The History and Effectiveness of Grappling-Based Martial Arts

Aug 10, 2023Jiu-Jitsu

History Of Grappling

The Early Development of Japanese Jujitsu

Jujitsu’s Battlefield Origins

Jujitsu has ancient roots in Japan, arising from the need for functional combatives on the battlefield and for restraining and capturing enemies. As political turmoil led to demand for martial skills, professional martial arts schools emerged and were sponsored by warlords. The extensive resources allowed these schools to advance their techniques and training methods, developing a sophisticated approach to combat.

The Transition to Civilian Jujitsu

When political stability removed the military need for jujitsu, a civilian version emerged focused on unarmed fighting. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this civilian jujitsu rose to prominence in Japan. However, the extreme isolationist policies of the Tokugawa shogunate led to the decline of the ruling and military classes, and consequently, classical jujitsu fell into decline.

Kano Seeks to Revitalize Jujitsu

Jigoro Kano sought to revive the declining martial traditions by instituting a new system called Kodokan Judo in the late 1800s. Kano believed that the martial arts had to be adapted and improved to suit the needs of modern society. To that end, he tried to remove what he saw as the negative elements of traditional jujitsu that contributed to its decline. This ushered in a period of renewal for the Japanese martial arts.

Challenge Matches Prove Judo’s Dominance

Kodokan Judo Defeats Classical Ryuha

In a series of challenge matches, the new Kodokan Judo schools faced off against the classical jujitsu ryuha that claimed to represent the old fighting traditions. The results of these challenge matches were extremely lopsided, with Kano’s Judo teams winning decisively time and again. Their superior training methodology and strategic approach gave them a clear advantage over the outdated techniques and training of the classical schools.

Weaknesses of the Classical Ryuha

These victories illuminated several weaknesses that had developed in the classical jujitsu ryuha. First, the training methods of the classical schools were antiquated, relying heavily on prearranged kata over live resistant practice. Secondly, the strategic approach of the classical ryuha was poorly suited for success in the challenge matches. They focused on techniques without developing a coherent overall strategic approach to fighting itself.

The Kodokan’s Strategic Approach

Against the sophisticated strategy developed by Kano, the classical ryuha appeared outdated. The Kodokan representatives focused their efforts on training the gripping skills and throwing techniques that would allow them to unbalance and throw opponents decisively to the mat. Their expertise in using grabs and throws to take opponents to the ground was far beyond anything the classical ryhua had faced before and accounted for the Kodokan’s consistent success.

The Innovative Groundwork of Fusen Ryu

Fusen Ryu’s Surprise Challenge

After defeating all the major jujitsu ryu of his era, Kano and his Kodokan school must have seemed unassailable as Japan’s preeminent martial art. However, to the surprise of many, this aura of invincibility was shattered by an unexpected challenge from a relatively small, obscure jujitsu school known as Fusen Ryu.

Specialized Ground Grappling

The Fusen Ryu was an ancient school with a lineage stretching back to the late 1700s. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was led by a master named Mataemon Tanabe who brought drastic innovations to the curriculum. Tanabe had focused intensively on developing extremely high-level ground grappling skills, emphasizing fighting from the guard position and using submissions to end matches.

Defeat for the Kodokan

When the upstart Fusen Ryu challenged the mighty Kodokan, the Judo exponents were confident as always; after all, they had easily crushed all the well-known jujitsu ryu already. But the Fusen Ryu fighters introduced a novel approach that caught the Kodokan completely off guard. They pulled their opponents into their guard on the ground and then used their vastly superior ground fighting skills to lock on submissions from seemingly helpless positions. The lopsided result was a huge shock to Kano and the Kodokan members.

Lasting Impact on Judo

Recognizing the grave holes in their syllabus revealed by this loss, Kano arranged for Tanabe to instruct his students in the ground grappling curriculum of Fusen Ryu. This quickly led Kodokan Judo to incorporate extensive groundwork into their training. But Fusen Ryu itself faded away, its knowledge absorbed into the much larger Judo movement. The victories over the Kodokan were its swan song.

Nonetheless, the upset wins served as a wake-up call, forcing Kano to expand his curriculum to include ground techniques. It also set a pattern for later evolution in the martial arts – a smaller offshoot school refining a neglected area of training to upset a larger, establishment style. The underdog can triumph through strategic innovation.

Mitsuyo Maeda Spreads Jujitsu Across the Globe

Maeda’s Rise in Kodokan Judo

One of the most important figures in the development of grappling arts was Mitsuyo Maeda, a martial artist who helped spread judo and jujitsu worldwide. As a youth, Maeda studied classical jujitsu, but he soon became a Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan Judo student. Due to his outstanding talent, he quickly rose to prominence as a top student of Kano’s.

Global Travels and Challenge Matches

Seeking to propagate judo beyond Japan’s borders, Kano sent delegations of his top instructors overseas, including Maeda. Maeda visited the United States first but faced anti-Asian discrimination that thwarted his teaching efforts. Undaunted, he embarked on an ambitious plan to travel the world, using challenge matches to prove the effectiveness of his jujitsu-based fighting skills at every stop.

Over many years, Maeda amassed an astonishing record of victories in fights around the globe. His success in challenge matches against wrestlers, boxers, savate fighters, and all styles of martial artists enabled him to attract students eager to learn his potent skills wherever he went. He became a living legend in the martial arts community along the way, known as “Count Koma” for his constant travels and struggles.

Bringing Jujitsu to Brazil

Maeda’s worldwide journey led him to Brazil, where his teachings would plant the seeds of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Brazil was actively attempting to attract Japanese emigrants at this time. Maeda immigrated as part of this wave of Japanese settlers, befriending a Brazilian politician named Gastao Gracie. Out of gratitude for Gracie’s assistance, Maeda taught Gracie’s son Carlos the basics of his judo and jujitsu-inspired fighting system. Carlos Gracie would build on this base, eventually developing what became Brazilian Jiujitsu.

Analyzing Maeda’s Approach to Combat

Bridging Distance Against Strikers

Maeda had to solve the problem of closing distance on punching and kicking experts to enter into clinching range. He found elbow strikes and low kicks effective for covering space and entering the clinch.

Emphasis on Takedowns

Once in the clinch, Maeda’s judo throwing skills allowed him to take opponents to the ground reliably where grappling could neutralize striking skills.

Positional and Submission Focus

On the ground Maeda’s groundwork shone. He used position and control to set up submissions, a major departure from classical jujitsu submission attempts from any position.

Phases of Combat

Maeda excelled at forcing opponents into ground grappling, a phase of combat where they were vulnerable. This exemplified the “phases” strategy popularized by Fusen Ryu years earlier.

Through extensive trial in fights around the world, Maeda discovered that grappling arts could defeat dangerous strikers by bringing the fight to an arena where grapplers hold the advantage. His tremendous record leaves no doubt as to the effectiveness of his tactical approach against—and innovative contributions helped lay the foundation for Brazilian Jiujitsu’s emergence.

The Gracie Family Develops Brazilian Jiujitsu

Carlos Gracie Learns from Maeda

When Maeda left Brazil after several years of teaching, his top student Carlos Gracie began training his brothers in the fighting skills of his former instructor. The Gracie brothers grew skilled in the judo and jujitsu techniques Maeda had taught Carlos, and soon opened an academy to teach others. As their technical skills improved, the Gracies gained a strong reputation in Brazil by winning a number of challenge matches against other martial artists.

Innovation Through Challenge Matches

The constant competition sharpened the Gracie family’s skills and strategic understanding of real combat. They began to modify the techniques Carlos had learned from Maeda, altering certain moves to be more efficient for smaller, weaker practitioners. The Gracies also developed a more sophisticated perspective on fighting strategy. For instance, they realized that simply pinning an opponent was rarely sufficient to end a real fight, so they moved away from the pin as a finishing hold. And they categorized pinning positions based on their danger in a real combat situation, unlike traditional styles that valued all pins equally in training.

Developing a Positional Strategy

Most significantly, the Gracies pioneered integrating a point system into training and competition. Their system awarded progressing points for attaining increasingly dominant positions, ingraining critical habits for real fighting. If a submission occurred, the match ended immediately regardless of points. This system focused on positional dominance first, submission second – a major factor in Brazilian Jiujitsu’s success.

Through years of challenge matches and technical refinement, the Gracies brought unprecedented sophistication to ground fighting strategy. Their positional hierarchy and submission-oriented system represents perhaps the greatest tactical innovation in martial arts history. Brazilian Jiujitsu remains the most effective grappling style ever developed for unarmed combat.

Contrasting Traditional Jujitsu and Brazilian Jiujitsu

Positional Strategy

Brazilian Jiujitsu uses a sophisticated positional hierarchy system unmatched in traditional jujitsu. BJJ fighters use control and dominance to set up submissions.

Training Methodology

Brazilian Jiujitsu relies on live, resistant sparring training. Traditional jujitsu uses prearranged kata practiced cooperatively at half speed.

Technique Selection

BJJ omits dangerous illegal techniques that cannot be used in sparring. Traditional jujitsu still teaches these dangerous “classical” techniques.

Competition Rules

BJJ competition permits a wider array of submission holds for more realistic training. Many traditional jujitsu styles prohibit techniques like knee bars.

Motor Skill Requirements

Brazilian Jiujitsu shows clear emphasis on gross motor movements under stress. Traditional jujitsu still focuses heavily on fine motor skill techniques.

The Gracies took the teachings of Maeda and fused it with their own hard-won experience against all styles to forge a truly innovative system optimized for unarmed combat. Their revisions in technique, strategy and training have clear advantages for fighting applications unmatched in traditional schools of jujitsu.

Factors in the Decline of Grappling Styles

Judo Limits Groundwork

As Judo moved towards becoming an Olympic event, rules increasingly restricted ground grappling in favor of throws. The goal of cultivating it as a spectator sport also contributed to this decline in groundwork.

Wrestling Submissions Banned

Amateur wrestling also shifted towards being a sport rather than a martial art by removing submissions entirely in competition. This obscured its martial roots.

Scripted Professional Wrestling

The skilled submission work of catch wrestling was marginalized through the rise of scripted “professional wrestling”, which bore no resemblance to real combat.

Sambo’s Cold War Obscurity

The Russian martial art Sambo with its excellent grappling skills stayed obscure outside Eastern bloc countries until after the Cold War ended.

By the postwar period, these factors caused the public to forget grappling arts as serious combat styles. Striking arts like karate and kung fu grew hugely popular and became synonymous with martial arts in the public mindset. But the grapplers would have one more opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness.

MMA Reestablishes Grappling’s Dominance

Early MMA Events

In the 1990s, the advent of wide-publicity mixed martial arts competitions provided the first major testing ground for unarmed combat skills since the challenge matches of old. With few safety rules and little referee interference, these MMA events represented an open forum to assess different fighting styles.

Grapplers Dominate the Standup Fighters

Just as in the Japanese challenge matches centuries ago, the results shattered many myths and misconceptions held as undisputed truths in the martial arts community. Fighters known as unbeatable for their striking skills were quickly grappled to the ground and submitted by relatively unknown grapplers.

The superiority of grappling arts became undeniably clear during the early days of the UFC and Pride FC in America and Japan. Royce Gracie and other Brazilian Jiujitsu practitioners easily dominated all challengers, submitting boxers, kickboxers and karateka with ease. Their nuanced groundwork and submission skills were like nothing opponents had ever encountered.

MMA Drives Cross-Training and Adaptation

However, the sword cuts both ways. MMA drove adaptation, forcing all styles to shore up weaknesses the open format exposed. Fighters cross-trained in multiple disciplines to avoid being helpless in any phase of combat. Grapplers added strikes, strikers learned to grapple. Specialization became a weakness – completeness was now king.

While grappling retained vital importance, the era of single style dominance ended. Submission skills remained highly valued for their fight ending potential, evidenced by grappling’s continued success. But the well-rounded fighter transcending traditional styles rose to prominence. In pure open skills competition, a style carrying fatal flaws faces extinction. Progress marches on relentlessly.

The Continuing Legacy

Ongoing Relevance Through Live Testing

Throughout history, grappling arts faced periods of decline in reputation and obscurity from the public mind. But when testing methodology was applied through challenge matches and live contests like MMA, their great effectiveness shone through. For any martial art to retain relevance, it must continuously prove itself against progressive resistance or fade away.

Brazilian Jiujitsu as Grappling’s Current Pinnacle

Grappling has proven its mettle in open combat time and again. The lineage flowing from Fusen Ryu to Maeda to the Gracies represents a river of innovation in martial tactics, centered on control positioning and submissions. Brazilian Jiujitsu stands out today as the highest expression of grappling excellence against live opponents. All martial arts should continue to evolve, building on proven strategies, innovating and answering challenges from progressive opposition. The legacy of grappling’s effectiveness endures.

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Team Apex MMA Martial Arts Coach
Apex MMA is a specialist mixed martial arts gym focusing on Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Led by an experienced team of instructors, Apex MMA offers comprehensive training programs for students of all ages and skill levels. With Apex MMA's systematic teaching methods, passion for martial arts, and strong community relationships, you will gain the tools to succeed in the gym and beyond.
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