On a hot South Georgia Saturday morning in 2010, I drove 8 miles from my house to a new boxing gym, which was recommended to me by a personal trainer friend. I pulled up, parked and entered the building to find the boxing half of the gym empty. In the other half, several grown men were rolling around giggling on the mat-covered floor. Not unexpectedly, such an unusual sight gave me pause, but the men seemed approachable and friendly, so I asked where the boxing coach was. One of the men unassumingly but confidently replied that there was no boxing that day, but I could try “joo jitt sue” if I wanted. Not what I had planned for that morning, but not wanting my trip to be a waste either, I jumped right in.
That day, I learned the basics: guard, passing guard, mount, passing mount and side control. I was a bit uncomfortable at first, but after each round of grappling, I felt great. And so began my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (“BJJ”) career.
BJJ’s rise in popularity has followed a parallel path with the rise in popularity of MMA as a major professional sport and has played an important role in legitimizing MMA as a thinking person’s game and not just a gory, bar brawler’s activity. Knowledge of BJJ’s history and its emergence into professional fighting are not necessary for practitioners, but the story is compelling. Below is a short version: The exact Genesis of BJJ, or “the Gentle Art,” is disputed as its lineage arguably reaches back to Judo or even Ancient Greece. However, the Gracie family is rightfully credited for spawning, developing and thrusting BJJ into what it is today.
Conflicting versions of parts of the story exist within the Gracie family; however, below is the story using the version published on the Gracie Academy website. In or around 1914, champion Japanese Jujitsu practitioner and newcomer to Brazil, Esai Maeda, offered to teach Gastao Gracie’s sons Jujitsu in return for Gracie helping Maeda establish himself in the local business community. Carlos, Gracie’s oldest son, took to it immediately and went on to teach Japanese Jiu-Jitsu classes with his brothers. One of Carlos’ brothers, Helio suffered from weakening illnesses and, consequently, could only watching Carlos teach. One day, however, Helio took over teaching the class during Carlos’s absence, and was received very well by Carlos’s students. Unbeknownst to many others, Helio had adjusted his “game” to compensate for his lack of speed and power into a version that demanded proper leverage and position. Helio’s version of Jiu-Jitsu evolved into what is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu today.
Helio continued his mastery of this hybrid martial art competing around the world and passing it on to his sons. Rorian, one of Helio’s sons, carried the torch and would be the driving force behind the exponential growth of BJJ around the world.
After a difficult one-year stay in the USA, during which his money and plane tickets were stolen, Rorian returned to Brazil for five years and obtained his law degree. Then, in 1978, Rorian gathered all of his money ($2000) and set out to Los Angeles to make his dream of spreading BJJ to the world a reality. After stints of appearing in movies and television, Rorian began teaching BJJ at his house and spreading the word through leading martial arts publications. His BJJ student population grew too numerous for his house, so he opened the world Gracie Jiu-Jitsu headquarters in Los Angeles which remains there today.
Rorian did not stop there. Four years later, he started the Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”), which showcased and publicized BJJ through television to an audience, which was likely of greater magnitude than even Rorian imagined. UFC 1 (1993) featured a memorable fight, which could not have been scripted any better to promote the “Gentle Art.”
Entering UFC 1, Ken Shamrock was the overwhelming favorite. Prior to his semi-final match against direct Helio descendant, Royce Gracie, Shamrock lived up to the pre-tournament hype with decisive victories against his overmatched opponents. His fight with Gracie appeared to be over as soon as the two combatants stood near each other. Shamrock outweighed and outmuscled Gracie by nearly 50 pounds and it looked as if he may punch a hole through Gracie. The actual fight, however, went the opposite direction in every conceivable way.
Seconds after the bell rang; Gracie sprawled for Shamrock’s lower body. Shamrock responded by attempting an ankle lock, which he did successfully to conclude previous fights in UFC 1. Gracie, however, escaped the ankle lock and controlled the remainder of the short fight until choking Shamrock into submission less than two minutes into the bout. BJJ needed no further introduction in competitive fighting. Since that fight, BJJ has continued to grow exponentially and is a necessary component of any active professional fighter’s arsenal.
Today, nearly all MMA fighters on TV have some expertise in BJJ, as those skills are as necessary to compete at that level as a professional golfer’s short game is to winning prize money. BJJ schools can be found in almost every major and mid-major city in every developed country in the world. The amount of casual practitioners continues to grow at a similar rate and includes celebrities such as: Ashton Kutcher; Ed O’Neal; Anthony Bourdain; the late Paul Walker, and more.
My relationship to the sport is more therapeutic than competitive. Since late 2013, I have rolled regularly on weeknights and consider it a solid substitute for end of the day happy hours in which I still partake although at a lower frequency. Last summer, I moved to the sophomoric blue belt, which required a showing of potential ability and a realization of how little I actually know compared to masters of the sport. Albert Einstein is credited with ingeniously saying, “I know one-percent of one-percent.” That quote sums up my BJJ competence after being “on the mat” for over a year.
Having recently moved abroad, I found another BJJ school in a foreign country with ease. In fact, I was instantly welcomed by non-native English speaking practitioners with open arms. I look to continue “rolling” with my new BJJ friends. Regardless of the school, a noticeable bond exists between practitioners, which is similar to one you may find between high school American football teammates. We call each other “brother,” which can seem cultish at times to the outsider, but it’s comforting to the practitioner.
Prior to starting BJJ, I had several misconceptions. I grouped the sport with all other martial arts--violent guys looking to compensate for their inferiority complexes. I thought people who practiced BJJ paid $100 per month to be upgraded to the next meaningless belt. I thought it was for people who wanted to learn self-defense and then take their new and improved machismo to the bar. I was wrong.
The emotional, mental, physical and personal benefits of practicing BJJ are numerous. From a physical standpoint, BJJ is as strenuous of a cardiovascular workout as running sprints for double the amount of time. From an emotional and mental standpoint, BJJ practitioners are generally compassionate, disciplined, patient, approachable, stoic and assertive, but never aggressive or violent, at least in my experience. Surprisingly, a peaceful and unassuming disposition is the most commonly held trait among the BJJ practitioners who I have met.
Friendship, exercise, emotional well-being and fun are a fraction of the benefits of regular BJJ practice. There is a reason the sport continues to grow.