Back to Basics: The importance of Self-Defense for Jiu Jitsu


The technique that we practice and study today was evolved throughout history, starting in India, by Buddhist monks. For religious reasons and the obvious concern with non-violence, the monks developed a system of techniques based on balance, joint locks and leverage, avoiding the use of brute force. With the expansion of Buddhism, Jiu Jitsu migrated through Southeast Asia, China and finally arriving in Japan, where it was perfected and popularized. From the 19th century, some masters migrated to other continents in order to teach their art and to challenge practitioners that represented other martial arts.

Esai Maeda Koma (also known as Conde Koma), a celebrated Japanese instructor, arrived in Brazil in 1915 and settled in Belém

It was there that he met Gastão Gracie, who became a Jiu Jitsu enthusiast. Gastão took his eldest son, Carlos, to learn the techniques from Maeda. In 1925, Carlos founded the first Gracie academy, where he continued to perfect the art and spread his knowledge to his brothers. What brought notoriety to the family was the technical innovation and extreme efficiency in the use of levers which allowed practitioners to beat much stronger and heavier opponents. This evolution allowed them to continue improving and disseminating Jiu Jitsu, producing generations of great fighters.

Jiu Jitsu has now spread across the world, reaching numbers that were previously unimaginable. It continues to be refined and explored by thousands of practitioners.



There is a reason I wanted to give you this brief history of our sport, a reason that is extremely important at the moment: the importance of self-defense for Jiu Jitsu.

Jiu Jitsu is, by definition, a martial art. That is, its main objective is to allow self-defense in a risky situation, without rules.

The term today includes several branches, and there are various modalities of martial arts. Most are practiced for ‘sport,’ with the goal of improving physical and mental health. However, it is important that we stay connected to our roots in order for growth to be sustainable.

With the expansion of Jiu Jitsu as sport, and a strong focus on competition, technical improvement continues at an accelerated rate and the sport grows exponentially.

But think about what would happen if more and more black belts graduate and start working at the elite level without having some basic self-defense training in their foundation. Self-defense training forms the foundation for all practitioners, including in competitions.

“The Jiu Jitsu I created was designed to give the weak ones a chance to face the heavy and strong.”

“And it was so successful, that people decided to create competitive Jiu-Jitsu.”-  HÉLIO GRACIE




Because of the huge number of technical variations that are developed and refined each day, the need to teach the self-defense system is often questioned and its importance diminished. However, this is not an ‘old school vs. new school’ feud. The importance of self-defense for Jiu Jitsu goes far beyond just the technical.

Obviously, a high-performance athlete with good technical proficiency will be able to defend themselves in an aggressive situation. However, our view on this issue needs to be more expansive. When we think about the trajectory of a student from the beginning, the methodology of self-defense is extremely important. It’s how the practitioner can be introduced to the complexity of Jiu Jitsu with a path that’s clear and structured.

Conveying to a beginner how he can defend himself from a simple attack like a slap, is a way to peak that student’s interest. It’s a manoeuvre that is simpler and more relevant compared to a sweep, for example. In this way, we start to remove the student from the instinctual process and bring him towards a technical process based on reasoning. Teaching basic concepts of self-defense in a more structured way, is how to ensure that the student’s immersion in the world of Jiu Jitsu can happen in a more organic, safe and efficient way. Jiu Jitsu then becomes more inclusive. The practitioner who isn’t in shape yet, or still feels insecure about practicing a martial art, may be introduced to the sport through a process that will be easy to understand and execute.




As everyone knows, I am one of the main supporters of the evolution and growth of Jiu Jitsu. Without a doubt, competition is one way of showcasing this. The diversity of competitions, technical level and impressive fitness of athletes starts right from the lower belts, and this has been driving the sport in astronomical proportions. But it is important to understand what is beyond this. More than being a  tradition, the concepts that allowed the development of Jiu Jitsu as a martial art and the focus on technical efficiency, are the elements that make it unique and possible to be learned, practiced and enjoyed by anyone.




Rather than being a statement about the importance of self-defense for Jiu Jitsu, this text is a reflection.

We should move forward, but always remembering our history. In this way, we will be able to continue on the path of expanding Jiu Jitsu so it can be a tool for self-improvement, self-knowledge and self-defense — for everyone.

A hug

Fabio Gurgel


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