Artist, played an important role in rescuing Jiu-Jitsu’s reputation in times of peace.
Kano understood how Jiu-Jitsu could serve not only as a combat tool, but also as an effective way to educate the individual and allow men and women to embrace a more balanced lifestyle by developing their potential. In other words, Kano realized Jiu-Jitsu could be used as a powerful educational tool that could support the development of any human being and envisioned it supporting the Japanese goals for social and economic development.
Complementing his updated training philosophy, Kano made an effort to adopt new training methods and remove dangerous techniques. These changes allowed practitioners to engage in safe, but intense training drills with full resistance – what we know as sparring or live training today.
This new philosophical and methodological approach to the practice of Jiu-Jitsu created a very positive impact on the Japanese society. It helped Jiu-Jitsu regain its social status that had been declining since the Meiji Restoration. The new approach became famous back then as Kano Jiu-Jitsu and later on as Judo.
In conjunction with Kano’s deep training philosophy and innovative training methods, many rules were introduced in order to redefine the focus of practice. The ground fighting – the backbone of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – was minimized and restricted to a few moves.
That created an interesting paradox: while Kano’s reforms contributed tremendously to the survival of a millenary martial art tradition, the focus on take downs created a fragmented fighting style that lost the connection with the essence of Jiu-Jitsu and the reality of real combat. In parallel to the regained reputation of Jiu-Jitsu in Japanese society, came a decline of ground fighting, the most powerful set of skills Jiu-Jitsu had to offer.
Among Kano’s remarkable students, though was Mitsuyu Maeda, a fighter who benefited from Kano’s innovations, but who had his roots in other Jiu-Jitsu schools that emphasized ground fighting and self-defense skills under real combat situations.
Maeda, who later became famous as Count Koma, had above average skills and was sent overseas to help spread Jiu-Jitsu to different cultures in the world. After traveling to many countries including the US, Central America, and Europe, Maeda landed in Brazil in 1914. There he would meet a young boy named Carlos Gracie and plant the seed that would keep alive the essence of Jiu-Jitsu.
A champion in his own right and student of Jigoro Kano, Maeda began his travels abroad with a group of men who participated in challenge matches across the globe. In 1914 he landed in the northern state of Para, Brazil, to help establish the Japanese colony in that region.
Settling down in Belem do Para, it was natural for Maeda to make use of his outstanding fighting skills in demonstrations, shows, and even circuses as a way to make a living and spread the Japanese Culture.
The first time Carlos Gracie met Count Koma, was at one of these demonstrations. Carlos was amazed by Koma’s ability to defeat other opponents who were much bigger and stronger than him.
Carlos Gracie was a wild kid who was slipping out of control and away from his father, Gastao and mother, Cesalina. Energetic and rebellious, Carlos was giving them a lot of trouble. Knowing that Maeda just started a Jiu-Jitsu program in town, Gastao decided to take Carlos there to learn from the Japanese as a way to calm down and discipline his son.
Mitsuyu Maeda introduced Carlos to Jiu-Jitsu, at the age of 14. He became an avid student for a few years. The studies under Maeda had a profound impact on his mind. He never before sensed the level of self-control and self-confidence Jiu- Jitsu practice allowed him to experience.
The connection he felt with his body in each training session allowed Carlos to gain a deeper understanding about his nature, limitations, and strengths, and brought him a sense of peace that he never felt before in his life. The times with Maeda did not last for long, though. Less then 5 years from the day he started, Carlos had to move to Rio de Janeiro with his parents and siblings.
Arriving at the then capital of Brazil at the age of 20, Carlos Gracie had difficulties adapting to a normal life and working at a regular job. Even though he worked in governmental institutions, Carlos’ wild spirit would not allow him to settle down. His desire to teach the art he learned from Maeda was already burning and he decided to go after it.
The profession of Martial Arts instructor at the beginning of the 20th century in Brazil was not exactly the most promising. People’s awareness about it was practically nonexistent, making it really hard to find students who would be willing to pay a tuition in exchange for instruction.
The only people to see value in what Carlos Gracie had to teach were Law Enforcement officials. An opportunity finally arose for Carlos to teach outside of Rio de Janeiro, in the state of Minas Gerais.
The passion for Jiu-Jitsu and Koma’s dedication to make him a Champion, allowed Carlos to discover a new meaning in his life. From then on, Carlos started to use and see Jiu-Jitsu as a tool to help him find his way through the world. More than that, with time, he elected Jiu-Jitsu as an ideal worth fighting for and embraced it with strength and determination.
Reila Gracie had good opportunities to make a living. After a few years in Minas, Carlos decided to move to Sao Paulo and then back to Rio. His free spirit and faith in the great things Jiu-Jitsu could do for common people seemed to have made it hard for him to restrict his teachings to police officers and members of law enforcement agencies.
The first Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu School was founded in 1925 at Rua Marquês de Abrantes 106, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the age of 23 years old, Carlos Gracie understood well the amazing benefits Jiu-Jitsu could bring to one’s life. Founding a school represented a very important milestone in his decision to grow Jiu-Jitsu Gracie as a national sport in Brazil.
The Marquês de Abrantes school was not exactly what one would expect as the pioneer power house of Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. With limited resources and concerned with the well being of his younger brothers, all Carlos could afford was a small house where he turned the living room into a training area.
In that house Carlos united his brothers and engaged them in his life project. He knew it would be impossible to accomplish such a gigantic task alone and started to teach his younger brothers, Oswaldo (1904), Gastao (1906), George (1911), and Helio (1913).
The first generation of Gracie brothers living and working in the same house seems to have forged the family spirit that flowed down through generations and was so important to the extraordinary success the Gracie Family achieved over the years.
Helio Gracie was just a kid when the Marques de Abrantes school opened its doors in 1925. At 12 years old, he was too young to help with the classes or in the running of the school.
Carlos was really busy teaching and managing the family business, so Helio’s first lessons in BJJ were delegated to his other brothers, Gastao and Oswaldo. It was not until later that Carlos started to notice Helio’s talent, and dedicated more time to teach and train him.
Helio’s small size and relatively weak physical condition made it difficult to execute some of the positions properly. In order to progress and earn the attention and admiration of his older brothers, especially Carlos, Helio had to research alternate jiu-jitsu methods, which worked for him. His discoveries emphasized leverage and timing over strength and speed.
The adaptations of techniques Helio learned from his brothers were mastered through trial and error with the end result being the further development and refinement of the Jiu-Jitsu Gracie.
Under the tutelage of his brother, instructor, and mentor Carlos, Helio participated in countless fights, including a 3 hour 43 minute fight against a former student, Valdemar Santana. Helio’s courage, tenacity, and discipline turned him into a national hero.
As Carlos grew older and became more dedicated to his research in nutrition and exercise, and more committed to his quest for spiritual enlightenment, Helio took over the family business and became really involved in running the Gracie School. At this point, it was a much bigger facility located in downtown Rio de Janeiro.
Carlos, Gastao, Oswaldo, and Helio built the first generation of Gracie fighters. Although Carlos and Helio ended up being really close and spending decades working and living together, all four brothers had an enormous contribution to the growth of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil in the first half of the 20th century.
Over the next 60 years, other prominent figures would carry on the Gracie family legacy and standards set by Grandmaster’s Carlos Sr. and Helio Gracie. Then in 1993, the entire martial arts community was turned upside down and changed forever by what is now often referred to as the BJJ revolution.
While Jiu-Jitsu evolved to never before achieved levels of technical development in ground fighting in Brazil, all the other disciplines like Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Judo became really popular due to Hollywood movies and the Olympic Games. While those martial art styles have great techniques, they are restricted to just one aspect of real combat and only work under a set of rules that ensure the circumstances in which the techniques are effective. Generations of martial artists spend many years learning one aspect of fighting (i.e. striking, take downs, or pinning), believing that would be sufficient under real combat situations.
In 1993, that assumption faced its most challenging test when Rorion Gracie put together the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a contest between athletes from different martial art styles. The world was shocked when a lighter and “apparently” weaker Royce Gracie defeated all his opponents by fighting mainly on the ground using choke holds or joint-locks to make his opponents give up the fight.
Suddenly, martial artists from all different backgrounds realized if they did not know Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu, all they knew about fighting was worthless against a Jiu-Jitsu fighter. That realization triggered what many call the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu revolution in martial arts. A big shift of focus and training towards ground fighting followed.