BJJ is a martial art, a form of self-defense, a sport, a hobby, and much much more.
However you want to define it, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is growing in popularity fast, and spreading across the world. If you’re here, reading this, it means you’ve already been introduced to BJJ, and you want to learn more.
Read on for a beginner’s crash course on what BJJ is, where it started from, and what makes it so special.
What is BJJ?
BJJ stands for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. BJJ is a martial art that specializes in ground fighting. It teaches you how to neutralize an opponent through joint attacks and chokes, as well as using leverage to gain an advantageous position.
That’s the simplified definition.
In fact, we could go even simpler. Jiu Jitsu comes from the Japanese words Jū Jutsu, which translates to “the gentle art”.
It might be strange to think that a sport where two people try to break each others’ limbs, or choke each other to sleep, could be thought of as “gentle”. But it makes sense in the way BJJ prioritizes the use of leverage and angles to win a fight, as opposed to brute strength or force.
The point of learning BJJ differs from person to person. Some learn BJJ for self-defense. Others are in it for the sport, and the competitive aspect. Others still are more interested in it for fitness, or for the discipline and focus developed when you learn and progress in a martial art.
Long story short, no matter your fitness, mental or recreational goals, BJJ is likely to be beneficial.
The History of BJJ
BJJ’s roots go back to the early 1900s. It already has a rich history, but it’s only just taking root in the mainstream worldwide. So it could still be considered the early days in the history of BJJ.
Where did BJJ originate?
As the name suggests, BJJ originally comes from Brazil. You could trace it further back to the Japanese art of Jujutsu, however what we know as BJJ today was first conceived in Brazil in the 1920s.
It began when Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese practitioner of Kokodan Judo, was travelling and giving demonstrations in Brazil in the 1910s. This gave the opportunity for a select group of people to be introduced to the tenets of Jujutsu, who would go on to invent Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Who were the creators of BJJ?
In 1917, Carlos Gracie watched Maeda give a demonstration in Belém, Brazil. After deciding he wanted to learn more about this style of martial arts, Gracie became a student of Maeda’s. He learned under Maeda for several years, eventually going on to teach what he had learned to his brothers, Oswaldo, Gastão Jr, George and Hélio Gracie.
The Gracie brothers would go on to be widely credited with officially creating the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The Japanese art taught by Maeda linked very closely to Judo. That means a lot of its focus is on standup fighting and throws.
The differentiation, and widely believed to be the birth of BJJ, is credited to Carlos Gracie’s brother Hélio Gracie. As a smaller man, Hélio was unable to effectively perform the kind of throws used in Judo, and Japanese Jujutsu.
Hélio thus adapted it to be a softer martial art, focusing more on leverage and ground fighting, which would allow a smaller fighter to overcome a larger opponent.
Along with the Gracie lineage, Luiz França is credited as another of BJJ’s creators. França was another of Mitsuyo Maeda’s first Brazilian students, training under Maeda during the same period as Carlos and Hélio Gracie.
França, along with Oswaldo Fadda, one of his earliest students, took Maeda’s teachings on Jujitsu and Kokodan Judo and adapted them to fit their own style, as the Gracies did. França and Fadda focused their style primarily on footlocker, which is the biggest way it differs from the Gracie Jiu Jitsu style.
What Does BJJ Mean Today?
Today, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has grown to the point where it is nearly as recognizable as karate, or yoga, or kickboxing. It’s much less of a niche sport or martial art. There are gyms all over the world, with world-class instructors never far from reach.
There are nearly 5,000 black belts in the world registered with the IBJJF, from more than 2,000 registered academies. That’s only counting those who meet the IBJJF’s requirements (or have bothered to register with the IBJJF). I know from experience there are many more gyms and teachers who are not officially affiliated with the IBJJF.
Of the people around the world who learn and practice Jiu Jitsu, some train for fitness, others for sport, others for self defense. Any gym you visit, you’re likely to find training partners who fit into any one of these categories.
Whether it’s as a hobby, to lose weight, for self defense, or as a supplement to other sports (MMA, rugby, etc), BJJ is a worthwhile art to pick up. It’s come a long way from circus sideshow events in Brazil.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Basics
Here are some of the primary positions and techniques of BJJ.
The idea of BJJ is “position over submission”. Meaning, you should try to attain a dominant position over your opponent, before attempting a submission to neutralize your opponent or win the fight.
Some of the most common dominant positions in BJJ are:
- Full mount: one person sits on top of the other’s torso, with their hips past the hips of the fighter on the bottom.
- Side control (or side mount): the fighter on top is perpendicular to the one on the bottom, chest to chest.
- Back mount: one fighter attaches themselves to the back of the other, controlling the upper body with their arms and the lower body with their feet/legs. Commonly known as “taking the back”.
- Knee on belly: a similar position to side control, except the fighter on top pins the one on the bottom with a knee on their stomach/torso, and the other leg outstretched behind for balance.
- North south: the fighter on top is positioned on top of their opponent, in an inverted position with their head over the other’s chest, and each fighter’s legs pointing different directions.
Example of back control, or back mount
In these positions, the majority of the time one person is at a positional disadvantage.
Otherwise, there are positions in which the fight is closer to neutral, with one fighter on their back, defending themself (or attacking), using their guard. This may be:
- Full guard (closed): the fighter on their back has their legs closed around their opponent’s torso.
- Open guard: the fighter on the top is disengaged, while the one on the bottom uses their feet or legs to attack or defend. Variations of the open guard include butterfly guard, x-guard, spider guard or De La Riva guard.
- Half guard: the fighter on the bottom has one leg trapped between their opponent’s, and one leg free.
Once a fighter gets to a dominant position (usually – some submissions can be completed from inferior positions), they will often attempt a submission.
A submission is where the fight is finished, either by an injury to your opponent, by your opponent passing out, or “submitting” by a verbal or physical tap.
Submissions are most often a joint lock, or a choke. A joint lock is focused on breaking or dislocating your opponent’s joint, whereas a choke is designed to put pressure on the opponent’s neck and cause them to pass out, or submit from pain.
Common joint locks include:
- Armbar (attacking the opponent’s elbow joint)
- Kimura (attacking the shoulder)
- Americana (same as kimura, but inverted)
- Kneebar (like an armbar, but attacking the knee)
- Heelhook / toehold (attacking the foot of your opponent in a way that puts pressure on the knee)
- Footlock (attacking the foot or ankle joint)
An Americana shoulder lock
While the most common chokes are:
- Rear-naked choke
- Triangle choke
- Arm triangle choke
- Guillotine choke
- D’arce choke
- Anaconda choke
A Triangle choke
Sweeps, Takedowns and Reversals
The other common techniques in BJJ are transitional techniques. These are techniques used to get to advantageous positions, such as back or side control.
While you may start a fight (or a “roll”) on the knees when you’re practicing in the gym, competitive Jiu Jitsu matches start with both fighters on the feet. Thus, takedowns are an important part of the game.
Jiu Jitsu borrows some techniques from other martial arts such as Judo and wrestling when it comes to takedowns. However, due to the techniques Jiu Jitsu gives you to fight off your back, BJJ fighters may also “pull guard”, meaning the fighter sits down and effectively pulls the other fighter on top of them, so the fighter on the bottom can attack from a full guard or open guard situation.
From bottom positions, fighters can also make use of sweeps or reversals to change position and end up on top. This is common from open guard or full guard – the fighter on the bottom will often look to use leverage to flip their opponent over, ending up in a dominant position.
BJJ Belts & Grading
Like most traditional martial arts, BJJ uses a colored belt system to track progress.
The belt system in BJJ goes from white (the lowest) to black (the highest).
Technically there are levels above black belt, but these are reserved for significant figures in the history of BJJ, and are not necessarily attainable for everyone.
The basic BJJ belt hierarchy for adults is:
- White belt
- Blue belt
- Purple belt
- Brown belt
- Black belt
BJJ students may also get up to four white stripes on their belt, signifying how close they are to the next belt level.
For children (under the age of 16), there are also grey, yellow, orange and green belts, which come in between white and blue.
What is BJJ – In Summary
From the early 1900s to today, from a traveling circus attraction to a professional sport, BJJ has come a long way.
The fundamentals of BJJ never change, however. Hélio Gracie, among others, perfected the art of using technique to allow smaller men and women to defend, and attack, effectively against larger, stronger opponents.
That is what made BJJ so special in the 1920s, and it’s what makes it so special today.