Jiu-Jitsu is an ancient fighting art indigenous to Japan, with its origins lost in the mists of time. In the 12th century the first Jiu-Jitsu schools appeared, each teaching their own particular styles, and during the Medieval period, it was practiced as a military skill by the Samurai, just as modern soldiers practice hand-to-hand combatives today.
Most styles of this art contained some kicks and blows, but the emphasis was on upright grappling, with throws, strangles, joint-locks, holds, and come-alongs being their mainstay. Although ground-fighting was included, the available historical materials (most from the early 20th century) indicate that staying on your feet was the definite preference, which is not surprising in a battlefield art. Unlike many traditional arts in the West – boxing and wrestling, for example – Jiu-Jitsu put less emphasis on strength than on balance and using an opponent’s force against him.
Not long after the forced opening of Japan to large-scale Western trade by a US Naval expeditionary force in 1853, Jiu-Jitsu became one of its most prolific exports, and by the end of the 19th century, took Europe and America by storm. Soon “everybody who was anybody” was doing it, especially among the upper classes, from fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes (whose creator described as being proficient in Bartitsu, a hybrid English fighting style that included Jiu-Jitsu) to the real American President, Teddy Roosevelt. Although many people practiced it as a fad, the police and military in many countries quickly saw its advantages, and Jiu-Jitsu rapidly found its way into their hand-to-hand combat instruction, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination with other Western fighting arts.
Unfortunately, Jiu-Jitsu in America never recovered from World War II; suddenly anything Japanese was suspect in the public mind, and many people stopped practicing it entirely, changed the name of what they were doing, or made certain to include disclaimers about the ‘physically inferior’ Japanese to turn it into war propaganda. The art lost a large percentage of its following and never recovered, especially in the face of the ‘new’ martial arts being brought back from the Orient by returning GI’s, namely sport Judo and the spectacular, board-breaking Karate. You seldom heard it mentioned after that, although it still existed; the fictional TV character from The Andy Griffith Show, Deputy Barney Fife and his instructor were about the last major public exposure…in America. The style never fell so far out of favor in Europe, however, and remains practiced widely in the UK and Scandinavia to this day. Still, it seemed like the halcyon days of Jiu-Jitsu was over…until something happened in Brazil that turned the martial arts world on its head.
Jiu-Jitsu came to Brazil in 1914 or 15 (accounts vary) when immigrant instructor Esai Koma began the instruction of a pupil by the name of Carlos Gracie, who then went on to establish the style of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, opening his first school in 1925. Along with his brothers and the following generations, this became the face of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil.
The Gracies were not strict traditionalists, and their particular style rapidly evolved into something very different from the original Japanese variety. Focusing more on the health and sporting aspects, they devoted far more time to ground-fighting than to throws and other upright maneuvers, until, pound-for-pound, the Brazilian stylists became what most people now consider to be the best ground-fighters in the world…but for many decades, they were also one of the martial arts world’s best-kept secrets. While the magazines focused primarily on Judo and then Karate, followed by Kung Fu and Ninjitsu and whatever else from the East was the latest fad, nobody thought to look south.
That all changed with the advent of a new sport: full contact mixed martial arts tournaments that pitted fighters from all styles against one another in a contest with minimal (and in the early days, almost non-existent) rules. This made the perfect opening for the Brazilians to show their stuff, and in 1993 when, during the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, an intense but otherwise unassuming young man named Royce Gracie – one of The Gracies – walked onto the canvas, and changed not only Jiu-Jitsu, but the martial arts world itself forever.
At 6’1” and 180 pounds, Royce’s opponents outweighed him by an average of 50 pounds, but in that UFC match and many more to follow, he seemed virtually unstoppable, and once he got an opponent on the ground, the end result for a long, long time was a foregone conclusion.
That is, once he got them on the ground, that is, because, despite an obvious mastery of the mat, the standing skills of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as he practiced it were obviously lacking, and they showed in his battered, bloody features by the end of each UFC event. To put it bluntly, he usually got the hell beaten out of him in the process of securing victory, and most of the time came out far more worse for the wear than the opponent he’d just defeated. It didn’t take too many times of that happening before many if not most schools in the BJJ community started spending a bit more teaching a few more standing punches and kicks in order to secure their man’s survival until he could get the opportunity to take the other guy down into his world, on the canvas.
If Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was changed somewhat by the martial arts world, it, in turn, changed the martial arts world itself, particularly mixed martial arts competitions, in a major way. It not only the superior ground technique of that system in no uncertain terms, also but the vital importance of ground-fighting itself, and the Gracie family’s or similar techniques began finding their way into the repertoire of virtually every serious competitor. Not unlike the original Japanese Jiu-Jitsu at the turn of the 20th century, the turn of the 21st saw the tactics of its child from halfway around the world in Brazil also finding their way into the training of the police and military, as well as the civilian world.
As a final note, the proper spelling of this martial art’s name has long been a matter of controversy and confusion, mainly because there are over half-a-dozen different spellings in use, with all of them claiming to be the “right” way…and surprisingly, they are. There have been numerous different ways of Romanizing the Japanese language since Westerners began learning the language in the 19th century, and the various spellings are simply those based on the translating system in use in in a particular time and place. Just spell it the way your school prefers and don’t worry about it, because it is of no real importance. As they say, “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”
JIU-JUTSU, Yamanaka, 1918
JIU-JITSU COMPLETE, Nakae, 1958
AMERICAN JIU-JITSU, Allen, 1942