History of Grappling

Early Beginnings

The art of grappling as a sport and method of defense goes further back in time than any other existing records of empty hand combat. It can be traced back as far as 3400 BC with the Egyptians. These recorded images of grappling can be seen on the tomb walls of Beni-Hasan Egypt and also in the tomb of Vizier Ptahhotpe in Saqqara. Some of the exact techniques used in today’s many grappling styles are on these walls. These paintings date back as far as 2300 BC.  Grappling was also described in bible stories. Prophets & Angels wrestled with beasts. Genesis 32 describes that Jacob was left alone to wrestle beasts or man until the breaking of the day

Although grappling was done all over the world, the first “famous” styles were introduced to the Greek Olympic Games in 704 BC. Grappling had come to the Roman Empire through the Etruscans and had slowly evolved. Roman wrestling influenced the rather static Greek form and used military tactics such as upright takedowns. The old Greek style was much like Brazilian Jiu-Jujitsu today, which spends most of the match on the ground. The word Roman in Greco-Roman wrestling, however is a mistranslation of greek word “romi” referring to  “valor & strength”.

Other ancient forms of European wrestling can be found in the British Isles dating back as far as 1829 BC. Wrestling forms called “Strong Arm Fighting” became famous, and even used specific grappling uniforms with thick collared jackets and waistbands. Other grappling styles in ancient Europe were GLIMA from the Norse and SCHWINGEN from Switzerland.  There is also mention of grappling matches among the Scots and Irish.

India had an ancient form of grappling from around 11 AD. Indian wrestling is known as Pahalwani or Mallavidya. Some Indians also practice a lesser known grappling art called Vajra-Musti

Grappling, simply beginning as a self defense art, then progressing to a battlefield art, then to sport, probably developed independently in many places around the globe.  With time, different styles came in contact with each other, mixed and matched techniques and spread all over the world.  For those who study grappling, it can be truthfully said that even though thousands of techniques exist, there is a finite amount of ways to manipulate the human body.  Therefore, at some point,  all grappling is related.

Indian influence

Kalari Payat is the grappling art of India. Each one of the Kalari Payat techniques is a complete finishing tactic, which enables the person to get into the enemy and put him under control. Although it has developed over the centuries, there are techniques that very much resemble Pankration, and it is thought that pankration may be one of its root styles. The art has it’s origin with the training of soldiers, Buddhist monks as well as noblemen who had to learn the art, because there were frequent raids on the Kings and Princes’ of Kerala (South India) by neighboring war lords. Kalari Payat was developed a few thousand years ago in the state of Kerala in India, which was introduced in Malaysia by the Mahaguru Ustaz Haji Hamzah Haji Abu, who is the founder of the International Dynamic Self Defense Kalari Payat (FIDSDK). Kalari Payat, had it’s origin in Kerala State, South -West of India. This is why there is a suggestion that the soldiers of Alexander the Great may have brought pankration to western India and influenced the local grappling arts.

Japanese influence- Mitsuyo Maeda

In 1897, a man by the name of Mitsuyo Maeda entered the Kodokan to begin his Judo training in the time when Kodokan Judo was beginning a great emphasis on ne-waza, or grappling techniques. He had a natural talent for Judo and moved through the ranks very quickly, establishing himself as the most promising young student in the Kodokan.

In 1904, at the age of 26 and as a 4th degree black belt, he was given the chance to go to the U.S. with one of his instructors, Tsunejiro Tomita. He and his instructor were invited to demonstrate at West Point. They started with kata, which the Americans did not understand or take well to. Maeda was challenged by a student that was a wrestling champion. The student thought that he had won because he pinned Maeda, but Maeda, unfamiliar with western wrestling continued to fight until he got his opponent in a joint lock and made him tap out. The students then wanted to see Tomita fight. Since he was the teacher, they figured that he must be the better fighter. Tomita had only come to demonstrate, not except challenge matches, but to save face he had no choice. Tomita, however, was in his 40’s and past his prime, so when the much larger American rushed him and tackled him, he was easily able to pin him under his weight so that Tomita could not move. He was forced to give up.

Tomita and Maeda parted ways with Tomita going to the West Coast and Maeda staying in New York to teach. He accepted a few challenge matches and taught at Princeton as well as in New York City, but Americans did not take well to Japanese style teaching and did not stay long.

Maeda was offered to take a challenge fight for money by the local Japanese, which was against the Kodokan rules, but he needed money. His match was against a New York wrestler, which he won, and his fighting career began.

Maeda persuaded some Japanese business men to back him with $1000 in prize money and he began his travels fighting and proving the superiority of Judo in North, Central and South America as well as in Europe. At 5’5″ and 154 pounds, he fought all takers even if they were much larger than he was. Out of over 2000 matches he was undefeated in Judo/Jiujitsu type matches and only lost 2 matches in the catch-as-catch-can world championships held in London. He entered both the middleweight and heavyweight divisions advancing to the semi-finals and finals respectively.

In 1908, while in Spain he adopted the name Conde Koma, or Count Trouble. Because of his financial trouble he was in and his other surrounding problems, he first took the Japanese verb “komaru”, or trouble, as his name. However, he didn’t think that Maeda Komaru had a good ring to it, so he dropped the last syllable. A Spanish friend of his suggested that he use the name Conde, or Count, so Maeda adopted this name and later it became part of his legal name.

Count Koma Goes to Brazil

In 1915, Maeda ended up settling in a town called Belem, in Brazil. He felt that Brazil was the idea place for the Japanese to immigrate to. America, at the time, had strong anti-Japanese sentiments and Brazil was very open minded. The Amazon was also more promising with it’s lush vegetation. While there, he still continued his challenge fighting and would travel abroad again when needed, but Brazil became his home.

Maeda still taught as part of his profession. His fame as a fighter brought to him policemen, army college cadets, and politicians as well as ordinary citizens. One politician, named Gastao Gracie, asked him to teach his son Carlos.

Carlos Gracie was the son of Gastao and Cesalina Gracie. Gastao’s father, George Gracie, had immigrated from Scotland years earlier. Gastao had asked Conde Koma, or Mitsuyo Maeda, to teach his son, Carlos Gracie, his art of Judo. Maeda agreed and began his lessons. Carlos actually only studied about a year with Maeda himself before he had to leave again. Carlos continued his training with the Brazilian assistant instructors that Maeda had put in place to teach the students in his absence. Carlos would then teach the techniques to his brothers.

Carlos opened his own school in 1925 under the name of the Gracie Jiujitsu Academy. The name of Judo had been changed back to Jiujitsu to reflect its combat attitude. The Gracie’s Jiujitsu was not focused on points, it was focused on simply making the opponent give up with a submission technique or to carry the technique to its completion, much as the older style of Judo once was and still existed in the Kosen style. The new name was to separate it from its sport counterpart of Judo. This was not about sport, this was about fighting.

Carlos had four younger brothers: Oswaldo, Gastao Jr., Jorge and Helio. Helio was often on the sidelines watching his brothers practice because of his poor physical condition, but he was learning much as he watched. One day, a student showed up for his private lesson with Carlos, but Carlos was late. Helio decided that he would teach the lesson since he had watched his brothers for years and was sure that he could teach as well as he needed to. In fact, as the lesson ended and Carlos burst in apologizing for his being late, the student said, “That’s alright, your brother gave me a good lesson, and if you don’t mind, I’d like him to teach me from now on.” This began Helio’s career in Jiujitsu.

The Gracies Take on the World

Just as Maeda challenged other schools and fighters, so too the Gracie brothers began challenging anyone and everyone. Boxers, wrestlers, Karate men and champions of all styles were fought and beaten by Gracie Jiujitsu. Helio first stepped in the ring at the age of 17 and soon became the strongest fighter in the Gracie Family.

Eventually, Helio sent a challenge to the current Judo Champion and one of the greatest Judoka of all time, Masahiko Kimura, in 1952. Kimura accepted the challenge, but took two assistants with him. If Helio could not defeat his assistants then he would not even bother with him. Helio’s first match was with Kado, a 5th degree black belt. Helio choked Kado into submission from the guard 6 minutes into the fight. Kimura accepted the match.

Weeks later, the match was scheduled in front of 20,000 spectators and it was given the largest possible media coverage. The Gracie’s brought in a coffin for Kimura as a symbol as to how they thought the fight would end.

During the fight, Kimura threw Helio many times with very powerful throws. The Gracie’s, however, had brought in very thick mats for the fight so that Helio would not sustain too much damage from the throws. In pictures, you can see their bodies sinking into the mat as they grapple. After 12 minutes of punishing throws and submission techniques, Kimura caught Helio in an armlock and had to break his arm in order to get Helio’s corner to throw in the towel. Helio would still not tap, even with a broken arm.

Kimura would later comment on Helio’s fighting spirit, and the armlock that broke Helio’s arm is still called the Kimura by BJJ stylists to this day. Kimura also later noted that Helio’s Jiujitsu reminded him of the old pre-WWII style Judo, which is obvious considering they were taught by Maeda himself.

In 1957, Helio would suffer his second major loss against a former student named Valdemar Santana. They had what is believed to be the longest match in Jiujitsu history with 3 hours and 45 minutes of punching, kicking, elbowing, knees and headbutts along with vigorous grappling looking for submissions of all types. It was not until regaining their feet that Santana was able to connect with a kick to Helio’s head as he was standing. Helio went down and the match was finally over. Helio was 45 years old at the time, this would be his last fight.

With Helio’s loss to Santana, Carlson Gracie, the son of Carlos, would enter the ring at the age of 17 to avenge the family name. He defeated Santana and earned the title of “king”. They would fight again for a total of 6 times with Carlson winning four and drawing for two.

Gracie Jiujitsu Goes to America

Helio Gracie eventually had sons of his own who followed in the tradition of the Gracie family style of martial arts. The family continued to challenge all takers and were undefeated since Helio was beaten by Kimura. Eventually, one of Helio’s sons, Rorian, decided that it was time to take Gracie Jiu-jitsu out to the world, and headed off to America.

Rorian had made a trip to America in the late 1970’s and started teaching in the early 1980’s. He was surprised to find that Americans virtually had no idea of how to fight on the ground. It was something that most schools didn’t even attempt to address. To further his point, he offered $10,000.00 to anyone that could beat their style in a no-rules competition.

In 1993, Rorian’s brother, Royce, took Gracie Jiu-jitsu to the world by entering the first Ultimate Fighting Championship and easily winning the entire event against fighters that were two and three times his size. He did it again in UFC 2 and UFC 4. This opened the door for many Brazilians to come to America to fight against fighters from all over the world. Gracie Jiu-jitsu suddenly gained a huge surge in popularity. As people realized that this was one of the most effective styles to come along in years they scrambled to learn as much as they could.

In the later 1990s, other equally talented Brazilian fighters also started to gain popularity. This was the result of multiple fights shows and grappling events. Today, there are now many Brazilian fighters that boast records and reputations that even exceed the original Gracie’s. Overall, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has now taken its place world-wide as one of the most effective martial arts that can be practiced.