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.

black and white photograph of sparring women on red background with white pencil marks
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.

But the blend of underdog appeal and mental challenges goes only so far to explain why practitioners flock to their gyms with a mangled finger buddy-taped to its neighbor, a swollen elbow strapped to the torso, or—as one longtime training partner of mine did while suffering a groin strain—legs bound together like a mermaid. CrossFit fanatics fade in comparison with jiu-jiteiro who consider cauliflower ear—ear cartilage so damaged by external pressure that it hardens in pale bumps—almost a rite of passage. (Draining a teammate’s fluid-filled ear using a diabetic needle is something we take in stride too.) We plan our travel around must-visit gyms and our days around training schedules. We spend hours drilling a single move, figuring out how to react should our opponent put his leg an inch farther to the right, or shift her weight forward, or use a hand to block our foot, or, or, or. We crave the adrenaline-fueled part of class when we get to roll. In round after round of live sparring with partners of all sizes and skill levels, we test new moves, polish old ones—or just try to survive while a heavyweight rests on our rib cage.

I realize this sounds like a commitment verging on cultishness—and some degree of that is inescapable in a grueling discipline that emphasizes rituals, routines, community, and mind-body synchrony. The Gracie family definitely doesn’t hide its fanaticism: Carlos, a self-taught nutritionist with mystical leanings, urged the clan to follow a strict alkaline diet, and believed that certain letters were powerful (hence all those unusual names starting with R). Today, a pseudo-religious reverence for instructors is all but baked into the art: In many gyms, students bow to a portrait of an elderly Hélio as they step on and off the mats, and address certain instructors as “Master.”

Yet it’s precisely in ascribing quasi-spiritual powers to jiu-jitsu that Breathe misses the art’s real appeal. Rickson peddles jiu-jitsu as a way for students to discover their “true personalities,” for parents to raise good and robust children, for people of all walks of life to harmoniously mingle. But what keeps me coming back isn’t its loftiness but its groundedness. For a couple of hours each day, in a basement with leaky pipes and the heat cranked up in all seasons, jiu-jitsu demands that I focus only on the problems I’m facing right there, on the mat—or else I’ll get choked. Sparring offers brutal real-time feedback, its rhythms forcing you to bounce back from failure—if you (or your partner) “tap out,” you slap hands and start over. Anyone who trains will tell you that there is some life crossover: When you’ve had your joints bent to the breaking point, stressful situations off the mat don’t seem so daunting. And as an antidote to our distracting, screen-driven lives, you can’t beat the true absorption and slow grind of jiu-jitsu.

But Rickson offers something closer to a cure-all, rhapsodizing about the academy as a “neutral place” where the hierarchies and hatreds of the outside world dissolve—a view I’ve heard many echo. “It was hard and sometimes awkward when a pot grower rolled with a cop,” he writes, but “mutual respect” wins out in the gym. I’ve seen some unlikely friendships forged on the mats (between conspiracy theorists and journalists, between doctors and anti-vaxxers); I’ve made some of my closest friends there. But Breathe doesn’t just overpromise; it overlooks glaring departures from this creed. Rickson says nothing about racism in the jiu-jitsu world (as in the UFC, some of its biggest stars spout far-right rhetoric). He hardly mentions women, a growing presence but still a clear minority in most gyms. Recent revelations of sexual abuse of women and minors by prominent instructors have drawn serious attention to the dangers of undue reverence for black belts, whose stature often shields them from censure. Jiu-jitsu involves extreme physical intimacy and poses extreme risks—we have to trust our training partners to respect the tap and other boundaries. Does Rickson have any idea that as we women suss out a new gym, we often rely on a network to know who is safe to roll with and whom we should avoid?

As jiu-jitsu’s allure grows—a proposed police-reform bill in Michigan would require all officers in the state to hold at least a blue belt (or have equivalent martial-arts experience), as though a scrap of fabric is a surefire way to avoid the use of excessive force—Gracie-style hype becomes even more important to avoid. Thankfully, as the reckoning with the mistreatment of women in jiu-jitsu shows, plenty of its devotees are clear-eyed. The philosophical black belt John Danaher, who wears a skintight rash guard at all times, ever-ready to teach a technique, once offered an unillusioned verdict: Jiu-jitsu “doesn’t make you good, it doesn’t make you bad. It will just reinforce what you already are,” he told The New Yorker. “If you’re an asshole, it will make you a worse asshole. If you’re a good person, it will make you a better person.”

That is right in line with a jiu-jitsu mantra you’ll hear yelled from the sidelines during sparring: “Position before submission,” which amounts to “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” Even as we’re taught to think three steps ahead, we’re encouraged to practice restraint. In the quest for a careful balance, any practitioner might at least have a shot at humility.

This article appears in the December 2021 print edition with the headline “The Martial Art I Can’t Live Without.”