Perhaps one of the most important, but also least known of the early Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in Brazil was Jacyntho Samphaio Ferro (sometimes spelled Jacintho or Jaicynthto). He had a background in cycling, boxing, wrestling and weightlifting. His interests in physical fitness and combat sports were what likely drew him to Jiu-Jitsu.
Ferro is important to our story for three reasons:
He was one of the first Brazilian civilians to seek out “Jiu-Jitsu” training with a legitimate Japanese “Jiu-Jitsu” master. “Jiu-Jitsu” is in parenthesis as who was a Jiu-Jitsu vs Judo person and what they taught and what they called it was a highly fluid definition during this time. However, during this period, the Brazilians that were learning Jiu-Jitsu/Judo from Japanese instructors were almost exclusively soldiers, marines, sailors or law enforcement personnel. The Japanese instructors would be contracted for relatively short periods of time to teach either new recruits or veteran units unarmed combat techniques. The courses would be similar to modern military combatives programs where students would learn basic hand to hand techniques for a couple of weeks as part of a larger training curriculum. The notion of a civilian wanting to formally learn Jiu-Jitsu/Judo for their own personal development was a relatively unheard of phenomenon at this time. As discussed in the Mario Aleixo article, Aleixo founded the first Jiu-Jitsu training program in Brazil for average citizens in 1913. Mitsuyo Maeda arrived in Brazil in September 1914 and set up a base of operations in Belem, northern Brazil in October 1915. Maeda began formally teaching in March 1916 at the Paysandu Sport Club.
He was one of the only Brazilians known to have been awarded rank by Mitsuyo Maeda. While many Brazilians would claim close affiliation or rank from Maeda as a method of legitimacy by proxy, there are few verifiable instances of Maeda formally recognizing his Brazilian students. While is it impossible to confirm, Maeda may have stated in 1928 that he never awarded a Black belt to anyone in Brazil. The accuracy of that statement is questionable. We do know that he formally promoted five students to “first rank” on June 19, 1920, around four years after he started teaching in Brazil. This event was captured in the local newspaper, Estado do Pará. The students congratulated were: Guilherme de La-Rocque, Matheus Pereira, Waldemar Lopes, Raphael Gomes and Jacyntho Ferro. Exactly what “first rank” meant is a debated topic. It is an issue that is compounded by the ambiguous Portuguese term used in the article and the absence of any additional explanation. It is possible “first rank” meant, first kyu or the rank below Black belt. It is also possible it meant shodan (Black belt or first degree Black belt). It is also possible “first rank” was not a belt, but rather some type of graduation certificate or diploma. It is also unclear if Maeda was awarding this rank under Judo, Jiu-Jitsu or his own proprietary fighting style. The important aspect, in relation to this article is, that Ferro was confirmed as being an early student of Maeda and highly ranked. Also, noticeably absent from the list of promotees is Carlos Gracie Senior (who would have been seventeen at the time). Carlos would move from Belem to Rio only two years later.
He was likely the primary teacher of Donato Pires and Carlos Gracie. In addition to article confirming his significant rank, Ferro was mentioned in several other articles from that time period. It appears that he had a role as senior student or assistant instructor and was the primary instructor at Maeda’s school while the master was away. When Maeda went to Cuba to perform in 1922, he returned to Belem on June 7th and it was Jacyntho Ferro who took a dinghy to Maeda’s boat and formally welcomed his master back to Brazil. Another article from Estado do Pará, this one from June 26, 1921, confirms that at a Jiu-Jitsu show at Campo da Recreativa in Belem, Professors Conde Koma (Maeda), Matheus Pereira and Jacyntho Ferro would be in attendance. This reinforces the narrative of Ferro and Pereira being senior members of Maeda’s academy. The article also states that Donato Pires dos Reis and Oscar Gracie, students of Professor Jacyntho Ferro, would be performing a demonstration of Jiu-Jitsu. This one line is critical for multiple reasons:
1. It reinforces Ferro’s role in the Maeda academy hierarchy. The students were considered Ferro’s, not Madea’s or Pereira’s.
2. It is the first documented mention of a Gracie in relation to Jiu-Jitsu. The article identifies the student as “Oscar Gracie”, but this is clearly an editorial error. Gastão's Gracie family was the only Gracie family in Brazil at that time and he never had a child named Oscar. The Oscar referenced in the article was, undoubtedly, Carlos Gracie.
3. It established that Carlos Gracie was not considered a direct student of Maeda, but a student of his assistant, Jacyntho Ferro.
4. It establishes that both Donato Pires and Carlos Gracie were considered juniors to Ferro.
Assuming that the Oscar/Carlos name error was the only mistake in the article and that all other statements were correct; this would contradict the Gracie’s version of their BJJ origin story. It would seem that Carlos Gracie learned Jiu-Jitsu from Jacyntho Ferro and not directly from Mitsuyo Maeda.
Some historians have gone so far as to say that Carlos never met or trained with Maeda. I think it is safe to say the two actually met, as they were both in attendance at the same event. Carlos’ father Gastão definitely came into contact with Maeda through his circus and enrolled his eldest son at Maeda’s Jiu-Jitsu academy. To say that he never took classes directly from Maeda is impossible to prove or disprove. We do know that Maeda was not teaching continuously at the academy and would take breaks to travel across Brazil as well as abroad to perform in Jiu-Jitsu shows. This would leave Ferro and other senior students in charge of instruction. It is quite likely, that even if Carlos did take some classes with Maeda, the vast majority of his training at Maeda’s academy was with Ferro.
Jacyntho died only a few years later in 1929. While he likely trained other students, only Donato Pires and Carlos Gracie are known to have gone on to establish their own Jiu-Jitsu academies. It is likely that if these few articles did not exist, Jacyntho Ferro would be lost to history.
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Jacyntho Ferro lifting weights in 1915. The same year he would meet Mitsuyo Maeda.
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