It is a familiar story to everyone in BJJ.
In the early 1900s, a Brazilian diplomat named Gastão Gracie helped Japanese immigrants establish a community in Brazil. In return Mitsuyo Maeda/Conde Koma (Count Combat) volunteered to teach real Jiu-Jitsu to a non-Japanese, Gastão's son Carlos. Carlos's youngest brother Helio learned and refined the techniques, and taught them to his son Rorion. The discipline developed a unique if obvious test - use it to fight all comers. Rorion took the approach to the USA, and it became the UFC.
Carlos Gracie is the father of BJJ, but its grandfather Gastão was, among whatever other pursuits, a pro wrestlng manager. Josh Barnett has previously detailed how the roots of MMA in Brazil are in pro wrestling. Pro wrestling in Japan independently developed an MMA scene that predates UFC 1. Pro wrestling is often scoffed at by the MMA and BJJ communities, but it is at the heart of MMA, and deserves recognition as such.
On October of 1915 the Folha do Norte announced the coming of a new attraction to Belém, the capital of the Amazonion state of Pará:
"The troupe will perform jiu-jitsu, wresting, boxing and Japanese fencing matches and is directed by the undefeated world champion Count Koma. He will offer 5,000 francs for anyone able to defeat one of the troupe's members."
Conde Koma's real name was Matsuyo Maeda and he had a decade of experience in the world of prizefighting. He had been sent by Jigoro Kano in 1904 to the United States to assist Tsunejiro Tomita in his efforts to spread Kodokan Judo. After almost a year of giving demonstrations at Princeton, Columbia, and West Point, offering private instructions, and running a dojo in New York City, the young Judoka parted ways with Tomita and entered the world of professional wrestling and prizefighting. For the next decade he traveled throughout the United States, Europe, the Carribean, Central America, and South America, gathering the other members of the troupe along the way in Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
The show included jujutsu demonstrations, self-defense advice, contests between the Japanese members, and, most famously, an offer of 5,000 francs to anyone who could beat them. This last challenge drew long lines of day laborers, local tough guys, vagrants, and other professional wrestlers looking to take home a small fortune in these tough economic times.
In December of 1916 a member of Maeda's troupe, Uenish Sadakazu, faced the Italian-Agentine wrestler Alfredo Leconte in Manaus. Sadakazu would lose, in part thanks to Leconte's manager, one Gastâo Gracie. For the match Gastâo refused to allow Leconte to don the previously agreed upon gi. The Japanese relented but Leconte's behavior grew worse during the match. He entered the ring with his body greased, and took to the cowardly tactic of fleeing through the ropes whenever he found himself in any danger. The final insult was when Gracie arranged for his wrestler to be declared the winner after holding his opponent down for only a few seconds instead of the previous agreed thirty-second hold-down.*
The resulting riot that followed Leconte's victory led to wrestling being banned in Manuas, so the follow up match between Leconte and Shimizu Kusaka was moved to Belém. Shimizu fared no better, as Leconte repeated the same tactics. The wrester's victory was followed by another riot and a ban on professional wrestling in Belém.
This would not be the end of Maeda's relationship with Gracie.
Beginning in late 1915, , Maeda began to offer jujutsu lessons at the Teatro Moderno in Belém advertising in the Folha do Norte:
Good news in the realm of sports. We will have lessons in the favorite branch of Japanese sport: jiu-jitsu. Count Koma, currently performing on the stage of Bar Paraense, will stay with us to teach jiu-jitsu. Appropriate attire (gis) will be provided for children and adults. Count Koma also wants to teach jiu-jitsu in our private schools. We recommend for youngsters interested in physical fitness to enroll in jiu-jitsu lessons taught by the Japanese at Teatro Moderno.
The Japanese martial art proved impressive enough for Gaståo that he saw fit to enroll his son, Carlos, in classes with Maeda beginning sometime in 1916. For the next two to three years, young Gracie studied under Maeda before moving with his family to Rio where he would share what he learned with his younger brothers, writing the next chapter in Brazillian martial arts.**
*The event screams of a 'worked" professional wrestling match. That Gastâo was partners in the American Circus with the Queirolo brothers of Argentina, promoting wrestling matches throughout the Amazon, does little to dissuade that view. The only thing that would suggest it wasn't is the fact that there seems to have been some serious disagreements between the two camps over the outcome (large amounts of money appear to have been involved) and the resulting riots ruined their business for almost a year. It is also worth noting that the reports that Gastao's connection with Maeda was in helping with political and Japanese immigration problems is false and that they met as part of their mutual business interests in professional wrestling.
**There may be some truth to the Gracie's stories that Maeda taught Carlos something different from Judo. At the time Maeda seems to have made a conscious decision to refer to his art as jujutsu rather than Judo or Kano Jujutsu, perhaps to save the Kodokan any embarrassment, for at the time prizefighting was frowned upon. Maeda also seems to have made a pedagogical change to the usual instructions and offered no belts. Considering where he was and who he was instructing it is possible that at the time he was teaching a combination of Kano Jujutsu and no-holds-barred wrestling. After retiring from the professional wrestling circuit he would begin calling his martial art Judo, following the Kodokan curriculum with his students.