J is for Jiu-Jitsu (A History): An Alphabet of BJJ (Part Two)


I already covered the earlier part of the history of jiu-jitsu in this blog post. There I discussed the inception of ground work and its spread to Japan, before the developments that occured right up until the nineteenth century.

In this post I’m going to explore what happened to BJJ from the 1880s to the present day.

I left off when BJJ had developed from a battlefield art into one that occurred in the practice room. Japanese martial arts split into lots of different factions; Judo and Aikido being the two dominant arts, but there were plenty of other disciplines about as well. They all focused on a particular part of the sport, rather than looking at the whole picture. Bruce Lee would later call this time ‘a classical mess’ because he saw students that were ‘merely performing methodical routines […] rather than responding to “what is”‘ (Little, 2015, p.144). In the Gracie version of BJJ history, the blurb likens this to ‘swimming without water’ – frankly a rather pointless exercise. The art had become so dominated by methodical technique, that it was no longer applicable to real world situations.

Out of this melee the art of Kodokan Judo, developed by Jigoro Kano came to the fore. Founded in 1882 the art dominated other martial arts that tried to challenge it for many years. It wasn’t until the turn of the century, when a man named Mataemon Tanabe challenged Kodokan Judo with a little known system of classical Jiu-Jitsu, known as Fusen Ryu.

Jigoro Kano - Kodokan Judo
Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) practicing Kodokan Judo.

Fusen Ryu differed from Kodokan in that it focused on fighting on the ground, whereas Kodokan had predominately focused on throws from a standing position. In the matches that followed, the fighters of the Fusen Ryu dominated and submitted all of the Kodokan fighters. Jigoro Kano invited Tanabe to teach his ground grappling at Kodokan, and from then on fighters began to train both the throwing techniques, and the ground grappling game.

It is here that nomenclature gets even more confusing. The sport that these men were practicing was Judo, or Jiudo as Professor Kano sometimes called it. The Japanese people, however, clung to old-fashioned nomenclature and still called the art “Jiu-Jitsu”. It wasn’t until 1925 that the Japanese government mandated that the art taught in Japanese schools should be called “Judo”.

It was at the point when Kano and Tanabe began working together that a young man called Mitsuyo Maeda began his training. He was a martial arts prodigy and decided to travel the world to both practice, fight and disseminate his art. He finally settled in Brazil in 1914 and opened a “Jiu-Jitsu” school (at least this was what all of the Brazilian newspapers called it at the time). Maeda began to organise Jiu-Jitsu tournaments (really show-bouts so the sport would gain some coverage), and in 1915 a list of rules appeared for what seems to be the first Jiu-Jitsu tournament in Brazil:

1. Every fighter must present themselves decently, with fingernails and toenails perfectly trimmed

2. They must wear the gi, provided by Count Koma (Maeda)

3. It is forbidden to bite, scratch, head-butt or punch

4. When the athlete uses their foot, they must never use its tip, but instead the curve

5. The fighter whose back is on the ground is not defeated, even if they were the first one to fall

6. The fighter who is defeated must signal their forfeit by tapping either the mat or their opponent’s body thrice

7. The referee will deem defeated the fighter who, due to some contingency, cannot remember to tap to signal their forfeit

8. The matches will be divided into rounds of five minutes with two-minute resting periods interposed between them. The referee will count the minutes aloud for the benefit of the audience

9. If the fighters fall off the mat without either one having forewarned of it, the referee must force them to return to the center of the mat, standing and facing one another

10. The jurors may replace the referee in his duties. Neither the enterprise nor the winning fighter is responsible for whatever harm may befall the loser if, due to tenacity, that fighter refuses to signal forfeit.

The rules appear to be fairly similar to that of modern day tournaments, apart from rule number 4, which I can’t decide whether denotes that kicking was allowed, or if that is just a form of sweeping (such as De Asi Barai).

It was at one of these tournaments in 1917 that a young man named Carlos Gracie saw Japanese men fight and win against much bigger opponents. Maeda was known to the Carlos’ father, and agreed to teach him the art. After training with Maeda for some years, in 1925 Carlos Gracie opened his own gym, and started to spread the art and notierity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by issuing the now-famous “Gracie Challenge”. Fighters from any art were welcome to come and try their luck, but time and again the Gracie fighters (Carlos and his brother Hélio) would secure victory. Hélio had adapted his brothers techniques for his slighter frame, and yet he was still dominating over men who were 50-100lbs heavier than himself. At 43 years old Hélio, in a no-holds-barred match, would fight for an incredible three hours and forty minutes against a former student Waldemar Santana.

Carlos and Hélio Gracie

It wasn’t long before a string of Gracie academies opened across Brazil. Carlos had 21 children, 13 of whom would go on to become Gracie black belts. It was in 1967 that the sport gained official national recognition. By this time Carlson Gracie had taken over from his Uncle Hélio as flagbearer for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. A primitive scoring system and a time limit was introduced.

Some of the Gracie family emigrating to the United States, and continuing the practice there. From then on the popularity of Jiu-Jitsu snowballed. In early UFC events in the 1990s Royce Gracie proved how effective ground grappling was against striking arts and in 1994 the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation was established by Master Carlos Gracie Jr. who was the sixteenth child of Carlos Gracie. Carlos Gracie Jr. is also the head of the Gracie Barra chain of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gyms. 

There are two main strains of BJJ now – “anything goes” BJJ, more commonly known as Vale Tudo, and sport grappling, where competitors both in the gi and without will compete for points and submissions. Even though sport grappling is supposed to be done in a competition sense, rather than as self-defence/fight, there is still an emphasis on application to street fighting, or real life situations.

worlds 2016

As for where Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is now… it is constantly evolving, you can practice BJJ in gyms across the world, and there are competitions in the four corners of the globe. The IBJJF has been hosting a world championships since 1996. ADCC is also a global body that hosts BJJ tournaments. There are also many other national and local bodies dependent on country which host tournaments and competitions.

BJJ is constantly evolving and changing. With each new practitioner that steps onto the mat, something new can be added or developed.

Until next time,




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