A History and Style Guide of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Jiu-Jitsu Fight
PFC Linsey Willams/Flickr/Wikimedia

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art based in ground fighting. It is unlike many other ground fighting styles, particularly in the way that it teaches practitioners to fight from their backs.

Today, nearly all MMA fighters train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu due to the success that past practitioners have had in the sport.

The History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu 

Over four centuries ago in northern India, Buddhist monks were busy going about the dangerous work of trying to spread the word of Buddha in a world that wasn’t always kind to roaming peoples. In order to defend themselves from attacks that happened along the way, they developed a form of grappling that allowed them to subdue opponents without killing them. Eventually, this style of fighting made its way to Japan where it was improved upon and called jujutsu or jujitsu. Judo is a derivative.

The Japanese unsuccessfully sought to hide jujutsu and its derivatives from the Western world. In 1914, Kodokan Judo master Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941) came to stay at the household of Brazil’s Gastao Gracie. Gracie helped Maeda with business matters and out of gratitude, Maeda taught Gastao’s eldest son, Carlos, the art of judo. In turn, Carlos taught the other children in the family what he knew, including the smallest and youngest of his brothers, Helio.

Helio often felt at a disadvantage when practicing with his brothers because many of the moves in judo favored the stronger and larger fighter. Thus, he developed an offshoot of Maeda’s teachings that favored leverage over brute strength and refined the formula for fighting from one’s back on the ground. Today the art that Helio refined is called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.


Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an art based in ground fighting. Along with this, it teaches takedowns, takedown defense, ground control and especially submissions. Submissions refer to holds that either cut off an opponent’s air supply (chokes) or look to take advantage of a joint (such as armbars).

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters tend to feel very comfortable fighting from a position called the guard if need be. The guard position, wrapping one's legs around an opponent to limit their movement, allows them to fight from their backs so effectively and is also something that separates their art from most other grappling styles.

Basic Goals 

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters look to take their opponents to the ground. When on top they generally hope to escape their opponents’ guard and move to either side control (positioned across an opponents’ chest) or the mount position (sitting over their ribs or chest). From there, depending on the situation, they may choose to continually strike their opponent or set up a submission hold.

When on their backs, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters are very dangerous. From the guard, various submission holds can be employed. They may also seek to turn their opponent over in an attempt to reverse their fortunes.

Royce Gracie 

On Nov. 12, 1993, Helio's son Royce showed the world what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu could do by taking home the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) trophy in an open weight, barely-any-rules tournament. Even more impressive was the fact that at only 170-pounds, he went on to win three of the first four UFC Championship Tournaments.


Since Royce Gracie made his family’s style of jiu-jitsu famous, many other variations of jiu-jitsu have popped up. All of these are in some way attributable to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Machado Jiu-Jitsu, founded by a cousin of the Gracies, is the best known of these variations.

Three Influential Fights 

  1. When Helio Gracie faced off against Masahiko Kimura, Kimura repeatedly employed judo throws on his much smaller opponent, intent on knocking him out with each and every attempt. After 13 minutes of this, Kimura applied an ude-garami (reverse shoulder lock). Though it was sunk in deep and eventually broke Helio’s arm, the smaller Brazilian still refused to tap out. The fight ended when Helio’s brother Carlos threw in the towel. The shoulder lock was eventually renamed the Kimura, as a tribute to the man who defeated Helio.
  2. Most people don’t realize that there was a time in Brazil’s history when a martial arts discipline by the name of Luta Livre rivaled Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in popularity. As the story goes, Hugo Duarte, a disciple of Luta Livre, said something insulting about Rickson Gracie’s family on a Brazilian beach. From there, Rickson slapped him and a fight ensued that was caught on camera by a tourist. In the end, Rickson, an undefeated fighter that many believe to be the greatest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner ever, mounted his opponent and pummeled him into submission. The tape of this fight was later used as a marketing tool, selling Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s effectiveness.
  3. Royce Gracie squared off against Dan Severn at the UFC 4. Greco-Roman wrestling superstar Severn outweighed Royce by approximately 80 pounds during the bout. Royce Gracie likely felt every bit of that weight differential as Severn pounded him. But then, in one fell swoop, Gracie managed to do something with his legs that left many spellbound. The move was called a triangle choke, and it forced Severn to submit to his smaller opponent.

Influential Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Fighters 

  • Shinya Aoki: One of the greatest MMA submission fighters of all-time. That doesn't always translate to BJJ tournaments. Then again, great tournament fighters don't always translate as well to what Aoki can do.
  • Helio Gracie: He fought Kimura as tough as one could and invented the style. Enough said.
  • Rickson Gracie: The son of Helio, he is widely considered to be the best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner from the Gracie family. Self-reports indicate that he won over 400 fights without a loss. 
  • Royce Gracie: He opened the world's eyes to the discipline.
  • Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: One of the best heavyweight MMA submission fighters ever, known as much for his submissions as for his toughness.
  • BJ Penn: Penn achieved black belt status in only three years. He was also the first non-Brazilian to win the black-belt division of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.