If you watched a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practice from afar, you might wonder why a bunch of people were rolling around in bathrobe-looking attire speed-hugging each other. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see a remarkably technical martial art where a 120-pound woman could learn to strangle a man twice her size, or a mixed martial arts (M.M.A.) protege could get their start practicing the moves that will get their hand raised in the octagon one day.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ, has a relatively short history and a long origin story— and knowing the art could save your life one day. Or, if we’re being less dramatic, help you become a more fit, more confident and maybe even better person.
“In jiu-jitsu, we learn how to survive under pressure, in bad situations and especially how to remain calm and think
straight in order to get out of those situations,” said Renata Godoy, a purple belt from Brazil who currently trains and coaches at Mario Sperry Jiu-Jitsu in Miami. “We can transfer all those fundamentals to all the other areas of life.”
Matt Vinsko, a University of Miami sophomore, describes BJJ as “like doing extreme cardio while playing chess.” It’s a martial art where technique can top strength and speed, and this technique takes many years to learn and master.
At its core, BJJ is a grappling art where athletes start standing and can take each other down to the mat, score points (in some competitions) and “submit” or “tap” their opponents. This basically means to get the other person into a position where they surrender or “tap out” because they have already been beaten, either by a choke or limb-lock in which the winning party could break or injure a joint by continuing the move.
If that sounds intimidating, don’t worry. In practice, nobody is trying to break anyone’s joints or choke them unconscious. There’s a point before any damage is done where both people realize that someone could execute a very painful move if they wanted to. Unless you’re fighting for an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title or world championship, it’s better to keep your arm intact and be ready to train the next day.
According to junior Ravi Akhmadeyev, president of the UM Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Club, BJJ started as a variation of the Japanese martial art judo. Which, according to martial arts site FloGrappling, was actually derived from the original Japanese jiu-jitsu used by samurais for hundreds of years as a last-ditch effort if they were disarmed in battle.
In the early 1900s, waves of Asian immigrants began arriving in Brazil, including a large number of Japanese people. They were doctors, masons, craftsmen… and judoka (judo practitioners) trained under the sport’s founder Kano Jigoro. When they came they started their own gyms, with one notable practitioner being black belt Mitsuyo Maeda,
who taught the art to a young Carlos Gracie, said Akhmadeyev.
The Gracie family went on to be largely credited for building up Brazilian jiujitsu from the sport. While judo allows submissions but emphasizes throws, BJJ is more focused on grappling. The Gracie family, Akhmadeyev said, built BJJ “off the streets in Brazil.” But today, it’s practiced around the world due to its effectiveness and growing recent publicity due to the popularity of social media and mixed martial arts (MMA).
In Miami, which has a sizable Brazilian community of its own, it’s not uncommon to stroll into a BJJ gym and hear a combination of Portuguese (which most Brazilians speak), English and Spanish. A decent number of local dojo owners and athletes started their training in Brazil, and have personal connections to the Gracie family and other founders of the sport.
Born in the U.S. but raised in Brazil, Francis Abramson, founder of Rilion Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Doral, holds black belts in both BJJ and judo. He started training BJJ in Rio in the early 1990s, where he lived for years before moving his family to Miami in 2017 and starting his school here soon after. Miami, he said, appeals to many Brazilians because of the warm weather, Latino culture, minimal time-zone difference and relatively quick flight options—and the sport has benefitted from this in the 305.
“This big move of guys like us, you know, Brazilians, coming here, that was great for the growth of the scene here,” Abramson said. But, he noted, there’s plenty of great gyms out there run by non-Brazilians—a tribute to the increasing popularity of the sport.
Before he tried it himself, Vinsko, a member of the UM club, said he heard of BJJ from podcasters like Joe Rogan and Jocko Willink, who sing its praises on their shows. Akhmadeyev started training five years ago because he thought it would be important to defend himself if he ever got into a fight. “I decided on BJJ,” he said, “because of its practical use in being able to subdue someone and importance in MMA.” The growth in viewership of the UFC, of which Rorion Gracie of the same Gracie family helped start, has contributed to the rise of BJJ, he said.
Indeed, the first UFC tournament was a far cry from the mixed-martial arts matches we see today, in which the fighters are trained in, well, a mixture of martial arts. Rather, the first UFC pit against each other practitioners of different arts like kickboxing and wrestling to see who came out on top, with the winner being BJJ practitioner Royce Gracie, one of the smallest men in the competition.
Now it’s essential for mixed-martial artists to understand at least one grappling sport like judo or wrestling, and many choose BJJ. However, it’s not just hardcore competitors that join in the sport. Abramson emphasized that anyone could train at any age, as training sessions can be adapted no matter how old someone is or what shape they are in. So, you can add BJJ to the list of sports like golf and tennis to consider when your high school athletics phase is behind you.
“Age really doesn’t matter,” he said, “what matters is the way you approach it.” At the UM club, everyone is welcome— and Akhmadeyev encourages them to come out. “We don’t have dues because we want as many people as possible to come train with us,” he said. “No experience is necessary; in fact, the majority of our members began training in the school club.”
While the organization was around since before Akhmadeyev was a freshman, he said, it was dormant by 2020 and wasn’t renewed until last fall semester when a small group restarted it. “The build-back has been faster and easier than expected,” he said, noting that the club is hitting record numbers despite its newness, with up to 30 members training per session. Their goal is to hit 40 next semester.
“The thing that keeps me coming back is quite simple: the people,” said Vinsko. “We’ve built up a nice community, and we’re always looking to grow it because this sport offers so many different benefits.”
A typical practice for the club, which is structured similarly to most BJJ gyms, includes a warm-up, demonstration and practice of whatever move is taught that day, and “free rolling,” which Akhmadeyev explains as BJJ’s version of sparring.“Every meeting, (Ravi) teaches something new so I try to come every time I can, so I don’t miss out,” said freshman Rebecca Angin.
While the sport is generally male dominated, there’s a number of girls on the mats at UM on any given Monday or
Thursday night when the club works out. “It might look intimidating at first, but once you try it, the fear goes away,” said Angin. In fact, the sport’s emphasis on technique and the ability of a smaller opponent to defeat a larger one makes it particularly appealing for women, and people of any gender, interested in self-defense.
“We are still fighting every day to keep our spaces on the mats, but we are doing a great job over the years, and we will keep taking over,” Godoy said. While she has won several tournaments in her seven years of training, Godoy now said her “main goal is to keep learning and helping others in their BJJ journey.”
At some other gyms, the ratio of women to men on the mats isn’t as generous as the club’s—but this is changing. At most clubs, women and men, young and old are able (but not required) to roll and drill with each other. There’s usually an unwritten, heavily enforced rule in BJJ to respect your training partners. Which basically means not needlessly crushing the new guy or girl 100 pounds lighter than you, or the 55-year-old attorney that trains once per week for fun.
The punishment for being a jerk? First, no one wants to roll with you. Second, there is always someone on the mat who can punish you for your sins—so don’t be that guy. When looking for somewhere to train, Abramson noted that some gyms cater more to those looking to compete in BJJ or get ready for MMA, while others are more focused on helping the general public who are looking to train as a hobby and improve their health and lives.
Wherever you go, he suggested, try to watch or join a few classes and get a feel for the “vibe” before committing. While it can be tempting to choose based on price, it’s just as important to like the training environment. And by the way, he warned, don’t go in thinking you know what you’re doing because you’ve watched the UFC for a few years. It takes a lot more than that to become proficient in Brazilian jiu-jitsu—but that’s what makes it worth it.
words_kylea henseler, valeria palladino & mariana vasquez. photo_dani pinzon. design_isa marquez.