Gis to Gogo’s: The Evolution of Jiu-Jitsu in MMA (Part 1)
- Originally published March 17, 2009
November 12, 1993 was a curious night in the history of combat sports. Looking back 15 and a half years later, it was also a night that may have had one of the biggest impacts on the modern sports world. However, the purpose of this is not to discuss the history and success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as that’s a topic that has been covered ad naseum especially over the past few years. What deserves some more attention is the martial art, nay, artform that essentially exposed itself to the North American public for the first time that fateful night.
What started out to the average viewer as a “who knows what will happen” event, turned into a coming out party for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, if you really want to get technical about it). Of course, those close to the planning of the event knew that the original UFC was essentially intended to be a 90-minute infomercial for the aforementioned style. The script played out perfectly for the Gracie family, as their hand-picked representative won the 8-man tournament rather easily. Royce Gracie opened the rest of the world’s eyes to how an actual fight could go really go down. He was not the biggest, strongest, or most athletic guy in the tournament, actually he was the smallest. However, due to the techniques that had been passed down through his family, the skinny Brazilian kid was able to overcome a professional boxer, a shootfighting champion and a karate champion on his way to the title. To the uninformed viewer (and to be honest, almost all of us were uninformed when it came to UFC 1) any of those three guys should have been able to defeat Royce Gracie based on their advantages in size, strength, and what was traditionally thought to be effective fighting technique. Maybe there was something to this Jiu-Jitsu thing after all.
The trend continued at UFC 2, with Gracie this time dominating a 16-man field and solidifying Jiu-Jitsu as perhaps the single most effective fighting style. Royce Gracie was quickly moving from star-status to legend-status in the martial arts world. However, at this point in the history of the UFC, Gracie had never faced a legitimate test. Each fighter he had faced up until this point had no idea about the Jiu-Jitsu techniques he brought into the cage with him. That is not said to discredit Royce at all, simply to point out that he started in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from every other competitor, and intentionally so to promote the effectiveness of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in a “real fight”. Even when comparing Royce’s Jiu-Jitsu to some of the Jiu-Jitsu players who would enter the Mixed Martial Arts world just a few short years later, Royce looks painfully slow in diagnosing openings for submissions, and even slower in capitalizing on them. Eventually his plodding nature during fights would be the downfall of Royce Gracie.
UFC 3 was a momentous occasion in the world of Mixed Martial Arts. It marked the first time a fighter from another discipline would win the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and it also marked the first time that Royce Gracie and his vaunted Jiu-Jitsu would be made to look human. While the legitimacy of Kimo’s credentials at the time were very much in question, there was no question that Kimo was one of the strongest, most athletically gifted fighters to even enter the Ocatgon (apologies to Orlando Weit). Royce drew this mystery man in the first round of the tournament, and nobody really expected what came next. Kimo essentially treated Gracie like a ragdoll for the first few minutes of the fight, using brute strength rather than technique to avoid Gracie’s submissions. In time, Kimo began to tire and ultimately succumbed to an armbar by an exhausted Royce. The fight had ended the same as all of the others, but the message was different. Royce Gracie was not beaten in the fight with Kimo, but he certainly was beaten down. So much so that his corner had to throw in the towel prior to the start of his next fight, eliminating Gracie from the tournament and ensuring that for the first time ever, Royce would not be the Ultimate Fighting Champion. While this was not his downfall, the writing of his eventual demise was certainly on the wall.
UFC 4 saw Gracie return to “form” by once again winning the UFC tournament. However, this time in the final, he struggled against wrestler Dan Severn for nearly 16 minutes before finally sinking in a triangle choke that had been available nearly all fight. Severn didn’t have near the physical strength or athleticism possessed by Kimo, but had slightly more grappling ability with a Greco-Roman wrestling background. Severn also claimed that he had trained for only two weeks leading up to the contest by having his friends put gloves on and attempting to hit him while he took them down, hardly a crash course in Jiu-Jitsu. This showed that even the most meager of technique could nullify much of Gracie’s attack from his dreaded guard. That point was furthered even more when Gracie came up against Ken Shamrock in the UFC’s original most highly anticipated match at UFC 5. Shamrock had been trying to get a rematch with Gracie since he lost to the Brazilian at UFC 1. This time around, in addition to the physical skills Ken brought into the cage, he also developed his technical skills in preparation for Gracie. While one would hardly call Ken a Jiu-Jitsu master at this point, he was able to use his limited knowledge to avoid Royce’s attack while sitting in the vaunted guard for 30 minutes. Had the fight been judged, clearly it would have been awarded to Shamrock, but judges were not deemed a necessary part of the sport at that time. The myth that Royce Gracie could submit anyone had been broken; the rest of the world was catching up to him and it was time for the first legend in UFC history to take a step back. While he had not technically lost a match that he had fought in, even Gracie himself seemed to know his time was passing, as he was not seen again in Mixed Martial Arts until the new millennium had come.
In a few short years, Royce Gracie had gone from unknown to legend in the martial arts world. He made Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu something that every fighter either feared or learned, and definitively changed the landscape of combat sports. Just as quickly, Gracie also bowed out of competition at the relatively young age of 28. He knew that even with his years of experience, and superior technique that he could no longer dominate the Mixed Martial Arts scene like he once did. For the Gracies, the family legacy had been shown, and tested to a great degree, but never broken. It was the perfect time for a legend to step back, and allow a new generation of fighters to have their time to shine. However, it was still unclear who this next group of fighters would be. There were no other major Jiu-Jitsu players in the mainstream MMA world at the time, and none on the horizon, but Jiu-Jitsu had not made its curtain call on the sport by any means.