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Roberto Pedreira














Four Questions and Answers about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu History

By Roberto Pedreira

June 18, 2016


A Reader comments that some people on the internet may be confused about what they have learned from the Choque trilogy and the Myths & Misconceptions series. (And no wonder, if their only previous sources of information were the exact texts in which the myths were originally propagated). He provides some illustrations:


"According to Choque, we are entitled to think that the early Gracies like Carlos and Helio learnt and knew just a bunch of basic Judo moves and were not grappling experts at all (Choque reports that Geo Omori basically said Carlos knew nothing about jiu jitsu). However, Helio avoided being submitted by stronger and seasoned submissions grapplers like Ebert and Zbyzsko, and draw with Kodokan black belts and even choked Kato.  It is hard to believe that someone with just basic Judo skills could do something like that. These Helio's achievements, although modest, are largely inexplicable if all he knew was basic Judo newaza.  Even Carlos avoid being submitted by a more seasoned fighter like Rufino... which again is surprising if Carlos was just the Brazilian version of Matsuda."

Roberto Pedreira Responds: Not only Geo Omori but also Donato Pires dos Reis and George Gracie stated for the record that Carlos knew nothing or almost nothing about jiu-jitsu. Even Helio agreed (here). Indeed, Carlos Gracie's lack of jiu-jitsu knowledge and skills was a necessary foundation for the Rorion-Helio alternative narrative (or Gracie Myth, if you prefer). It was Carlos' (alleged) lack of jiu-jitsu ability and knowledge that both allowed and forced Helio to create his (alleged) innovations and improvements. 

That Helio avoided tapping is not proof that he created a new and more refined form of judo. Rather it was a testimony to the efficiency of Kodokan judo. Helio didn't need to improve it to use it efficiently. It was already efficient, as Geo Omori, George Gracie, Takeo Yano, Yassuiti Ono and his little brother Naoiti demonstrated many times (many more times than Helio Gracie did, in fact).  

Helio was able to avoid losing to Ebert and Zbyszko because he focused his efforts on not losing rather than winning, and because he had a good defense, as the press grudgingly acknowledged. The press also pointed out that Ebert and Zbyszko were obese old men. (Zbyszko did however manage to tap out another member of the Gracie family; for that story see Choque 1, chp. 14).

Helio avoided losing to Kodokan judokas Takeshi Namiki, Takeo Yano, Yassuiti Ono (twice) because he had a defensive strategy that they couldn't comprehend or cope with. The objective of a judo match is to throw, pin, or submit the opponent, not merely to survive. The objective of a no-points match is to submit the opponent. Undeniably, Helio Gracie had an effective defense. However, based on his performance (which is the only way we have to evaluate a fighter's skills), Helio Gracie's offense was adequate to submit unskilled grapplers and non-grapplers but inadequate to beat legitimate judokas. Obviously, as everyone who had seen Gracies in Action knows, there was one major exception. Helio beat Yukio Kato in one of their two matches. How he did it and how he did not do it (in the first match) are equally instructive.

The reason Helio did not beat Kato in the first match was because Kato did not choose to stay on the ground with Helio after throwing him there, as was his right according to the rules. If Helio wanted Kato to stay on the ground, it was his job to put him there and keep him there. Helio was unable to do that.

In the second Kato fight, Helio was able to choke Kato not because he put Kato on the ground and kept him there, but because Kato made the bone-headed mistake of voluntarily staying on the mat with Helio and trying to choke Helio while Helio was choking him, instead of doing the logical thing and standing up (or at least, defending the choke). Not to take anything away from Helio, but he could hardly expect that judokas would always make that same mistake, proof being that, except for Kato,  they never did; even Kato didn't do it the first time around. Some opponents, whose qualifications are still unclear, made other mistakes, and Helio took advantage of them. So, as A Reader suggested, Helio did have achievements but simply recognizing that he knew basic judo explains his ring results. 

Helio's ring record tells us that Helio was better at defense than attack, particularly in jiu-jitsu matches under the rules that made stand-up effectiveness superfluous. In other words, if points were scored for throws, Helio would have lost to Takashi Namiki, Yassuiti Ono (both times), and Takeo Yano (and the first match with Yukio Kato as well). Helio Gracie drew with Kodokan judokas only because he was not penalized for being dominated on stand-up. All respect to Helio Gracie. A win is a win. But that doesn't put him in the same category with Alexander Karelin and Sugar Ray Robinson.

As for Rufino Santos, the few knowledgeable observers who commented on the fight said that neither Rufino nor Carlos showed any evidence of grappling skills. Rufino Santos was a wrestling (luta livre) instructor but he had no record in Brazil and his supposed record in the USA was nothing more than the statement of one of his students. 

While giving Helio credit for his accomplishment in not being submitted by legit Kodokan judokas Namiki, Yano, and Ono (twice), we should also avoid over-interpreting it. The matches were contested according to rules that made it unnecessary for Helio to do anything other than remain defensive (he had the option to attack, of course, if he chose to use it). Matches were theoretically decided by "give up or KO" (submitting or being choked out). If neither man submitted or was choked out, the result was an "empate". We translate empate as "draw", which readers today assume means that the fight was equal. But that isn't what it meant in Brazil. It meant only that neither man was submitted or was choked out. So the only conclusion we can draw from Helio Gracie's contest results against Namiki, Yano, and Ono is that his defense on the ground was sufficient to avoid being tapped or choked out by three Kodokan judokas (actually four, since Kato also failed to submit Helio two times). He was utterly unable to avoid being thrown to the ground or to take the judokas there on his own initiative. What that says about his merits as a grappler and innovator are questions for other people to decide. 


"You often mention "The Gracies" in cases in which you're referring exclusively to Carlos and Helio (and their other brothers). Example: In Myth 7 (of the 30 myths article) you say that Maeda only known martial training was in Kodokan judo and then you say "But the Gracies did nothing to modify it in any way". Many readers (specially BJJ enthusiasts) will tend to believe that you are talking of the Gracies in general (all the Gracies until the present) and not of the early Gracie brothers. And then they will charge you with a pro-Judo, anti-Gracie bias. Perhaps it would be useful to refer to the "early Gracie brothers" or the "first Gracie JJ generation" or some equivalent to refer to Carlos and Helio and their brothers."

Roberto Pedreira Responds: During the period that the Myths & Misconceptions series is primarily addressing, when the Brazilian press referred to Os Irmãos Gracie [The Gracie Brothers] what they meant could be all five of them or any subset of the five. It was always (or usually) clear from the context which brothers were meant. But as time wore on, by the 1950's for sure, in Rio, the Gracie Brothers usually meant Carlos and Helio (as their academy was known as the Gracie Academy). George came and went and a lot of the time he wasn't in Rio. When the press talked about George, they said "George Gracie" (occasionally Jorge Gracie). Oswaldo died in 1943, and Gastão Jr. went about his business mostly out of sight of the press (but was included as a Gracie Brother when the situation required).

Judo and BJJ started out being identical, but when judo became an international sport (from the early 1950's), they began to diverge. Judokas began concentrating on stand-up in order to win medals. Jiu-jitsu people maintained the traditions, without adapting the new stand-up advances. Consequently, judokas stand-up got better, jiu-jitsukas' stand-up didn't, while judokas ground skills atrophied and jiu-jitsukas' ground skills improved (or rather evolved to better exploit the environment, i.e., the rules, and to out-compete opponents). Members of the extended Gracie family and their students and various people with no particular connection to the Gracies made contributions to this evolution, partly by innovating, but also by rediscovering, and being amenable to instruction by more experienced people (such as Oswaldo Alves and George Mehdi, among many other judokas). If necessity is the mother of invention, jiu-jitsu did not need to change much. What created the need to change, and at the same time, the desirability of change was internationalization. Or to put it another way, more technical problems to solve, stronger competitors to beat, more people to buy magazines, VHS videos, and DVDs. Enter Rorion Gracie and Art Davie.

Things changed dramatically after UFC 2 and Vale Tudo Japan 94. By that time Brazilians figured out that UFC 1 was not just a one shot deal (and also the money and competitor slots increased substantially). The first international gi tournaments were created. From that point on, innovation became the word of the day. Everyone had incentives to innovate and get better (medals, money, fame). When people have incentives to innovate, they innovate. When there are lots of people innovating, the result is lots of innovation. Thus, judo and BJJ today are complementary, two sides of the same coin, the two aspects of the original Kodokan judo (which has never been static). Some highly qualified people prefer to say that judo and BJJ are the same (here for example). Obviously, based on their incentives, different people concentrate on different things. The marginal utility of an hour's worth of stand-up training is greater for a judoka than for a jiu-jitsu guy. Vice-versa for guard passing, and so on. That's the long and short reason for why they train as they do and therefore why they are good at what they train and not as good at what they don't train. 

Myths & Misconceptions did not say that judo and BJJ are identical. Obviously they are not. It did not say that second generation Gracies (which includes Carlson above all), did not learn, research, and rediscover old techniques or even innovate. Obviously they did. So did many non-Gracies. They also deserve recognition. The most significant contribution of the Gracie family to the development of jiu-jitsu was successfully introducing (or rather, reintroducing) it to North America. Specifically, a form of jiu-jitsu that included two types of competition, one being the alt-judo form, the other being NHB/MMA/vale tudo/Ultimate Fighting. Rorion masterminded and spearheaded that work, but many of his brothers and cousins played indispensable roles. Even Rorion's rivals, competitors, and enemies made valuable contributions. It wasn't all Helio Gracie. 


"One of the insights that I've gained from reading Choque is that Vale Tudo in Brazil was not identical to what we saw in the early UFCs. In my view, such early Brazilian Vale Tudo tournaments were more similar to the early Pancrase shows (including the "rope escapes" rule). Essential to the Gracie marketing, myth-making and eventual overwhelming success was the idea that old school Vale Tudo fights  in Brazil were like street fights, no-hold-barred events similar to the early UFC and that Gracie jiu-jitsu was developed, polished (and unbeaten) for 65 years under such tough battle-field conditions against virtually every single known martial art on Earth. This was Rorion's marketing strategy and a lot of people bought that in the 90s (including me).
But here is a problem: if Vale Tudo in Brazil were NOT "everything goes" fights, then why did Rorion take the risk of allowing Royce to fight under "everything goes" rules like the early UFCs? Why did the Gracies choose to fight under a less familiar and more risky format?
Remember that in UFC 1, every empty hand technique was allowed except eye gouging, biting and groin shots.  And these were restrictions, not strict prohibitions. And in UFC 2 and after, groin attacks were allowed (recall Hackney vs Joe Son fight).
Do you have any insight or explanation of why Rorion/Davie created a format of combat which was more adverse, risky and not exactly identical to what the Gracies were doing in Brazil for decades?"

Roberto Pedreira Responds: Choque is about jiu-jitsu in Brazil. Roberto Pedreira doesn't have any special knowledge or insight about what Art Davie and Rorion Gracie did or why they did it. Rorion explained that he wanted to demonstrate the efficiency of Gracie jiu-jitsu versus various other martial arts and combat sports in real fights with relatively few rules. Obviously, he had an economic motivation in doing that, but sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one. Basically, they did it because it could be done, no one else was doing it, and no one stooped them.

Authentic vale tudos were not common in Brazil before 1993 but they were not non-existent. We have already mentioned  a few of them in previous "Myths and Misconceptions" (see here, and Choque 1-3 for others and for details).

We can turn the question around and ask why weren't there more genuine vale tudos in Brazil? The simple answer is that the authorities and leading citizens (in Rio) didn't want them to be held, most promoters, managers, and fighters preferred more rather than fewer rules, and spectators preferred more dramatic, action-packed (hence choreographed) fights. In other words, almost everyone converged on a preference for more safety, more entertainment, and less trauma. A similar process took place in the USA with the UFC and its offshoots. Rules, weight classes, time limits, apparel requirements, etc., were introduced to make the fights safer and more entertaining, and to circumvent political interference.


Another Reader asks: "What can you tell me more about Jiu Jitsu in São Paulo early 20´s? Why despite some Japanese experts living in São Paulo the Jiu Jitsu flourishes with the Gracies?"

Roberto Pedreira Responds: Most Japanese immigrants to Brazil were recruited to work on coffee plantations (immigration began in 1908 and peaked between 1928 and 1934). Very few had been farmers in Japan. Kodokan judo was part of the middle school curriculum in Japan from about 1911, so a fair number of immigrants must have had at least basic judo training, and it didn't then (or now) generally take more than one year to attain the rank of black belt (at shodan 初段 level), which to the average Brazilian must have seemed like a level of superhuman mastery. Every Japanese immigrant community was essentially self-sustaining and included centers where judo, kendo, and other Japanese practices and customs were maintained. It is unlikely that any immigrant thought of judo as a way to make money, at least until interest in jiu-jitsu was created by "white" people who owned theaters and circuses.   

However, it would be an exaggeration to say that jiu-jitsu flourished at any time prior to the late 1990's. Jiu-jitsu was always a sub-niche in world of professional wrestling, always overshadowed by catch. As a form of training, physical culture, or self-defense, jiu-jitsu was always struggling to keep up with the old martial arts and the new arts that were being introduced, excluding international sports judo, because that battle was lost almost as soon as it began. There were always people teaching jiu-jitsu but as a hobbyist recreational activity, jiu-jitsu lagged far behind ping-pong in popularity.

It wasn't until after UFC 1 that this situation changed. The Gracie family is justly associated with jiu-jitsu for four reasons. First, they stuck with the name "jiu-jitsu" and stuck with the old style (pre-WW II) judo that they preferred.[1] Second, there are so many of them, thanks primarily to Carlos Gracie (although Helio believed that Carlos had too many children,  see # 25 here). Third, Rorion Gracie had a bright idea to promote his jiu-jitsu in the USA. Last, but not least, Rorion had the good fortune to meet Art Davie. Rorion deserves most of the credit for the result of their partnership. Art Davie is the one who actually did it, but another shrewd ad exec might have come along sooner or later and seen the potential. Rorion, on the other hand, is the one and only Gracie who could have done what he did. The world is training jiu-jitsu today, above all, because of Rorion Gracie.[2]

Finally, a note of clarification. It is incorrect that jiu-jitsu did not flourish under the leadership of São Paulo based Japan immigrants (and their descendents and students). Geo Omori gave Carlos Gracie his start in 1929. Without Geo Omori there would never have been Carlos Gracie, because there was no one other than Omori who could have lent Carlos the limited credibility that Carlos initially had. Undoubtedly inspired by Omori's example, Takeo Yano and Yassuiti Ono appeared in 1934. Omori died in 1938, but Yassuiti Ono and Takeo Yano soldiered on. Yano taught jiu-jitsu, judo, and self-defense, and competed (or performed) in jiu-jitsu and pro wrestling until as late as 1958, and promoted judo, pro wrestling, and vale tudo (he was actively involved in Kimura's second "expedition" [遠征] to Brazil in 1959, including his vale tudo fight with Waldemar Santana). Yassuiti Ono, along with his younger brother Naoiti and his many students, stayed active as a competitor until at least 1948, and was deeply involved in Kimura's first "expedition" to Brazil, in 1951. Jiu-jitsu continued to flourish with the São Paulo based Japanese, their descendents and students (which included Oswaldo Alves, illustrious teacher of Rolls Gracie, other Gracies, and too many successful competitors to name here; for that see Alves). Without Geo Omori, Takeo Yano, Yassuiti and Naoiti Ono, the Gracie brothers would have sorely lacked for "rivals" without whom there would have been substantially fewer professional fights, hence fewer cheap ways to publicize "jiu-jitsu" (of course, the same applied to Omori, Yano, and Ono). By the middle 1950's the Japanese abandoned the entertainment fight market to the luta livre and catch people and began calling jiu-jitsu what it really was, namely judo, and collectively migrated to international judo, leaving the Gracies and a handful of others to try to recover the "glory days" of "jiu-jitsu". 

Details and references can be found in Choque 1-3.


For more Myths and Misconceptions, see:

Four Questions & Answers about BJJ History

The Backstory

Myths and Misconceptions in Gracies in Action 1

Myths and Misconceptions about Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Pat Jordan's 1989 Playboy Article

Myths and Misconceptions in Gracies in Action 2

Myths and Misconceptions about Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Japan

Myths about Mitsuyo Maeda (Conda Koma)

Myths and Misconceptions about Jiu-Jitsu and BJJ 




1. Concerning the "old style judo", see Masahiko Kimura's comment in 鬼の柔道 (p. 196), to be discussed in a forthcoming Myths & Misconceptions article.

2. As Romero Cavalcanti expressed it, "Rorion made it happen" (see Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, 1997-2008, chp. 1.) Chuck Norris also played a significant role prior to the UFC (see Choque 3, chp. 28). 

(c) 2016, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.




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