Have you heard of Brazilian jiu-jitsu?

Tammi Musumeci applying an armbar from the back

Tammi Musumeci applying an armbar from the back

By: Eduardo Farfan 

Imagine a martial art that fuses two distant geographic traditions: Japanese self-defense techniques with a uniquely Brazilian twist. That’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu—also known as BJJ.

BJJ distinguishes itself from other martial arts for its emphasis on ground fighting; combatants fight hand-to-hand while on the ground, similarly to some combat styles that can be found in judo or wrestling.

Just like other martial arts, BJJ has its roots in Japan, where various Judo athletes practice similar forms of on-ground fighting. One of them was Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese judoka who travelled to the Americas in the early 20th century and eventually settled in Brazil. There, Maeda taught several students, including Carlos Gracie and the Gracie family.

The Gracie family spearheaded the practice of BJJ as we know it today. Carlos and his relatives modified the martial art and made it more effective by emphasizing swift technique over brute power. Their objective was clear and simple: to create a martial art whereby people who are smaller in size could effectively defend themselves against larger opponents.

Hélio Gracie, Carlos’ brother, maintained that Judo fighters should “always assume that [their] opponent is going to be bigger, stronger and faster than [them]; so that [they] learn to rely on technique, timing and leverage rather than brute strength.”

Carlos and Hélio developed several techniques for their martial art and passed their knowledge down several generations, thus popularizing BJJ as a common sport in Brazilian athletics. Since then, BJJ has been practiced all over the world largely due to its widely-revered efficiency. It is now used in major mixed martial arts (MMA) championships, including the iconic Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Interestingly, the main distinction between competitive BJJ and other types of MMA is the rule that prohibits hitting one’s opponent; the underlying idea is that the winner should be able to control the fight and apply a submission until his or her opponent is forced to surrender. If there is no surrender during a match, then the winner is determined through a scoring system.

Competition aside, BJJ has become more than a self-defense sport— it is considered as a way of life. This martial art instills in its fighters a strong sense of discipline, honesty, humility, and self-confidence. “A man of peace, confident in himself, dominates his adversary with his moral strength,” noted Hélio—a statement that captures the virtuous underpinnings embodied by BJJ fighters of all ages.


One of the most popular BJJ submissions: the armbar

One of the most popular BJJ submissions

This form of diligence and commitment can have a life-long effect on athletes. Tammi Musumeci, a 21-year-old BJJ world champion, says, “Jiu-Jitsu has changed my life in that it helped me to see how strong mentally and physically I could be.” The physical demand inherent in the pursuit of excelling in BJJ necessitates the values of discipline and moral strength.

Although BJJ is physically demanding, it distinguishes itself through its swift technique and moral underpinnings, making it a unique and desirable martial art. From BJJ’s humble beginning as a mix between Japanese self-defense techniques and Brazilian methods to its worldwide martial art influence today, it consistently remains as a wondrous practice for all who pursue it.

Photo by: Anthony Belano