8 – Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (1920s)
“I am a shark, the ground is my ocean, and most people don’t know how to swim.” Jean Jacques Machado, pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
As judo is inseparable from its founder, Kano Jigoro, so the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is almost impossible to mention without talking about the Gracie family. The Gracies are the first family of the sport and the people who have done the most for it in terms of making BJJ one of the most popular martial arts around the world, but they were not actually the founders of it.
The roots of BJJ are in the first judo trainers ever to come to Brazil. The first missionary was Geo Omori, who arrived in South America in 1909 having learned the art in his native Tokyo, at the original Kodokan. He brought his skills with him to Brazil’s huge expatriate Japanese community and opened up a dojo in Rio de Janiero. Following Omori was Mitsuyo Maeda, a former sumo wrestler who had been sent by Kano to Brazil to teach ground-fighting. The Japanese community in Brazil had heard of the new style of jiu-jitsu and many were eager to learn.
In 1917, one of the new students of the style was Gastao Gracie, a circus owner, who introduced his son Carlos to Maeda. He, in turn, invited his brother Helio to join him and between them, they began to develop a style that focussed on ground-fighting, where any weight advantage could be even more easily negated. It is Carlos and Helio who are considered to have invented BJJ, though with much assistance from the original Japanese judo missionaries.
Almost as soon as Helio and Carlos had taken up judo, the rules began to change and BJJ began to emerge as a separate fighting style. Judo was well on its way to becoming an Olympic sport and thus neglected the ground fighting aspects in favour of more spectator friendly, safer practices. In Brazil, however, the sporting public were going in a different direction. As Maeda had spread the gospel of judo through Brazil, the circuses at which he had demonstrated had often hosted fights in the “vale tudo” style – the name meaning “anything goes” – in which almost any move was allowed. Maeda had shown the effectiveness of judo in this fighting, and had beaten a capoeira fighter with a knife as well as wrestlers and boxers.
The Gracies, however, thought differently. Carlos claimed that he had offered to fight anyone, from any background, of any size, in order to prove the effectiveness of the new, “Brazilian” style of jiu-jitsu that he was pioneering – jiu-jitsu being what Brazilians called Maeda’s judo. He even faced Geo Omori, the original bringer of judo to Brazil, in several gruelling bouts. Helio, a much smaller fighter than Carlos, was even more intent on perfecting his game on the ground and studied Maeda extensively, eventually become a vale tudo fighter himself and a hero across all of Brazil.
Living to the ripe age of 95, Helio’s children popularised BJJ – then known as “Gracie jiu-jitsu” in the United States, leading to the growth of the sport and its eventual incorporation into MMA, as seen by the success of Helio’s protege Royce Gracie, the winner of the first four UFC tournaments.
The competitive nature of BJJ has been there from the very start, and the vale tudo fights that proved the practical applications of the form showed how effective it could be when there were no rules in a fight. One style, however, stands above all others in terms of brutality, lack of rules and viciousness: the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga.