Exactly sixty years ago, on October 23rd 1951, the arguably most important fight in the history of jiu-jitsu took place in Rio de Janeiro. The fight was held at Maracana Stadium, the largest in the world at the time, which had been recently built for the 1950 Soccer World Cup and could hold more than two hundred thousand people. To understand the magnitude of the Gracie v. Kimura match requires a look back at Helio Gracie’s victories against Japanese champions and the Gracie Brothers’ resistance to the imposition of judo practiced as a sport in place of the training of the martial skills of jiu-jitsu.
At the end of the 19th century, Japanese immigrants began to travel the world and spread the ancient fighting system denominated jiu-jitsu. This initial dissemination was done in a disorganized fashion as Japanese practitioners took part in exhibitions and taught their own style to international students throughout the world. As the Japanese government realized the tremendous international interest for their national martial art, they appointed the founder of the Kodokan Institute, Jigoro Kano, to organize jiu-jitsu as a sport and take control of the international dissemination of jiu-jitsu, which had recently been renamed by Jigoro Kano as judo.
Brazil represented one of the greatest centers for jiu-jitsu dissemination since a vast number of Japanese citizens migrated from Japan to Brazil. This exodus of Japanese immigrants occurred after a treaty was signed by the Japanese and Brazilian governments to bring Japanese workers to help in the Brazilian coffee plantations in the state of Sao Paulo. Today, Brazil has the highest number of Japanese people outside of Japan. In order for the Japanese jiu-jitsu fighters to maintain their supremacy abroad, they needed to dominate local practitioners on the mat. In Brazil, this was made very difficult by a young and skinny Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter named Helio Gracie. Between 1932 and 1936 Helio fought the best Japanese fighters who came to Brazil and remained undefeated. For instance, he defeated Masagoishi by armlock and the famous Japanese champion Taro Miyake by choke.
These victories caused a delegation of Japanese masters including Sumiyaki Kotani, one of the highest authorities in Japan, to come to Brazil and promote Helio Gracie to 4th degree Black Belt in Judo and attempt to convince him and his brothers to follow the Japanese modern sportive system – judo. They also invited Helio to participate in a judo tournament in Sao Paulo in order to introduce him to the modern rules, which included a point system. This represented a substantial alteration of the original system they had learned from Mitsuyo Maeda, which predicated that a match could only be decided by submission or loss of consciousness. The new judo rules kept the matches standing and minimized the importance of ground fighting. In addition, the new Japanese jiu-jitsu, which they called judo, demphasized self defense techniques and favored the practice of jiu-jitsu only as a sport. The Gracie brothers did not feel that the Japanese were technically superior to them, given their observations and Helio’s victories, and were very successful teaching their own modernized and efficient method of street self defense. Consequently, they decided to maintain their independence from the Japanese and continue to teach their own method of jiu-jitsu. As the Japanese colony in Brazil tried to promote the sport of judo, they ran into resistance from the Gracie brothers who accused them of hiding the martial secrets of jiu-jitsu from international students. The Japanese felt that the only way to quiet the annoying opposition by the Gracies was to find someone who could challenge and defeat Helio Gracie, who had retired in 1938 due to a lack of competent opponents.
So in November, 1950, Helio Gracie was asked by a Japanese emissary if he would accept to face a Japanese champion from Japan. When he responded “it would be a pleasure,” he suspected that soon he would be surprised by the visit of a Japanese champion. This occurred on July 18, 1951 when the Japenese newspaper “Sao Paulo Shimbum” announced that the World Champion Masahiko Kimura, who is still considered by many to be the best judo fighter of all time, was coming to Brazil to fight. The newspaper invested the equivalent of more than US$100,000 to bring the Japanese team. One week later, on July 25th, Kimura arrived in Rio accompanied by sixth degree black belt Yamaguchi and fifth degree Yukio Kato, whom he described as the second and third best judoists in Japan. On that Wednesday afternoon Helio Gracie was teaching class and received a phone call from the largest Brazilian newspaper inviting him to come meet the Japanese champions who were on their way from the airport for an interview. Helio Gracie rushed to the headquarters of “Diario da Noite” and arrived in time to meet Kimura. Both fighters accepted the idea of a match as proposed by the journalists. Kimura was supposed to go to Sao Paulo the next day for a series of demonstrations and Helio promised to go there with his brother Carlos Gracie in order to discuss the details for their match. On Friday, August 10th, the Gracie brothers met with the Japanese delegation and were told that instead of Kimura, Helio would first have to face Yukio Kato, 22 years old, weighing 154lbs. They argued that in the case of a defeat against Kimura, Helio would use the weight difference of more than 70 lbs as an excuse. Against Kato, who was only 15 lbs heavier, the Japanese would be able to establish the superiority of their method beyond any doubt. In light of the Japanese demands, Helio accepted the challenge and a match was scheduled for September 6th in Rio de Janeiro.
On Thursday, September 6th, 1951, Helio Gracie and Yukio Kato met at Maracana stadium and after three 10 minute rounds the match was declared a draw. Kato was more aggressive in the first round and attempted to knockout Gracie with powerful throwing techniques. Helio demonstrated great defense and started to take the offensive in the second round by bringing the fight to the ground. Although Helio had sustained a broken rib two weeks before the fight, he dominated the third round and only narrowly missed victory (instead of the draw that the match was declared) because Kato escaped off the mat three times to avoid Helio’s chokes. Kato became so impressed with Helio’s techniques that he said after the fight that Helio could consider himself a world champion in groundfighting since he felt that even at the Kodokan he wouldn’t find a fighter of his weight who could defeat him on the ground.
Not satisfied with the result, Kato challenged Helio for a remach in Sao Paulo. This time the match would take place in a ring with ropes to avoid any escapes. On Saturday, September 29th Kato and Gracie fought for the second time at the Pacaembu Gymnasium. Fighting in a ring, Kato could not escape and after a couple of spectacular throws, attempted to finish the fight on the ground with a choke while passing the guard. Gracie felt the pressure, as he admitted after the match, but managed to roll out of it. Using his flexibility, Gracie recovered the guard and applied a front choke from his back that rendered Kato unconscious eight minutes into the first round. The result of this fight repeesented a glorious moment in Helio Gracie’s career as he proved that his jiu-jitsu could not be considered inferior to the Japanese.
To restore the tarnished reputation of judo, Kimura finally challenged Helio Gracie to a match and promised to win “on the first grip” with a devastating throw. Helio responded that he could resist any throw and promised not to pull guard in order to prove his point. Kimura then said that if Gracie lasted more than 3 minutes he could consider himself the winner. And so on Tuesday, October 23rd, 1951, Helio Gracie stepped into the canvas which covered part of the grass field of Maracana Stadium to face the best heavyweight in the history of judo, Masahiko Kimura. Helio weighed in at 139 lbs against Kimura’s 210lbs. Kimura was four years younger and 71 lbs havier than Helio Gracie. Kimura immediately threw Gracie with osotogari and did not encounter much difficulty in passing Gracie’s open guard. However, once he landed in side control he could not find an oppening to finish the fight. In an interview before the fight, Helio Gracie demonstrated Kimura’s favorite armlock, which is known today as the Kimura Lock, and said that he was training rigorously to defend it. And indeed he stopped it several times. But Kimura was very experienced and knew that if he kept using his advantage in strength to force the lock on Gracie’s left arm, eventually it would fatigue and give in. This process only worked in the third minute of the second round when Kimura was able to establish his grip from the North-South position. Kimura then positioned himself to finish the lock and slowly applied pressure. Helio’s amazing flexibility created a scary scene that made it seem that his arm could break at any moment. Thinking that his brother would not tap out, Carlos Gracie ran onto the mat and pushed Kimura, interrupting the fight. Carlos was restrained by an athletic commission official and the referee indicated that the fight should continue since Helio didn’t tap. Helio, however, asked the referee to raise Kimura’s arm since he would not contradict his brother’s decision to stop the fight. As one can see by examining all the newspapers of the time, Helio Gracie’s arm was not broken as Kimura would claim many years later in his autobiography. In fact, there is a picture of Gracie in the shower moments after the fight, with his left hand on his head which clearly demosntrates that his left arm was not injured. After the fight, Kimura publically recognized the uniqueness of Helio Gracie’s technique on the ground and invited him to come teach in Japan.
Anyone who knows jiu-jitsu understands the extreme difficulty of resisting a technical and 70 pound heavier opponent for 13 minutes. This amazing feat, which was recognized by Kimura himself, was only possible due to the revolutionary defensive strategy developed by Helio Gracie which prevented Kimura form executing his finishing holds even though he always held dominant positions. Although Gracie was defeated, this fight represented the definitive independence of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu from Japan. From that point forward, Helio Gracie was sure that his reinvention of jiu-jitsu was superior in many ways to the original Japanese method and continued, together with his family, the process which led to the international acceptance of the superiority of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu as the most complete and effective fighting system in the world.