Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the most popular martial art in the U.S.


Takedown Moves

Back in 1973, when the Bruce Lee martial arts craze was all the rage, a 10-year-old Puerto Rican kid from New York’s Spanish Harlem named Roberto Santiago, despite training in karate, was still losing fights every time a bully grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground.

“How do I defend myself when the bully gets me down on the ground?” Santiago asked his karate instructor.

“Don’t let the bully get you down on the ground!” yelled his karate instructor, scolding Santiago for being a poor student because he did not stop the attack with punches and kicks.

In 2018, if a martial arts instructor said that, they would lose all credibility. This is due to the impact of  Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a sophisticated form of South American street fighting that is now the most popular martial art in the United States – so much so that its ground grappling and submission techniques are now taught in many karate and kung fu training facilities across the United States.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu likely emerged around 1929. Its creation and development credited to Hélio and Carlos Gracie, two Belém, Brazil–born brothers who as teenagers modified their early Japanese jiu jitsu and judo training into the ground–based street fighting art they named Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

 But it would not be until 1993 that brothers Rorion and Royce Gracie, sons of Hélio Gracie, popularized the martial art to worldwide audiences with the debut of a full contact, no-holds barred martial arts competition called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). During the early years of UFC, viewers saw Royce Gracie defeat fighters who were taller, heavier, stronger and superior punchers and kickers by using the takedown moves taught by the Gracie family.

 “Without the UFC, it’s hard to envision BJJ being as popular as it is now, “ said Robert Young, the editor-in-chief of Black Belt magazine (blackbeltmag.com), a national publication that has covered the martial arts community since 1961. “Back in the early days [1980s], it was Rorion Gracie teaching out of his garage in Southern California. Few of our readers and few in the outside world had heard of it. But Royce Gracie’s success in the UFC and Rickson Gracie’s [competition] success in Japan, and then the success of fighters who openly talked about the importance of BJJ in their training, put it where it is today.”

Michael Jose Velez, 43, is the founding editor and publisher of the Chino Hills, California-based Jiu Jitsu magazine (jiujitsumag.com), arguably the best BJJ magazine published in the United States.  Although there are no official statistics available, Velez estimates that the number of people training in BJJ is approaching a half million.

“Through conversations I’ve had personally with people in positions with great insight we ‘guesstimate’ that there are roughly 350 to 450 thousand people training BJJ in the U.S. currently. All signs point to that number only increasing,” said Velez, a BJJ black belt who is of Mexican, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Persian descent.

And because it is a martial art, BJJ offers tremendous, mental and physical benefits for practitioners such as Richard F. Aguinaga, 44, a Puerto Rican/Peruvian blue belt and criminal investigator who trains at John Wai Martial Arts (johnwai.com) in Plantation, Florida.

“One important philosophy of BJJ is that you should not use too much strength and time when attempting to execute a technique,” said Aguinaga. “Good BJJ practitioners can realize the moment in time when an attempt at applying a technique should be abandoned and quickly move on to another technique. I have been able to apply this philosophy to my life and to my career. If there is a goal or objective that I want to accomplish but I am experiencing resistance and expending too much effort, I stop what I am doing and find another path or paths that will help me realize my objective.”

Law enforcement officer Mario Curtiellas, 29, is a Cuban American BJJ black belt instructor at John Wai Martial Arts.  He began his BJJ training at American Top Team in South Florida 12 years ago and has not looked back since.

 “Many of us spend school years either intimidating others to avoid a fight or avoiding a fight with that intimidating person,” said Curtiellas. “In BJJ you walk on to the mat on day one and you have absolutely no chance in beating anyone there. In BJJ we like to say that the instructor is the biggest loser on the mat because in order to get where he is he will have had to tap out more than anyone else. I’ve tapped out more times than I can count. What kept me coming back was seeing my progress. By training harder and more often than most of the people I trained with, I was able to pass them. Winning in competition and in the ring only confirmed what I already knew.”

And perhaps one of the greatest benefits of BJJ is that because it is a ground-based grappling and submission martial art where practitioners “tap out” when their opponent is beating them on the mat, it can be safely practiced by people of any age.

Recognizing that many so-called ‘old men over the age of 40’ were training in BJJ is what inspired Mexican-American Ed Solis, a 49-year–old BJJ brown belt from Gilroy, California, to launch in 2012 a Facebook-based company called Old Man Jiu Jitsu, (omjj.bigcartel.com) which sells BJJ-related workout gear ranging from t-shirts and rash guards to BJJ uniforms (gis)

“The name [Old Man Jiu Jitsu] actually began as a running joke,” said Solis. “One day after rolling with a couple of guys who were 18 and 20 years old [and submitting them] I said jokingly: ‘You guys should be ashamed of yourselves. If you add your ages I’m still older than you both!’  They looked at each other and then one said: “The only reason you beat us is because you used that old man jiu jitsu!” We all started laughing but the idea stayed with me.

Both Solis and Velez established Hispanic-owned businesses through their love of BJJ and their determination to see the martial art prosper. “We’d like to continue to grow and expose more and more people to BJJ,” said Velez.  “This will help us continue to make lives better through the power of BJJ.”

Roberto Santiago