Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art, combat sport, and a self defense system that focuses on grappling and especially ground fighting. The art was brought to Brazil by Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941), a student of Kodokan Judo with a history of challenging and interacting with other combat arts.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu promotes the concept that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant by using leverage and proper technique – most notably by applying joint-locks and chokeholds to defeat the other person. BJJ training can be used for sport grappling tournaments (gi and no-gi) and mixed martial arts (MMA) competition or self defense. Sparring (commonly referred to as “rolling”) and live drilling play a major role in training, and a premium is placed on performance, especially in competition, in relation to progress and ascension through its ranking system.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is known as more than just a system of fighting. Since its inception in 1914, 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.
Mitsuyo Maeda, a member of the Kodokan, 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 had trained first 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. 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.
Gastão Gracie was a business partner of the American Circus in Belém. In 1916, Italian Argentine circus Queirolo Brothers staged shows there and presented Mayeda. In 1917, Carlos Gracie, the eldest son of Gastão Gracie, watched a demonstration by Maeda at the Da Paz Theatre and decided to learn judo. Maeda accepted Carlos as a student and Carlos learned for a few years, eventually passing his knowledge on to his brothers.
At age fourteen, Hélio Gracie, the youngest of the brothers, moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu in a house in Botafogo. Following a doctor’s recommendations, Hélio would spend the next few years being limited to watching his brothers teach as he was naturally frail. Over time, Hélio Gracie gradually developed Gracie Jiu Jitsu as an adaptation from Judo, as he was unable to perform many Judo moves. Hélio Gracie also held the rank of 6th dan in judo.
Although Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is largely identified with the Gracie family, there is also another prominent lineage from Mayeda via another Brazilian disciple, Luis França. This lineage had been represented particularly by Oswaldo Fadda. Fadda and his students were famous for influential use of footlocks and the lineage still survives through Fadda’s links with today’s teams such as Nova União and Grappling Fight Team.
Hélio Gracie had 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 full-contact 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, wrestling, 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.
Style of fighting
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu emphasizes getting an opponent to the ground in order to utilize ground fighting techniques and submission holds involving joint-locks and chokeholds. The premise is that most of the advantage of a larger, stronger opponent comes from superior reach and more powerful strikes, both of which are somewhat negated when grappling on the ground. A more precise way of describing this would be to say that on the ground, physical strength can be offset or enhanced by an experienced grappler who knows how to maximize force using mechanical strength instead of pure physical strength.
BJJ permits a wide variety of techniques to take the fight to the ground after taking a grip. While other combat sports, such as Judo and Wrestling almost always use a takedown to bring an opponent to the ground, in BJJ one option is to “pull guard.” This entails obtaining some grip on the opponent and then bringing the fight or match onto the mat by sitting straight down or by jumping and wrapping the legs around the opponent.
Once the opponent is on the ground, a number of maneuvers (and counter-maneuvers) are available to manipulate the opponent into a suitable position for the application of a submission technique. Achieving a dominant position on the ground is one of the hallmarks of the BJJ style, and includes effective use of the guard (a signature position of BJJ) position to defend oneself from bottom (using both submissions and sweeps, with sweeps leading to the possibility of dominant position or an opportunity to pass the guard), and passing the guard to dominate from top position with side control, mount, and back mount positions. This system of maneuvering and manipulation can be likened to a form of kinetic chess when utilized by two experienced practitioners. A submission hold is the equivalent of checkmate in the sport, reflecting a disadvantage which would be extremely difficult to overcome in a fight (such as a dislocated joint or unconsciousness).
Renzo Gracie wrote in his book Mastering Jiu-jitsu:
“The classical jujutsu of old Japan appeared to have no common strategy to guide a combatant over the course of a fight. Indeed, this was one of Kano’s most fundamental and perceptive criticisms of the classical program.’ Maeda not only taught the art of judo to Carlos Gracie, but also taught a particular philosophy about the nature of combat developed by Kano, and further refined by Maeda based on his worldwide travels competing against fighters skilled in a wide variety of martial arts.”
The book details Maeda’s theory as arguing that physical combat could be broken down into distinct phases, such as the striking phase, the grappling phase, the ground phase, etc. Thus, it was a smart fighter’s task to keep the fight located in the phase of combat that best suited to his own strengths. Renzo Gracie stated that this was a fundamental influence on the Gracie approach to combat, these strategies were further developed over time by the Gracies and others, and became prominent in contemporary MMA.
BJJ is most strongly differentiated by its greater emphasis on groundwork than other martial arts. Commonly, striking-based styles spend almost no time on groundwork. Even other grappling martial arts tend to spend much more time on the standing phase. It is helpful to contrast its rules with judo’s greater emphasis on throws, due to both its radically different point-scoring system, and the absence of most of the judo rules that cause the competitors to have to recommence in a standing position. This has led to greater time dedicated to training on the ground, resulting in enhancement and new research of groundwork techniques by BJJ practitioners.
Along with BJJ’s great strengths on the ground comes its relative underemphasis of standing techniques, such as striking. To remedy this comparative lack, there is an increasing amount of cross-training between the sports of BJJ and wrestling, Judo, or Sambo, as well as striking based arts such as Karate, Muay Thai, kickboxing, and boxing.
Sport Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s focus on submissions without the use of strikes while training allows practitioners to practice at full speed and with full power, resembling the effort used in a real competition. Training methods include technique drills in which techniques are practiced against a non-resisting partner; isolation sparring, commonly referred to as positional drilling, where only a certain technique or sets of techniques are used, and full sparring in which each opponent tries to submit their opponent using any legal technique. Physical conditioning is also an important part of training at many clubs.
Primary ground positions
In side control, the practitioner pins their opponent to the ground from the side of their body. The dominant grappler lays across the opponent with weight applied to the opponent’s chest. The opponent may be further controlled by pressure on either side of their shoulders and hips from the practitioner’s elbows, shoulders, and knees. A wide variety of submissions are initiated from side control.
In the mount position the practitioner sits astride the opponent’s chest, controlling the opponent with their bodyweight and hips. In the strongest form of this position the practitioner works their knees up under into the arm pits to reduce arm movements, limiting their ability to move or counter the submission attempts. Full Mount can be used to apply armlocks or strangles.
When utilizing the back mount (often known in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as the back grab or rear mount), the practitioner attaches to the back of the opponent by wrapping their legs around and hooking the opponent’s thighs with their heels. Simultaneously, the upper body is controlled by wrapping the arms around the chest or neck of the opponent. This position is often used to apply chokeholds, and counters much of the benefit an opponent may have from greater size or strength.
In the Guard, the practitioner is on their back controlling an opponent with their legs. The practitioner pushes and pulls with the legs or feet to upset the balance and limit the movements of their opponent. This position comes into play often when an opponent manages to place the practitioner upon his or her back and the practitioner seeks the best position possible to launch counter-attacks. This is a very versatile position from which the BJJ practitioner can attempt to sweep (reverse) the opponent, get back to the feet, or apply a variety of joint-locks as well as various chokes.
The three main types of guard are Open, Closed, and Half. In closed guard, the bottom grappler has their legs around the opponent’s trunk and has their ankles closed together to provide control and a barrier to escaping the position. In the open guard, the legs are not hooked together and the bottom grappler uses their legs or feet to push or pull in a more dynamic fashion. In the half guard, one of the top grappler’s legs is being controlled by the bottom grappler’s legs.
The majority of submission holds can be grouped into two broad categories: joint locks and chokes. Joint locks typically involve isolating an opponent’s limb and creating a lever with the body position which will force the joint to move past its normal range of motion. Pressure is increased in a controlled manner and released if the opponent cannot escape the hold and signals defeat by submitting. Opponents can indicate submission verbally or they can tap out (i.e. tap the opponent, the mat several times. Tapping one’s own body is dangerous because the opponent may not be able to tell if his or her opponent is tapping.) A choke hold, disrupting the blood supply to the brain, can cause unconsciousness if the opponent does not submit soon enough.
A less common type of submission hold is a compression lock, where the muscle of an opponent is compressed against a hard, large bone (commonly the shin or wrist), causing significant pain to the opponent. These types of locks are not usually allowed in competition due to the high risk of tearing muscle tissue. This type of lock often also hyper-extends the joint in the opposite direction, pulling it apart.
While many joint locks are permitted, most competitions ban or restrict some or all joint locks involving the knees, ankles, and spine. The reason for this is that the angles of manipulation required to cause pain are nearly the same as those that would cause serious injury. Joint locks that require a twisting motion of the knee (called twisting knee locks or twisting knee bars, or techniques such as heel hooks, and toe holds) are usually banned in competitions because successfully completing the move nearly always results in permanent damage that requires surgery. Similarly, joint manipulations of the spine are typically barred due to the inherent danger of crushing or mis-aligning cervical vertebrae. Leglocks are allowed in varying degrees depending on skill level, with straight ankle locks being the only leglocks allowed in the beginner division, or white belt level, straight kneebars being allowed in the intermediate division, or blue belt level and toeholds with the pressure applied inwards are allowed in the advanced division (purple, brown, black). Some competitions also ban submissions involving the crushing or compression of muscle tissue.
However, most joint locks involving the wrist, elbow, shoulder or ankle are permitted as there is a great deal more flexibility in those joints and those locks are safe to use under tournament conditions. Also, some fighters practice moves whose sole purpose is to inflict pain upon their opponent, in the hope that they will tap out. This includes driving knuckles into pressure points, holding their opponent’s head in order to tire out the neck (called the “can opener” or kubi-hishigi) and putting body weight on top of the sternum, floating ribs, or similarly sensitive bones. These moves are not true submission moves; they are generally only used as distractions mostly in lower levels of competition. They are avoided or aggressively countered in middle to upper levels of competition.
Chokes and strangles
Chokes and strangles (commonly referred to as “air chokes” and “blood chokes”) are common forms of submission. In BJJ, the chokes that are used put pressure on the carotid arteries, and may also apply pressure to the nerve baroreceptors in the neck. This kind of choke is very fast acting (if done properly) with victims typically losing consciousness in around 3–5 seconds. In contrast, an air choke (involving constriction of the windpipe) can take up to two minutes, depending on how long the person can hold their breath, and may cause serious damage to the throat.
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner’s uniform is similar to a judogi, but often with tighter cuffs on the pants and jacket. This allows the practitioner to benefit from a closer fit, providing less material for an opponent to manipulate, although there is a significant overlap in the standards that allows for a carefully selected gi to be legal for competition in both styles. Traditionally, to be promoted in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu the wearing of the gi while training is a requirement. Recently with the growing popularity of “no gi” Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the practice of giving out belts to no gi practitioners (e.g., Rolles Gracie awarding Rashad Evans a black belt) has become more common.
The term kimono is sometimes used to describe the outfit, especially in Brazil.
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ranking system awards a practitioner different coloured belts to signify increasing levels of technical knowledge and practical skill. While the system’s structure shares its origins with the judo ranking system and the origins of all coloured belts, it now contains many of its own unique aspects and themes. Some of these differences are relatively minor, such as the division between youth and adult belts and the stripe/degree system. Others are quite distinct and have become synonymous with the art, such as a marked informality in promotional criteria, including as a focus on a competitive demonstration of skill, and a conservative approach to promotion in general. Traditionally, the concept of competitive skill demonstration as a quickened and earned route of promotion holds true. Some schools have placed a green belt for adults between the white and blue belt ranks due to the long periods between advancement. In addition, the use of a grey belt has been instituted for many children’s programs to signal progress between the white and yellow belt rankings. The amount of time it takes to achieve the rank of black belt varies between the individual but the average time frame is between 8 and 10 years with a consistent training schedule of 3 to 4 times per week.