The first generation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu students was taught by early Kodokan Judo Black Belts. As we have seen in previous articles, the primary pioneers in this space: Mitsuyo Maeda (arrived in Brazil in 1914), Soshihiro Satake (1914) and Geo Omori (1925) all had formidable and well-rounded grappling games.
They taught their students the full Kodokan curriculum, likely adding some traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling that they had either learned prior to joining the Kodokan or had picked up during their travels once leaving Japan. This early BJJ syllabus almost certainly included the approximately 50, traditional Kodokan throwing techniques.
As the early BJJ students began engaging other Japanese Judoka in challenge matches across Brazil, they began learning that their limited time and training in stand-up grappling was insufficient compared to elite and experienced, Kodokan Black Belts.
Nowhere was this more evident than the Gracies’ rivalry with the Ono brothers. Yasuichi and Naoichi Ono (their first names are often spelled in a variety of phoneticizations; most commonly: Yassuiti and Naoiti), along with eight other Judoka, arrived in São Paulo on October 12, 1934. The troupe was to take up the standard protocol of demonstrations, challenge matches and teaching.
Yasuichi, the older and more accomplished brother, weighed around 140 pounds. When the two arrived in Brazil, Yasuichi, was likely in his early 20’s, while his younger brother, Naoichi was around fourteen years old. Yasuichi was already an elite judoka when he arrived in Brazil, having been awarded his 5th dan prior to his departure from Japan. Naoichi, while still young and considerably smaller than his brother (only around 125 pounds), would go on to demonstrate tremendous heart in the ring against larger and older challengers. Yasuichi, as the older brother, was often referred to as “Ono” with Naoichi being referred to as “Oninho” [little Ono] by the Brazilian press.
In additions to facing dozens of other challengers, Yasuichi would compete against Helio Gracie twice and George Gracie twice.
Ono’s first match against a Gracie occurred on December 5, 1935. He faced Helio and the Sport Jiu-Jitsu match took place at the Stadium Brasil. As was the standard at the time, there were no judges and no scoring system. If there was no submission or KO, the fight would be ruled a draw. To prepare for the match Ono trained with Takeo Yano and Geo Omori in São Paulo. The five round fight ended officially in a draw, but the reporters in attendance unanimously felt Ono was the dominant fighter. The reason for this is that Yasuichi threw Helio 32 times during the fight and came close to finishing him with an armlock. Helio after getting thrown each time, would recover guard, but not be able to sweep or threaten submissions. Ono’s dominance on the feet and Helio’s lack of a significant threat on the ground dominated the newspapers after the match.
On October 3, 1936, the two would rematch at the Stadium Brasil. For this Sport Jiu-Jitsu match, Helio weighed in at 150 pounds, while Ono weighed 142 (weights for the first match are unknown, but likely similar). The rematch followed the pattern of the first fight. It was declared a draw, but once again Yasuichi dominated on the feet, throwing Helio 27 times and almost armlocking him.
Yasuichi then matched with George Gracie on August 31, 1937. Once again, the match was at the Stadium Brasil and was to consist of six rounds of ten minutes each. There would be two-minute rests in between each round. This particular match was going to utilize a new points system in addition the standard submission/KO ruleset. However, it was not needed as George was thrown so hard in the third round that he was momentarily stunned. Ono seized the advantage and sunk in a choke for a submission win. Journalists noted, once again, that Ono dominated on the feet. However, George had done better than Helio with Ono outscoring George 6 to 3 on takedowns in the first round.
Six weeks later George and Ono rematched. The match on Oct 16, 1937 was halted in the sixth round when Ono punched George. As this was a Sport Jiu-Jitsu match and striking was prohibited, George was ruled the winner by disqualification. It is not clear what led Ono to lash out and strike George.
Little brother Naoichi had a similar career path to Yasuichi. He would often fight on the undercard of events his older brother was headlining. He did, however, also take on big names and competed against Helio once and George once.
At this time in Brazil, various commissions would oversee fight cards. When an inexperienced fighter wanted to be added to a card, a commission, if they were concerned with his level of competence, could demand the new fighter participate in a “test of sufficiency”. These closed-door challenges allowed untested fighters to earn the right to compete professionally and were utilized from time to time. Naoichi, as he was just around sixteen years old when he wanted to begin competing was required to perform the test. His opponent was Helio Gracie. Helio won the Sport Jiu-Jitsu match by choke, but the commission was sufficiently impressed with Oninho and allowed him to compete professionally.
After George had lost via choke to Yasuichi in August of 1937, he competed against Naoichi for a right to challenge the elder Ono again. This Sport Jiu-Jitsu match took place on October 2, 1937. The location was the familiar Stadium Brasil and the match was set for six rounds of ten minutes. George was 26 years old and weighed 143 pounds. Oninho was 17 and weighed 121 pounds. The match lasted an astonishing 52 minutes, with the tiny teen throwing the veteran Gracie twenty times. Ultimately, in the sixth and final round, George was able to finish Oninho with an armlock. While George won the match, the public was incredibly impressed with the fighting spirit and technique of the young Japanese Judoka.
While the Gracie brothers had technically gone 3-1-2 against the Ono brothers, the match results did not tell the complete story. The media and audience had their own impressions of the matches. They felt the Ono’s were technically superior and dominated the Gracies.
The Onos would go on to successfully compete in Sport Jiu-Jitsu and No-Gi Submission Grappling matches into the early 1940’s. They also taught into the 1950’s at a variety of academies, mostly in the São Paulo area, their style of Judo/Jiu-Jitsu. Some of their students chose to follow the path of the post-World War II Kodokan and become Judo schools, while other lineages continue into BJJ to this day. The Lotus Club BJJ team, for example, was founded by BJJ Black Belt, Moises Muradi. He was a student of Otavio de Almeida, who was a student of Yasuichi Ono.
The Ono brothers were not the only people to win the takedown game with the first generation of Gracie brothers. Matches where wrestlers or Judokas dominated the Gracies with takedowns were common. Gracie opponents, Takeo Yano, Geo Omori, Wladek Zbyszko, Manoel Grillo, Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem and Manoel Rufino all controlled the matches from the feet in the 1930’s. This phenomenon would continue through the 1950’s with the arrival of Yukio Kato and Masahiko Kimura. However, it was the Ono brothers that really drove this point home with the sheer volume of takedowns they performed per match.
The Gracies, who needed to continue to win (or, at the least, not lose) matches in order to further their business interests would have two options: either rapidly and significantly improve their takedown skills or simply have the rules changed in their favor. They chose the latter. The Gracies would insist on a padded competition surface to minimize the risk of getting knocked out from any particularly hard throw. They also objected to rulesets with points or judges which rendered the dozens of times they would be thrown per match irrelevant to the final results.
This approach increased the likelihood of Gracie wins and draws while minimizing the chances for losses. Over time, the “Gracie approach” to the rules became the norm and their early students began tailoring their training accordingly. As takedowns were disincentivized, instructors taught them less and students practiced them less. As the students prepared for matches, they knew they would be on the ground fighting from guard against these tough takedown artists and focused more and more attention on guardwork.
Eventually, the original throwing techniques of Judo were all but completely removed from the BJJ curriculum. What emerged was the style we see today which heavily emphasizes ground fighting. It is often said that this particular style of BJJ developed as it was the most effective strategy to employ during a street self-defense situation. This is a bit of retcon. While this style ended up being well suited for street self-defense, it was originally developed as way to neutralize the advantage wrestlers and Judoka had over the early Gracies in professional matches. If the Ono brothers had not been so successful with their takedowns in their matches with George and Helio, it is possible BJJ would still emphasize takedowns today and look a lot more like Judo.
Article discussing George Gracie's loss to Yasuichi Ono in 1937.
Article discussing George Gracie's loss to Yasuichi Ono in 1937.
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