Purple Haze: A Jiu-Jitsu “History” Lesson

This post is… well a long time in the making. I started writing this a few months before the COVID shut down.

The timing wasn’t quite right and I was obsessing over the intro; trying too hard to write something intriguing or profound regarding the ground component of fighting, the different variants, the ancient history of grappling, blah, blah, blah.

Time flies and projects collect dust if not worked on. etc. So when I finally decided that I should revisit this piece and after reading what was there thus far, I deleted over half of the material, reworked the remainder and began to add to the mix. The sum total is what we have here.

I hope you enjoy it.

As usual, if you wish to pick up the podcast for a listen instead of reading, you can find it here. Thanks for stopping by!

~Tom

It’s funny how many martial arts have legends surrounding their particular founder’s origin story. From Japan, to China, to Brasil, you will hear the dramatic story of how a weaker, or smaller, or sometimes sickly man, learns a martial art system, overcomes in life and develops their own martial art. They develop The Way, and the rest is History.

While facts are stubborn things, as John Adams describes them, they aren’t always the sexiest. Due to cultures, traditions and other factors, facts alone wouldn’t attract as many people to a martial art if there wasn’t some sort of legend attached to the history. We love a good story, after all. More often than not, you’d find an impressive cocktail of mixing fact, fiction and a shot or two of marketing (aka good story telling) to gain students and popularity.

But this isn’t about origins, facts, histories or legends, or even cocktails, unfortunately.

Even with Jiu-jitsu in its current form, as we know it and love it: the cocktail exists.

Maybe I’ll get into the weeds of that in better detail another time, as I’m still learning and don’t feel adequately equipped to parse out everything. That said, I do want to speak about one thing regarding this art that I believe should be more recognized, and therein lies my little “history lesson”.

And my history lesson is this: despite the legends, myths and marketing, despite the cocktail, despite having “Brazilian” in front of the name more often than not, Jiu-Jitsu isn’t Brazilian.

To quote Westley from, A Princess Bride,

“Anyone who tells you differently is selling something…”

Westley, The Princess Bride, William Goldman

So why bring it up? Why am I talking about all of this? Does it even matter?

Well, since I’ve nothing to sell you and nothing to lose – I’m not some high rank or high performing practitioner afterall – I think I’ve got some leeway to speak freely as I currently understand the history of the art we know and love. I want to get this out as I currently understand it so I can revisit it later. Later down the road, as I’ve done in prior posts, I want to see where I misunderstood, where I mistook and where my understanding has gone deeper or been enlightened. It might make an even better topic one day, but that can only come through more study and practice of the art, or more accurately arts.

I say arts because as the luck of the draw would have it, when I joined up at my Academy, I quickly learned that my instructor also held a Black Belt in Judo and had been practicing that art since he was 6.** It is a generational art for him, both his Father and Grandfather are practicing Judokas. After a couple years with Shane showing us some of his favorite takedowns during competition training, he decided to offer a formal Judo class at the Academy. Through this education, we’ve been exposed to a larger story about Jiu-jitsu.

Finally, since my aim is to assist the “younger” belts, I’d like to offer this information to you as an antidote to any Kool-Aid you may have drank, or an immunization to any potential Kool-Aid you are offered. Are all schools besides mine “blind to the truth”? By no means. However there are a ton of schools that have a certain famous last name attatched to it and even more that have “Brazillian” in front of “Jiu-jitsu”. When the story is so much larger. Should we not show any respect towards the Brazillian side? By no means. But a famous last name is only a fraction of the story, and I’ve been exposed to only a fraction of the iceberg’s tip.

So without further ado, here is my history lesson to you as I currently understand it.

Without the influence of Mitsuyo Maeda, who was a direct student of Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo, the martial art we collectively call Jiu-jitsu could look very different and possibly not be as well known as it is today. It’s possible that this evolution of Jiu-Jitsu wouldn’t even exist. Granted, that statement could fall in to the realm of conjecture, but I’ll leave that up to others to debate since I’m not a historian of the art in the strictest sense. Yes, from what I understand, there was some cross training in different wrestling forms by the Brazillians with the famous last name, but it was a Judoka, who introduced that family to Judo.

Though the names Judo and Jiu-jitsu were used interchangeably from what I understand on a surface level, during those early beginnings in Brazil, they are definitely not the same art anymore and they may not have been the same then, as one could assume that Maeda didn’t teach them strictly Kodokan Judo. Again, possible conjecture there but these are the things I currently understand.

Though changed by the influences of sport rule sets and competition, self-defense applications, innovation, time, and worldwide exposure – what we now know as Judo and Jiu-jitsu are different beasts now.

From my own experience, I’d argue that they are brother/sister arts who definitely compliment each other and more than likely have helped each other evolve and get better. I don’t know the extent of how much BJJ helped Judo, but if you need proof of the inverse, then watching the famous Kimura Vs Gracie match will help. With a careful eye, you will notice a Judoka doing Jiu-jitsu moves…! Or have they been Judo moves all this time? Though some claim a moral victory for Helio Gracie, since he didn’t give up and his corner had to throw in the towel, Kimura dominated the fight, so much so that the figure-four arm lock he used to break Helio Gracie’s arm in that match, twice mind you, is now only known as the Kimura in Jiu-Jitsu circles today. For further insight into Judo’s influence in Jiu-jitsu, go watch Kosen Judo competition matches and see the many similarities in ground fighting techniques which overlap both arts.

Speaking of overlaps, Sambo has its roots in Judo as well, one of the pioneers of Sambo spent much time studying under – surprise surprise – Kano Jigoro, the Founder of Kodokan Judo and teacher of Mitsuyo Maeda.

I think my whole point here is that there is a bigger picture out there regarding Jiu-jitsu. It is good that we keep an open mind, understand the bigger picture so we may orient ourselves appropriately in it. I grew up in an era of the martial arts where everyone, it seemed, was ego invested in their martial art being “The Way” – their origin story was the real story, their fighting style was the ultimate, etc. And I think it wise to make sure we don’t listen to our own press, so to speak. The picture is bigger.

Anyways, that wraps up the history “lesson” portion of what I wanted to discuss.

Now, I mentioned earlier about receiving formal Judo training. Instead of teaching us his favorite Judo throws and sweeps, Professor Shane is taking us through the Kodokan Gyoko no Waza Judo model: 40 techniques divided into 5 belt levels, 8 techniques per level. As far as Judo is concerned, I’m loving it.

I’ve tested and passed the yellow belt curriculum as it currently stands in the Academy and am slowly working on the orange belt curriculum while trying to polish the first 8 moves that I have learned. Though I don’t think I’m necessarily “good” at Judo, during the time I spent learning the first 8, I earned the nickname, “Judo Tom”. I think in part because I was striving to apply a “no mind” approach to Judo and during practice certain things we just clicking. I’m not the best at Randori (sparring) – execution being a whole other matter – but I’m able to see how things fit together which has helped both my understanding and enabled me to help others who are just starting to learn the Judo side. With time, things get better.

My only advice for Judo is: for the love of god, learn how to break-fall properly!

To enhance earlier history lesson, I want to quickly compare and contrast these two arts. The only thing to keep in mind here is that I am speaking in generalities with both arts.

Judo focuses 90% of the fight on the stand-up side, establishing dominant grips, focusing on Kuzushi (off-balancing the opponent) and either throwing or sweeping them. They are hunting for the Ippon, which I loosely understand as the perfect or best throw or sweep possible where the opponent lands on their back. If the throw goes sideways and isn’t an “Ippon”, the other 10% is the grappling element which lasts around thirty seconds or so. Recently I watched a match where a beautifully executed foot sweep brought both competitors to the ground but it wasn’t an Ippon, the competitor who swept then held his opponent in top side-control until the referee called points in his favor. Looking at it through the lens of a Jiu-jitsu guy, it doesn’t look like the cleanest, most controlled side-control, but it is still side control, and he gets the job done. The camera angle wasn’t the best so I couldn’t tell if he applied a submission or if the ruleset was such that he got points for a pin, but I’m fairly ignorant here as I have the understanding that the ground element is mainly searching for the submission.

Similarly, Jiu-jitsu fights start standing, but the fight is supposed to progress to the mat. There is still the element of grip fighting and kuzushi while standing, hunting for a take-down, throw or sweep and those elements still apply when the fight does go to the mat. Solid grips and off balancing your opponent offer advantages in furthering your position and establishing a more dominant one while hunting for the submission or points and advantages. So here, as you can see, the percentages are inverted: 10% of the fight is standing and 90% is grappling.

While points and advantages are nice and can determine the victor, many hunt for the submission, the tap.

The Tap is to Jiu-jitsu what the Ippon is to Judo. We love getting the tap.

The interesting thing here is that in Judo, while most matches can last 5 minutes, depending on the rank of the competitors and the rule set, Jiu-jitsu matches can be 5, 6, 7, 8 or 10 minutes long. I’ve heard of longer “super-fights” . So there is more focus on controlling the position, gaining points, and reducing your opponents options so the point lead is large or the submission is certain.

Again, keep in mind that I’m speaking in generalities here as you can find more than a good handful of Jiiu-jitsu and Judo matches ending quickly with time to spare. The Ippon sizzle reels for Judo fights are wonderful to watch.

To tie this all up, I got my final greenlight that I was on the right track with creating this piece after a recent conversation with Shane, my friend and Professor, about some reading and study material to dive deeper into Jiu-jitsu, as well as the connections and shared history between Judo and Jiu-jitsu. He immediately turned me on to a book called, “Opening Closed Guard: The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu in Brasil – The Story Behind the Film”, by Robert Drysdale. Mr. Drysdale is a 4th Degree Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt and has won both the IBJJF World Championship and the ADCC World Championship. I ordered it and got the book just as I was finishing up this offering for you. I’m really looking forward to diving in to it.

Here is the description of Mr. Drysdale’s book:

What are the origins of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Is it merely a by-product—a rebel offspring—of Judo? What was the nature and content of the art that Mitsuyo Maeda, a.k.a. “Count Koma,” and other Japanese were teaching in the Amazon? Was it Judo? Jiu-Jitsu? His own personal fight-tested style, built on a foundation of Judo and informed by his dozens and dozens of matches around the world? What was the bridge between the art he learned at the Kodokan and the Brazilian style that claims him as its godfather — a style now practiced by millions worldwide (and growing bigger everyday)? Should Maeda even be at the center of this story? And what role did Carlos and Hélio Gracie play in all of this? Did they “invent” BJJ? Would BJJ exist without them? And, if so, what—if anything—did they create? And why does this history matter to the average BJJ practitioner today?

Any history possesses its official narrative with its own favorite characters and events. But true history is seldom simple, and more oft than not the real story is far richer than the popular version that is widely repeated and handed down. The history of BJJ and MMA in Brazil doesn’t escape this paradigm. The recent renaissance in research in regards to the history of martial arts in Brazil led to the author’s curiosity, which in turn led to the documentary Closed-Guard: The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, which in turn led to this book.

This manuscript started as an account of the author’s recollections of the film’s production, and quickly grew into much more. Opening Closed Guard: The Story Behind the Film contains conclusions, analysis, and historical interpretations, as well as the story behind the documentary itself and the many challenges it faced along the way. It contains interviews, research articles pertaining to the history of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, as well as the author’s own take on the current state of BJJ and MMA. Finally, it is the story of the author rediscovering his love for Jiu-Jitsu in a completely new and unexpected way.

In the description you’ll notice it mentioned a documentary film. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come out yet and is still being worked on. From what I’ve seen on Instagram as well as the website, this documentary is being taken pretty seriously and they are trying to provide a high quality product to the martial arts community. The companion book can be purchased on Amazon or at the Opening Closed Guard website. The website is pretty neat and you can see a long list of people that they have interviewed, some known and many unknown, all having contributed to the evolution of Jiu-jitsu and Judo.

I’m looking forward to the lessons in Mr. Drysdale’s book and being able to come back later with some addendums, corrections or elaborations on the history as I know it now. Please check out the linked article below!

(**Correction – I learned after publishing the article and podcast that my Professor was introduced to Judo and began practicing at 4, I’d thought it was 6 for some reason.)

7 thoughts on “Purple Haze: A Jiu-Jitsu “History” Lesson

  1. Very interesting. Especially the part about the origin of the move named Kimura. I had no idea. And that book sounds interesting. Off to read the article you linked to now. Thanks, Tom!

    1. I’m glad you liked it. Martial Arts histories are an interesting thing on its own haha. Gotta give the Gracie family respect, they were great marketers. The UFC was pretty much started to promote Gracie Jiu Jitsu hahaha

    1. Thanks, Rhyan, much appreciated! The fictional side has been lacking, there’s a ghost story I’m stuck on, having a hard time writing the concept into a piece. 🤦🏼‍♂️

      1. To me, writing is writing, and sharing knowledge is just as important or perhaps maybe moreso than telling a story.

        Regarding the ghost story (this may not work for you but it works for me) try bullet pointing things you’d like to see happen in the story. Don’t concentrate on the plot, story flow or ending, just jot down ideas, even if they’re outlandish and contradict each other, and when you’ve exhausted all the possibilities that come to mind, set it aside and come back to it later with a fresh set of eyes. You might find that one of those bullet points sets you off on a path to the finish line.

      2. Thanks man, I really appreciate the guidance there. I’ll give that a go and see what happens, maybe I do need a fresh set of eyes. 😎👊🏻

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