History of MMA in Japan part I: Inception of Judo & Kimura vs Gracie


Longtime mixed martial arts fanatics have watched on in amazement over the years witnessing jaw-dropping and amazing feats by some of the greatest athletes the sport has seen, in 2012 the sport is run by the 800-pound gorilla named the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but it wasn’t always that way.

There was a time where a majority of the best combatants in the world applied their craft in Japan, The Pride Fighting Championship was the catalyst to the success of Kazushi Sakuraba, Wanderlei Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua just to name a few.

Now the UFC are looking to try their luck there again, with their UFC 144 event which will take place on February 24 headlined by Frankie Edgar defending his UFC lightweight title against Ben Henderson. In addition the Japanese audience will see a few familiar faces in Quinton Jackson, Mark Hunt, Hatsu Hioki and Takanori Gomi.

Before the UFC became a worldwide phenomenon and even before PRIDE was soccer kicking and foot stomping your television screens martial arts has been a staple of Japanese culture since the 1500’s.

There are more than 1,000 different forms martial arts in the world dating back as far as 2,000 years, as with all history that dates back this far most of the information is vague from hearsay stories told from fuzzy memories passed down through generations.

Due to the language barrier what we know about the early days of martial arts in Japan is even less, in Japan martial arts are known as bujutsu or art of the military. The first martial art being practiced in Japan is believed to be jiu-jitsu beginning in 1532.

For hundreds of years the Japanese practiced jiu-jitsu with Samurai’s implementing their own variations to the art, by the mid 1800’s there were over 700 types of jiu-jitsu systems.

Martial arts in Japan fell off in popularity for a long period following the rise of the samurai’s until 1882 when an undersized and bullied Japanese boy named Jigoro Kano studied ancient self-defense forms integrating them to create the sport of Kodokan Judo in 1882.

For years Judo & Jiu-Jitsu were considered the same martial art with a different set of rules, this divide would remain until the mid-1920s.

At the turn of the 20th century Japanese judo & jiu-jitsu technician Mitsuyo Maeda made the trek over to Brazil after spending his formative years learning martial arts between North America, Mexico, Cuba & Europe – By the time he arrived he was in his mid-thirties and had spent most of his life as a martial arts instructor and professional wrestler.

In the 1900’s professional wrestling was presented to look like a shoot-sport with legitimate and believable athletes. Thus, you didn’t see 80-year-old women giving birth to hands or masked men violating a corpse so the lines between what was real or fake were blurred unlike today.

Of course, you cannot tell the story of mixed martial arts without the Gracie family – Maeda worked alongside the Gracie family during his time in Brazil teaching his martial arts techniques to Gustavo Gracie’s eldest son Carlson who would hand his methods of hand-to-hand combat down to the rest of the family.

In many ways, a Japanese fighter taught the missing tricks of the trade that were handed down to the rest of the Gracie family which in return started Vale Tudo and began mixed martial arts.

Although the roots of the sport can be traced as far back as 648BC in Greece with the ancient practice of pankration the truest form of mixed martial arts beginnings with Vale Tudo, which translates to “anything goes”.

Vale Tudo is the more violent, older brother of MMA – bare-knuckle bash-up derbies was the base of the organization pitting various disciplines against one another, much like UFC in the early 1990’s.

The Gracie’s understood how to make a statement and shock spectators into believing that jiu-jitsu was the superior martial art by pitting the much smaller, less physically intimidating 140-pound Helio Gracie to fight the larger adversaries.

The same strategy was used with the inception of the UFC when Rorion Gracie, the co-founder of the organization put Royce Gracie, a lightweight by today’s standards against behemoths, most notably against 285-pounder Kimo Leopoldo at UFC 3.

The Gracie’s dominated the Vale Tudo circuit for years with martial arts instructors from various disciplines testing their skills against their jiu-jitsu pedigree but because they won early and often it deterred fighters from trying their luck against them.

This is where the ‘Gracie Challenge’ began with member of the Gracie circle offering $100,000 to anyone who could defeat Helio – As a result the most famous match in Vale Tudo history took place when Helio battle Japanese judoka Masahiko Kimura.

Kimura is believed to be one of the greatest judoka’s of all time, being a 4th dan black belt in Judo by the age of 15 the talented, masculine man learned the tricks of the trade from Tatsukuma Ushijima, an All-Japan Judo Champion.

Despite being a 7th dan black belt in Judo by the time he reached his last 20’s that wasn’t paying his bills so after testing the waters as a professional wrestler for a few years he made the move over to Brazil to face the seemingly unbeatable member of the Gracie family.

Their bout went down on October 23, 1951 at Maracana Stadium in front of a reported 20,000 fans that garnered plenty of attention from the Brazilian media who looked down their nose at this style of competition since its inception.

While the UFC is fearsome for the safety of Chael Sonnen if he enters Brazil this year to face hometown hero Anderson Silva that will be nothing compared to what the Portuguese-speaking public in attendance had in store for Kimura arranging a large coffin with his name on it as well as pelting him with raw eggs as he walked to the fighting circle.

Gracie gave up 80-pounds to the Judo practitioner who was able to throw him around with ease but Helio was prepared with a padded mat so he wasn’t able to render him unconscious from throws, 13 minutes into this historic encounter the Japanese martial artist applied an arm-lock but the Brazilian refused to submit so Carlos Gracie was forced to throw in the towel.

History would repeat itself nearly 5 decades later when Kazushi Sakuraba wrenched on the arm of Renzo Gracie with a kimura but the proud-Brazilian refused to submit until his shoulder was torn out of its socket but we’ll get to that down the line.

As a sign of respect the Gracie family adapted the infamous arm lock adding it to their bag of tricks and dubbing in the “Kimura” as it has been called ever since in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and eventually mixed martial arts.

Keep it locked to as next time I’ll be taking a look at MMA’s formation touching on the infamous Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammed Ali fight leading all the way up to the inception of the Pride Fighting Championship.

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  • Joe says:

    The japanese did not practice “jiu jitsu” That is the brazilian spelling. The traditional japanese spelling is ju jitsu or ju jutsu

    • Justin Faux says:

      Thanks for your response Joe, I understand the spelling difference, I just didn’t want to confuse the reader by spelling it in a different way.

  • raju says:

    truly great article and veryu informative and written in good way thank you,,,,,,,,

    but i see royce as an idiot who used to hold his opponents even after they tap out i dont understand why he did so very unsportsman like conduct

  • allan says:

    Where did you do your research?Because,Kimura wasn’t that much heavier than Helio according to kimura himself.Mitsuyo Maeda the man behind the gracie’s art was a kodokan judoka who studied a bit of sumo when he was a teen….

    • Justin Faux says:

      This is a well debated topic over the size of Kimura when he met Gracie, I spoke with a few historians who side with the Gracie’s version of the events, personally I wasn’t there but I trusted their opinion.

  • MMA Legend says:

    Thanks for whole series; but as far as the weight difference between Helio and Kimura, just looking at the photos and video footage shows that 80 lbs is clearly a piece of Gracie spin and the difference is clearly in the 20 lbs region. We know that the Gracie’s are open to hyperbole (in the Donald Trump sense) when it comes to their family history and so arent the most reliable sources, as I expect some Brazilian historians might not be. Looking at the video footage and photos the 80 lbs difference seems reminiscent of the largest inauguration crowd in history lie; claiming something that is clearly disputable by photographic and video evidence.

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