The Way Of Yielding

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not traditional Japanese “jujutsu.” Let’s get that straight right now. But jujutsu’s evolution from a feudal last line of defense to today’s dominant joint-locking discipline may be the best example of a martial art adapting itself to changing environments while maintaining its core mission: to defeat a larger, stronger opponent with superior technique. Jujutsu was never intended to be offensive, and for a long time it was not even ground-based, but rather striking-oriented. It was mainly developed as a last-ditch weapon for a samurai when he was faced with a heavily armored or mounted opponent. However, it has since metamorphosed into today’s arm-bending, throatchoking, Brazilian-influenced fight ender. How did that happen?


Because written records in Japan were not kept until the eighth century B.C., many histories start with the phrase, “Ancient legends say…” So it is with jujutsu, which really didn’t evolve into the combative art we know today until the mid-16th century. What can be confidently assumed is that wrestling, long a favorite sport in Japan, spurred the development of jujutsu. Wrestling in Japan can be traced back to a sport called chikura kurabe in 230 B.C. A famous tale describes how in 24 B.C. the Emperor Suinin ordered a wrestling match between two strong men of his court, Sukune and Kuehaya. Kuehaya should have called in sick that day, because Sukune trampled him to death—according to legend, of course.

Sumo is mentioned in the oldest example of Japanese writing, from 712 A.D. It is widely believed that, around that time, a form of unarmed combat influenced by wrestling became part of the samurai warrior’s training, so he could defend himself in the event he lost his sword. In 1192, Japan was ruled by a military dictatorship that incorporated sumo into its military training curriculum. This move fostered the development of creative forms of combat under the tutelage of the samurai class, and it is believed that jujutsu was an offshoot of sumo that evolved over the next 340 years.

Another influence was the Chinese art of chan fa (punching and nerve striking, translated into Japanese as kenpo), which was brought to Japan in the early 16th century by either Hideyoshi Toyotomi or a Chinese-born monk named Chin Gempin, depending on whom you believe. Despite the fact that certain groups wished to discredit Gempin, it’s known that he taught his kumiai jutsu (“the tackling art”) and atemi waza (“nerve striking techniques”) to masterless samurai, and founded the art of yawara jutsu, a short-rod self-defense system on which the modern kubotan is based. Yawara and ju are both Japanese words for “flexible,” and since jujutsu means “the art of flexibility,” we can reasonably assume that this was the genesis of jujutsu. Either way, Gempin’s system surely shaped the development of unarmed combat among the samurai and laid the basis for modern jujutsu.

A sumo wrestler and student of Gempin’s named Takenouchi is credited with establishing the first true jujutsu school. The takenouchi-ryu system, believed to have begun near Kyoto in 1532, was based on seizing an opponent rather than striking him. After the Battle of Sekigahara, in 1600, the Tokugawa Shogun seized power and cast aside the ruling emperor. As a reward for their service in the battle, only the samurai were allowed to train in armed or unarmed combat. The samurai’s new position at the top of the feudal pecking order ushered in a gilded age of jujutsu, and by the mid-17th century there were over 700 documented schools, such as kitoryu and its close cousin, jikishin-ryu, both of which emphasized throwing one’s opponent. There also were other prominent systems, such as kiushin-ryu, yoshin-ryu, and miura-ryu.

“Jujutsu developed into a grappling art for no other reason than the necessity of combat,” says Robert Carver, a member of the board of directors of the United States Jiu-Jitsu Federation. “Considering that a samurai would likely be facing someone who is similarly armed with a sword, kicking, punching, and blocks would not be effective unless you wanted your limbs to be littering the battlefield. The only real way to deal with a sword was to get inside the arc of its cut, seize the opponent, throw him to the ground, and dispatch him with a tanto, wakizashi, or kodachi.”

Under the samurai, jujutsu evolved into an all-encompassing art of strikes, throws, joint manipulation, takedowns, and combat-oriented sumo wrestling; and it flourished for nearly 270 years during the shogunate. The Meiji restoration changed all that.


If you’re rusty on Japanese history, just know this: The shogunate almost completely isolated Japan from the outside world from 1603 until Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1853. Once exposed to American ingenuity, the Japanese people became enamored with all things Western, and by 1868 the shoguns and their anti-Western policies were run out of town, ending the Edo period. The Japanese emperor, then living in Kyoto, was restored to the throne. Reform swept the country, and all rejoiced in their newfound freedom, except those who had benefited most from the shogunate’s rule: the samurai. A constant reminder of all the things unsavory in Japanese history, the samurai were tossed aside in favor of Western ideals. Jujutsu, once the sole privilege of the samurai, was banned because it represented a defunct warrior class that was unnecessary in an industrial age. Many samurai turned into yakuza, bodyguards, and traveling performers to make a living off the skills they had spent their lives honing.

But with so many schools and such a long history, jujutsu was impossible to squash. The art went underground, and many of its great masters became bonesetters because of all the knowledge they had gained mending the many injuries that occurred during training. Kito-ryu, tenjin shinyo-ryu, daito-ryu, and a few other ryuha remained steadfast, standard-bearers of jujutsu, but the once proud art soon degenerated into the preferred fighting style of gangsters and hooligans. A sea change was needed to put jujutsu on a new path. Enter .

Though a master of several jujutsu systems, Kano was disillusioned with the art and fearful that its disrepute in Japanese society would condemn its legacy. So, he sought to reform it. He blended tenjin shinyo-ryu jujutsu, kito-ryu jujutsu, and sumo techniques into a new form he called “kodokan judo.” A lifelong educator, Kano aggressively petitioned the government to include judo in the primary school curriculum in order to improve physical and spiritual training. He viewed it as a way to make individuals and society better through self-defense, physical culture, and moral behavior.

Jujutsu was not so glamorous. While Kano was using judo to foster the concepts of teamwork and fair play (unknown in Japan at the time), jujutsu focused on the individual and on how to kick ass. Jujutsu was not a “way.” It had no spiritual aspects and no aspirations to introduce virtue into anyone’s life. It simply sought to defeat the opponent by whatever means necessary, and, for that reason, it languished for many years while judo, aikido, kenpo, and even karate (all influenced by jujutsu) enjoyed great commercial success. But the chain of events that would change the martial arts forever, and solidify jujutsu’s place in history, was already set in motion by Kano and by one of his most famous students.


Mitsuyo Maeda was a highly skilled judokan trained by Kano. In the early 20th century, he decided to take his show on the road, and wandered with his nomadic friends throughout North America and Europe challenging anyone and everyone to judo-style matches. His skill earned him the moniker “Count Combat,
” which would become the first MMA nickname ever. The world tour headed south in 1908, and for six years Maeda and company wandered through Cuba and Central America kicking ass and downing arroz con carne. Throughout his life, Maeda reportedly won over 2,000 matches and lost only twice.

In 1914 Maeda and his troupe headed to Brazil, and they never left. Something about the country tickled Maeda’s fancy, so he dropped anchor, marrying a Brazilian woman and forsaking the “Traveling Wilbury” lifestyle. He established a school in Belem where he charged a hefty fee that had the intended effect of keeping out the poor. And he soon met a 13-year-old student named Carlos Gracie, a wellto- do third-generation descendant of a Scots immigrant with a family the size of a Mormon cult. As the oldest of five brothers, Carlos learned jujutsu from Maeda and his assistant instructors. It’s important to note that Maeda did not call his style “judo,” possibly because he was one of the earliest students of Jigoro Kano, who had blended together several styles of jujutsu that would evolve into judo later on.

In 1925 Carlos opened his own jiujitsu (as it became commonly spelled) academy in Rio de Janeiro, but he spent most of his time establishing the family name by challenging other schools to fights, as Maeda had done during his own travels. When Carlos’s brothers (Osvaldo, Gastao, Jorge, and Helio) were old enough, they did most of the actual fighting while Carlos managed and trained them. The youngest brother, Helio, was sickly and frail, but ended up as the badass of the family, and the one credited for improving the family’s fighting sys- tem. It is reported that, in all his long life, Helio lost only two fights: one to Masahiko Kimura and the other to Valdemar Santana, in a match that lasted three hours and 45 minutes.

“It wasn’t their way of being arrogant or aggressive,” says Helio’s son, Rorion Gracie. “They just had a lot of conviction. They were completely convinced that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the best style of self defense, and they were willing to put their necks on the line to prove it. My father was 140 pounds soaking wet, but he was willing to fight anybody to prove that jiu-jitsu was the most effective for of self-defense. When he fought Kimura, my father was 80 pounds lighter than him, but he took the fight because he was anxious to see how his improvements on the traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu would fare against the heavyweight champion of the world.”

It was Helio who catapulted the family’s style into fame and the Gracie name into legend. He modified his jiu-jitsu to accommodate his smaller stature, and refined his techniques so that he was less reliant on strength and better able to defeat a larger, stronger opponent with skill. Had the Internet been in place back then, Helio’s style would have given hope to the bullied and defenseless around the world.

According to the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation, many Japanese practitioners were attracted to the new market that opened up around jiu-jitsu in Brazil, and so they came to Rio, but none were able to establish schools as successful as the Gracies’. This was due to the fact that the Japanese stylists were more focused on takedowns and throws, whereas the jiu-jitsu practiced by the Gracies had more sophisticated ground-fighting and submission techniques. Carlos and his brothers changed and adapted the techniques to the point where they completely altered the principles of international jiu-jitsu.

But some contend that Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu is not really jiu-jitsu at all, but rather an evolved form of judo. “BJJ is not jiu-jitsu unless you also consider judo a form of jiu-jitsu,” says Carver. “BJJ could more accurately be described as a highly specialized form of judo that emphasizes ground fighting, as it historically is derived from kodokan judo, and not from any particular jiu-jitsu ryuha. Kind of like a third cousin, but one that is big and bad.” Jiu-jitsu had not only planted roots near the Amazon, it flourished in the hands of South American zealots. The same could not be said of its distant and nearly forgotten cousin, Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, which was not as popular as other martial arts, in part because it lacked theatrical exposure. Judo was rammed into the Olympics by the calculating Kano, while karate was blossoming under the stewardship of American soldiers who brought it back to the United States. Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, however, had no champion to guide it through the post-World War II years.

Since jiu-jitsu was seen as archaic and impractical by the Japanese public, traditional jiu-jitsu schools mostly faded away in Japan. A few maintained operations, but the majority could not exist without a continued influx of students, and the ones that did survive broke ties with the old ways. Aiki jiu-jitsu became aikido. Wado-ryu karate jiu-jitsu became wado-tyu karate. Except for a very few, the remaining jiu-jitsu schools in Japan plagiarized judo or adapted to it. Despite being the one martial art to which many others could trace their lineage, the one art that had so much in common with other disciplines, jiu-jitsu languished. In the meantime, judo and tae kwon do enjoyed feverish followings and a place on the biggest sporting stage in the world—the Olympics.


The popularity of jiu-jitsu in the United States during the 1950s touched off a wave of bare-knuckled, freestyle fighting that continued until martial arts were as ubiquitous and accepted as baseball. Another variant of grappling centered on no-gi submission wrestling, luta livre, was also catching on. It didn’t take long for the two disciplines to meet in the rings of Brazil in challenge matches, which were overwhelmingly won by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu artists.

By the 1960s, televised luta livre matches and the more brutal vale tudo (meaning “anything goes”) fights were commonplace in Rio de Janeiro, where Ricardo Liborio would grow up years later. Liborio chose to pursue judo, however, because it was the most popular martial art in Brazil at the time. Then the tide turned. Jiu-jitsu had proven itself in challenge matches against luta livre, and the annual grappling tournaments were soaring in size and stature. Liborio traded in his judoki for a gi and became a Gracie disciple. He would go on to become a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion, help establish the legendary Brazilian Top Team, and then become the head trainer of one of the best MMA camps today, American Top Team.

“Jiu-jitsu became very popular among the people I hung out with,” says Liborio. “Brazil is a very laid-back society. We all just wanted to surf and train in jiu-jitsu.”

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu federations sprang up, and with them came larger and larger tournaments. But with this popularity came socioeconomic change. Jiujitsu’s simple practicality in a country fraught with poverty and civil violence was enticing to the poorer demographic. Although previously excluded from learning jiu-jitsu at the costly Gracie dojos, the destitute embraced it because it was proven, and soon it was difficult to maintain jiu-jitsu as a privilege for aristocrats. An unintended side effect was that jiu-jitsu became the fighting art of choice in the shantytowns known as favelas, although some of the art’s greatest practitioners, such as Andre Galvao, came from these poor districts.

“The camaraderie in the 1990s was really marginal,” says Liborio. “It used to be a dojo in Brazil was very tightknit and family oriented, but as the poorer demographic started coming in, that really made it deteriorate.” But if this was the worst problem jiu-jitsu had to face in Brazil, it was lucky. In the Land of the Rising Sun, jiu-jitsu was faring even worse.


You probably already know what happened next. Jiu-jitsu blindsided the martial arts when Rorio
n Gracie decided the world needed a lesson. In the late 1970s, he was teaching Gracie Jiu-Jitsu out of his garage in Torrance, California, and challenging anyone in the area to no-holds-barred fights. He decided to take the family tradition a step further and put his Gracie Jiu- Jitsu on a stage before a fan base that enjoyed combat sports: the United States. It was only natural for him.

“It was for educational purposes,” Rorion says. “I started hearing about karate and kung fu and all these things when I came to the United States. Everyone told me how great their style was. People said jiu-jitsu was not practical, so I had challenge matches on the spot. We had no-holds-barred fights in my garage all the time. That’s what gave me the idea to educate the masses and to show the public what style is best for a real fight, when there are no rules.”

Along with promoters Art Davies and Bob Meyrowitz, Rorion went commercial, and the first Ultimate Fighting Championship hit pay-per-view in 1993. It’s purpose: show the world that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the most dominant fighting style in existence. Rorion’s skinny little brother made sure that happened when Royce won the first and second UFCs. It was a “my dick is bigger than yours” moment for sure, but it also ushered in an unprecedented era of progress for the martial arts.

The world took notice of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, not just for its success in competition, but also for its versatility. It could be adapted to every situation— street fights, grappling tournaments, and the burgeoning sport of MMA, after the Fertitta brothers and Dana White purchased the UFC in 2001 and instituted rules. The rise of the UFC over the past 16 years has brought about more change in the martial arts than the previous 16 centuries. That evolution continues today, and it can be directly attributed to jiu-jitsu. Even in Japan, the popularity of MMA has reinvigorated traditional jiu-jitsu.

“Over 100 years after the Meiji Restoration, jiu-jitsu exists in many different flavors, from the oldest of koryu arts [takenouchi-ryu, tenjin shinyoryu] to gendai arts [daito-ryu, hakko-ryu] and modern eclectic systems,” says Carver. “They all have common roots and they are all jiu-jitsu, but they were developed and are practiced for different reasons, be it the battlefield, the Octagon, police, or for civilian self-protection.”

“Jiu-jitsu offers you endless situations and endless options you can find yourself in,” says BJ Penn. “There are so many moves, so many sweeps, submissions, angles, and leverage points, it’s amazing. The learning never stops with it. A blue belt can create a position that black belts take note of. I just learned two moves today grappling in the gym. It’s so creative. It’s wide open.”


Ironically, it’s the current craze for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that has forced the art to evolve. Its mass appeal and contagion-like growth has opened the minds of the curious and the imagination of the experienced, resulting in an ever-changing martial art.

“In the 1990s, you could get by or even win fights just by knowing jiujitsu, but not anymore,” says Conan Silveira. “MMA is more of a science now. Georges St. Pierre is a great example. He transitions from one art to the other without anyone seeing it. He goes from boxing to Muay Thai to wrestling to BJJ in the blink of an eye.”

Jiu-jitsu is a critical component of every fighter’s skill set. Three of the five current UFC champions are BJJ black belts (Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, and BJ Penn). But the man who started the UFC now rails against its rules-based, restrictive environment, and objects to a UFC champion being called the best fighter in the world.

“In five-minute rounds, anyone can be a very tough opponent,” says Rorion Gracie. “But there’s no time limit in a real fight. When Royce fought Dan Severn at UFC 4, the match lasted for 15 minutes. If the fight had been stopped at 14 minutes, Royce would have lost because he was on his back most of that time, and that would have been interpreted by the judges as a defeat. But because the fight was scheduled to go until one guy wins, Royce got a choke and won. Nowadays, it’s no longer a comparison of styles. It’s a comparison of athletes.”

BJ Penn doesn’t necessarily disagree. “I don’t think jiu-jitsu is perfect by itself if you want to be the champion of the UFC,” says Penn. “But for true self-defense, there’s nothing more versatile or more complete. If someone tackles you and grabs you, but you still have your jiu-jitsu, you’ll be fine.”

“I’m not here to knock anybody down,” says Rorion. “I want the public to have an honest evaluation of what the martial arts really are. There’s no kung fu move that can rip a guy’s heart out of his chest and show it to him while it’s still pumping. I’ve tried to find that. It doesn’t exist. Jiu-jitsu is the most practical art, so it would be a better world if everybody knew jiu-jitsu.”


The Other Kinfolk

When people speak of the Gracie family history, they usually refer to the linear genealogy that starts with Helio Gracie and travels down through his more famous sons, Rickson, Royce, Rorion, and Royler. But what about the other side of the clan? Helio’s brother, Carlos Gracie, was considered by some to be the superior fighter, but he chose to manage his more famous brother and spend many years developing the Gracie diet. So, is there animosity between the two sides of the family tree?

“There’s no bad feelings that I know of,” says Caesar Gracie, the grandson of Carlos Gracie and coach of MMA notables Nick and Nathan Diaz. “We’re one family, so a win for one of us is a win for all of us.”

“There’s rifts in any family,” says Rorion. “Carlos was the first one to learn jiu-jitsu, but then he passed it on to Helio and others, and spent his life developing the Gracie diet. My father’s life was jiujitsu. He was the guy who walked past the mat and said, “Sir, put your hand here to make the move correct. Carlos had other goals he wanted to accomplish, but is there anger between us? No. If one of my cousins has a flat tire, I’m going to pull over and help.”

“One of the best things that ever happened to me was Rorion starting the UFC,” says Caesar. “He’s a cousin of mine, but, aside from that, he certainly made my life better when he took a chance and started it.”

So there you have it. One very big happy family. Learn more at www.gracieuniversity. com.

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