Let’s take a look at the basics of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or BJJ in short. First, a brief overview of the history of BJJ. It all started with a Japanese Judo Master (one of Jigoro Kano’s top students) and Catch Wrestler known as Mitsuyo Maeda, who travelled under the name Count Koma, taking on challenge matches throughout the United States, before finally settling down in the land down under of Brazil.
While there in Brazil, he met a teenager named Carlos Gracie in 1917, who witnessed one of Count Koma’s challenge matches and was immediately impressed. As Maeda was a friend of Carlos’ father, Gustao, he agreed to teach the boy the art of jiu-jitsu. Maeda taught Carlos and other Brazilians such as Luiz Franca (who later taught Oswaldo Fadda, a second lineage of BJJ), and soon, Carlos Gracie opened the first Gracie Academy.
One of Carlos’ siblings was of course, Helio Gracie, which as the official PR goes, was so weak and frail that he couldn’t even climb up a flight of stairs. Of course that’s total bullshit; Helio was a physically fit male, although he certainly was no musclebound athlete. Anyway, Helio was considered physically weaker than his brothers and he began adapting the style into the earliest incarnation of BJJ as we know it today. Specifically, he began to develop the use of the guard, which is basically the cornerstone of modern BJJ, and even back then was not a position emphasized by either judo or catch wrestling (in catch wrestling, playing guard meant that you were getting pinned, and thus, losing).
How did Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu spread?
There is a misconception floating around that the Gracies were pure and honorable martial artists, dedicated to spreading the virtue of jiu-jitsu throughout the world. While they were indeed dedicated to spreading the art, and they were definitely good fighters, their methods of proselytization was more akin to the crusades than handing out Bibles at the street corner. The Gracies were known for dojo storming, also known as the ‘Gracie Challenge’ where they would challenge martial artists from other styles in No Holds Barred matches, and quickly take the fight to the ground and ending it usually via brutal ground and pound or a rear naked choke (when they inevitably exposed their back to avoid punches from mount).
Standard Gracie Challenge Fight: ‘Teep’ kick to Double Leg to Escape poorly applied headlock from bottom to Take Mount to Finish via GnP or RNC.
For those of you who are new to BJJ, know this, Helio Gracie had his first professional fight in 1932, with a submission win over boxer Antonio Portugal. The famous Kimura/Gracie fight was in 1951! People were of course impressed by Kimura’s muscular physique and the size disparity with Helio, but Helio had in fact been fighting much larger (although definitely less skilled) opponents before.
Helio’s son, Rorion, moved to Southern California in 1978, SoCal is now the Mecca for BJJ in the USA. In Part 2, we will take a look at the spread of BJJ thorough the United States.