It is a simple question, with a not so simple answer. Actually, it is a quite complex answer. Exactly who was what rank at what time is not often clear. Claims of rank were often contradictory. It was also difficult to ascertain if a given rank was meant to represent competency in Kodokan Judo, some other form of Judo, Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, an instructor’s proprietary fighting system or the new art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. We know some people self-promoted. Should that count? It is a real mess.
The first generation of instructors, like Maeda, Omori, Yano, Satake and the Onos all had Black Belts that were awarded while they were in Japan. While they really drove the creation of what we today call Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, they were not promoted by anyone to the rank of Black Belt in BJJ. It is an interesting side note, that while the original Gracie brothers (Carlos, Oswaldo, Gastão junior, George and Helio) were all promoted to 10th Degree Red Belt to acknowledge their pioneering efforts, their instructors and contemporaries, such as: Maeda, Omori, Yano, Satake, the Onos, Jacyntho Ferro and Donato Pires were never acknowledged, even posthumously, with any BJJ rank of any level.
It is also difficult to determine what rank and for which style the Japanese pioneers in Brazil awarded to the first generation of Brazilian students. For example, we know that Mitsuyo Maeda did, in fact, bestow rank on at least one class of Brazilian students, possibly more. What we don’t know is what exactly that rank meant. Maeda, later in life, claimed he never promoted anyone in Brazil to the rank of Black Belt in Judo. If we take Maeda’s statement at face value, does that mean his Brazilian students were considered ranked in Judo, but lower than Black Belts? Were they Black Belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Maeda’s personal fighting system? We just don’t know.
The original Gracie brothers, as well as others of their generation, self-promoted to Black Belt. Unfortunately, exactly when is lost to history. Most information comes from family tales which at best are highly contradictory and at the worst, completely non-sensical. There has recently been lots of discussion about the early Gracies utilizing a White, then Light Blue and then Dark Blue belt system. While this may have been the case, I have not found primary evidence of it. Pictures of the era were black and white. Were the Gracies wearing Navy Blue Belts or Black Belts? Did they swap at some point? Convincing evidence has yet to surface.
The media and promoters also played a part in adding confusion to the mix. The general public knew Black Belt meant top tier and they wanted to see Black Belts. Fighters would often be listed as Black Belts to help sell fights. Were they really Black Belts? What style were they Black Belts of? Did the media misinterpret a statement a fighter made about his qualifications? Did the promoter inflate the skill and experience of a fighter? Did the fighter claim rank he did not earn to get a higher purse, a bigger fight, more prestige for his academy or a coveted government contracted teaching job? The answer to all these questions is, “yes”. However, parsing which claim was real or fake and who is to blame is quite difficult.
So, factoring in the complete mess detailed above, who was the first Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
It was Diniz Camara. That is right. I just put a stake in the ground. Diniz Camara was the first ever Black Belt in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. We all just follow in his footsteps. Am I right? Probably not. There were probably others before him. But he is the first one that I feel satisfies the criteria and has verifiable evidence. Perhaps over time, we will uncover more information about other students who earned their Black Belts in BJJ earlier.
What criteria am I using? Below are the vetting requirements:
1. Is there substantial evidence that a Brazilian was awarded a Black Belt directly from a Japanese pioneer?
2. Is it clear the rank was not in Judo?
3. Is the promotion date verifiable?
Obviously, there are a variety of worthy candidates, including Ferro, Pires and others, but as far as I can tell, they do not meet all three of the above criteria.
So, what do we know about Camara?
We know that George Gracie had moved to the northeastern city of Recife in 1951. There he opened an academy and awarded colored belts to multiple students. According to the local paper, the Jornal Pequeno (12/31/1952), Diniz Camara was amongst those students and he was a Brown Belt. Jiu-Jitsu existed in Recife prior to George’s arrival, so it is not clear if Camara was already experienced and then joined George’s academy or if he was brand new to Jiu-Jitsu when George arrived.
George’s long-time friend, partner and collaborator, Takeo Yano, also had an academy in Recife at that time. Yano would often fight in George’s professional shows against George’s students or George himself. It is likely students from both academies would cross-train at each other’s academies and also likely that George and Yano were familiar with each other’s students.
Eight months after we learn of Camara’s existence, the Jornal Pequeno (8/10/1953) went on to confirm some fascinating details:
• By the end of 1952, Camara had opened his own academy in Recife, but was still considered a Brown Belt.
• In January of 1953, Camara had a professional Sport Jiu-Jitsu match against Takeo Yano. He lost that match and shortly thereafter, joined Yano’s academy as a student.
• On August 9th, 1953, Takeo Yano promoted Diniz Camara to the rank of Black Belt.
George remained in Recife teaching at an academy and putting on professional fights until the summer of 1953 when he returned to Rio and opened an academy there.
Camara would continue to teach Jiu-Jitsu in Recife. He (along with other George/Yano student, José Jurandir Moura) would eventually instruct the great Vale Tudo fighter, Euclides Pereira.
The Blonde Devil, as Pereira was known, would have a legendary and undefeated career that spanned from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Many of these Vale Tudo fights were broadcast on Brazilian TV. Pereira achieved notable wins over Waldemar Santana and Rei Zulu. He drew multiple times with Ivan Gomes. Pereira’s crowning achievement was his 1968 victory over Carlson Gracie. It was the only loss of Carlson’s career. Pereira is still alive (79 years old as of the time this article was published in 2021), currently resides in Brasilia and holds the rank of 9th degree Red Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
We can infer a lot from Yano’s promotion of Camara:
• Whatever style and ranking system George was using in 1951; it was respected and accepted by Yano. He acknowledged Camara’s Brown Belt and promoted him to Black Belt in around seven months. If there were vast differences in what they taught or how they ranked students, Camara would have likely not gotten promoted so quickly.
• George was also clear that he taught Jiu-Jitsu, George Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, to be exact. He never claimed to be a Judo instructor or hold a rank in Judo. If Yano considered George’s students fungible to his academy at the rank awarded by George, it implies Yano considered himself teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well. If Yano considered himself a Judo instructor, Camara would have likely required more time to improve his standup abilities before receiving a Black Belt.
• The fact that Camara continued to teach “Jiu-Jitsu” after the promotion and went on to teach a fighter who would later be awarded a Red Belt in BJJ strongly supports what Camara learned, was graded in and would go on to teach was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
It is a pretty powerful case. Was he really the first? I have no idea. 1953 is not early in the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Omori arrived in Brazil in 1925 and taught until his passing in 1940. Yano arrived in 1935 and would have been teaching for 18 years before he promoted Camara to Black Belt. That is a long period of time without other promotions. Did the two Japanese legends promote other Brazilians to Black Belt? Were those considered Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts? Maybe.
What I do know, is I will consider Diniz Camara, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt #1 for now. I am sure people will come forward with evidence for others to take the #1 spot. I welcome the debate as it will continue to expand upon our knowledge of the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Early generation Brazilians with their Japanese Instructors
This question will come up from time to time; if we come from Judo, why do we call it Jiu-Jitsu?
The “Gracie version” of our history offers a few contradictory explanations:
Version 1: Mitsuyo Maeda was a travelling Jiu-Jitsu master and he taught Carlos Gracie. To honor him and his philosophies, the Gracies continue to use the Jiu-Jitsu term to this day.
Version 2: Mitsuyo Maeda was a traveling Judo master and he taught Carlos Gracie. While the Gracies were developing their unique, self-defense oriented style, Judo was moving toward a more sportive form. In order to differentiate what the Gracies were doing from their sporting counterparts, the Gracies adopted the old, combat oriented term, Jiu-Jitsu.
Version 3: Mitsuyo Maeda was an early Kodokan student. At the time he was teaching Carlos Gracie, Jigoro Kano had not yet begun calling his style Judo, but was instead using the name Kano Jiu-Jitsu. So, the Gracies continued to leverage that naming convention.
Unfortunately, none of these tales are correct.
Jigoro Kano created Judo back in 1882. He always called it Judo (sometimes translated as Jiudo or Jiu-do). His students called it Judo and considered themselves to be Judoka.
From a Japanese perspective, Maeda was a Judoka. While he did study Sumo and Tenjin Shinyo Jiu-Jitsu briefly in his early teen years, he transitioned to Judo at 17 years old. Maeda would spend ten years at the Kodokan (1895 – 1905) immersing himself in Judo before beginning his international career.
It is important to remember though, that many of the first and second generation Judoka (Maeda was second generation) would often have some degree of exposure to traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. Some studied Jiu-Jitsu before beginning their Judo training, some studied both arts simultaneously, while others learned techniques from the early Kodokan instructors who themselves had prior Jiu-Jitsu training. While at the Kodokan, Maeda would train under first generation legend, Tsunejiro Tomita. Tomita, in addition to being one of the first two people promoted to Black Belt in Judo (the other being Shiro Saigo) would go on to be considered one of the four kings of Judo (along with Saigo, Yokoyama Sakujiro and Yoshitsugu Yamashita).
Even for Judoka who did not have direct exposure to Jiu-Jitsu training in Japan, some would actually learn it abroad. Amongst many of the early performing troupes of Japanese fighters, in addition to Judoka, there were also some traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu fighters. Inevitably, there would be sharing of techniques, philosophies and strategies as the fighters traveled the world performing for audiences.
So, if Maeda trained 10 times longer in Judo than Jiu-Jitsu and was selected to represent and spread Judo throughout the world by the founder of Judo; why did his students call the product he taught, Jiu-Jitsu and not Judo?
This was actually not a decision the Gracies made. They called it Jiu-Jitsu because Maeda advertised his art as Jiu-Jitsu. Confused yet? If the Kodokan considered Maeda a Judoka and Maeda considered himself a Judoka, why did he tell people he was doing Jiu-Jitsu? Was it a translation issue? Did he not understand what his own background and qualifications were?
Of course not.
The answer was quite simple.
As has been discussed in previous articles, Japan’s swift victory during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 caused worldwide demand in Japanese fighting arts. This was due to a variety of mis-translations/mis-interpretations by the media that led to the incorrect conclusion that it was Jiu-Jitsu that allowed the smaller nation to crush its much larger foe.
This incentivized the media to either intentionally or unintentionally describe Judo as Jiu-Jitsu or even Kano Jiu-Jitsu. As discussed on this site, Irving Hancock and Katsukuma Higashi published books on Japanese fighting techniques in 1904 and 1905 as the interest in Jiu-Jitsu was exploding globally. They were likely interested in selling more books than less. Calling the books Judo would not get much attention. Taking those same techniques, but calling the book Jiu-Jitsu would sell more copies. It is even believed that Higashi had no formal Kodokan background, misrepresenting his qualifications and skills to just sell books (it would not be the last time we saw this in the martial arts). It even appears that it was Hancock and Higashi who coined the term “Kano Jiu-Jitsu”. Maybe it was their way of acknowledging Kano and his Judo but also still satisfying the global demand for books on Jiu-Jitsu.
Maeda who began his international tours, at exactly this time, was quick to realize people would not pay to see Judo, but they would definitely pay to see Jiu-Jitsu.
Articles from the time period can be quite confusing. Japanese fighters were promoted in the press as being Jiu-Jitsu experts. When they were interviewed and asked about their training, rank, their seniors and who the best fighter was, they would always refer to the Kodokan, their Judo rank and name other Judoka.
It was a weird paradox of people openly talking about being Judoka, but competing under the banner of Jiu-Jitsu.
Most academies in Brazil, from the Foundational era through the Television era, advertised the term Jiu-Jitsu. Even if the instructors were dedicated Judoka. Some academies, however, used more general terms like “School of Self-Defense” or “Fighting Academy” in their naming and literature.
Over time, as the post-World War II Japanese government and the Kodokan pushed Judo into a more and more sportive direction, culminating in an Olympic debut in 1964, Brazilian students of these academies had to make a decision. As they began establishing their own schools, would they focus on Kodokan Judo and become Judo dojos or focus on prize fighting and become Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academies?
This is why modern-day Brazil has many Judo and BJJ academies and both arts remain quite popular. While the academies coexist, many students are not aware of their common ancestry.
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