History of Jiu-Jitsu: Coming to America and the Birth of the UFC

T.P. Grant@@TP_GrantAnalyst IApril 13, 2011

Royce Gracie at UFC 1
Royce Gracie at UFC 1

The Gracie family art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was a modification of the Japanese art of Judo by Carlos and Helio Gracie. The next generation of Gracies would push the art forward, and great masters like Carlson and Rolls emerged. The art was battle tested in Vale Tudo arenas all over Brazil, and by the mid-1960s, Jiu-Jitsu was firmly established in the Brazilian martial arts scene. While the Gracies were minor celebrities in their home country, hardly anyone outside of Brazil had been exposed to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

Rorion Gracie was the eldest son of Helio Gracie and grew up training under his father and his cousin Rolls Gracie. Rorion had a gift for teaching and by the age of 17 he was already giving private lessons at his father’s academy. He was intrigued by stories Rolls told of visiting his mother in New York.

In 1969 Rorion was finally convinced to visit the U.S. if for nothing else, just to experience a plane flight.

Rorion traveled to California and stayed at a YMCA hotel during his visit. For safety purposes he stored his airline ticket and extra cash in the hotel safe while he was out, but returned one day to find that a receptionist had cleaned out the safe before disappearing after her shift was over. The hotel gave Rorion some money but they couldn’t reimburse his plane ticket. The airline said to make sure that his claim wasn’t a scam, Rorion had to wait six months before he could get new tickets.

Rorion called his father and lied to him, telling him he loved America and wanted to stay for at least another six months. A judo club at the YMCA caught Rorion’s eye and he attended a class as a white belt and left that class with a brown belt. Rorion and the Judo instructor became fast friends. That Judo instructor set Rorion up with a job at a White Castle, flipping burgers.

What resulted was a year-long whirlwind journey, in which took the young Brazilian went from doing fast food in Southern California, all the way to pan-handling in Hawaii and finally back home to Rio. While glad to be home, Rorion decided that he had to return to the United States, and this time his goal was bring his family art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with him.

The young Gracie spent the 1970s saving money and earning a Law Degree, and by 1978 he was ready to return to California. 

When Rorion returned, he used his contacts he had made during his first stint in the U.S. to get a job cleaning houses for people in the film industry. Through families he met there Rorion began to work as an extra in several TV shows. During this time Rorion offered free lessons in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to every single person he met.

One of the first people to take Rorion up on his offer was a man named Richard Bresler when he sold Rorion a spare water-mattress. Jiu-Jitsu classes at this time were little more than private lessons that Rorion held in a garage where he had laid some mats down. Bresler became one of the Gracie’s first steady students, and is still good friends with many of the Gracies.

Here is a video of Bresler training. While it says Rickson it seems to be a collection of several tapes of Bresler sparring with several Gracies.

The number of students grew rapidly and the garage soon was too small to accommodate Rorion’s needs, so he set out to open a real school. With the opening of the first Gracie academy in the U.S. Rorion also called home to Brazil, to tell his family that had established a foothold for Jiu-Jitsu and that he needed help accommodating the sheer number of students.   

The family responded by sending Rolyer and Rickson Gracie, Rorion’s brothers, and several of their students including a 17-year-old Royce Gracie

During the 1980s Rorion and his brothers established a thriving academy, but still they had trouble expanding and being accepted by the American martial arts community. The American perception of martial arts was deeply colored by the explosion of "kung fu" movies in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly driven by the stardom of the legendary Bruce Lee. Americans tended to discount grappling martial arts in favor of striking; the flashier the better.

While the Gene Lebell vs. Milo Savage match in the 1960s did give some Americans a preview of Grappler vs. Strikers matches, it was not widely consumed or taken seriously and the lessons of that match were lost on American martial artists. And the Gracies would host a stern a review session for any who would accept. Many of Rorion’s students came from other martial arts and when they would go back to their dojo they would tell their instructors of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Some of these instructors took expectation to this new art sweeping up students and challenged Rorion to a fight.

Rorion and his brothers were veterans of Vale Tudo matches and quickly overmatched many of these challengers. Rorion began to use these matches like his uncle Carlos used the famous "Gracie Challenge" by having challengers sign the rights to be videotaped in exchange for a cash prize if they won the match.

As the matches became more and more popular, it became the job of elder students like Bresler to go out and pick fights with other martial arts school to help bring attention to the Gracies' teachings.

The Gracies used the videos of these matches to fight against the American perception that spinning hook kicks where more effective in self-defense situations than grappling martial arts. Many of these challengers became students of the Gracies shortly after their match.

While these matches certainly earned the Gracies fans in Southern California, including Chuck Norris, who took lessons from Carlos Machado, one of Helio’s and Rickson’s students. Norris’ contacts allowed the Gracies to become more accepted by the martial arts community and spots at conventions and demonstrations that where previously closed to Jiu-Jitsu opened. 

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu began to spread across California as students of the art began to spread and teach students of their own, but few Americans had heard of, much less had access to, Jiu-Jitsu east of the Rocky Mountains.

In the early 1990s, Rorion wanted to reach out to the rest of the United States, but he knew the grassroots movement he had used in California would be impractical. Rorion went to a friend and student John Milius, a filmmaker, about how he could best reach the largest number of Americans possible. Rorion wanted to use the concept of the challenge match and show the use of ground fighting in a no rules fight.

Milius put Rorion in touch with Art Davie, a promoter, and together the three of them came up with the the Ultimate Fighting Championships. Rorion insisted that there could no rules, no gloves and no time limits, while Milius came up with the idea of an Octagon-shaped cage.

The idea was simple enough, a one-night tournament in which representatives of different martial arts would test their skills. Fights would end by stoppage only: submission, KO or corner throwing in the towel and the winner would be crowned The Ultimate Fighter.

Details were debated over. The tournament was originally to be called "The War of the Worlds" and the cage was going to be surrounded with a moat filled with alligators. But no detail was more hotly debated than which Gracie should represent Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. All logic pointed to Rickson, who on top of having transcendent technique is also a physical beast.

And it was Rickson’s physical nature that caused Rorion to instead pick the scrawny Royce Gracie. To maximize the promotion of the family art, Rorion wanted Royce to appear as the underdog in all his fights based simply on physique.

On November 12, 1993, UFC 1 was held.

Royce was able to easily dispatch the strikers he faced, but the semifinal against Ken Shamrock represented the greatest threat to the Gracies in the tournament because of his Shoot grappling background, which was based on catch wrestling and footlocks much like Luta Libre in Brazil.

Royce won the match due to the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu emphasis on position over submission when he was able to lock on a rear naked choke after obtaining a modified back mount. For the MMA implications of this matchup I highly recommend Kid Nate’s article MMA History: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

The UFC was a smashing success, not just as an infomercial for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but also as a promotion all on its own. Royce’s victory sent a clear message and American martial arts had been put on notice: respect the ground game.


Gracie, Rorion. Interview with Fightworks Podcast. 12 Dec. 2010.

Bresler, Richard. Interview with Fightworks Podcast. 24 Jan 2010 http://thefightworkspodcast.com/2010/01/24/rorion-gracie/  

Gracie, Rorion. Interview with T.J. De Santis on Sherdog Radio Network. 16 Jan 2011