BJJ – the Gentle Art

BJJ is the original ground game of MMA. While other arts have entered into the fray, BJJ remains at the heart of MMA’s grappling.

November 12, 1993. A crowd of over 7,000 people gathered at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado to watch an event dubbed the “Ultimate Fighting Championship.” It was a one night, single elimination tournament pitting eight fighters of various styles against each other for a chance to go home with a $50,000 prize. The fighters were incredibly diverse; there were kick-boxers, professional boxers, catch wrestlers, and even a former sumo wrestler. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they all shared one common trait; they were all physically intimidating men.

Except for one.


The outlier of this group was a young Brazilian man named Royce Gracie. Clad in a rather baggy white gi with a black belt tied around his waist, Gracie appeared at first to be a karate fighter who was ill-equipped to engage in such unregulated combat. Further inspection showed that the patch on the back of Gracie’s gi stated that he represented Gracie Jiu Jitsu, a martial art few people in the crowd, or the rest of North America, had ever heard of. To the average person in attendance, Gracie was chum in the water.

But he did something extraordinary that night. He won.

And he won convincingly.

Rather than attack with strikes like the majority of the fighters on the card, Gracie opted to drag his opponents to the mat and finish them with a choke. He was even comfortable fighting while his back was to the mat; a tactic rarely seen in any form of combat. In less than a combined six minutes of fighting, Gracie dominated boxer Art Jimmerson and choked both Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau into submission. Whether they knew it or not at the time; the American public had just been exposed to a game-changing new form of martial arts: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

However, Jiu Jitsu was no secret to the people of Brazil. Since the late 1950s, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or BJJ, itself an offshoot of Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Judo pioneered by Carlos and Helio Gracie, had been used extensively in a sport known as Vale Tudo (Portuguese for “anything goes”). These style-versus-style matches often pitted jiu jitsu fighters against fighters with backgrounds in Capoeira, boxing, or wrestling. Prior to 1993, there was a small but thriving culture of underground Vale Tudo events throughout many areas of Brazil and following the success of the UFC many more sprang into existence.

Due to Royce Gracie’s impressive string of victories at the early UFC events, BJJ became one of the de facto disciplines for burgeoning mixed martial artists. The ability to decisively finish a fight, even from the bottom position, was a powerful addition to the still nascent sport of MMA. Additionally, Vale Tudo served as a precursor to modern mixed martial arts; spawning many of the most recognizable stars of the early days of the sport. Without the pioneering efforts of those organizations, mixed martial arts might still be relegated to small, dirty rings inside even smaller, dirtier venues.

Steve White Steve White is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt under Luigi Mondelli of American Top Team CT as well as a 10th Planet brown belt. Based out of Fairfield, Connecticut, Steve trains and instructs at Radius Martial Arts/10th Planet Fairfield and is always looking to expand his knowledge of the grappling arts.