What is BJJ? The Basics of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

May 6, 2024
With the popularity of UFC stars such as Charles Oliveira, as well as the rise of no-gi grappling phenom Gordon Ryan and the growth of the ADCC World Championships, BJJ is on every fight-fans mind. But what exactly is BJJ?
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With the rise in popularity of the UFC and other mixed martial arts promotions, more and more people are learning about the gentle art, otherwise known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). But between BJJ, Gracie jiu-jitsu, and Japanese Jujutsu, things can get quite confusing.

Just what is BJJ?

Put simply, BJJ is a martial art/combat sport popularized by the Gracie family in the 1990s. BJJ has as its focus ground fighting (grappling) and submissions, such as joint locks and strangleholds/chokes.

In this article, we'll outline the history of BJJ, the main types of BJJ (gi and no-gi), and what to expect from your first class.

History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

Around 1915, a famous judoka named Mitzssuyo Maeda travelled to Brazil and taught the martial art of Kodokan Judo to members of the Gracie family – in particular, Carlos Gracie and Hélio Gracie.

The Gracie family are largely responsible for adapting the ground-game of Judo and turning it into the martial art we know today as Brazilian jiu-jitsu. However, the Gracie family would have likely just referred to it as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

BJJ began to make its way around the world in the 1970s, but it only really took off in the 1990s with the UFC’s inaugural show – a no-holds-barred fighting tournament. On that fateful night, Royce Gracie, a black belt in Gracie jiu-jitsu, submitted all of his opponents to win the one-night tournament. From that point on BJJ became a global phenomenon.

Then, in 2002, Carlos Gracie Jr. founded the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), which today is responsible for hosting many of the major championships in both gi and no-gi sport jiu-jitsu.

Nowadays, there seems to be at least one BJJ school in almost every single city you visit. For example, Gracie Barra, one of the major teams in the sport, has over 700 schools around the world!

This martial art/sport has come along way in just over 100 years!

What's the difference between Jiu-Jitsu and BJJ?

The word jiu-jitsu comes from the Japanese words “Ju” – meaning gentle – and “Jutsu” – meaning art. So, jiu-jitsu means “the gentle art.”

Originally, Jiu-Jitsu developed a self-defense system for samurais to use during unarmed combat. Traditional jiu-jitsu is still practiced, and as it retains a focus on self-defense, it tends to incorporate strikes and other similar techniques.

BJJ focuses on controlling an opponent while defending oneself in the process. The control of the opponent using grappling leads to the advancement of position to a place where you can inflict damage on your opponent without them being to do the same to you. With BJJ, there is also a focus on using this positional advancement to secure a submission hold – a joint lock or a strangle/choke that can end a fight.

Types of BJJ

grappling art

Sport Jiu-jitsu

Put simply, sport jiu-jitsu is a grappling sport. Two competitors face off against each other, trying to score as many points as possible or secure a submission before the time expires. A referee officiates the match, and there is a clear ruleset and points system outlined before the match starts.

The IBJJF is the most popular organization for gi and no-gi sport jiu-jitsu competitions at the moment, although there are a few other organizations that can’t be left out of this discussion.

The Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) is a professional no-gi competition taking place every two years. This is widely regarded as the premier no-gi event in the BJJ and submission grappling world. The United Arab Emirates Jiu-Jitsu Federation (UAEJJF) is another organization for elite gi and no-gi sport jiu-jitsu, hosting events around the world each year. Many other organizations exist that offer professional and amateur competitors opportunities to compete around the world, including Copa Podio, Polaris, Fight 2 Win Pro, and Grappling Industries, to name just a few.

Jiu-Jitsu for Self Defense

Many BJJ schools retain a focus on self-defense in their curriculums. While some schools focus on self-defense more than others, in general, BJJ can be considered ideal for a street fight, no matter what style you learn.

Traditional Gracie Jiu-Jitsu tended to put more of an emphasis on self-defense than most modern schools do. This includes more of a focus on managing distance and keeping oneself in a defensive position where the opponent cannot strike effectively. These principles can still be found in the Gracie combatives curriculum, for example.

That said, today many BJJ schools also offer specific classes tailored to students who want to focus more on self-defense techniques and less on sport jiu-jitsu or mixed martial arts.

Gi Jiu-Jitsu

bjj practitioner

In gi jiu-jitsu, both grapplers are wearing a kimono (gi), made up of pants, a jacket, and a belt. The gi can be grabbed to help with grips, and can also be used to effectuate submissions – in particular, chokes/strangles. The belt represents a practitioner's rank in BJJ. For adults, that could be a white, blue, purple, brown, black belt.

No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu

No-gi jiu-jitsu is most relevant for mixed martial arts fighters, and can also be more applicable to street fights than gi sport jiu-jitsu. No-gi grapplers wear shorts/spandex l eggings and a rash-guard, or, in some cases, shorts and a t-shirt/no shirt.

Because there are no grips to grab like there are when wearing the gi, no-gi grapplers tend to rely more on wrestling-style techniques – such as the collar tie, underhook/overhook, and wrist control.

BJJ Points System (Sport Jiu-Jitsu)

There are many organizations that host sport jiu-jitsu tournaments and competitions. It’s important to note that not all organizations share a set of unified rules. Because the IBJJF is arguably the most popular organization today, we’ll quickly outline the points system that they use for their major competitions.

·      Takedown/Throw/Trip = 2 points

·      Sweep = 2 points

·      Knee on belly = 2 points

·      Passing the guard = 3 points

·      Full mount = 4 points

·      Back mount = 4 points

More recently, submission-only matches have become gained popularity – especially on the no-gi competition circuit. However, when these matches end without a submission, many of them use a referee's decision to decide on a winner.

BJJ Belt Progression

bjj belt progression

BJJ practitioners can expect to progress along the following path:

  • White Belt
  • Blue Belt
  • Purple Belt
  • Brown Belt
  • Black Belt

After black belt, a select few hold red/black, red/white, and red belts. But these are reserved for jiu-jitsu masters – individuals who have dedicated their lives to martial arts instruction – and it take decades of training and commitment to achieve this level.

The IBJJF has some restrictions regarding how fast Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners can progress through the ranks, which most academies follow.

According to the IBJJF...

  • You must be at least 16 years old to be promoted to blue belt.
  • You must stay at blue belt for at least 2 years before being promoted to purple belt.
  • You must stay at purple belt for at least 18 months before being promoted to brown belt.
  • You must stay at brown belt for at least 1 year before being promoted to black belt.

What to Expect in Your First BJJ Class

If you're a brand new Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, what should you expect from your first BJJ class?

Most BJJ classes begin with some type of general/specific warm-up. This can start with some general cardio like jumping jacks and push-ups. A more specific warm-up is also common, in which students perform grappling movements like bridges, shoulder rolls, and hip escapes.

After the warm-up, the instructor of the class typically teaches 2-3 techniques. You’ll find a partner and practice each technique for a handful of minutes.

After the techniques, there is usually a portion of the class dedicated to sparring. This can be specific-training sparring, in which you and your partner grapple in one position, re-setting every time you leave that position. Some classes also have full/open grappling rounds, in which you and your partner grapple for a full 5+ minute round with no restrictions on positions.

Learning jiu-jitsu is hard, but it’s fun! Stick with it and it’ll all be worth it!