The art began with Mitsuyo Maeda (aka Conde Koma, or Count Coma in English), a member of the then-recently-founded Kodokan. Maeda was one of five of Judo’s top groundwork experts that Judo’s founder Kano Jigoro sent overseas to demonstrate and spread his art to the world. Maeda left Japan in 1904 and visited a number of countries giving “jiu-do” demonstrations and accepting challenges from wrestlers, boxers, savate fighters and various other martial artists before eventually arriving in Brazil on November 14, 1914.
Jiu-jitsu is known as more than just a system of fighting. Since its inception in 1882, its parent art of judo was separated from older systems of Japanese jujutsu by an important difference that was passed on to BJJ: it is not solely a martial art: it is also a sport; a method for promoting physical fitness and building character in young people; and, ultimately, a way (Do) of life.
It is often claimed that BJJ is a development of traditional Japanese jujutsu, not judo, and that Maeda was a jujutsuka. However, Maeda never trained in jujutsu. He first trained in sumo as a teenager, and after the interest generated by stories about the success of judo at contests between judo and jujutsu that were occurring at the time, he changed from sumo to judo, becoming a student of Kano’s Kodokan judo. He was promoted to 7th dan in Kodokan judo the day before he died in 1941.
In 1914, Maeda was given the opportunity to travel to Brazil as part of a large Japanese immigration colony. In Brazil, in the northern state of Para, he befriended Gastão Gracie, an influential businessman, who helped Maeda get established. To show his gratitude, Maeda offered to teach Judo to Gastão’s oldest son, Carlos Gracie. Carlos learned for a few years and eventually passed his knowledge to his brothers.
At age fourteen, Helio Gracie, the youngest of the brothers moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu in a house in Botafogo, a borough of Rio de Janeiro. Following doctor’s recommendations, Helio would spend the next few years limited to only watching his brothers teach as he was naturally frail.
One day, when Helio Gracie was 16 years old, a student showed up for class when Carlos was not around. Helio, who had memorized all the techniques from watching his brothers teach, offered to start the class. When the class was over, Carlos showed up and apologized for his delay. The student asked for Helio to continue being his instructor, Helio Gracie then gradually developed Gracie Jiu Jitsu as an adaptation from Judo as he was unable to do many Judo moves. Helio Gracie also held the rank of 6th dan in judo.
When Maeda left Japan, judo was still often referred to as “Kano Jiu-Jitsu”, or, even more generically, simply as “Jiu-Jitsu.” Higashi, the co-author of “Kano Jiu-Jitsu” wrote in the foreword:
“Some confusion has arisen over the employment of the term ‘jiudo’. To make the matter clear I will state that jiudo is the term selected by Professor Kano as describing his system more accurately than jiu-jitsu does. Professor Kano is one of the leading educators of Japan, and it is natural that he should cast about for the technical word that would most accurately describe his system. But the Japanese people generally still cling to the more popular nomenclature and call it jiu-jitsu.”
Outside Japan, however, this distinction was noted even less. Thus, when Maeda and Satake arrived in Brazil in 1914, every newspaper announced “jiu-jitsu” despite both men being Kodokan judoka.
The Japanese government itself did not officially mandate until 1925 that the correct name for the martial art taught in the Japanese public schools should be “judo” rather than “jujutsu”. In Brazil, the art is still called “Jiu-Jitsu”. When the Gracies went to the United States to spread their art, they used the terms “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” and “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” to differentiate from the already present styles using similar-sounding names. “Jiu-jitsu” is an older romanization that was the original spelling of the art in the West, and it is still in common use, whereas the modern Hepburn romanization is “jūjutsu.”
The art is sometimes referred to as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (GJJ), this name was trademarked by Rorion Gracie, but after a legal dispute with his cousin Carley Gracie, his trademark to the name was voided. Other members of the Gracie family often call their style by personalized names, such as Charles Gracie Jiu-Jitsu or Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and similarly, the Machado family call their style Machado Jiu-Jitsu (MJJ). While each style and its instructors have their own unique aspects, they are all basic variations of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Today there are four major branches of BJJ from Brazil: Gracie Humaita, Gracie Barra, Carlson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and Alliance Jiu Jitsu. Each branch can trace its roots back to Mitsuyo Maeda and the Gracie family.
More recently, the name “jitz” for the art has been gaining currency as a casual layman’s term, especially in the USA.
Maeda met an influential businessman named Gastão Gracie who helped him get established. In 1916, his 14 year-old son Carlos Gracie watched a demonstration by Maeda at the Teatro da Paz, in Belém, and decided to learn the art. Maeda accepted Carlos as a student, and Carlos went on to become a great exponent of the art and ultimately, with his younger brother Hélio Gracie became the founder of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, modern Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
In 1921, Gastão Gracie and his family moved to Rio de Janeiro. Carlos, then 17 years old, passed Maeda’s teachings on to his brothers Osvaldo, Gastão and Jorge. Hélio was too young and sick at that time to learn the art, and due to medical imposition was prohibited to take part in the training sessions. Despite that, Hélio learned from watching his brothers. He eventually overcame his health problems and is now considered by many as the founder of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (though others, such as Carlson Gracie, have pointed to Carlos as the founder of the art).
Hélio competed in several submission-based competitions which mostly ended in him winning. One defeat (in Brazil in 1951) was by visiting Japanese judoka Masahiko Kimura, whose surname the Gracies gave to the arm lock used to defeat Hélio. The Gracie family continued to develop the system throughout the 20th century, often fighting vale tudo matches (precursors to modern MMA), during which it increased its focus on ground fighting and refined its techniques.
Today, the main differences between the BJJ styles is between traditional Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s emphasis on self-defense, and Sport Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s orientation towards competition. There is a large commonality of techniques between the two. Also, there is a wide variety of ideals in training in different schools in terms of the utilization of pure or yielding technique versus skillful application of pressure to overcome an opponent.
Jiu-Jitsu came to international prominence in the martial arts community in the early 1990s, when Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert Royce Gracie won the first, second and fourth Ultimate Fighting Championships, which at the time were single elimination martial arts tournaments. Royce fought against often much-larger opponents who were practicing other styles, including boxing, shoot-fighting, karate, judo and tae kwon do. It has since become a staple art for many MMA fighters and is largely credited for bringing widespread attention to the importance of ground fighting. Sport BJJ tournaments continue to grow in popularity worldwide and have given rise to no-gi submission grappling tournaments, such as the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship.