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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.

A man wearing a gi stares at the camera
Helio was the most talented brother

For decades the brothers travelled across Brazil, taking on all-comers and making a name for themselves and the martial art they had created. In 1967, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was formally recognised by the Brazilian National Sports Confederation.

By the 1970’s, BJJ was one of Brazil’s most popular sports. But it remained relatively unknown outside of the country.

All that changed dramatically in 1993, when Rorion Gracie, Helio’s son, cofounded the Ultimate Fighting Championship in America. Rorion’s brother, Royce Gracie entered the first ever UFC tournament and blitzed through the competition, spending less than 5 minutes in the cage across 3 bouts.

A UFC poster
The first UFC catapulted BJJ into the limelight

After Royce Gracie’s comprehensive destruction of other martial arts, BJJ exploded in popularity across the globe. The next year, the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) was created to oversee the international development of the sport, providing unified rules, ranking systems, and tournaments.

Since then, BJJ has gone from strength-to-strength and now claims to be the fastest growing martial art in the world. The Gracie domination of the early UFC has stayed in the public’s mind, and BJJ is widely regarded as the best martial art for self-defense while an increasing number of people take it up to improve their fitness.

4 men grapple in a BJJ class
BJJ claims to be the fastest growing martial art in the world

Where BJJ goes from here remains to be seen, but if it continues to grow at this pace it won’t be long before Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu becomes one of the world’s most popular combat sports.

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