How Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Came to Be

The History of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu

The Origin of the Martial Arts



Every culture has shown to have some form of the martial arts; hand-to-hand combat in its history. Dating back to one of Ancient Greece’s traditions, the original Olympic Games pitted contestants against each other in weaponless combat, in the form of wrestling and boxing. This popular sport was named “Pankration” (pictured). During the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 to 323 B.C.), he brought Greek culture along with him to the areas he conquered.

Pankration eventually found its way to the shores of India. Alexander’s successors then gave birth to the Indo – Greek empire. It was during this time that the western martial art transcended the Indian borders and into the northern realms. Along with Buddhism (Dharma), it was via India that these martial techniques found their way to China.

At the Shaolin Temple in China, Buddhist monks became not only devout religious practitioners; they also became men of great wisdom who possessed a perfect knowledge of the human body. Using leverage, momentum, balance, weight transmission and manipulation of the body’s vital points, a scientific art of self-defense was formed.

Jiu-jitsu and Judo

When the Ming Dynasty fell in China, rumor has it that a Chinese monk named Chin Gen Pinh travelled to Japan, accompanied with his knowledge and experience of Kenpo, known as the “China Hand”. These lethal techniques would eventually be adopted by the Japanese between the 8th and 16th centuries during a time when the country saw long periods where civil war.

As the need for techniques to be used on the battlefield for use in close combat; in situations where weapons were ineffective became increasingly important, these martial techniques would be used along side Japanese hand to hand combat forms that focused heavily upon throwing, immobilizing, joint-locks and choking. Takenouchi Hisamori, a military tactician is credited with the creation of this close quarter form of combat.

The term for this: jūjutsu (jiu-jitsu) was not coined until the 17th century and became a blanket term for a wide variety of grappling-related disciplines and techniques. Fast-forward a couple hundred years, civil war hand become a thing of the past. At this time, “classical martial arts (“budo” in Japanese) was widely practiced.

However, there was one problem: with the impression that the need for use on the battlefield was a thing of the past, a way to practice without inflicting serious injury was needed.

Jigoro Kano

Enter: Jigoro Kano (pictured). Kano was an educated man, a member of the Cultural department, and a practitioner of jiu-jitsu. He studied the combative art with a few different teachers. His last teacher’s school, Koryo Jiu-jitsu, emphasized throwing technique (as opposed to ground work). With only 4 years of experience under his belt, Jigoro Kano opened his own school, the Kodokan.

Feeling that their were flaws with the way that jiu-jitsu was practiced, he developed his own style of the martial art in the late 1800s, fittingly named: Kano-ryu jiu-jitsu. Kano saw the martial arts as a way of life; not just a compilation of techniques as suggested by the name jiu-jitsu (jitsu means technique). He applied the word “do” which was derived from the Chinese word “Tao”, which means “way”, as in “way of life”.

Thus, the name changed once again and “judo” was born. Kano wanted everyone to see the practice as he did; a way of life. So, Kano organized the techniques into a curriculum and added a ranking system. (This was the birth of the ranking system we have grown accustomed to seeing used in the various martial arts practiced today.) Kano’s judo also allowed practitioners the ability to practice the art safely. One more important thing Kano did was to make the practice principle based; thus giving the technical foundation a strategic emphasis. By focusing on “kuzushi” or off balancing, one could weaken their adversary in order to throw them. This principle is known as seiryoku zenyo, which means maximum efficiency, minimum effort. In 1886, after a tournament between Kano’s judoka (judo practitioners) and the Tokyo police was held. Following the victory of Kano’s team, judo became famous as his system grew.

By 1911, judo had become part of the public school educational system and Kano was made a member of the International Olympic committee. He sought to make judo an Olympic sport (which it is today). However, when Mataemon Tanabe showed up on the scene, Kano would be forced to rethink the way he and his students practiced the art of judo.

Tanabe was a practitioner of Fusen-ryu jiu-jitsu. It’s lineage can be traced back to Takeda Motsuge, who had been trained as a Buddhist monk and took the name Fusen. Tanabe challenged the Kodokan, Jigoro Kano’s school of Judo. Instead of standing, the Fusen-ryu jiu-jitsu practitioners preferred to engage their opponent’s by sitting down, thus avoiding being thrown. Today, this tactic is know as “pulling guard” and is widely used in Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitions.

Using this strategy, Tanabe’s team was able to defeat the Kano’s judoka relatively with ease. Following the tournament, having witnessed the effectiveness of Fusen-ryu jiu-jitsu, Kano asked Tanabe to teach his curriculum to his judo students at the Kodokan. The Fusen-ryu jiu-jitsu techniques, which focused mostly on ground attacks was absorbed into the Kodokan’s curriculum.

From that point until about 1925, there was a huge influence of ground technique or “newaza” as it is called in Japan. Jigoro Kano wanted to spread his art of judo and ventured to England where he met Yukio Tani.

Yukio Tani

Tani was a modest jiu-jitsu practitioner who had arrive years earlier had built quite the reputation for himself along with his partner, a British colleague and showman. Tani would regularly fight in challenge matches for the public. Yukio Tani’s early jiu-jitsu training in Japan is unclear. He is known to have studied at two Fusen-ryu dojo. It is also likely that he had considerable experience in competitive newaza; at the high-school level, e.g. Kosen Judo.

Standing just 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, Tani fought 40 to 50 challengers per week. Using his Fusen Ryu ground techniques, he was able to throw his opponents who usually outweighed him, to the ground and submit them time and time again. Tani eventually grew tired of constantly competing and decide to open a school in England. At this time, Judo was a prestigious and well known art in Japan. During Kano’s trip to England, he met with Tani and asked him to represent the art of Judo in England. Knowing the prestige of judo, Tani accepted the offer and agreed to teach the Kodokan judo curriculum which now had a strong foundation is Fusen-ryu jiu-jitsu. Judo had officially transcended borders and expanded to the west.

Judo’s Olympic Birth

In 1925, with the goal of becoming an Olympic sport, Jigoro Kano implemented a number of rules that would change Judo drastically. From the 1800s until 1925, Judo had been equally practiced both standing and on the ground. In an attempt to become more visually appealing to a crowd, Kano decided to prevent long lasting ground technique. Instead, once again, the focus was placed on throwing one’s opponent. These changes were met with criticism. In the city of Kyoto, schools started holding their own competitions. In which, the rules allowed for direct transition to the ground / newaza. As the years went on, by 1929, the rules of judo became even more strict regarding newaza.

However, Kosen judo practitioners continued to hold interscholastic competitions with the former rules. For this reason, there are many similarities between Kosen judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Many also feel that this is also proof that the ground techniques used by the Gracies were based on the techniques of Judo, prior to being adapted for the Olympics. The same techniques that were taught to the Gracies by Mitsuyo Maeda.

The Father of BJJ

Mitsuyo Maeda

Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941) (pictured) was a classically trained jiu-jitsu student. Like Tani, it is also likely that Maeda had considerable experience in competitive newaza, Kosen judo before arriving at Kano’s Kodokan.


It is very important and an often overlooked fact that in an effort to spread judo, Mitsuyo Maeda was not the only one chosen for this task. Jigoro Kano sent three of his best students, Tsunejiro Tomita, Soishiro Satake, and Mitsuyo Maeda to America as delegates of Kodokan judo.

Early in 1905, Tomita and Maeda gave several public demonstrations of judo on the east coast in the U.S. At the request of the crowd, Maeda was pitted against John Naething, a 200lb wrestler. Even with a noticeable size difference, after fifteen minutes of wrestling, Maeda was able to secured the first fall.

Many feel that it was matches like these, against much bigger and physically stronger men that Maeda modified some of the techniques to suit his smaller frame. (It would be these techniques that he would eventually pass on to the Gracie family.)

Feeling that America was at the time, unsuited to live in due to racism towards Asians, the judoka decided to travel elsewhere.

Before arriving in Brazil, from 1907 to 1915, Maeda and company travelled to Europe and Central America to give judo demonstrations. During which Maeda also competed in challenge matches. With some resistance from his superiors in Japan, he was also involved in pro wrestling.

It was at this time, as Tani may have been as well, Maeda was introduced to the art of catch wrestling having competed against these type of wrestlers regularly. This may very well have once again given Maeda some tools to add to his already extensive tool box; skill set. Catch wrestling is a classical hybrid grappling style that was developed in Britain circa 1870 by Mr. J. G. Chambers. It was later refined and popularized by the wrestlers of traveling carnivals who developed their own submission holds, into their wrestling to increase their effectiveness against their opponents.


Maeda arrived in Brazil and decided to settle there before World War 1. By this time, Maeda was recognized as a great fighter having done numerous judo demonstrations and public challenge matches. He was known in Brazil as “Count Combat” Conde Koma” (Conde Koma in Portuguese)

It’s important to note that in 1921, Maeda founded his first judo academy in Brazil by the name of “Club Remo”. As of 1991, the school still exists and is ran by Alfredo Mendes Coimbra, of the third generation of Maeda’s descendants.)

The Gracie Connection

Gastão Gracie was a business partner of the American Circus in the city of Belém. In 1916, Italian Argentine circus Queirolo Brothers staged shows there and presented Maeda.

Carlos Gracie

In 1917, Carlos Gracie (pictured) the 14 year old son of Gastão Gracie, watched a demonstration by Maeda and wanted to learn judo. Maeda accepted Gracie as a student.

Carlos went on to become a great exponent of the art. Maeda had taught the Carlos a mixture of Fusen-ryu jiu-jitsu, Kodokan judo, and catch wrestling that he had picked up during the time he spent in England. Maeda’s perspective on the martial arts was unique in that he had fought in challenge matches all over the world. Gi, No-Gi, and often in matches in which strikes were allowed.

Carlos trained under Maeda for somewhere between 2 and 4 years before he moved to Rio De Janeiro. Following suit, at roughly the same age (Kano was 22) and with the same amount of experience as Jigoro Kano had when he opened the Kodokan, the Gracie’s opened their own school in Rio De Janeiro.

Carlos passed Maeda’s teachings on to his brothers Osvaldo, Gastão, and Jorge. The Gracies brothers began teaching full time and promoting their art. By participating in public challenge matches regularly, they made a name for themselves. They took on all comers and defeated boxers, wrestlers, capoeristas, and other martial artist. Carlos’ youngest brother, Hélio was too young and sick at that time to learn the art, and due to medical imposition was prohibited from taking part in the training sessions.

At the age of 14, Helio moved to Rio De Janeiro where his brothers were teaching. Rumor has it that one day when Helio was 16 years old, a student showed up for class when Carlos was not around. Helio, who had memorized all the techniques from watching his brothers teach, started class in Carlos’ absence. It was at this time that Helio noticed that due to his frail physique that he needed to modify the techniques to suit his body. In order to prove the effectiveness of his adaptions to the art, Helio too began openly accepting challenge matches as well. He went on to gain recognition and taught the art to his sons: Rorian, Relson, Rickson, Rolker, Royler, and Royce.

It’s important to note that Helio is now considered by many as the founder of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (though others, such as Carlson Gracie, have pointed to Carlos as the founder). According to one of Renzo Gracie’s books, Maeda not only taught the art of judo to Carlos Gracie, but also taught a particular philosophy about the nature of combat based on his travels competing and training alongside catch wrestlers, boxers, savate fighters, and various other martial artists. This form of hand-to-hand combat was employed by others practitioners of judo as well who, like Maeda, engaged in challenge match fighting overseas as judo spread internationally.

Furthermore, it’s also important to note that Carlos was not the only student of Maeda’s.

Non-Gracie BJJ Lineages

Little is known about Luiz Franca. Originally a judoka, he began training in jiu-jitsu under Maeda at the same time as Carlos Gracie. Relatively unknown in the jiu-jitsu community, Franca is one of founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu who is not part of the Gracie lineage.

Oswaldo Fadda

One of Franca’s students, Oswaldo Fadda (pictured) also played a significant role in how Jiu-jitsu spread in Brazil. Fadda was born in Bento Ribeiro, a suburb in the north of Rio de Janeiro to a family of Italian immigrants. He began to study-jiu jitsu under Luiz França and was eventually awarded his black belt. It’s interesting to see that before the Gracies, Kano had became famous for defeating classical jiu-jitsu fighters in challenge matches, and Fusen-ryu jiu-Jitsu had gained influence through beating Judoka in challenge matches.

Furthermore, Yukio Tani and Mitsuyo Maeda had also gained a lot of exposure in these type of matches.

By 1942, jiu-jitsu was becoming well known in Brazil, although the price of tuition was too high for most residents of Rio. It was regarded as an upper class sport. Fadda who had received his own black belt from França started teaching jiu-jitsu free of charge in unorthodox locations such as public parks and beaches, often without the aid of crash mats, aiming to spread the art of jiu-jitsu to those who could not afford it.

Fadda simply saw jiu-jitsu as a way to help people. It’s important to note that Fadda’s lineage is the most prominent second to the Carlos Gracie lineage. It still survives through his links with today’s teams such as Nova União.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu & The UFC

It was Helio’s son Rorion that first brought Brazilian jiu-jitsu to the U.S. when he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1978. By this time no-rules prize fighting events (known as “vale tudo” had become popular in Brazil. This would be a first for America.

In the early 1990s, Rorion and Art Davie, a business executive and entrepreneur that was active in the Southern California advertising circles conceived a televised event: The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). This unique event pit different martial artist against each other, style against style. Rorion’s brother Royce was chosen to represent the unknown art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the UFC’s first event which took place in 1993.

Royce Gracie

Royce (pictured) was not a big man. Nonetheless, he went on to dominate and win tournament. His wins created a huge interest in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, particularly in the U.S. and interestingly, even Japan.

Today, riding the wave of the UFC and the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (vale tudo), Brazilian jiu-jitsu has become a global martial art.

Headed by the UFC, the sport of MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Fighters constantly seeking to refine their skills and gain an edge over their competition have gone through lengths to incorporate techniques western boxing, karate, taekwondo, muay thai kickboxing, modern day judo, and wrestling into their arsenal.

This in turn has forced jiu-jitsu to continue to evolve as well. Aspects of wrestling and catch wrestling are now very much a part of jiu-jitsu.

Final Thoughts

The Gracie’s have gone above and beyond to contribute to what today is known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

However, it is important to remember that they are not solely responsible for what we know today as Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It is equally important to honor the others that equally contributed to the spread of the art.

Evolution is a natural part of life; and a natural part of martial arts. As the saying goes: If you’re not evolving your dying.

If your were to look at how gymnastics have evolved in Olympic competition, you will see that each year, the athletes begin to test the limits of what is the norm and what the body can do. Athletes of today are able to do things that were unimaginable in the past.

Jiu-jitsu is no different. Does anyone else notice the similarity between this Kosen Judo video filmed in the 1940’s and what we know today as BJJ?

Which leads me to my final question:

Judo and Jiu-jitsu are two sides of the same coin. Wouldn’t it make the most sense to stop differentiating between the two arts and simply call it Judo?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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