5 Minute History of BJJ

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

Royce Gracie's arm is raised in an MMA cage
Royce Gracie was responsible for the spread of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu across the globe

While the concept of ground fighting can be dated back to 300 AD, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as we know it is much younger- around 50 years old.

Despite being globally recognised as a Brazilian martial art, Jiu-Jitsu was actually first developed in Japan. Japanese military leaders trained samurai’s in the art of ground fighting in case they found themselves disarmed against a foe. The heavy armour of the time meant that strikes and kicks had little effect, so takedowns, submissions, and chokes were the way to go.

A Samurai soldier wields a sword
Jiu-Jitsu was first taught to Samurai's in Japan

This training continued for hundreds of years and eventually found its way into the general population where it was known as Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. Translated from Japanese, “Jiu-Jitsu” means “gentle art.”

Japanese Jiu-Jitsu had several different variations across the country, the most popular of which was Judo (originally “Jiu-Do”). Judo was founded at a Japanese martial arts school known as the Kodokan. The Kodokan was famous for encouraging students to actively spar with each other, rather than the repetitive drilling that was the norm of the time.

In 1904, one of the Kodokan’s most gifted students, Mitsuo Maeda, left Japan to spread the teachings of Judo around the world. After 10 years travelling the globe, Maeda eventually settled down in Brazil where he befriended a local businessman, Gastao Gracie.

After watching him train; Gastao’s son- Carlos Gracie- asked Maeda to teach him Judo. Carlos quickly fell in love with the sport, spending years learning from the Judoka, and soon began to teach his 7 brothers.

7 men wear gis and smile for the camera
The Gracie brothers

Always experimenting, the Gracie brothers steadily put their own stamp on the style of Judo. But one brother in particular, Helio, played an integral role in the development of BJJ as we know it.

Helio was the smallest of the 8 brothers, and he frequently found himself frustrated at the fact his brothers could simply overpower him. Undeterred, he set about developing his own techniques- focusing on groundwork- which would allow the smaller opponent to win against a larger, heavier foe. This would become the crux of modern BJJ.

Before long, Helio was the most skilled of the brothers and they sought to learn his techniques. Carlos, Helio, and the rest would then put these skills to the test in spectated, no-rules contests against various martial artists. The Gracie’s almost always won.