Jiu-Jitsu History


“As to the origin and native land of Jujutsu, there are several opinions, but they are found to be mere assumptions based on narratives relating to the founding of certain schools, or some incidental records or illustrations found in the ancient manuscripts not only in Japan but in China, Persia, Germany, and Egypt. There is no record by which the origins of Jujutsu can be definitely established. It would, however, be rational to assume that ever since the creation, with the instinct of self-preservation, man has had to fight for existence, and was inspired to develop an art or skill to implement the body mechanism for this purpose. In such efforts, the development may have taken various courses according to the condition of life or tribal circumstance, but the object and mechanics of the body being common, the results could not have been so very different from each other. No doubt this is the reason for finding records relating to the practice of arts similar to Jujutsu in various parts of the world, and also for the lack of records of its origins.”

–Sensei G. Koizumi, Kodokan 7th Dan


Jiu-Jitsu, unlike other martial arts, did not evolve from one source or root; instead, it has multiple roots and traveled through many Asian countries before its establishment in Japan.

Even though the true origins of Jiu-Jitsu are impossible to accurately be established, elements of the art can be traced back over 5000 years. A Babylonian copper stand, dating from the third Millennium BC, shows two men engaged in a grappling technique found in Jiu-Jitsu. Both men are trying to unbalance each other by controlling the hip.


Buddhist monks in Northern India greatly contributed to the early development of martial arts. Bandits constantly assaulted the monks during their long journeys through the interior of India. Buddhist religious and moral values did not encourage the use of weapons, so they were forced to develop an empty hand system of self-defense.

These monks were men of great wisdom who possessed a perfect knowledge of the human body. Consequently, they applied laws of physics such as leverage, momentum, balance, center of gravity, friction, weight transmission, and manipulation of the human anatomy’s vital points in order to create a science of self-defense.


Around 230 BC the techniques of Jiu-Jitsu are said to have arrived in Japan. The ‘Nihon Shoki,’ “The Chronicle of Japan,” a history compiled by the Imperial command in 720 AD, refers to a tournament called ‘Chikara-Kurabe,’ the contest of strength, which was held in the 7th year of the Emperor Suinin, 230 BC. Some historians regard this as the beginning of Sumo or Japanese wrestling, which has something in common with jiu-jitsu.

From 230 BC onward, many different martial arts schools were established. Empty hand techniques were incorporated as part of the samurai warrior’s training during the Heian period (ca. 784 AD). In approximately 880 AD, Prince Teijun Fujiwara, son of emperor Seiwa Fujiwara, established the Aiki-jujutsu school.

Even though these historical accounts are difficult to be definitively ascertained, it is a fact that the Japanese were responsible for transforming a combat system into a highly sophisticated martial art called ju-jutsu (jiu-Jitsu), which was developed in Japan during the Feudal period.


The period of Japanese history between the 8th and 16th centuries was one of constant civil war, and many systems of jiu-jitsu were utilized, practiced, and perfected on the battlefield. Training was used to overcome armored and armed opponents.
During Feudal times, Jiu-Jitsu was also known as Yawara, Hakuda, Kogusoko, and an assortment of other names.

The earliest recorded use of the word “ju-jutsu” happened in 1532 and was coined by Hisamori Takenouchi when he officially established the first school (ryu) of jiu-jitsu in Japan.

The history of the art during this time is uncertain because teachers kept everything secret in order not to give their enemies an advantage. However, the evolutionary process of jiu-jitsu at that time was highly realistic since the techniques were constantly tested and perfected in the battlefield. The beginnings of Jiu-Jitsu were in this atmosphere of constant warfare. The warrior caste clearly had a need for some empty-hand techniques because there was always the possibility of losing one’s weapon or being caught without one. Thus, even though empty-hand combat was a distinctly secondary skill to an armed warrior, some development of unarmed combative skill occurred in these old Jiu-Jitsu systems. This was the initial seed from which a complete approach to unarmed combat was born.

In approximately 1603, Japan came to a fairly peaceful period following the formation of the Tokugawa military government by Tokugawa Ieyasu. During this time (1603-1868), the feudal civil wars that had plagued Japan for centuries started to disappear. However, following the adage “living in peace, but remembering war,” the practice of jujitsu continued to spread. The traditions of classical budo (martial arts) required that everyone should learn a method of self-defense for those situations where weapons could not be used. Universally, these techniques were known as Jujutsu. Forms and techniques displaying weapons skills of fighting began to yield to weaponless styles which incorporated many of the striking and grappling techniques of the older styles. During this time the emphasis in combat instruction changed from battlefield art to personal protection in a civilian setting.

It has been estimated that there were about 725 recorded systems of jujutsu being practiced in Japan during its golden age from 1680 to 1850.

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor replaced the feudal military regime established by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. During this time the samurai class and its ways were abolished from japanese society.

Jiu-Jitsu was originally an art designed for warfare, but after the abolition of the Feudal system in Japan, certain modifications needed to be made to the art in order to make it suitable for practice. Even though jiu-jitsu was practiced as a complete method of self-defense, there was a lack of adequate training methods. Techniques were taught almost entirely by Kata. The idea was for two practitioners to have a prearranged sequence of moves they performed on each other without resistance. The main reason for this arrangement was that traditional jujitsu relied heavily on techniques that could not be used in any situation other than an all-out fight for survival. Even though the techniques were deadly, the lack of training with realistic resistance caused practitioners to be highly unprepared for real combat.

During this period the “old ways” were out of fashion and jujutsu was looked down upon. Most instructors were rough men who possessed no formal education.

Without the ability to test and perfect Jiu-Jitsu under the realistic conditions that existed in the battlefield, there was an urgent need for a way to practice the art realistically, which is why Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), an educated man, member of the Japanese Ministry of Culture, and a practitioner of Jiu-Jitsu, developed his own version of Jiu-Jitsu in the late 1800s, called Kano Jiu-Jitsu or Judo.

Part of Kano’s genius was realizing that being able to practice techniques with full resistance (sparring), even if the techniques are less deadly, results in a more effective style than practicing super deadly techniques only in pre-arranged forms.

Kano was able to prove the effectiveness of his training methods during a challenge match-up between older styles of Jiu-Jitsu and Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo) at the Tokyo police headquarters. With its unquestionable success in those fights, Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo) was named the national martial art of Japan, thus replacing the old Jiu-Jitsu. It was the official art used by law enforcement in the late 1800s.

Kano was responsible for Jiu-Jitsu regaining its prestige in the Japanese society. As an educated man he emphasized etiquette, discipline, respect and morality as part of training.

Due to Kano’s disciplined, rational and safe teaching methods, students of the Kodokan (Kano’s Judo academy) were able to practice more frequently because they were not always recovering from injuries. This multiplied the amount of training time for students of Kano’s school and drastically increased their abilities. Judo (Kano’s version of Jiu-Jitsu) was watered down from the complete form of Jiu-Jitsu, but still contained enough techniques to preserve its effectiveness. Jigoro Kano named his art Kodokan Judo.

In 1900 Jigoro Kano’s school was defeated by a relatively unknown system called Fusen Ryu who professed ground fighting as the most efficient way to control and subdue a bigger and stronger adversary. The Fusen Ryu Jiu-Jitsu fighters were able to submit almost all the kodokan representatives, mostly from the guard position. After this humbling defeat Jigoro kano convinced the leaders of the victorious school to join the Kodokan and incorporate their curriculum into his system. This created a trend towards ground fighting in Japan that lasted several years.

However, in the 1920s, for mysterious reasons, Kano started to de-emphasize groundwork and self defense in Judo and almost exclusively edify throwing techniques. Moreover, the creation of sportive competitions regulated Judo and eventually limited its combat effectiveness.

There is a theory that the sport of Judo was developed with the purpose of hiding the realistic effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu from the western world. The increased immigration of westerners into Japan during the Meiji period caused Jiu-Jitsu masters, who were very secretive with regard to their techniques, to worry about the possibility of westerners, generally bigger and stronger than the Japanese, learning Jiu-Jitsu.

After World War II, many US soldiers, while stationed in Japan, were exposed to the sport of Judo and brought it back to America with them.

When the days of the Samurai came to an end, the gun replaced the sword, and new sportive ways to practice martial arts were developed. Eventually, in Japan many different variations of Jiu-Jitsu took shape, including Karate, Aikido, and Judo. But these arts were missing essential pieces of what the complete art of Jiu-Jitsu originally held.

This created years of confusion in the martial arts community, which movie artist Bruce Lee would later refer to as the ‘classical mess’. Bruce Lee was actually a student of Judo and did many studies of grappling while he was alive. He criticized traditional martial arts as being ineffective, but ironically spread more myths about martial arts through his movies than almost anyone in martial arts history. The more traditional combat schools were simply practicing techniques no longer suitable for modern day combat, and with no way to safely test them, practicing these arts became like swimming without water.


It wasn’t until Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo) was introduced to the original Gracie brothers in Brazil that the real art of Jiu-Jitsu would be reborn and perfected. Japanese Jiu-Jitsu (practiced as Judo) was introduced in Brazil around 1914 by Mitsuyo Maeda, who was also known as Conde Koma. Maeda was a champion of Jiu-Jitsu (Judo) and a direct student of Kano at the Kodokan in Japan. He was born in 1878 and became a student of Judo (Kano Jiu-Jitsu) in 1897. Maeda trained at the Kodokan during the zenith of its ground fighting days. In the early 1900s he traveled the world as an ambassador of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu (judo) and participated in several no holds barred challenge matches in many countries including England, Spain, United States, Cuba, Mexico and finally Brazil.

In 1914, Maeda was given the opportunity to travel to Brazil as part of a large Japanese immigration colony. In the northern state of Pará, he befriended Gastão Gracie, an influential businessman, who helped Maeda get established. To show his gratitude, Maeda offered to teach Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo) to Gastão’s oldest son, Carlos Gracie. Carlos quickly fell in love with the techniques and philosophy of Jiu-JItsu. He became an avid student for a few years and eventually moved to the Southeast of Brazil where he taught his brothers and established the first Gracie Academy in 1925. Gracie/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was developed due to the wisdom of Carlos and the genius of Hélio Gracie. Even without any formal education, Carlos diligently studied, in addition to jiu-jitsu, many different subjects including nutrition, spirituality, exercise and natural hygiene. A philosopher in nature, Carlos was the “thinker of the clan” as a famous journalist of the time would call him, and would always provide invaluable advice to his brothers on all areas of life. The combination of his research formed the foundation that Hélio used to develop a new style of Jiu-Jitsu.


Hélio Gracie, the youngest son of Gastão and Cesalina Gracie’s eight children (three were girls), was a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells. No one could figure out the cause of his condition.

At age fourteen, he moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu in a house in Flamengo, a borough of Rio de Janeiro. Following doctor’s recommendations, Hélio would spend the next few years limited to only watching his brothers teach. Carlos was very concerned about his younger brother’s health and did no allow him to practice.

One day, when Hélio was 16 years old, his brother Carlos was running late for a private lesson with Mario Brandt, a director of Brazil’s largest banking institution. So Hélio, who was a great observer and had memorized the basic lessons 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 answered, “No problem. I enjoyed training with Hélio very much and, if you don’t mind, I would love to continue learning from him.” Carlos agreed, and Hélio became an instructor. At that moment Carlos was delighted to realize that the fainting spells that tormented Helio for most of his life had disappeared and that Helio could help him with the classes so that he could dedicate himself to the management of his brothers careers and the study of nutrition and other exoteric subjects. However, Carlos could not have imagined the colossal impact that his little brother would have in the martial art’s world.

As he started teaching and training, Hélio realized that due to his frail physique, many of the Japanese techniques that he had learned were 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, Hélio adapted Kano Jiu-jitsu (Judo) and through trial and error developed what is now referred to as Gracie/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This adaptation process continued for the remainder of Helio’s life. Many Gracie family members and other practitioners contributed to the development of Jiu-Jitsu. But none of these efforts can be compared to Hélio Gracie’s role. HIs eighty years of uninterrupted dedication to the enhancement of jiu-jitsu, his work as a teacher to thousands of students, the notoriety and difficulty of his fights, his strict adherence to the Gracie Diet, the teaching method that he developed, and the creation of a never-seen-before defensive strategy are unparalleled in the history of the art and position him as the originator of a new style.

In order to prove the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu, the original Gracie brothers openly challenged all the tough guys and reputable martial artists in Brazil. These challenge fights were usually against much bigger and stronger opponents in order to prove that it was possible for a small person to defend against any attacker. Using these fights as scientific experiments, Hélio Gracie developed a complete fighting strategy specifically designed to work against stronger and heavier opponents. Later he would also develop an innovative teaching method, which allowed for any person, even those not athletically gifted, to learn jiu-jitsu.

Hélio Gracie’s first fight took place in January of 1932, in Rio de Janeiro, against a professional Brazilian boxer named Antonio Portugal. Hélio won this match via arm lock in approximately 30 seconds. This fight was the first of many victories that Hélio would have against opponents from around the world.

Under the management of his brother Carlos, Hélio went on to become a national hero in Brazil. Some of his astonishing feats include the one hour and forty minute brawl against German American wrestler Fred Ebert, who weighed 200 pounds and had defeated american wrestler Ed “Strangler” Lewis two times, and the epic battle against World Wrestling Champion Wladek Zybsko, who weighed 280 pounds. In 1937 Hélio also defeated Estonian heavyweight boxer Erwin Klausner who had fought Primo Carnera for the world heavyweight championship two years earlier. Taro Miyaki, a world-renowned Japanese wrestler and Judoka, and Masagoichi, a Japanese Sumo wrestler and Judo black belt also fell prey to Hélio’s amazing fighting technique in the 1930s.

In 1938 Helio Gracie decided to retire from the world of professional fighting for not agreeing with the emphasis that promoters were placing on entertainment rather than realism. He refused to accept fights that were decided on subjective criteria such as points or judges decisions. Staying true to his original principles, he insisted that fights should only be decided by submission or loss of consciousness. Even though he exited the professional fighting scene, Hélio Gracie always made himself available to fight, in private, against anyone who doubted the effectiveness of his art. For the next 13 years Hélio would dedicate himself to the development of a unique teaching method. During these years he was teaching an average of 30 private classes a day at his apartment in Flamengo Beach.

In 1951 Hélio Gracie made an amazing come back when a Japanese delegation of Judo masters arrived in Brazil. This delegation included Heavyweight world champion Masahiko Kimura, At 39 years old, Hélio had one of his most brilliant performances against Yukio Kato, a fifth degree Judo black belt from the Kodokan. This match was held at the Ibirapuera Arena in São Paulo. Hélio defeated Kato with a chokehold from the guard position. His victory brought glory to Brazil and international recognition to his style of Jiu-Jitsu.

Upon defeating Kato, a challenge match was set between Hélio and the world open weight champion, Masahiko Kimura, probably the best fighter that Japan has ever produced.

This historical match took place in 1951 and was held at Maracanã Stadium, which at the time sat 200,000 people. Hélio was 39 years old and weighed 135 pounds while Kimura was 34 years old and weighed 215 pounds.

Kimura boldly stated that if Hélio could last more than 3 minutes, he should consider himself the winner. Hélio fought Kimura for 15 minutes before being caught in a shoulder lock. Even though Hélio never surrendered, his brother and corner man Carlos decided to step in and interrupt the fight.

Tremendously impressed with Hélio’s technique, the Japanese masters invited Hélio to come to Japan and teach. It was a major recognition of Hélio’s lifetime dedication to the refinement of the art.

At 43 years of age, Hélio and former student, Waldemar Santana, set the world record for the longest uninterrupted no-holds-barred fight in history when they fought for an incredible 3 hours and 40 minutes!

Hélio also challenged heavyweight boxing world champions Primo Carnera, Ezzard Charles, and Joe Louis to matches to compare styles. They all declined. Throughout his career, Hélio defeated fighters from several different styles in order to prove that a small person can neutralize superior strength and athleticism through the knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu.

However, his most heroic act was carried out outside of the ring. When traveling southbound towards Rio de Janeiro onboard a big cruise ship called Itanajé, Hélio Gracie and his brother Carlos couldn’t see shore. As they enjoyed the sight of the big waves crashing against the side of the ship, they sensed a storm approaching on that gloomy afternoon in mid November 1946. Suddenly, the screams of “Man overboard!” brought panic throughout the ship. A passenger had jumped overboard in an attempt to commit suicide. A boat with five sailors was immediately put into the water to rescue the drowning man. The big waves made it difficult for the sailors to reach the man who was approximately 700 feet away. When the boat finally reached him, they tried pulling the drowning man onboard. Again the big waves would get in their way by lifting the boat up and bringing the man down, preventing the rescue from happening. After trying to save the man for 20 dramatic minutes, the captain ordered them back, giving up on the rescue. The man was left to die. Watching all of this from the ship, Hélio asked his brother “Why they didn’t jump in the water and pull him into the boat.” From behind a sailor warned: “This is Abrolhos.” Without getting an explanation and without realizing that what he meant was that the Abrolhos area holds the highest concentration of sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, Hélio asked his brother if he didn’t feel like saving the man. Carlos replied, “Yes, but I don’t think I can get there”. Without hesitation Hélio said, “I think I can” and immediately stripped to his shorts. As he swam towards the man, he ordered the sailors in the rescue boat to turn around. From the water Hélio was able to get a good enough grip on the dying man, and with the help of the sailors, he put him into the boat, saving the man’s life. Besides the big celebration on the ship, he was awarded a Medal of Honor for his act of bravery.

An example of courage and determination, Hélio became an international hero. A dedicated family man who exemplified a healthy life-style, he was the epitome of bravery, discipline, willpower, and he was an inspiration to people everywhere. A modern-day legend, Hélio Gracie gained international acclaim for his dedication to the dissemination and development of Gracie/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.