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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu History


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is rapidly growing as one of the most popular martial arts in the world. 

Relative to the long, storied history of other martial arts such as Japanese Jujutsu, boxing, and wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or BJJ as its commonly referred to, is fairly new to the scene.

Nevertheless, despite its recent gain in prominence, BJJ has its own distinct history.

Origins of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

BJJ has its roots in Japanese Kodokan Judo, which was originally adapted from Japanese Jujutsu by Jigoro Kano.

As a martial art, Judo incorporated the throwing techniques from Japanese Jujutsu as well as the groundwork, however the focus on the ground was limited relative to the evolution of BJJ.

In 1904, Mitsuyo Maeda, one of Jigoro Kano’s top Judo groundwork experts, left Japan to travel the world teaching Judo, with a special emphasis on the ground fighting techniques.

Maeda arrived in Brazil in 1914 and began teaching. One of his earliest students was Carlos Gracie of the famed Gracie family, who studied under Maeda for around five years. 

Helio Gracie, Carlos’s younger brother, trained as well.

Helio was a smaller individual and thus had some difficulty executing the throws in Judo relative to his larger bothers.

Instead, Helio dove headfirst into the ground fighting techniques, which allow greater use of leverage to overcome lack of size and strength compared to traditional Judo throws.

Divergence From Judo

As Judo evolved, rule changes were implemented that reduced the focus on groundwork and emphasized throws while limiting the legal joint lock techniques.

At this point, BJJ began emerging as a truly distinct sport from Judo.

BJJ allowed all takedowns from Judo, however wrestling, Sambo, and takedowns from most martial arts were permitted.

Helio Gracie also emphasized ‘full contact fighting’ in BJJ, which included strikes and increased the practicality of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a self-defense system.

BJJ continued to evolve as its own fighting system in Brazil, and ‘no holds barred’ competitions were held where BJJ artists would take on all martial artists from other disciplines in essentially no rules fights.

Through no holds barred competitions, BJJ’s effectiveness as a fighting method became well-known among practitioners.

Evolution Into Mixed Martial Arts

Roger Gracie vs Kevin Randleman

In 1972, Carley Gracie moved the United States and began teaching the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

He was soon followed by Rorion Gracie in 1978.

As BJJ began growing in the U.S., the Ultimate Fighting Championship was created with Rorion Gracie as one of the original founders.

In the early UFC, Royce Gracie demonstrated the prowess of BJJ by defeating prominent martial artists from many disciplines, truly showcasing the effectiveness of BJJ for a wider population in the first pay-per-view UFC event.

While early UFC Mixed Martial Arts fights were largely ‘style vs style,’ it became apparent that training BJJ or similar submission grappling styles was an absolute requirement for success in MMA, even among martial artists who specialized in striking arts.

Modern Sport and Self-Defense BJJ

As MMA rose to prominence, BJJ competitions that only allowed grappling techniques were also becoming a feature of BJJ training. 

Additionally, training the ‘pure BJJ’ art is largely necessary even for practitioners who plan to use the techniques for MMA.

The lack of strikes in ‘sport BJJ’ led to BJJ techniques and positions that are less useful in MMA due to exposure to ground-and-pound, but nevertheless are effective for securing submissions in a pure BJJ ruleset.

The current evolution of IBJJF BJJ rulesets as well as the No Gi submission rulesets now represent the pinnacle of sport BJJ and have diverged from the BJJ used in MMA, although there is substantial crossover, particularly in No Gi.

Some practitioners such as Ryron and Renner Gracie feel that both sport BJJ and MMA diverged excessively from the original purpose of BJJ: self defense against larger, stronger attackers.

As such, the newer ‘Gracie Jiu Jitsu’ developed by Ryron and Renner is a self-defense focused BJJ and is practiced as a distinct discipline from MMA as well as sport BJJ.

Nevertheless, self-defense, MMA, and sport BJJ still share the same fundamental aspects of escapes, positioning, and submissions.

Even in the case of ‘sport BJJ specialists,’ success in BJJ still depends on having a solid base in the fundamentals of BJJ. The divergence between the disciplines largely emerges as practitioners become advanced within their own BJJ training focus.

While BJJ has evolved significantly since the inception by Carlos and Helio Gracie, the techniques found in BJJ are still fundamental requirements for any well-rounded fighting system.

Regardless of the competition ruleset or self-defense situation, BJJ basics are universal to all forms of unarmed hand-to-hand combat.

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