In the grip of combat, you care little for the founding myth. Pinned on a mat, desperately trying to loosen the tight hold that is choking the breath out of you, your only concern is survival. There is no time to contemplate the odd quirks of history that gave rise to the martial art that currently has you helplessly trussed up in a knot of arms and legs.
The baggy, pajama-like uniforms and the balletic precision of the fighting techniques evoke images of cobbled courtyards in remote Asian monasteries. Those martial arts clichés have been reinforced by countless video games and Hollywood movies.
But the origins of this particular martial art, BJJ, take us to a completely different setting. We trade Asia for South America and sacred monasteries for a circus in the city of Belém on the Amazon River. The year is 1917, and a Brazilian man of Scottish ancestry, Carlos Gracie, is watching a circus performance featuring a Japanese judo master, Mitsuyo Maeda.
For Gracie, this first exposure to the venerable martial art is a revelation. After the show, he asks Maeda to take him on as a student, and thus, with a handshake of acceptance, a sequence of events is put in motion that will lead to the creation of BJJ, Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
In part, this is a story of evolution by isolation. After learning the basics from Maeda, Gracie and his brothers set up a judo academy. Gradually, subtle differences began to creep into their interpretation of the sport. Some of these differences were deliberately designed to accommodate the youngest brother, Hélio, who was weakened by ill health and forced to rely on guile rather than brute force whenever he took to the judo mat.
Hélio realized if he could lever his opponent onto the ground, any disparity in height or strength was immediately neutralized. He could then employ a selection of locks and holds to force his opponent into submission.
Forcing submission is what BJJ (or “jitz,” as it is increasingly called in the United States) is all about. You start the contest upright, facing your opponent, gripping each other’s sleeves. The early stages are all about reflex. You lunge. He evades your attempt to trip him to the ground. He lunges. You skip clear.
But before long a decisive throw is executed, and the bout descends into an attritional grapple on the mat. Pushing from the hips, you each try to squirm into a decisive grip while simultaneously worming your way out of your opponent’s attacking moves. Tactics are paramount. The strategies of BJJ can be as complex as chess.
Eventually, you become aware that your opponent has you in a particularly solid lock. You feel one of your arms begin to bend in the wrong direction, or a shoulder threatens to pop out of its socket, or a chokehold puts you in danger of blacking out. Checkmate. With whichever hand or foot you have available, you must hastily tap your opponent to signal your submission.
In the early years, BJJ was a defensive discipline, a nonlethal method of protection on the mean streets of urban Brazil. It can still serve that purpose, but during the course of the 20th century a more formalized version emerged complete with rules, a governing body and international tournaments.
The Gracie family remains actively involved. The roll call of Brazilian and world champions is generously interspersed with the famous surname. There are now Gracie Academies located across the world, introducing new students to a simple idea: Thought can be more powerful than brawn.
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