Tracing the Origins of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: From Samurai Warriors to the Gracie Legacy

May 6, 2024
Do you know how far back you have to go to trace the history and origins of Brazilian jiu-jitsu? From Japan to Brazil to worldwide phenomenon, see how the Gracies were central in making BJJ what it is today.
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From where did jiu-jitsu originate? And who are the creators of Brazilian jiu-jitsu? Just how far back can you trace your BJJ lineage?

The quick answer is that Brazilian jiu-jitsu as we know it today began in Feudal Japan with Japanese Ju-Jitsu, then evolved into Judo and travelled to Brazil, then developed into Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and ultimately moved to the U.S. and to the rest of the world. Today, there are thousands of BJJ schools around the world, alongside a growing competition (sport jiu-jitsu) scene.

In this article, I'll cover a brief history of the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, from its origins in Japan to the modern era of BJJ.

Japan, Judo, and the Samurai

Today, BJJ is arguably the fastest-growing art/sport in the entire martial arts community.

To trace the origins of Brazilian jiu-jitsu to its roots, we have to go back several hundred years. Our story begins with the Japanese samurai and the art of ju-jitsu.

The Samurai's Martial Art

martial arts instruction

It's said that the art of ju-jitsu can be traced back to several hundred years BCE, to Buddhist monks in India. However, it is difficult to find much information on these origins, and so people typically refer to the 17th century when discussing the origins of jiu-jitsu as we know it.

In the 17th century, jiu-jitsu was said to be first developed by Japanese samurai, intended primarily for use on the battlefield. The heavy armour worn by the samurai restricted their mobility, rendering striking techniques very difficult to execute in hand-to-hand combat.

However, chokes, joint locks, and throws/trips were much easier to execute while wearing such heavy and restrictive armour compared to strikes.

From this, traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu was born.

Of course, Japanese jiu-jitsu developed over the years and continued to proliferate after the end of the samurai era, influencing the development of other martial arts, namely judo.

Judo and Jigoro Kano

jiu jitsu fighter japan

In 1882, a student in traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu founded a martial arts school of his own, which would end up being one of the most influential dojos in the history of martial arts.

This man's name was Jigoro Kano, and the martial arts school he opened would one day be known as the Kodokan: the home of Judo.

Originally referred to as Kano jiu-jitsu, this revolutionary art would later come to be known as Kodokan Judo. Kano's jiu-jitsu distinguished itself from other traditional martial arts in its emphasis on randori – or sparring – as a regular part of training.

In fact, at the time, many traditional combat schools favoured simply practicing techniques without any resistance from training partners. In this way, Kano's art criticized traditional martial arts schools for providing unrealistic training environments.

Mitsuyo Maeda Travels to Brazil

mitsuyo maeda

In 1914, one of Kano's best students, Mitsuyo Maeda, travelled to Brazil, where he taught Judo to a number of Brazilian businessmen. One of those businessmen was named Gastão Gracie. Gastão's son, Carlos Gracie, would end up as a student of Maeda.

It's important to note that Maeda's style of Judo emphasized a newaza style – meaning that he emphasized ground fighting as well as throws/trips from standing.

One of Carlos' younger brothers, Hélio, had difficulty with many of the techniques presented by Maeda due to a lack of size and strength, as well as the recurring health issues he experienced in his youth. Hélio made adjustments to the techniques in such a way that allowed him to use leverage, angles, and body positioning to defeat opponents who were far larger and stronger.

With this, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was born.

The Gracie Connection: Carlos Gracie and Hélio Gracie

The Gracie family are credited as the creators of Brazilian jiu-jitsu – although it's important to note that they would have referred to it as Gracie jiu-jitsu, not BJJ.

The Gracie family has many, many members and following your own lineage (i.e., who promoted you, who promoted your professors) is a fun activity to see which members of the Gracie family you're connected to.

Two of the most influential Gracies are Carlos and Hélio.

Carlos Gracie

carlos gracie

After studying under Maeda, in 1925, Carlos Gracie opened the first Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The many benefits of training jiu-jitsu were clear to Carlos, and so he decided to take his martial arts knowledge and share it with the rest of the world.

Carlos is responsible for passing on techniques learned from Maeda to the rest of the Gracie family, and for growing the art in the early years. Then, it was Carlos' brother, Hélio who took the art and developed it further.

Hélio Gracie

helio gracie

Hélio Gracie began his life as a very physically sick and frail child, suffering from fainting spells. Due to his lack of size and strength, Hélio had to rely on leverage and timing, refining and building upon the techniques learned from his brothers.

Beginning in the 1930s, Hélio was one of, if not the most, famous Gracie of his time. Hélio openly challenged martial artists and fighters from all over Brazil to test his family's jiu-jitsu. His victories, as well as his hard-fought defeats, made him a national champion in Brazil.

In 1955, he had a famously long Vale Tudo (no-holds-barred) match with former student Valdemar Santana, which lasted 3 hours and 43 minutes!

The Ultimate Fighting Championship and Mixed Martial Arts

In the 1990s, Rorion Gracie moved from Brazil to the United States to further spread jiu-jitsu. He settled in Los Angeles, where he began to work towards hosting a Vale Tudo contest – what would later be known as mixed martial arts.

The Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) was originally created as a one-night tournament where martial artists of various backgrounds and fighting styles would face off against one another.

The goal for Rorion and the Gracie family was to demonstrate the effectiveness of Gracie jiu-jitsu, and they accomplished this by selecting Royce Gracie to compete – a fairly thin, unassuming fighter, who would end up being the event's smallest participant. Rorion believed that Royce's success would prove to the world the effectiveness of their art.

Royce would go on to dominate the competition, defeating opponents far bigger and stronger with strategic technique and effective submissions. He continued this winning trend, fighting in several future UFC events, solidifying himself as one of the few jiu-jitsu masters and pioneers of mixed martial arts.

At this point, it's safe to say the world was finally convinced that ground fighting was an effective way to defend oneself/win fights. And with this began the global BJJ revolution!

A Modern History of Jiu-Jitsu

The art of jiu-jitsu has developed from a special system of hand-to-hand combat used by samurai due to the armour they wore, to Kano jiu-jitsu and Judo, to Gracie jiu-jitsu, to the new school of jiu-jitsu – which includes open guard, leg locks, and techniques from other grappling arts such as sambo and Greco-Roman/freestyle wrestling.

Along with the explosion of mixed martial arts and the UFC, sport jiu-jitsu has also experienced significant growth in the past twenty years.

Sport Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

While maintaining some emphasis on self-defence, jiu-jitsu evolved from just a martial art into a martial art and a sport throughout the beginning of the 21st century.

Nowadays, the sport BJJ community is enormous, with dozens of outlets for competitors to test their jiu-jitsu games against fellow competitors at local, national, and international tournaments.

For example, the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) was founded in 1994 by Carlos Gracie Jr. and represents the largest unified body for sport jiu-jitsu. The IBJJF hosts annual World Championships in both gi and no-gi, offering a range of age categories for athletes to compete in across all belt ranks and age categories – from youth to adult to masters (i.e., 30 years and older).

Many other organizations support sport BJJ, with many new tournaments and professional grappling shows being developed each year (e.g., ADCC, Polaris, FloGrappling WNO, Grappling Industries, etc.).

Popular Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Lineages

Knowing the history and origins of the art of jiu-jitsu is one thing, but knowing your own BJJ lineage is another.

Because Carlos Gracie learned jiu-jitsu from Maeda, and Carlos taught jiu-jitsu to his brothers, every BJJ practitioner today should be able to trace their lineage all the way back to one of the founders of jiu-jitsu. Think about it like a jiu-jitsu family tree.

For example, legendary mixed martial arts fighter and ADCC world champion Renzo Gracie's lineage would look like this:

Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie Sr. > Hélio Gracie > Carlos Gracie Jr. > Renzo Gracie

Renzo trained under Carlos Gracie Jr., who trained under Hélio, who trained under Carlos Gracie Sr., who trained under Maeda.

For example, visiting sites like BJJ Heroes allows you to see the lineage of many popular competitors and instructors/academy owners. What's especially cool is seeing how the various branches of modern-day jiu-jitsu began with the Gracies and proliferated throughout the world.

The founder of the popular 10th planet no-gi jiu-jitsu schools –Eddie Bravo, studied under the Machados, cousins of the Gracies. Eddie Bravo's lineage looks like this:

Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie Sr. > Hélio Gracie > Carlos Gracie Jr. > Eddie Bravo

As another example, it's important to realize that the Gracies were not the only ones to learn from Maeda. For instance, Luis França learned from Maeda and spread jiu-jitsu throughout Brazil as well. One descendent of França is a multiple-time IBJJF world champion and current UFC fighter Rodolfo Viera, whose lineage looks like this:

Mitsuyo Maeda > Luis França > Oswalda Fadda > Monir Salomão > Julio Cesar > Rodolfo Vieira

What's your BJJ lineage?

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the Future

Brazilian jiu-jitsu today is a worldwide phenomenon. There are thousands of BJJ academies across the globe, and the art is only growing.

What does the future hold for the world of BJJ?

Will we see Brazilian jiu-jitsu as part of the Olympic Games?

How will the competition scene continue to develop – both in gi and no-gi?

How long will it take for BJJ to find its way to every corner of the globe?