The Martial Art I Can’t Live Without
Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been compared to chess, philosophy, even psychoanalysis. But its real appeal is on the mat.
By Stephanie Hayes
NOVEMBER 19, 2021

Illustration by Oliver Munday. Sources: Miljan Živković / Getty; Vm / Getty
On november 12, 1993, in a sports arena in Denver, a lean Brazilian man in an outfit resembling a pair of pajamas stepped into an octagon to fight. There were no weight classes or judges, and very few rules. His opponent, a dead-eyed Dutch karate champion named Gerard Gordeau, had already beaten two other men that night, including a 420-pound Samoan sumo wrestler he’d kicked so hard that bits of tooth got lodged in his foot. But Royce Gracie was unfazed. In less than two minutes, the jiu-jitsu black belt brought Gordeau to the ground, got behind him, and wrapped an arm beneath his chin to secure a rear naked choke. Gordeau tapped frantically on the mat to signal his submission. The audience at the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship event went wild.

Up until then, martial arts in the American popular imagination had featured fighters in cartoonish striking mode—a bare-chested Bruce Lee sending men flying with a single kick or punch, or Ralph Macchio, as the Karate Kid, raising his limbs like a praying mantis. The ground-fighting art honed in Brazil over generations by an entire Gracie dynasty was virtually unknown here. Within months of UFC 1, which both critics and fans saw as a Gracie infomercial, membership quadrupled at the California academy that Rorion Gracie, one of Royce’s brothers, had started a few years earlier. In the decades since, Brazilian jiu-jitsu has exploded in the United States, and not just under Gracie leadership; every day, thousands of devotees head into humid, rank basement academies across the country, hoping to … well, what are we looking for?

For a discipline that involves getting sat on, sweated on, and uncomfortably entangled with another person—your knee torqued, your arm hyperextended, your carotid artery crushed in a choke hold—Brazilian jiu-jitsu elicits surprisingly cerebral comparisons: to chess, philosophy, even psychoanalysis. Another of Royce’s brothers—he has six, each with the first initial R—is the legendary Rickson Gracie, considered by many to be the greatest jiu-jitsu practitioner of all time. Rickson leans into the elevated rhetoric around jiu-jitsu in his new memoir, Breathe: A Life in Flow, the latest installment in the family’s long promotional campaign. “I know this might sound like an exaggeration,” he writes of his father, “but Hélio Gracie was to Jiu Jitsu what Albert Einstein was to physics.”

Frail and prone to fainting (he suffered from vertigo), Hélio started out as a spectator at his family’s academy in Brazil, run by his more athletic brother, Carlos. When Hélio finally began training in the late 1920s, his approach to jiu-jitsu, a martial art first developed in 15th-century Japan and then modified into judo, had to be strategic. “You can’t lift a car, but when you use a jack you can easily lift it,” Hélio explained in a family history called The Gracie Way. “I simply adapted the use of a ‘jack’ to every position of jiu-jitsu.” Leverage, tension, and timing were the secret to his techniques, rather than speed or strength. Sidelining the dramatic throws of judo, he experimented with new ways of fighting while seated or on one’s back. In Breathe, Rickson goes all in on the art’s David-beats-Goliath theme of tactical mastery over physical attributes.

This brains-over-brawn emphasis is a large part of the appeal for someone like me, who, at 5 foot 3, spent years loving the wrong sport (basketball). That jiu-jitsu really is like solving an ever-shifting puzzle—calculating your opponent’s potential next moves and trying to trap him in a choice between, say, getting shoulder-locked or choked—also helps account for its incongruous acolytes. Take John Danaher, a monklike New Zealander who got his first taste of jiu-jitsu as a graduate student studying epistemology at Columbia University; a guy half his size challenged him to a fight (in the philosophy-department office) and wore him out in minutes. Danaher started training, and eventually abandoned his pursuit of a doctorate to teach at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, where he helped revolutionize the way grapplers think about leg attacks.
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