Before 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).
According 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)
After 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.
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.
On 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.
This 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.