The roots of today’s mixed martial arts stretch far back into history. Far away from the lights of Las Vegas, down to A Cidade Maravilhosa, or “The Marvelous City” of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where five brothers named Gracie (Carlos, Osvaldo, Gastão, Jorge, and Hélio) were practicing the art passed on to eldest brother Carlos by Mitsuyo Maeda (a.k.a. Conde Koma, or Count Coma in English), an expert Japanese judoka and member of the Kodokan.
Imagine, if you will, a small, sweaty, matted room in the third most populous area in South America, where four of the five brothers train and give lessons in the sweltering heat. Very crowded and often quite dangerous, the city of Rio de Janeiro is known for its carnival celebrations, samba music, gorgeous beaches, and great surfing. It is also the country that gave the world the bikini, the thong and the 38M tall Christ the Redeemer statue. But that first scorching gym was also the birthplace of the martial art that was to change the course of modern athletic competition in the latter portion of the 20th century. It was there that Helio Gracie, a young man, small in stature but stout in heart, with an immense capacity to transform the judo he had learned from his oldest brother gave the world the gift that was to become known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
(In Brazil, the art is still called “Jiu-Jitsu”. When the Gracies went to the United States to spread their art, the system became known as “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” and “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.” “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 “jujutsu.” Other common spellings are Brazilian jujitsu and Brazilian ju-jitsu.)
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu kicked open the doors to the international pantheon of sport in the 1990s, when Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert Royce Gracie (Son of Grand Master Helio Gracie) won the first, second and fourth Ultimate Fighting Championships. The original UFC competitions were single-elimination, eight-man tournaments. Royce fought against often much larger opponents who were practicing other styles, including boxing, shoot-fighting, karate, judo, tae kwon do and wrestling. In fact the reason the UFC started was to showcase the efficacy of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
It is generally understood now that to be a well-rounded MMA fighter one must have a good grasp of several martial arts. Whether it is a mix of boxing, muay thai, wrestling, karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu or any combination of those, simply knowing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by itself is not sufficient to be successful. However, 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. So, if you are among the millions of people watching MMA because you love seeing some of the top athletes in the world battle it out, try to remember that the fight you are watching started with a 145lb man in a small oven of a room in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil almost 90 years ago.
Rodrigo Vaghi is the owner of Vaghi Martial Arts and head of it’s Brazilian Jujitsu Program. Rodrigo is a 4th Degree Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and an official representative of Rickson Gracie.