Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Martial Arts)

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a grappling system that maintains both sport and combat forms. The art was derived from Japanese antecedents in twentieth-century Brazil.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is virtually synonymous with the Gracie family, through whose lineage the system was passed and whose members modified the original Japanese art into its present state. Currently, however, instructors are not necessarily members of the Gracie family. Therefore, a distinction exists between Brazilian jiu-jitsu in general and Gracie Jiu-jitsu (a registered trademark).

The parent system of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is Kodokan Judo, and although Mitsuyo Maeda was not the first judoka (judo practitioner) in Brazil (this was a 1908 immigrant named Miura), he was certainly the first to be influential. Therefore some background on Maeda is required.

Maeda was born in Aomori Prefecture, Japan, in November 1878. At age 17 he moved to Tokyo where, on June 6, 1897, he joined Japan’s most famous judo school, the Kodokan. There he was a direct student of Kodokan director Sakujiro Yokoyama, a man famous for his participation in challenge matches and fights.

By 1903 Maeda was graded fourth dan (fourth-degree black belt) in judo. Since the highest rank in those days was seventh dan, this suggests enormous talent. As a result, in 1904 he was invited to go to the United States with Tsunejiro Tomita, judo founder Kano Jigoro’s original student; the idea was for Tomita to explain the theory of judo while Maeda demonstrated its application. After arriving in the United States, however, Tomita was publicly challenged and defeated. This embarrassed Maeda, who went off on his own to become a professional wrestler, which in turn embarrassed the Kodokan.

From 1906 to 1908, Maeda wrestled in the United States, Britain, Belgium, and Spain, and it was in the latter country that he adopted his stage name of Conde Koma. The name was a pun: Read one way, it meant “Count of Combat,” while read another it meant “Count of [Economic] Troubles.”

From 1909 to 1913, Maeda wrestled in Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, and the Canal Zone, and he is said to have had only 2 defeats in over 2,000 matches. Unlike contemporary Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylists, who often attack with strikes and then follow up with groundwork, Maeda concentrated almost solely on chokes and joint locks. In other words, he did orthodox Japanese ne-waza (groundwork).

Rorion Gracie stands in front of the Gracie Jiu-jitsu Academy in Torrance, California, 2001.

Rorion Gracie stands in front of the Gracie Jiu-jitsu Academy in Torrance, California, 2001.

As a wrestler, Maeda was known for issuing challenges, including one to Jack Johnson, the reigning heavyweight boxing champion. Maeda’s student Carlos Gracie followed this example by advertising in Brazilian news-papers his willingness to take on all comers. In turn, Carlos’s younger brother, Helio, challenged Joe Louis, while decades later Helio’s son Royce challenged Mike Tyson. Of course nothing came of these challenges, as there simply was not enough money in such contests to interest the boxers.

Maeda’s methods have been described as more rough-and-tumble than is normal in judo. However, some of this apparent roughness is owed to the venue—professional wrestling takes place in music halls, circus tents, and armories rather than high school gyms, and is performed for the amusement of a paying crowd rather than judged on points.

There are differences in the accounts of how Maeda met the Gracies. In the accounts generally given by the Gracie family, Carlos Gracie, one of five sons of Gastao Gracie, began his training with Maeda in 1914 (or 1915). Other sources maintain that in 1915 Maeda was a member of a Japanese wrestling troupe known as “the Four Kings” and that he did not start working for the Queirollo Brothers’ American Circus until 1917. If so, then the circus was probably where he met the Gracie family, as in 1916 Gastao Gracie was reportedly managing an Italian boxer associated with the Queirollo circus. At any rate, during the mid to late 1910s Maeda began teaching the rudiments of judo to Carlos Gracie.

Around 1922 Maeda left the circus to begin promoting Japanese immigration into Brazil. Three years later Gracie opened a wrestling gym in Rio de Janeiro, and this latter event marks the official birth of the system known today as Gracie Jiu-jitsu.

After Gracie quit training with Maeda, the core art underwent a process of modification. Many articles state that Gracie Jiu-jitsu’s emphasis on groundwork is due to Maeda and Carlos Gracie not having tatami (mats) on which to practice falls. However, inasmuch as Japanese aikido and Scandinavian Glima practitioners sometimes practice falls on wooden floors, it is likely that Gracie Jiu-jitsu’s emphasis on groundwork owes more to the innovations of Helio Gracie than to any desire to avoid injury on the part of Carlos Gracie or Maeda.

As a boy Helio Gracie was the youngest and least robust of five brothers. Because of this, he soon learned to rely on technique rather than strength, and legs rather than arms. As an adult, he became a fairground wrestler, and when faced with larger opponents, he found it useful to go to the ground, where his greater skill at ground submission fighting served him well. So when the Japanese professional wrestler Masahiko Kimura wrestled Helio Gracie in October 1951, “What he [Kimura] saw reminded him of the earlier judo methods that were rough and tumble. Prewar [prior to World War II] judo had body locks, leg locks, unusual choking techniques that were discarded because they were not legal in contest judo, which had evolved slowly over the years” (Wang).

During the 1980s, Helio Gracie’s sons took the family art to California, and during the 1990s the victories of Rorion and Royce Gracie in pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship™ (UFC) events made Gracie Jiu-jitsu famous. In 1994, the U.S. Army also introduced Gracie Jiu-jitsu into its Ranger training programs at Fort Benning, though here the idea was more to teach self-confidence than to improve individual lethality in combat.

Punches, kicks, and fighting from the standing position were added to the Brazilian jiu-jitsu curriculum during the 1990s. The reason was to keep its practitioners competitive during UFC matches. Nevertheless, the Gra-cies continued to emphasize maneuvering for opportunities in which to apply joint locks and chokes. The reason, they insisted, was that most one-on-one fights end up as grappling contests on the ground, and one might as well get there as quickly as possible.

Toward this end, particular attention is paid to the ground positions labeled the “mount” and the “guard.” In the mounted position, the combatant straddles an opponent lying on his back, essentially sitting on the opponent’s abdomen. The goal is to set up a choke or a joint lock or to deliver strikes. A variation is the “side mount,” in which the practitioner is on top of an opponent, chest to chest at a 90-degree angle. Meanwhile, the “guard” refers to the opposite position, in which the opponent is attempting to get on top of the practitioner. The standard Brazilian jiu-jitsu guard places the opponent between one’s legs, which encircle the attacker just above the hips. If the encircling legs’ ankles are crossed, then it is a “closed guard”; if the legs are not crossed, then it is an “open guard.” An alternative is the “half-guard,” in which the defender uses the legs to trap one of the legs of the opponent attempting to mount.

Although Rorion Gracie maintains that one can learn the techniques of Brazilian jiu-jitsu after just forty lessons, learning to apply these techniques against uncooperative opponents in combative contexts requires years of practice. So, toward showing relative standing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu utilizes a ranking system similar to that of Kodokan Judo. Rank is designated by a colored belt wrapped and tied at the waist of the uniform (which is also similar to the loose cotton trousers and jacket of judo). Belt ranks for children run from white (for beginners) to yellow, orange, green, brown, and black and for adults, white, blue, purple, brown, and black. As in the dan system of contemporary Japanese martial arts, the black belt progresses through various grades of ascending numbers (i.e., first degree, second degree, etc.).

During the 1990s, various organizations arose both in Brazil and abroad espousing variations of the core teachings of Maeda as modified by Carlos and Helio Gracie. Thus Gracie Jiu-jitsu has become a trademark used by various members of the Gracie family of Brazil whose schools are autonomous, while other instructors, such as the Machado brothers (nephews and students of Carlos Gracie), refer to their systems as Brazilian, as distinct from Gracie, jiu-jitsu.

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