by Jack Meehan
Is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a martial art or a sport? The usual answer given is that it is both, which is correct to a certain point. Whether or not you’re training Sport Jiu Jitsu or Traditional BJJ depends mostly on your instructor’s background and experience. While there are academies that claim to offer both, they usually lean towards one or the other.
For the purposes of this article, Traditional Jiu Jitsu refers to self-defense oriented BJJ, often (but not always) referred to as Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Sport Jiu Jitsu on the other hand treats BJJ as a competitive sport and prioritizes performing well in a tournament setting.
Here are the core differences between sport Jiu Jitsu and traditional Jiu Jitsu:
Shared Origins: Where Traditional and Sport Jiu Jitsu Come From
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu emerged from a unique combination of an early form of Judo, catch wrestling, and luta livre. Mitsuyo Maeda, a student of Judo founder Jigoro Kano, was an extraordinary Judo practitioner who loved to travel and fight in other grappling sports. After traveling around the world and picking up new moves and ideas, he arrived in Brazil where he taught his brand of Judo.
Or at least that is how the story goes… The reality is far more complicated and it is clear that Judo had made its way to Brazil before Maeda’s arrival. But in any case, what happened next was the growth and proliferation of a modified form of the sport.
The Gracie family, among others, took what Maeda taught them and modified it into a fighting style which would prevail in open invitation no holds barred challenges. The Gracie Jiu Jitsu system proved to be extremely effective, and the Gracies won lots of the challenge matches, which helped spread the word of this new and exciting fighting style.
Gracie Jiu Jitsu wouldn’t arrive in the United States until the late 1970s, and didn’t gain any significant foothold until the 1980s. It wasn’t until the first edition of the UFC that the world took notice, though. The first UFC was organized, in part, by the Gracie family and was nothing more than a highly marketed and televised Gracie challenge, this time on US pay-per-view.
During the 90s and especially after the turn of the century, BJJ became hugely popular around the world, and the fighting style started to turn into a sport, with tournaments organized around the world with very specific rules. By the end of the 1990s the sport had codified competition rules for both gi and no-gi, and those rules have largely gone unchanged since that time.
Today, sports Jiu Jitsu is practiced globally and there is a strong argument to be made for just calling it Jiu Jitsu, as it is quite a far cry from the original Gracie Jiu Jitsu.
Main Traits of Traditional/Gracie Jiu Jitsu
While the history of Gracie Jiu Jitsu is steeped in well-publicized competition, the phrase Gracie Jiu Jitsu has actually become synonymous with self-defense Jiu Jitsu, and thus traditional Jiu Jitsu. This is not to say that all of the Gracie family endorse this position – but as a brand identity the term is now closely linked with self-defense.
Traditional BJJ has self-defense at its heart, and is taught with surviving physical altercations as the main objective. The goal is to be able to control your opponent while receiving minimal damage themselves.
While this may seem to be quite a leap from the early no-holds-barred contests of Gracie Jiu JItsu’s past, the reality is street fights operate under similarly open rules with no timers, points, or referees standing by.
Traditional Jiu Jitsu gyms tend to spend a proportionally greater amount of time learning to deal with standing self-defense scenarios. This generally includes dealing with various headlocks, wrist grabs, and sloppy punches. Sometimes the classes will teach how to disarm opponents who are armed with guns or knives.
Once on the ground the emphasis is again on survival – with the closed guard being taught as the lynchpin of defense. Usually the classes are taught in the gi, although sport-style usage like lapel guards are discouraged in favor of techniques which translate better to street clothes.
Traits of Sport Jiu Jitsu
Sport Jiu Jitsu is the product of competition. In order for tournaments to be a possibility, rules had to be introduced.
The addition of rules provided a new ecosystem for technique to develop within – no longer did techniques have to take into consideration defending strikes. Even the addition of weight classes helped to encourage the development of new ideas that didn’t fit the no-holds barred paradigm of the past.
You can still see the fighting origins of Jiu Jitsu in its competition rules; the reason why the mount and the back mount are both worth 4 points, is because they offer the opportunity for the top person to cause the most damage to the bottom person, including both submissions and strikes.
Like all other martial arts turned sports, BJJ has rules that dictate which moves are legal and illegal. There are different divisions based on sex, age, weight class, and belt color. This is all done in order to ensure that every match is as fair as it is possible. Furthermore, there are several different point systems that decide the winner based on positional hierarchy.
Sport Jiu Jitsu encompasses both gi and no-gi, although some schools may give one style priority over the other. Competitions are available in both styles and include hobbyist level tournaments all the way to invite-only professional tournaments with serious cash prizes.
In the past ten years, the rise of professional Jiu Jitsu has taken the sports aspect of it to a whole new level.
There are hundreds of Jiu Jitsu competitors in the world that are professional athletes in the sport of Jiu Jitsu, making a comfortable living by way of competition performances.
In sport gyms, you’ll rarely see standing self-defense techniques being taught – as these sort of attacks often assume that the attacker is untrained. Ironically, some of these untrained attacks can be quite troublesome to deal with without instruction, and it isn’t uncommon to see a strong first timer give some of his less advanced peers trouble with school-yard headlocks.
The Similarities Between Sport and Traditional Jiu Jitsu
So far this article has focussed on the differences between Sport and Traditional Jiu Jitsu – and in doing so it may be fair for the reader to assume that the two look quite different. However, the class structure, belt rank system, and foundational techniques look nearly identical regardless of sport or traditional emphasis.
Both sport and traditional BJJ schools use a class structure that look very similar. Typically a warm-up, followed by technique, and class ends with rolling. Traditional Jiu Jitsu classes often include a self-defense technique between the warm-up and general technique. This extra class time sometimes comes at the expense of rolling time, but this is not a hard and fast rule.
Belt Ranking System
The belt ranking system is essentially identical between both Sport Jiu Jitsu and Traditional Jiu Jitsu. There are some minor differences – for instance Gracie University (a provider of Traditional Jiu JItsu) offers provisional blue belts for those who take their online course – something that is essentially unheard of outside of their program.
Both traditional and sport Jiu Jitsu include 5 belts: white, blue, purple, brown, and black. Beyond black belt, practitioners are awarded degrees based on time and after the 7th degree are awarded a coral belt. For all intents and purposes however, black belt is the last belt of merit.
The uniform of Jiu Jitsu is basically the same regardless of whether you are practicing traditional or sport BJJ. A gi, similar to a judogi, is worn for gi practice. BJJ gis are generally lighter weight and tighter fitting than judogis. No-gi practice typically sees practitioners wearing board-short style no-gi shorts and a rash guard.
Among traditional Jiu Jitsu schools there may be a greater likelihood that the colors of gi students can wear is limited to white, blue, or black. Sometimes these gyms require that everyone wear only a single color, usually white.
However, this is not entirely unique to Traditional Jiu Jitsu, and there are Sport Jiu Jitsu affiliations like Gracie Barra which have similar uniform requirements.
The bottom line is that traditional BJJ and sport Jiu Jitsu originated from the same origins but are now offering training with completely different goals in mind.
The main difference is in the way people approach training them – traditional BJJ is done with self-defense and fighting in mind, while sport Jiu Jitsu training is based on understanding the rules and tactics which will help athletes win tournaments.
Only a handful of gyms around the world, like Rickson Gracie’s and the Valente brother’s academies, teach a style of Jiu Jitsu that focuses on both traditional and the sport side of Jiu Jitsu.
Not all Jiu jitsu competitors are full time athletes and rely solely on Jiu jitsu competitions to make a living. Most, still have to work a second job to support their lifestyle, so an injury might prevent them from working or earning money. Although, nothing can simulate a real life situation, competing in the sport of BJJ is the closest thing to it. You are forced to perform under pressure, and use your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu skills to defeat your opponent while they are trying to do the same. The most beneficial aspect of sport BJJ is the psychological factor. Competing will make you more confident, resilient, and also improve your Jiu jitsu game which will help with belt promotional purposes.
Jack is a BJJ purple belt who holds a bachelors degree in English Literature. He enjoys traveling, reading, and the Bow and Arrow choke. One day he hopes to teach English overseas and become a published author.