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History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A Brief History of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu

on Wednesday, 15 June 2011




Kano teaches at the Kodokan


The term "jiu-jitsu," (or, more properly, "jujutsu") was used in nineteenth-century Japan to describe a collection of various techniques for hand-to-hand combat.

According to Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, jujutsu was: "...a system of attack that involved throwing, hitting, kicking, stabbing, slashing, choking, bending and twisting limbs, pinning an opponent, and defenses against these attacks."1


Some of these techniques may have gone back to the samurai, or even to Chinese monks, but much of the traditional "history" of Asian martial arts is semi-legendary, and should be treated with skepticism.

Kano, who was born in 1860, began studying jujutsu when he was seventeen years old. He studied with many masters, and found that each master presented jujutsu as a specific set of techniques, but that none presented jujutsu systematically. Furthermore, there were inconsistencies between the teachings of various masters.

"When I encountered differences in the teaching of techniques, I often found myself at a loss to know which was correct. This led my to look for an underlying principle in jujutsu..."2

Kano decided that this principle was: "to make the most efficient use of mental and physical energy."3

Perhaps as important as this principle itself, however, was simply the notion that jujutsu should be presented as a unified system.

Kano studied with various masters for five years. Then in 1882, at the age of twenty-two, he opened his own school, the Kodokan. At that time, most of the emphasis in jujutsu instruction was on kata: prearranged moves performed either alone or between two students.

Most Japanese forms of jujutsu (and aikido which was also developed from jujutsu) are still taught this way: techniques are presented as two-man-katas; performed as drills with one student applying the hold or take down and the other student tapping or accepting the throw. This method allows moves that would otherwise be deadly or debilitating to be practiced safely.

By contrast, Kano put primary emphasis on randori, or live sparring. In order to make this method of training safe, however, he removed the more dangerous techniques from randori. Kano divided jujutsu into three components: throws, nage-waza; grappling techniques, katame-waza; and striking techniques, atemi-waza. He then removed techniques that he considered dangerous, including all atemi-waza, from randori. (He did, however, continued to teach these techniques as kata.)

This innovation allowed randori to be practiced at full power. It turned a performance between a designated attacker and a compliant recipient of that attack into a genuine—though safe—form of combat, with no preordained winner. In order to execute a technique successfully, a student had to place his opponent into a position from which he could not escape. The significance and efficacy of this transformation was demonstrated dramatically in 1886, when the Tokyo police department held a competition to determine which jujutsu school should train its police officers. Kano's students dominated the students from other jujutsu schools. To this day, Tokyo police cadets learn Judo.4

As judo and judo competitions became more popular, however, the nature of randori changed: more emphasis was placed on throws, with matches usually terminating when one opponent took the other down--thereby largely negating the need for grappling techniques.

Mitsuyo Maeda was born in 1878. At eighteen he began studying judo at the Kodokan. Maeda quickly became one of the Kodokan's best students, and in 1904 Kano, who wanted to promote judo internationally, chose him to be an ambassador for the sport, and sent him to the United States.

Maeda did not have much success promoting judo in the U.S. Perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate judo's effectiveness, (or perhaps merely to pay his bills) he began accepting paid challenge matches.

Maeda became a travelling "performer,'' (under the stage name "Count Koma") accepting challenges from all comers, and fighting with essentially no rules. This was a significant change from the severely restricted randori practiced at the Kodokan. Furthermore, fighting for money was strictly forbidden by Kano.


Through his experience fighting challenge matches, Maeda developed his own system, based in part on Kano's judo, but also retaining techniques that Kano had removed from randori. It was probably for this reason that Maeda referred to his art as "jujutsu" and not "judo."5, 6

In 1914 Maeda came to Brazil, where the Japanese were attempting to establish a colony in the state of Pará. Maeda was offered assistance by a local politician named Gastão Gracie and in 1917 Maeda began training Gastão's rambunctious fifteen-year-old son, Carlos.7, 8

According to Carlos' eldest son, the late Carlson Gracie: "At that time it was considered a crime against the nation for a Japanese national to teach jiu-jitsu to a non-Japanese."9

Carlos Gracie

Carlos studied with Maeda for about four or five years (accounts vary) and then taught his brothers, Jorge, Gastão jr., Osvaldo, and Helio. In 1925 the brothers moved to Rio de Janeiro and opened their first jiu-jitsu academy.

With no master to guide them, the brothers were free to created their own style: modifying the techniques as they saw fit. The youngest Gracie brother, Helio--who was at first considered too frail and weak to even learn jiu-jitsu--made significant changes in order to maximize leverage and minimize the need for overwhelming speed and strength. 10

Carlos learned from Maeda the central importance of randori, but whereas judo came to emphasis throws (nage-waza), the Gracie's jiu-jitsu focused most on grappling techniques (katame-waza) and ground fighting.

In order to promote their academy--and to test and improve their art--the Gracie brothers held challenge matches, inviting practitioners of other martial arts to fight with no rules (vale tudo). Although largely unknown outside of Brazil until the 1990s, this tradition eventually developed, in the US, into the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

After Royce Gracie (one of Helio's nine sons) dominated practitioners of other styles in the early days of the UFC, Brazilian jiu-jitsu transformed the world of martial arts. Brazilian jiu-jitsu now forms an essential component of all mixed martial arts (MMA) training and has been adapted for use by the Army Rangers, and the Navy SEALs.



[1] Kano, Jigoro (1986).  Kodokan Judo. Kodansha International, Toyko.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Gracie, Renzo, and Gracie, Royler, with Danaher, John, and Peligro, Kid (2001).  Brazilian Jiu-jitsu: Theory and Technique. Invisible Cities Press, Montpelier.

[5] Danaher, John, and Gracie, Renzo (2003).  Mastering Jujitsu. Human Kinetics, Champaign.

[6] Bunasawa, Nori, and Murray, John (2007). The Toughest Man Who Ever Lived. Judo Journal and Innovations, Inc.

[7] Gracie, Helio (2005). Gracie Jiu-jitsu. Gracie Publications, Torrance.

[8] Peligro, Kid (2003).  The Gracie Way. Invisible Cities Press, Montpelier.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

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