You Can Talk on the Phone All You Want!
Suffrage and Jiu Jitsu

Deconstructing the Gracie Mythology (Part 1)

Roots-zazzleBefore I begin, I just want to be clear that jiu jitsu practitioners owe a great debt of gratitude to the Gracie family for what they did to popularize jiu jitsu with the creation of the UFC in the early 1990s. Indeed, had Royce Gracie not shocked the world with his grappling prowess in those early UFC events (which were organized by his older brother Rorion Gracie--the eldest son of Helio Gracie), I wouldn't be blogging about jiu jitsu today. However, while we all owe the Gracies our appreciation and respect for what they've done to develop the martial art we all love, we need not be taken in by some of the unfounded myth(s) they have cultivated and propagated along the way.

My ultimate goal (in two follow-up posts) will be to debunk parts of the traditional story we've all been told about the origins of Brazilian jiu jitsu (which will be the topic of the present post). In undertaking this task, I will borrow from as many online sources I could find in my efforts to get a handle on the real history of Brazilian jiu jitsu--stripped of the marketering and propaganda the Gracies have relied upon to misguidedly make jiu jitsu their own. Given the complexity of the story, both this post and the follow-up post will be long. Hopefully, some readers will nevertheless read them with interest. I don't pretend to be breaking new investigative ground. I am merely presenting the results of some of the research I have undertaken in the past few weeks to satisfy my own curiosity. So, if what I say in these posts is old news to you, then they weren't written for you! They were written for the still illusioned (or interested), not the already disillusioned (or disinterested).

Setting the Stage: The Traditional Story about the Origins of BJJ

220px-Mitsuyo_MaedaAccording to the standard Gracie mythology, Jigaro Kano (1860-1938) wanted to export his newly developed system of kodokan judo around the world.  So, he sent out a group of his most talented students to spread the word. One such student was Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941)--who later came to be known as Count Combat, Conde Koma, and Count Comde. Maeda made his way around the world doing public demonstrations of the effectiveness of judo by accepting (and winning) challenge matches. While he began his travels in Europe and America, he eventually settled in Brazil shortly before WW1--which is where he fatefully met a well-connected political elite named Gastao Gracie. United by their mutual interest in professional fighting (which at this time included catch-as-catch can, boxing, capoeeira, and savate), Madea and Gracie became friends. Shortly thereafter, Maeda began teaching his mix of kodokan judo and traditional jujitsu to Gastao's eldest son--Carlos Gracie (along with younger brothers Oswaldo, George, and Gastao Jr.--who are often oddly left out of the telling of the Gracie legend)

CarlosGracieSrAfter just a few years of training, Carlos Gracie opened his first school in 1925--which would focus on the art of jiu jitsu. Following in Maeda's footsteps, the first Gracie academy focused on live training/rolling (rather than traditional formalistic katas) as well as the ground skills (or ne waza) that would come to play such a prominent role in the self defense system "developed" by the Gracies. Shortly thereafter, Carlos taught the art of jiu jitsu to his younger brother Helio--who was allegedly a small, frail, and sickly young man at the time. Owing to his physical limitations, we are told that the young Helio was forced to modify techniques so that they would be effective even against much bigger and stronger opponents. At the end of the day, it was these modified techniques that would become the core of the Gracie system. According to this traditional telling of the story, while Carlos was the first to learn judo and jujitsu from Maeda, it was the innovator Helio who developed the gentle art into the complete system of self defense we know and love today--now known around the world as Gracie jiu jitsu.

Here is how Helio’s grandsons—Ryron and Rener (who run the controversial Gracie University)—tell this chapter of what one could call the “creation myth” of Brazilian jiu jitsu (see here):

Helio soon realized that due to his frail physique, most of the techniques he had learned from watching Carlos teach were particularly difficult for him to execute. Eager to make the techniques work for him, he began modifying them to accommodate his weak body. Emphasizing the use of leverage and timing over strength and speed, Helio modified virtually all of the techniques and, through trial and error, created Gracie/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Helio-gracie3On this telling of the traditional tale, Helio and his brothers relied on challenge matches—later known as the “Gracie Challenge”—to demonstrate the superiority of the Gracie system over other martial arts. By daring fighters to step into the ring with one of the Gracies (or one of their students) and offering prize money to any man who could defeat the Gracie system, the Gracies thereby cemented their claim to have developed the most effective system for hand to hand combat and self-defense. Indeed, it is even said that the Gracies placed ads in the local papers in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that said things along the following lines: “If you want to get your face punched and smashed, your ass kicked, and your arms broken, contact Carlos Gracie at the Gracie Academy.” Rewards for as much as $10,000 were purportedly offered to any would-be-challengers who could best the formidable Gracie clan in combat. Here again is how Helio’s grandsons tell the tale (see here):

In order to prove the effectiveness of his new system, Helio openly challenged all the reputable martial artists in Brazil. He fought 18 times, including matches against onetime world  heavyweight wrestling champion, Wladek Zbyszko and the #2-ranked Judoka in the world at the   time, Kato, whom Helio choked unconscious in six minutes. His victory against Kato qualified him to enter the ring with the world champion, Masahiko Kimura, the best Jiu-Jitsu fighter Japan has ever produced, and who outweighed Helio by almost 80 pounds. Kimura won the match but was so impressed with Helio’s techniques that he asked Helio to go teach in Japan claiming the  techniques Helio presented during their bout did not exist in Japan. It was the recognition by the world’s best to Helio’s dedication to the refinement of the art.

Masahiko_Kimura_vs_Helio_Gracie_ude-garamiThis is actually a common move that is made in the weaving of the Gracie narrative—namely, even
losses by the Gracies are taken to be either moral victories (owing to the size differential between the combatants) or as victories for jiu jitsu itself (since jiu jitsu always came out on top—even when the Gracies lost). In this sense, the Gracie challenge was a win-win situation from the standpoint of marketing. Either the Gracies won—which demonstrated the superiority of their fighters—or they lost to other jiu jitsu practitioners—which demonstrated the superiority of jiu jitsu over other martial arts.

Owing both to their success in the challenge matches and to their prolific reproductive success (see their family tree below for details), the Gracie clan came to dominate the jiu jitsu world during the early and mid-20th century. Then, having spent nearly 60 years perfecting their art in relative obscurity (at least outside of Brazil), the Gracies finally exported their system to the United States (with Helio’s son Rorion moving to California and his son Relson moving to Hawaii) in the 1980s. Shortly thereafter, Rorion decided to have a coming out party for Gracie jiu jitsu by creating the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—which featured another of Helio’s sons, Royce. 

By demolishing the field with his jiu jitsu despite being a smaller man, Royce’s early success in the UFC catapulted the Gracie name into the mainstream and cemented the superiority of Gracie jiu jitsu once and for all. The rest is history (even if what came before was as much fiction as reality). From the early 1990s until today, people have come to treat Gracie jiu jitsu as synonymous with Brazilian jiu jitsu (see the quote from Rener and Ryron above for evidence of the commonplace conflation of the two). But as I’ll discuss in the the third post in this series, this is simply untrue. The Gracie lineage is not the only lineage in Brazilian jiu jitsu (even if it is clearly the most well-known and the most popular). So, the next time someone admonishes you “know your roots” (see the image at the top of this post), take them seriously enough to dig deeper than the Gracie mythology. As we’ll see, the roots of the tree of jiu jitsu are more interesting and more diverse than you’ve been told.

In the meantime, here is the impressive Gracie family tree I mentioned earlier:


p.s. Here again, I don't pretend to be breaking any new ground with either this post or the follow-up post. I am merely sharing the results of my own attempts to get a handle on the origins of the sport and martial art I love. At the end of the follow-up post, I will post links to a number of references for those who are interested.





Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


First, Helio Gracie did not invent leverage. I think nature and science did that part. But in seriousness, it was Jigoro Kano who placed an emphasis on leverage so that a smaller man could throw a big man. Therefore, using leverage was already in judo therefore if judo came before BJJ, how could have Helio invented something that was already there?

Secondly, the Gracies often like to exaggerate the size differential of a lot of their famous matches but the Gracies are NOT small and frail people. Helio was not frail. He was a tall man. Much taller than Kimura if you look at the match on Youtube.

Royce Gracie is not a small man either. He's 6' 1".

Rener is 6' 3"! He doesn't need BJJ to fight someone off. He can just hold his arm out!

So then why didn't Royler Gracie, 5' 8" and technically better than Royce at the time of UFC 1, get into the octagon? Because he would have been at a significant disadvantage against skilled fighters at 5' 8".

Size DOES matter except when the Gracies retell their stories and make it sound like all the Gracies are tiny people fighting giants.


Let's just take one assumptions.Your assumptions of Helio's health and size as compared to other challengers is fatally flawed. You share zero proof that he was NOT thin, smaller and had some health issues. You just compare him to the size of one of his thousands of opponents. How you can try to basically make the claim you KNOW Helio was not frail and do not have health problems is just beyond reckless.


No mention of Carlson anywhere - how typical. Without Carlson we wouldn't be having this conversation.

The Gracie's didn't want to teach the outside world Jiu Jitsu. Also, no one outside the Gracie family was allowed to be a black belt. Until Carlson fought for and regain legitimacy in the Gracie name and opened his own schools to ANYONE. Against the family wishes, he taught his students ALL of his knowledge, which is why they disowned him. His students started beating the Helio side's students, so the Gracie side had to step it up and accept that JJ was out there for the world.

Carlson is the reason we know what "Gracie Jiu Jitsu" is. He suffered a tremendous amount of stress and consequences. Like the time he came to America to setup his 1st school, and the house he bought for the family to live in was sold unbeknownst to him by his brother Carlos Jr. When he came back home, he was not allowed in his own house which no longer belonged to him.

Also, there were several other Brazilian families at the time developing fighting styles of Jiu Jitsu. There's a huge part of BJJ history missing from this article and going by what you find online - you're just taking more incomplete information trying to formulate something coherent.

If you want the truth, talk to the old school Carlson guys. Talk to other older Brazilians. Go hear it from them 1st. You won't find these stories on "the Google".

Martin Buuri Kaburia

Kind of you to share


Royce didn't shock people with his jiujitsu. The UFC was initially owned by the Gracies. It was rigged for a Gracie to win in order to promote their form of jiujitsu. Bjj has always been hype and a marketing scam. Would like to know what you think of the story of Rufino Dos Santos, a catch wrestler, who defeated Carlos Gracie. Subsequently, the Gracies beat Rufino Dos Santos with pipes as payback.

Donal Finn

The elephant in the room here is this: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS BJJ!! Jigoro Kano sent out his guys to teach JUDO and THAT is what the Gracie's learned...PERIOD!! They also fail to mention that Kimura snaped old man Gracies arm in two for his lies. You invented Judo? That's nice, ket me break your arm in congratulations.

For ANYONE who doubts this, I have my own "Gracie challenge"

You show me ONE thing that the Gracie's claim to have invented, JUST ONE (Hell, do more if you want, I'll prove them to be lies as well) You show me ANY technique that the Gracie's claim to have invented, and I will show you that same technique in Jigo Kano's Kodakan Judo textbook....Just ONE, I DARE YOU! The Gracie's invented NOTHING!


Man this guy above is super triggered. We all know Gracies are horrible people, but it is what it is, they're a part of the sport.

They did invent the Brazilian jiu jitsu gi though:

Richard White

You all are wrong partly in different ways. All bjj or judo or whatever you call it is basic instinctually grabbing/tackling and strangling advaseries. Cavemen did it hell neanderthal men. I studied under Roberto Marquez a Carlson black belt and he and I called it fancy wrestling. Jigoro was an educater so he took fighting and organized it into standardized field of study. The Gracie's placed this system into a very realistic almost no rules fighting situation that I think did render changes in jigoros system that were needed to confront the issues that arose from many varient styles etc. Judo was practiced as sport Gracie's practiced it as a combat. And that was good they did that. The anger should be directed at Dana white for watering both styles to make it sell to dumbasses that want flailing wild attacks to go on and on. As well as encouraging unsportsmen like conduct as well. Kano made it more perfected and more teachable the Gracie's made it more street reliable and Dana white made it fake generic and silly. Maquilla bjj honors human discipline intelligence and using bjj to learn the ways of life.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)