I was talking with the head jiu jitsu instructor at Jiu Jitsu Honolulu and this is what he said about the history of jiu jitsu.
Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil
Eventually, in Japan many different variations of the art (Jiu-Jitsu) took shape, including Karate, Aikido, and Judo. But these arts were missing essential pieces of what the complete art of Jiu-Jitsu originally held. Soon the day of the Samurai came to an end, the gun replaced the sword, and new sportive ways to practice martial arts were developed. This lack of reality created years of confusion in the martial arts community, a confusion that legendary Bruce Lee would later refer to as the ‘classical mess’. The ‘sport arts’, such as Judo and Kendo were wonderful in the way of offering their practitioners a safe way to realistically train the techniques of their system, but often limited their practitioners with too many rules to maintain effectiveness as a combative style. The more traditional combat schools were simply practicing techniques no longer suitable for modern day combat, and with no way to safely test them, practicing these arts became like swimming without water. It wasn’t until the sport art of Judo and the combat art of Jiu-Jitsu were introduced to the Gracie family in Brazil that the real art of Jiu-Jitsu would be brought to life again. Japanese Jiu-Jitsu (practiced as Judo) was introduced to the Gracie family in Brazil (@ 1915) by Esai Maeda, who is also known as Conde Koma. This name came about when Maeda was in Spain (1908). While in Spain, Maeda, having some financial troubles, used the Japanese verb “komaru”, meaning to be in trouble, to describe himself. Maeda decided this didn’t sound right, so he dropped the last syllable and changed it to “koma.” The word “conde” comes from the Spanish language, meaning “Count.” Later in his life, Maeda would be given the Brazilian title of “Conte Comte,” or Count Combat.
Maeda was a champion of Judo and a direct student of its founder, Jigoro Kano, at the Kodokan in Japan. He was born in 1878, and became a student of Judo in 1897. In 1904 Maeda was given the opportunity to travel to the United States with one of his teachers, Tsunejiro Tomita. While in the U.S. they demonstrated the art of Judo for Theodore Roosevelt at the White House, and for cadets at the West Point Military Academy. This is an exert from Roosevelt’s letters to his children on wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu (note the spelling is Jiu-Jitsu, not Jujutsu due to the fact that it is before 1950):
White House, Feb. 24, 1905.
“… I still box with Grant, who has now become the champion middleweight wrestler of the United States. Yesterday afternoon we had Professor Yamashita (Yamashita was Roosevelt’s Jiu-Jitsu instructor before Meada and Tomita had arrived there in the U.S.) up here to wrestle with Grant. It was very interesting, but of course jiu jitsu and our wrestling are so far apart that it is difficult to make any comparison between them. Wrestling is simply a sport with rules almost as conventional as those of tennis, while jiu jitsu is really meant for practice in killing or disabling our adversary. In consequence, Grant did not know what to do except to put Yamashita on his back, and Yamashita was perfectly content to be on his back. Inside of a minute Yamashita had choked Grant, and inside of two minutes more he got an elbow hold on him that would have enabled him to break his arm; so that there is no question but that he could have put Grant out. So far this made it evident that the jiu jitsu man could handle the ordinary wrestler. But Grant, in the actual wrestling and throwing was about as good as the Japanese, and he was so much stronger that he evidently hurt and wore out the Japanese. With a little practice in the art I am sure that one of our big wrestlers or boxers, simply because of his greatly superior strength, would be able to kill any of those Japanese, who though very good men for their inches and pounds are altogether too small to hold their own against big, powerful, quick men who are as well trained.”
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
(Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. 1919. NEW YORK: CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS, 1919 NEW YORK: BARTLEBY.COM, 1999)
Maeda eventually parted ways with Tomita, and settled in Brazil. Maeda was staying in Sao Palo City to help establish a Japanese Immigration colony. At this time Brazil held the largest population of Japanese people outside Japan. He was aided in Brazil by Gastao Gracie, a Brazilian of Scottish decent, who’s first experience with Jiu-Jitsu was most likely through managing an Italian boxer named Alfredi Leconti, who fought a friend of Maeda in November of 1916.
For some time in Japan, Judo and Jiu-Jitsu were almost synonymous. Judo was known as Kano’s Jiu-Jitsu. Regardless, this answers the question, “why do they call it Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and not Brazilian Judo?” Because they were essentially the same thing at the time, remember, the Gracie family was learning Jiu-Jitsu and Judo while Kano was still struggling to show the difference between the two and popularize his art. In the early 1900’s there was very little difference between the two. In fact, Judo was merely a collection of Jiu-Jitsu styles, whose strongest points were put together to make what then became Judo. The Gracie family was introduced to Judo at a time when the Kodokan had recently suffered a great defeat to the grappling style of the Fusen Ryu. This can be compared to the Ultimate Fighting Championship of the early 1990’s, when most martial artists were attempting to fight Royce Gracie standing. They would all eventually find themselves on the ground, where they were at a loss as to what to do. Consequently, grappling became very popular over the next ten years and many styles began to incorporate grappling techniques into their curriculum. Royce Gracie was simply doing what had already been done in the early 1900’s by the Fusen Ryu to Judo practitioners of the Kodokan, so we can easily draw the conclusion from the experience in our own time that when Meada arrived in Brazil, he was a student of a Kodokan that was adding “new” grappling techniques to its system.
To show gratitude to Gracie for his help in the colonization, Maeda taught Gastao’s son Carlos the basic techniques of Jiu-Jitsu. Carlos Gracie then taught his brothers Oswaldo, Jorge, Gastao, and Helio. In 1925 the brothers opened their first school, and Jiu-Jitsu was cultivated into a more effective martial art and sport known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. What made this version of Jiu-Jitsu more effective was the constant exposure of its practitioners to real situations. Between their own schools, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu players would compete in a sportive way to keep the techniques of their art sharp. The Gracie family would issue a challenge to all others to fight without rules. In these no rules or ‘vale tudo’ fights, the Gracie family and their students would evaluate the techniques of their fighting art.
“If you want to get your face beaten and well smashed, your ___ kicked, and your arms broken, Contact Carlos Gracie at this address…”
— Brazilian newspaper ad, circa 1920s
Through the last fifty years, many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools have opened and broken away from the original members of the Gracie family, making subtle differences in styles within Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Machado Jiu-Jitsu, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are all different schools of the same art. The Gracie family itself has hundreds of members who do not all associate with one another.
The formal teaching of Jiu-Jitsu to Brazilians by the Gracie family began in 1940 when Helio opened an academy in Rio. Over the next 18 years, if you wanted to learn Jiu-Jitsu from the Gracie family in Brazil, you had a choice of four academies, all of which were located in Rio. The Gracie’s were not the only one’s teaching Judo and Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, but they were certainly the most popular, teaching over 2000 students in that 18 year period. A good example of this is Mehdi, a Judo master who came to Brazil from France in 1949, and still teaches there now. There have been Judo schools in Brazil since the early 1900’s and Sao Paulo still has a very large Japanese population. Mehdi’s list of students include Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts Mario Sperry, Rickson Gracie, and Sylvio Behring, just to name a few. This is another example of Judo’s influence on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and that Helio Gracie did not invent it. The Gracie family developed the art of Judo into a more effective rules-free style. While in Brazil, I learned about a Grand Master named “Fadda,” who learned Jiu-Jitsu from a man named Luis Franca. Like Carlos Gracie, Franca also learned Jiu-Jitsu (Judo) from Meada. Fadda took the Jiu-Jitsu he learned from Franca and started his own school of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil. His popularity is not as great as the Gracie family, but nonetheless, he is an example of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu being refined and practiced outside the Gracie family. His students compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments and consider their art separate from both Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and the older styles of Jiu-Jitsu in Japan. This stands as evidence that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is not the same thing.
In 1967, the first federation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was created by Helio Gracie, and the system of belts as we know it was developed (white, blue, purple, brown, and black). Around the time the Carlson Gracie team was born in the early 1970’s, the Gracie family made their first split. Carlson Gracie was the son of Carlos and a very reputable Vale Tudo fighter. He claimed many victories while defending the Gracie family name, including avenging one of Helio’s very few losses. There were now two sides of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Family, students under Helio and students under Carlson. Helio’s side would argue that Carlson’s style of Jiu-Jitsu involved too much strength and that it was Helio who developed the technique further due to the fact that he was much smaller than his brother Carlos, who taught it to him. The fact remains that it is basically the same Jiu-Jitsu with a few natural variations in teaching methods in the actual application of techniques. Robson Gracie created a new federation in 1988 and Carlos Gracie Jr. created the Confederacao Brasiliera in 1993. Carlos Jr.’s federation is the most active one worldwide and is responsible for the development of the World Championships. The idea of the Mundial (World’s) is to attract foreign competitors in hopes of making Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu an Olympic sport. This was all done around the time Royce was winning the first UFC (early 1990’s) and giving America its first prominent taste of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Members of the Gracie family are not the only ones to operate federations and associations of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu who may organize tournaments or give rank within the art. In an interview with Andre Pederneiras, a fifth degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and founder of the Nova Uniao team, he was asked about his involvement in the promotion of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and organization of the art’s first tournament. He stated that he had organized the first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament in 1993, then the following questions were asked:
“What is the difference between the first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament you created and the BJJ Confederation (Carlos Jr.’s) Tournament?”
“Price for one. In my tournament, I charged competitors ten dollars per person and Carlos Gracie Jr. charged thirty dollars. I only charged ten dollars, but I held the event in an expensive place called Club Hebraica. At the time his tournament was held as the Clube Guanabarra and I know he paid nothing for this place.”
“Did you collaborate on this event with the president of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Confederation, Mr. Carlos Gracie Jr.?”
“Of course not. The confederation did not exist yet when I was putting this tournament together. After my idea, Carlos Gracie created the Brazilian Confederation and started to make the other Brazilian tournaments.”
“So basically he made a much greater profit than you did?”
“Exactly. I created the tournament so that all Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters could compete and have a good time, not to get rich. Our priorities are were just different.”
(from interview for Jiu-Jitsu.net, August 2001)
JJ Machado on the Gracie Family’s influence:
“Carlos Gracie Jr. was our teacher from the beginning. When you say Jiu-Jitsu you have to link it to the Gracie family. That’s the family that started our Jiu-Jitsu style and we’re just one part of that clan. I think that everyone today that knows Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu learned it, directly or indirectly, from a member of the Gracie family. I think everyone should be grateful to them for that.”
A good example of how Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is truly a mixed martial art and not developed PURELY by Gracie family members is illustrated in a question from an Interview with Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti by Kid Pellegro:
“You are one of the few Black Belts from Rolls Gracie, what was it like learning from him?”
“It was spectacular, Rolls as the best of his time, besides being a great instructor he was also an incredible person. I trained with him from ’74 until ’82 when he died. He died on June 6th, ’82 and I had received my Black Belt in February. He would teach a lot of self defense, stand up, and ground fighting, with and without gi. It was a very complete class. He had started to do wrestling, so he added a lot of the wrestling attacks, single leg and double legs takedowns. So Rolls revolutionized the Jiu-Jitsu with his new positions. As a matter of fact, the “Triangle” was invented by one of his students, Sergio Dorileo, Sergio had been studying a Japanese book of positions and invented the Triangle. At that time everybody would pass the Guard the traditional way with one hand on the biceps and the other hand between the legs and low, so all of a sudden, if you would try to pass Dorileo’s guard you’d end up in a triangle. What was considered the right way didn’t work anymore. Can you imagine!!! Everybody had to go back and rethink a lot. It was an incredible experience, I learned so much from Rolls, even the way he warm up the class was special. It was one of the greatest losses in my life and it took me years to get over. I still get choked up, to this day, when I reminisce.”
During the mid 1900’s while Vale Tudo (free-style fighting) was developing in Brazil, there were experts of Judo, wrestling, capoeira, and boxing mixing together in these no-rules contests. It is impossible to think that as these competitions took place, the participants wouldn’t cross-train and “borrow” techniques from their competition. This interview, taken from Black Belt magazine, illustrates this point:
Black Belt Magazine: “At what point in your Jui-Jitsu training did you decide that the art’s techniques needed modification?”
Helio Gracie: “I didn’t invent the martial art. I adapted it to my necessity-what I needed for my weight and lack of strength. I learned Jui-Jitsu, but some of the moves required a lot of strength, so I could not use them. I couldn’t get out from some of the positions I learned from my brother because of my lack of strength and weight. So I developed other ways out.”
Black Belt Magazine: “Why didn’t anyone before you refine the techniques of traditional Jui-Jitsu into a more effective style?”
Helio Gracie: “Because most people who practice the martial arts already have physical strength and ability that I didn’t have. I needed to create those [techniques]. This was the only way I had to compensate for my lack of strength.”
No matter where you live or what style of Jiu-Jitsu you practice, we all owe some degree of respect to the Gracie Family for introducing us to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The Gracie family is responsible for a large part of the modern advancement or improvement of Jiu-Jitsu. The term Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is used to describe the difference between the ‘old’ Jiu-Jitsu (jujutsu/Jiu-Jitsu), and the Gracie family’s advancement of the art through the 1900’s. Now that ‘Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’ has spread all over Brazil and to the United States, many champions of the art are being born that are not Gracie Family members. These champions are contributing to the art’s progression by improving on techniques and developing new ones. The bulk of basic movements may still be Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, but as the art develops, the term ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ becomes more appropriate. As more and more innovators contribute to the art outside of Brazil, it eventually may be appropriate to simply call the art ‘Jiu-Jitsu’.