clock menu more-arrow no yes
Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Championship Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

Filed under:

Take the B out of BJJ: A Mata Leão by any other name will still choke you out

We should all start simply calling one of the world’s most popular grappling arts Jiu-Jitsu, says Ram Gilboa, a black belt in (Brazilian) Jiu-Jitsu

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

I love Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Love it, and everything about it. It’s an awesome martial-art. Day to day, among the greatest workouts and competitive sports, and can also be deadly when necessary. I love the moves, the matches, the atmosphere, the challenge, and the overwhelming simplicity, & complexity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; I pretty much view it as an essential part of life. There’s only one problem with it: it’s not Brazilian. Or at least, not to a degree that warrants naming it after the nation.

Some readers might already know by now that it’s essentially all Judo (and that Judo is basically effective, sparring tested, Japanese Ju-Jutsu). But just in case anyone doesn’t, here’s the vital evidence.

The fact is that Kodokan Judo Institute and the International Judo Federation became Olympics obsessed in the sixties. Even before that, though, Judo normally favored throws over submissions – especially in competitions – and training routines soon followed. So, for many decades (and even still today) many top Judokas were surprisingly clueless on the ground, save for a pin or two. But Judo’s trend of neglecting mat-work doesn’t mean that the general ideas and major individual moves of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu originated in Brazil, and weren’t in fact Japanese or otherwise universal concepts.


The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu creation story

Mitsuyo Maeda standing, wearing a fine suit and overcoat, holding a cane and gloves.
Mitsuyo Maeda

It can vary somewhat from gospel to gospel, but in broad terms, the story goes like this...

Mitsuyo Maeda was a Japanese Ju-Jutsu expert and a No-Holds-Barred and ‘mixed rules’ fighter, who trained a young Carlos Gracie in Belém do Pará, Brazil, in the 1910s. The training was done as a thank-you gift for Carlos’ father, who helped Maeda settle in the country. Carlos became Maeda’s top student and learned Japanese Ju-Jutsu – in later gospels, Kosen Judo – from him over three and a half years.

Carlos’ youngest brother, Hélio Gracie, was a sickly and frail kid (many martial-arts founders’ origin stories start out similarly) and initially couldn’t join Carlos and his other brothers in training. But, when Carlos opened his own gym in Rio, in the 1920s, Hélio was 13 and started showing up to watch others train. Three years later, Carlos was late for a private class, and Helio offered to step in. And even though he had never actually trained in any of the techniques, the student preferred Helio’s Jiu-Jitsu and instruction to that of his brother.

At this point, some readers may be scratching their heads a bit. It’s a story that might sound okay to someone who had never seriously trained, but for experienced grapplers it seems suspicious. Could Hélio really have been that talented? Or was Carlos not really that good of a teacher? Or could a few of the 80s Gracies be embellishing things up a little?

When Rorion Gracie – Hélio’s oldest son – sold Jiu-Jitsu in the states he brought with him many a-legend revolving around his father: Hélio developed the closed guard. He single handily figured out leverage. He took the power out of Judo and made it technical, so it would work for the scrawny kids as well. And he did it all only by watching. Then, in order to prove their art superior to all others, Carlos and/or Hélio Gracie pretty much invented (and very much dominated) Vale-Tudo (or mixed styles) ‘anything goes’ fighting.

This was the gist of the story propagated in the VHS era, featuring Gracie in Action 1 and GiA 2 – as well as Rorion’s and Hélio’s international interviews. Remember kids, there was no internet. No widely available contemporary books to research. No one outside of select Judo circles in Rio and Tokyo to speak heresy to dogma. Viewers believed. And the revelation of UFC 1 was all the confirmation they needed. The Jiu-Jitsu that took the US and then the world by storm was, in fact, very much Brazilian. It was spread by Brazilians (and their students), in a Brazilian atmosphere (whether “tranquillo” or “porra”), delivered with a Gracie-Brazilian narrative with a Brazilian accent and Brazilian nomenclature. But, it wasn’t Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

It’s a fact that many readers know by now, thanks to the works of good researchers like Roberto Pedreira and BE’s own John S. Nash (and websites such as judoinfo.com and ejmas.com) and some old fashioned reading and thinking. Everything fundamental about BJJ, its theory and application, pre-existed and co-existed at Judo schools in Japan (and perhaps elsewhere around the world). It was, at best, re-discovered – or more likely imported.

Thus, it is now time to stop referring to Jiu-Jitsu as “Brazilian” Jiu-Jitsu, and definitely not as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (for those that don’t like getting sued, anyway). It’s really all just Jiu-Jitsu, or Judo. The names of Jiu-Jitsu and Judo – having originally been interchangeable – now refer to different competition rule-sets more than any real difference in what would be considered an effective technique. There’s just good Jiu-Jitsu and bad Jiu-Jitsu (or Judo); efficient and inefficient. Not Brazilian and Japanese. The Jiu-Jitsu either works, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, then maybe it’s not Jiu-Jitsu at all. What’s in a name?

Jigorō Kanō came up with the gi, and the belts promotion system at the turn of the 20th century. He wanted Judo-ryū – his Ju-Jutsu, grappling school – to be a gift to the world. He readily sent it overseas, gis and belts included, in the form of teachers like Mitsuyo Maeda and the others that eventually landed in Brazil.

Grappling is as old as history. Wrestling and running were the two original sports; fight or flight. So, how can Judo ground grappling be strictly Brazilian?


The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises

(or ‘The more likely Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu creation story’)

As far as is known, Jiu-Jitsu as is seen today began to take its current form around the 16th century battlefields of Daimyo feudal Japan; the Japanese pronunciation being Ju-Jutsu – the “soft art”.

The “hard,” striking systems of Korea and China that made their way to the Okinawan islands south of Japan (and transformed into Karate) weren’t suitable for armed combat. The Samurais had hard enough armor to protect against worse than a punch, or a kick, so something more ingenious was in order. For the sword-less Samurai, throws, chokes and arm breaking locks were developed and adopted – some of which may have originated in India and Greece. Punching in Ju-Jutsu – the Atemi-Waza – was to be rare and purposeful.

In 1905, Jigorō Kanō’s first student, Tomita Tsunejirō, explained these origins to the New-York Times. Much like the Gracies later, he had art to sell: “Jiu-jitsu is an almost extinct art, and a savage one that were better extinct. The real art of self-defense is ju-do. Jiu-jitsu was developed 350 years ago, at a time when there was tribal warfare in Japan. Then a man with a long sword and a man with no sword would meet in the streets. And out of their undying hatred for one another, tribally speaking, it became necessary for the man with no sword to learn a few tricks for dislocating the joints of his enemy, choking him, and rendering him unconscious, etcetera”.

Jigorō Kanō

Jigorō Kanō grew up during the Meiji’s restoration era, a time when the emperor was determined to modernize 19th century Japan. He disenfranchised Shogunates and Daimyos, abolished the Samurai class and forbade public carrying of swords. Ju-Jutsu became a pale and dying brand. Jigorō Kanō felt that the Japanese had become derisive to their own traditions. “Ju-Jutsu”, he wrote, “was out of vogue as being stale and awkward”.

Kanō (who was actually a pretty frail kid, it turns out) had sought out Ju-Jutsu to save himself from bullies. He ended up possibly saving the art itself.

When he was thrown by bigger students, Kanō added Sumo to his training regimen and started studying western Wrestling – where he picked up the Fireman’s Carry (as the Kata-Guruma). He mastered unbalancing opponents, and his Sumo and Wrestling training made Kanō realize that any technique that couldn’t be practiced with full intentions, against a fully resisting opponent, wasn’t worth mat time. A fighter fights the way they train, and they can’t realistically train eye gouging without soon blinding their entire team.

Mark Twain posited a similar view, around the same time in Connecticut, writing: “The weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in fire.”

Kanō opened his own Dojo in 1882 when he was 22 years old and still training under Likubo Tsunetoshi. He started with 12 Tatamis on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Tokyo and called his school “Kanō Judo,” to differentiate it from that “stale” Ju-Jutsu. He named the Dojo “Kodokan,” which translates to “The Hall for the Study of the Way.” With Classic and western upbringing, and an academic background, Kanō filtered Ju-Jutsu to a scientific martial-art. He handed out the world’s first black belt to Tsunejirō Tomita.

Kanō, Tomita and the Kodokan soon won challenge matches against other Japanese Dojos. There’s an unverified story about how, when ground experts refused to trade throws with them, and instead troubled them with heel hooks, Kanō simply asked them to join the Kodokan. And from that moment on, heel hooks became Judo too. (What is more certain is that, in 1899, Kanō incorporated the first grappling restriction on Judo matches: no heel hooks).

Many of the challenge match champions were sent to spread Judo overseas. Yoshiaki Yamashita rolled all the way to the Oval Office to teach Judo to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrote the following in 1905, after watching Yamashita take on a bigger Catch Wrestling champion named Joseph Grant:

“Grant did not know what to do except to put Yamashita on his back, and Yamashita was perfectly content to be on his back. Inside of a minute Yamashita had choked Grant, and inside of two minutes more he had got an elbow hold on him”.

So this smaller fellow with a shoddy understanding of leverage and no idea of the closed guard submitted an American catch wrestler off his back?


What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again

(or ‘Judo’s been there’)

The Ju-Jutsu master who supposedly had a killer Ne-Waza (ground grappling) game, and who dragged down and slaughtered Kanō’s top throwers’ legs, was Fusen-ryū’s Tanabe Mataemon. Supposedly, this was also the man that Kanō hired to instill ground skills in his students. By the turn of the century, Kanō had a high ranking job with the Japanese ministry of education, and thought that Ne-Waza would be better suited for the educational aspects of Judo that he wanted to promote. Chiefly, it was much less injury-prone than Nage-Waza, or throws.

Mataemon Tanabe top row, center, standing behind Jigorō Kanō. Yoshiaki Yamashita seated bottom right.

Kanō wanted Ne-Waza to be developed mainly in the country’s universities, under a set of rules to be called Higher-School Judo, or Kosen Judo in Japanese. Kanō also felt that, during their limited time to train in the university, students wouldn’t be able to reach Kodokan Nage-Waza level. He felt that specializing on the ground would give them their fair shot in competitions.

Many of the ground techniques used in Kosen Judo, such as the notable Straight Armbar, were used by the Samurais, and in other cultures as well. But, there were moves formulated purely in the universities too; techniques that wouldn’t have worked in the ancient battlefield. Using these, university students won many matches against the Kodokan.

Kanō had very specific plans for Judo. His Kodokan saw throws as better representations of the principles and spirit of the art, and as more suitable for self-defense. More importantly there’s a strong possibility, (and this is how internet lore has it), that Kanō wanted to use Judo’s appeal as a sport to spread it around the world.

But, spectators had a hard time figuring out what was happening once competitors hit the mat. In 1910 there was no jumbotron, no TV and no commentators to explain technique (even today, Jiu-Jitsu as a spectator sport is a very hard sell). However, unlike the ground grappling, a huge hard slam over the shoulder was something that everyone could see and understand. So, like Tanabe Matamon, Kosen Judo was once again dragging Kodokan down.

Kanō eventually sent the most stubborn Kosen Senseis on Judo ambassadorial missions. Reasoning, most likely, that the Ne-Waza experts’ performances would carry the art’s name with honor overseas. While at the same time, Kanō was removing the threat that their kind of Judo had wrought on his vision of the Kodokan. Afterward, more rules would be introduced to obligate starting matches standing up, and giving limited time for Ne-Waza.

One of those stubborn teachers who taught Kosen rules Judo was Mitsuyo Maeda. His time in his homeland is still somewhat of a mystery (generally, 19th century Japan can be), it is however certain that Maeda was a Kodokan trained and active Judoka. Allegedly he started out in Sumo, but didn’t have the body for it. He might have tried some other Ju-Jutsu school, but eventually picked and stayed with Judo, reportedly after being impressed with Kodokan’s tournament wins.

A young Mitsuyo Maeda, seated on the left.

In late 1904, Mitsuyo Maeda and friend Soshihiro Satake boarded a ship in Yokohama along with Judo’s first student – their teacher – Tomita, and traveled to New-York. Tomita, by all accounts, was reluctant to leave home, and glad to return some 7 years later. The younger Maeda and Satake, on the other hand, ventured on to Europe and Latin America. Over those years, Maeda polished his art. And eventually, Mitsuyo Maeda arrived in Brazil.

Here’s a description of a prize-fight between another Judoka – who would later become part of the same traveling troupe – by the name of Tokugoro Ito, and a Los-Angeles wrestler named Eddie Robinson; both of them in gi jackets, as was customary in those types of matches. The fight was ‘anything goes’ except for closed fists and eye gouging. The Seattle Post describes Ito bleeding from a succession of Robinson’s (open-handed) jabs, and then:

“Ito locked his legs around the white man and began to ‘scissor’ him. Next he got a strangle hold, using Robinson’s neck cloth as a tourniquet, and slowly forced the American into submission by the process of strangulation.”

Sounds like a guard pull to a gi choke to me.

Guard pulling was already mentioned in the west by Sadakazu Uyenishi, who taught Jiu-Jitsu at Edward William Barton-Wright’s curious ‘Bartitsu’ club in London in 1900. In his 1905 book – published when Carlos Gracie was just 3 years old – ‘The Text-Book of Ju-Jutsu as Practiced in Japan’, he described guard pulling as an ancient and obsolete technique:

“Another analogous system, known as tori in some parts of Japan and as shime in others was an extension of Ju-jutsu in the department of ground work, and it is more than possible that many of the locks and holds of Ju-jutsu were originated by exponents of tori. The last-named system cannot, however, be compared with the ‘soft art’ as a method of self-defence, as but slight importance was devoted to ‘throws’ the modus operandi being mainly confined to falling to the ground yourself and then pulling your opponent down, there to struggle for the victorious lock.” (Tori is Japanese for “to take”, and is still used in martial arts to refer to the executor of technique; Shime is “constriction”, like in a choke).

Another two rather famous Ju-Jutsu pioneers in Europe – Yukio Tani and Taro Miyake – offered a different look in their 1906 ‘The Game of Ju-Jitsu’:

“It would be quite permissible for him to go to the ground voluntarily in such a way that [one] would gain the advantage in the next stage of the struggle. Being first to the ground is not of necessity a point against you.”

‘The Game’ is still an alright train-by-mail technique overview of throws and ground-work, by the way. It has the word “leverage” and the full guard and everything. Tani and Miyake referred to the guard as “Standard Position III.” What they called “The Chancery” is now more commonly known as the Guillotine Choke. The book perhaps had the world’s first Gi ad. (The thing I like most about it is the sentence it begins with: “You are going to play Ju-Jitsu.”)


There is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?

(or ‘History repeats itself’)

So Tokugoro Ito joined forces with Maeda, Satake and Akitaro Ono in Latin-America (I haven’t mentioned him yet, but he was around) in Latin-America and they went on a performing tour together – “If anybody in the crowd can beat any of us...” sort of thing. By the time they banded together, Mitsuyo Maeda was already known as “The Toughest Man Who Ever Lived,“ alongside the title of “Conde Koma” (or Count Combat). Two very big names for a not very big man – standing at just 5’ 5”, 154 pounds.

But let’s rewind a bit. Maeda arrived in New-York with Tomita and Satake in Decemeber of 1904, at the age of 26. While on the east coast, he met Ono. His first paying gig was against a wrestler named Sam Marburger. After their fight, Marburger said that if Maeda ever fights again, “...just let me know. I’d like to put all my money on this unbeatable phenomenon!”

The “Four Kings”: Akitaro Ono, Soshihiro Satake, Tokugoro Ito, & Mitsuyo Maeda

In 1907 Maeda made port in Liverpool, and then on to London with Satake to meet up with Ono. From there, in London’s famed theaters and ill-famed Music Halls of the Belle Époque (and eventually in Spain and Latin America) Maeda took part in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of matches and fights. He competed against wrestlers of a myriad of pin and submission styles, against other Judokas, Savateurs, street fighters, Capoeiristas.

The Judoka was said to have respected Boxers, and didn’t fancy fighting them. But, in a London suburb he was tricked and ambushed into a match against one. Purportedly, it was this match from which Maeda distilled a consistent pattern for fighting. Here’s the deeply abridged version:

First – Stay outside, out of harm’s way.
Second – Distract, and keep the opponent at bay with simple kicks.
Third – As soon as possible, cut the distance, get a grip and get the fight to the ground.
Fourth – Once horizontal, get a dominant position and finish the fight.

The specific kind of Judo, or Ju-Jutsu, which today is generally called BJJ.

In 1908, in Spain, Maeda picked up his “Conde Koma” moniker. He and his compatriots went from Paris, to Havana, to Mexico-City in 1909 and all over Central and South America. The troupe became rather famous in Cuba in the early 1910s as the “The Four Kings.” The nickname was most likely a throwback to the “Four Guardians of the Kodokan” who fought the early challenge matches for Judo in Japan – Tsunejirō Tomita and Yoshiaki Yamashita, and two other Judoka named Yokoyama and Shirō.

Back in Japan, the Kodokan was somewhat divided as to whether Maeda and his merry band of prize fighters honored Judo or not, but eventually sent him (for his work to spread the art) a fifth Dan degree in Judo – after all, that was what Maeda was practicing. “The Four Kings” arrived in Brazil in 1914, and to the city Belém (Beth-Lehem) in 1915. They offered 5,000 francs to any one who could beat any of them. They were not the first Ju-Jutsukas to perform and teach in Brazil, but likely the most accomplished and well known.

In Beth Lehem of Judea the Christian Messiah appeared, the BJJ Messiah appeared in Belém do Pará.

Poster for a ‘mixed rules’ fight between Maeda & a boxer in Belem.

Belém, 1917, Carlos Gracie was 15 and he wanted to train with Mitsuyo Maeda (or, at the very least, Carlos’ father wanted him to). Contemporary sources suggest that he might have only started training seriously a couple of years later in Rio, and under an authorized Maeda apprentice named Donato Pires Dos Reis. Reis’ academy (along with an academy belonging to a mysterious Geo Omori) was the big Jiu-Jitsu school in Rio in the twenties, and Carlos and his brother George were assistant coaches there. The two brothers would later open their own academy, in 1930.

Whomever it was that passed his craft to Carlos Gracie, there can be almost no doubt – and on this point sixth Dan Renzo Gracie seems to agree – that they taught him not only the techniques, but also about the strategy and tactics involving the ranges of combat.

The patterns that Maeda had outlined weren’t unknown elsewhere around the world; in Japan there was sword range, as well as in England (where Burton-Wright of Bartitsu simply exchanged the Katana with the walking cane). In France, noted fencer Monsieur Jean-Joseph Renaud added the concept of pistol range. According to the Gracies, Carlos studied under Maeda for about three years. Whether it was “Conde Koma” who trained him or (in fact) dos Pires, that’s the amount of time, these days, that will make someone a decent purple belt, for sure. And in the right environment, a martial artist can take their own steps from there.

Carlos Gracie received the techniques, drills, sparring, maybe some Judo (Ju-Jutsu) self defense Katas, and a roadmap to get from standing range to the ground. Basically what was later re-branded as Gracie (and Brazilian) Jiu-Jitsu.

The Gracies probably first met the craft by the “Jiu-Jitsu” name. The names Ju-Jutsu and Judo were still used interchangeably in Japan when Maeda left – and even still, when he arrived in Brazil over a decade later, as Kanō’s or Kanō-ryū Ju-Jutsu. (‘Ryū’ being the Japanese word for ‘school,’ as Ju-Jutsu then didn’t seem to really have styles, but schools instead). In the early 1920s Maeda started to refer to his craft as Judo and kept doing so until his death in Belém in 1941 (he was, unbeknownst to him, awarded his Kodokan 7th Dan the day before).

Meanwhile, in 1938, Dr. Jigorō Kanō passed away. He had reincorporated the Kosen back into the Kodokan in 1925, continuing the program on its own in only a select few Imperial Universities for research and preservation purposes. However, not long after his death, the Kosen program was terminated. The Allied occupation of Japan during WWII shut down the the Imperial Universities. And when they were reinstated, in 1946, Kosen was largely no longer part of the curriculum. (Modern Kosen re-started in the fifties with modest competitions)

Maeda and a few other Japanese emigrants also taught Jiu-Jitsu to other Brazilians during that period between 1917 and 1941. The most famous of these being Luiz Franca (and I’m likely be being liberal here with the word famous). Franca generally liked leg locks better than the Gracies, but other than that, his Jiu-Jitsu was the same old Jiu-Jitsu as theirs.

Franca taught his craft to the cops, the poor and people in the outskirts. He wasn’t big on challenge matches, and wasn’t as blessed in the business and PR sense as some in the vast Gracie clan. And much like Carlos Gracie, there’s now some doubt as to whether Franca actually extensively studied under Maeda, Soshirio Satake, one of their students, someone else completely, or no one exactly (IBJJF champion Robert Drysdale might shed some light on that in his new Jiu-Jitsu history movie, “Closed Guard”).

Essentially, if the Gracies and the detached Franca lineage have the same Jiu-Jitsu at the root, it’s just one more piece of evidence that what Carlos and Helio did wasn’t seminal.


It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations

(or ‘Grappling didn’t start with the Gracies’)

All that above being said, the Gracies preserved the art. They kept the torch alive when World War I extinguished it elsewhere outside of Japan (and when almost all Judo training took an Olympics-oriented priority).

It seems certain that Carlos and Hélio modified some of the techniques to work better for their own body mechanics, as a lot of grapplers eventually do. And have the next generations of Gracies, and others, cross-trained, expanded and pushed the art forward? for sure. As a Jiu-Jitsu black-belt and sporadic Judo practitioner, are the practices, and even all individual techniques 100% identical today in Jiu-Jitsu and in Judo? Nope.

That’s probably the most important thing the Gracies have done; they used separate competition rules apart from modern Kodokan Judo, which dictated and modified their training. Effectively, Judo and Jiu-Jitsu are the same sport with different rules. In modern Judo competitors can gain an immediate win by a throw, a pin or a submission, and mat-work is limited. In Jiu-Jitsu they can only gain an immediate win by a submission, and can pull guard instead of throwing.

The Gracies also made something very Japanese very Brazilian. Instead of bowing, practitioners fist bump (I wonder who invented that), they sit down comfortably instead of in seiza. And they call their instructor by their first name and not Sensei. Jiu-Jitsu practitioners can talk a a bit during drilling and brag a bit. There are also no real philosophical or ethical teachings to speak of. No extracurricular Kappo resuscitation methods for advanced students (those might have help inspire western CPR in the Netherlands, but that’s really a whole different story).

Jiu Jitsu students in Japan.

Look at this classic video, if you haven’t before, of Judoka Tsunetane Oda (aka “Mr. Sankaku”). Oda – who died a Kodokan 9th Dan in 1955 – was a Ne-Waza master and one of the main instructors Kanō had asked to be in charge of the style, and to lead Kosen Judo. He is credited with inventing the Sankaku (or the triangle). A lot of the Ju-Jutsu submissions were designed for the Samurai battlefield, but good luck triangle-ing the shoulder and neck of an armored opponent who’s always ready to bite your crotch as an escape. Apparently, “Mr. Sankaku” discovered (or maybe re-discovered) the technique on an Imperial university lab mat in the early 20th century.

Readers might also know the story of how the Gracies originally learned about the Sankaku in the seventies, when one of Rolls Gracie’s students showed it to him in an old Judo manual. (My 2 pesos are that Rolls and Rickson Gracie were the first two Gracies to really reach the top Japanese Ne-Waza level of the time). Grappling knowledge wasn’t a YouTube click away, and some have speculated that the Gracies may have actually known the technique, but kept the triangle from their students as their own ‘ace up the sleeve.’ What’s for sure is, even in 1989 – in the Gracie instructional – Rorion Gracie showed a controversial pass that would basically land the executor in a beautiful triangle, now called “The Gracie Gift.”

Go back to the video of Oda, and explain how what he’s doing is not sweeping and passing the guard to submit (note the cartwheel pass at 07:50). Everything is there and in the old books – Americana/Ude-Garami, Armbar/Juji-Gatame, North-South/Kami-Shimo-Gatame, the Guard/Dō Osae, Ezequiel/Sode-Gurum-Jime, Omoplata/Ashi-Sankaku-Garami, and obviously the Kimura/gyaku-ude-garami. Name a fundamental technique or idea that was actually developed in Brazil. That’s it. From there on it’s all fine print; incremental evolution at best. But, not revolution.

Yes, Japan also knew about your shiny new Berimbolo, slick. As, Robert Drysdale put it:

“In fact the ground work in Japan was far more sophisticated in Japan than it was in Brazil at the time. I have pictures of Japanese doing foot locks from 50/50 in 1904, 1905.”

To back him up, Jean-Joseph Renaud – the marvelous French fencer who never knew a Gracie – wrote in his 1912 insightful fighting book that “…the Nipponese method is marvelous and it alone teaches real combat grappling on the ground.” The techniques Hélio used were known to multitudes of Judokas before him, and likely Samurais before that. Fulcrum and leverage have been the basic instruments of any grappler worth anything since the time of Archimedes – who famously explained its principle.

Maeda, on the left, practicing Kendo against an unknown fencer.

If there were any moves in Ju-Jutsu not set on solid physics, Kanō likely took most of them out of the curriculum himself. And that’s what Tomita taught Maeda before they left Japan. Hélio was not, as it turns out, a sickly, frail, child; he missed out on training as a successful swimming and rowing competitor. Had Hélio added the leverage to Jiu-Jitsu, as legend has it, no move in Judo would have worked.

William Bankier (aka Apollo, the Scottish Hercules), a strongman who invited Maeda to come work in England, wrote a book called “Ideal Physical Culture, And the Truth about the Strong Man.” In it he described training techniques, along with hot new health advice of the day (such as steering away from tobacco). He also advised his readers to pay no attention to creation stories. In essence saying that to get extremely strong, you have to be born at least a bit strong.

Many of the Gracies and their Brazilian students were great fighters and instructors. And all of us who roll owe a debt to them and, in a way, to the story that helped make Jiu-Jitsu a worldwide phenomenon. But they didn’t create Jiu-Jitsu, they re-branded it. Some might argue Jigorō Kanō did the same a hundred or so years back in Japan (I think they’d be wrong, but it can be argued). Either way, however, the result is not Brazilian.

The Gracies kept it alive, especially NHB mindset, and ignited the passion for it – especially in the West. Are Brazilians good at it? Yes. Very. Likely the best in the world. But that would make Soccer French, and Whiskey Japanese. (Very much what happened in the 1990s is that observers took technical truth as historical truth).

Calling it Brazilian was not purely nationalistic or only a marketing ploy. Jiu-Jitsu really had to distinguish itself from what had become a one track Olympic minded Judo – and the hand-me-down, unrealistic Ju-Jutsu that was gaining some popularity in Europe at that time (a lot of which was half-baked-Judo-meets-half-baked-Karate with some old Ju-Jutsu tricks). But if we’re being honest, Ju-Jutsu is Judo is Jiu-Jitsu. Along the way, someone figured out an extra choke or two and traded bows for fist bumps. But, the substance isn’t intrinsically Brazilian. No one would call boxing “American Boxing,” just because the United States sharpened the left hook and added ring girls.

I’m not an Eddie Bravo guy, but there is probably a greater difference between his system and what he was taught at Machado’s, than that between Carlos and Hélio Gracie’s system and what they were taught. So, is anyone going to start calling Bravo lineage Jiu-Jitsu “American” or “Californian”? At its core, it’s all just Jiu-Jitsu.

If anyone has read this far they probably love Jiu-Jitsu as much as I do. The Gracie family, and Brazilian grapplers as a whole, are extremely important pillars in the story of the great game, of Jiu-Jitsu. Now, let’s respect the entire art by calling it its proper name.

Thanks: John S. Nash

Ram Gilboa is an Israeli Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt under Roy Neeman (Pitbull BJJ). Gilboa works as a writer with many of the country’s leading publications, and does TV combat sports commentating. He loves Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Boxing, MMA, and long walks along the beach to watch a fight on sand. find him on Twitter at @RamGilboa.

UFC News

Conor McGregor says his only goal now is to ‘kill’ someone on PPV; deletes death threat to Ferguson

UFC News

UFC Vegas 41 results: Vettori takes grueling decision over Costa, Caceres comes back to choke Choi

UFC News

UFC Vegas 41: Pros react to Marvin Vettori’s gritty decision victory over Paulo Costa