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
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