Words by Helen Blow
A martial art with Brazilian panache and flair is taking the sporting world by storm.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu evolved from judo thanks to an enterprising Japanese gentleman and a South American youngster with too much time on his hands.
Carlos Gracie was heading towards a misspent youth when he was introduced to judo and developed it into a whole new combat system.
And a century later the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is growing rapidly in popularity around the world, not least at Gracie Barra gym in Gloucester.
Named after the family who developed it, the gym is run by Murray Bruton, himself a jiu-jitsu instructor, with six years experience behind him and more than 40 in martial arts.
“It’s now a highly competitive sport but it has its roots in self defence and combat,” said Murray, whose gym is in Bell Lane.
“It’s like a form of human chess, with the intricacies of trying to achieve something against an opponent who is aware of what you’re trying to do and trying to stop you.
“It differs from judo in that instead of throwing your opponent to the floor and then getting up and starting again, you continue to fight on the floor.”
And that is partly the reason behind why, in Gloucester at least, the sport is dominated by men.
“It is very difficult for us to get women into the gym despite this being a very effective martial art for women as it uses leverage so that the small guy can beat the big guy.
“However, rolling around on the floor with a bunch of sweaty men is probably not going to appeal to many women, particularly with some of the more compromising positions you might find yourself in.”
Even so, women do get involved in the sport elsewhere and Murray said when former world champion Vanessa English visited the gym, she beat every man there despite weighing in at just 60 kilos.
When Count Koma brought judo over to Brazil from Japan, he taught the discipline to 14-year-old Carlos Gracie.
The Gracie family developed the art in their own way, focussing on the ground fighting aspect of judo and eventually establishing it as a mainstream fighting methodology.
“They developed it to such a degree that they wanted to test it against all-comers, so they started to challenge martial artists from all different walks of life,” said Murray.
“This phenomenon is growing around the world in terms of its sporting attributes and a lot of the more dangerous stuff has been removed by rules and regulations that make it into a sport.”
However, while he maintains the sporting side is still very strong, what it is also really effective as a health and fitness regime.
“I have guys coming into the gym who are shedding three kilos within three months, changing their approach to food and cutting out tobacco and alcohol because they want to perform better in the gym.
“It encourages healthy eating and helps focus people on healthy living.
“Weight loss is almost guaranteed because of the strenuous effort and also because your brain is actively engaged in the class so you do it without even thinking about it.
“I had a guy who started with me three months ago at 118 kilos and he’s now down to 100 kilos, so it’s dramatic stuff.
“It also gives people a deep sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps because it’s a team effort to get yourself ready for individual combat.”
At the moment, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not an Olympic sport and Murray believes this is not likely to change in the near future.
“There has been a lot of debate about this but I doubt it will happen at the moment because it has to have an international governing body with a set of rules that everybody plays by. But there’s not enough cohesion as yet.”