At a very young age, Helio Gracie learned traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu techniques from his older brother, Carlos. In the late 1920s, he began to modify these techniques to accommodate his frail physique with the objective of developing a system that would enable him to defend himself against larger opponents. After years of refinement, he proved his art’s effectiveness by routinely defeating larger and stronger opponents, some of whom outweighed him by as much as 100 pounds. As a result, Helio’s techniques quickly became the new expression of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil and set the stage for a worldwide revolution in martial arts.
In 1967, under Grand Master Helio Gracie’s guidance, jiu-jitsu practitioners established the first Federation of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil to host recreational competitions in which they could test their self-defense skills in a safe setting. An unintended by-product of this development was a shift from jiu-jitsu for self-defense purposes to sport-focused techniques and applications. The excitement and fun of competition, coupled with the prestige that accompanied tournament victories, drove the vast majority of jiu-jitsu instructors to focus entirely on preparing their students for tournaments. They dedicated their training sessions to developing techniques that would lead to victory based on the point system, rules, and weight classes that governed sport jiu-jitsu. Unfortunately, the tournament epidemic had dire consequences. It undermined the art’s effectiveness because most sport jiu-jitsu techniques had little or no applicability in a real fight. Worse, by perfecting the sport techniques, a student often developed reflexes that could be disastrously counter-productive in a street self-defense situation. Unwilling to compromise on the foundational principles of his art, Helio resigned from the Federation.
In 1978, Rorion Gracie, Helio’s eldest son, left Brazil and came to the United States to share his father’s techniques with the rest of the world. Upon his arrival, he immediately noticed that most Americans had no appreciation for jiu-jitsu’s effectiveness. Even those with knowledge of martial arts confused his family’s system with the traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu that had been in America since the 1950s. In order to emphasize the distinction between the two disciplines, Rorion trademarked the name “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.”
Rorion spent several years teaching out of his garage while leading a one-man campaign to open the eyes of American martial artists to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s simplicity and effectiveness and concluded that, despite his tireless and constant efforts, he needed a more powerful and visible way to demonstrate the superiority of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu over all other martial arts. To accomplish this, he created the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). This pay-per-view television spectacle shocked the martial arts world as his brother Royce used the simple techniques of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to repeatedly defeat larger, more athletic opponents armed with a wide variety of martial arts skills.
The success of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the UFC spurred many sport jiu-jitsu practitioners to leave Brazil in order to capitalize on the increased demand for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu instruction. Due to legal restrictions on the use of the trademarked name “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu,” these instructors began using the name “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” as an alternative.
The influx of sport jiu-jitsu instructors, many of whom were members of the very large extended Gracie family, led to the establishment of numerous jiu-jitsu schools all across the United States. Nearly all of these schools claimed to teach the same jiu-jitsu that Grand Master Helio Gracie had created and Royce employed in the UFC. In fact, most of them were teaching a version of the art modified specifically for sport competition. Students hoping to acquire the realistic self-defense skills they saw in the UFC flocked to these schools and often trained for several years before they came to the disappointing realization that what they were learning had very limited street applicability.
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