The history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is well intertwined with that of judo, and although many of today’s practitioners may not know of this fact, only by a technicality is BJJ today seen as a branch of jiu-jitsu and not of judo.
Mitsuyo Maeda, the man who directly or indirectly passed on his grappling knowledge to the Gracie family had been a student at Kodokan prior to his move to Brazil, and his skills were largely acquired from Tsunejiro Tomita (student of Jigoto Kano – founder of judo). The linkage between these two martial arts styles is connected at the root, and over the years we have seen plenty of athletes cross over from one style to the other, even though the scale has definitely tilted in favor of judo over the past decade.
During the 1980s and 1990s era, it was almost expected of BJJ competitors to train and compete in judo, and many of the greats from that era did. Royler Gracie, Paulo Filho, Amaury Bitetti, Zé Mario Sperry, Saulo Ribeiro, all made the transition regularly with success, and during that time the famous “Zona Sul” judo academy of Kastriot “Georges” Mehdi was teeming BJJ athletes trying to master the art of throwing.
As both sports funneled down their skills for the sake of competitiveness under their own sporting outlets, lesser and lesser grapplers are willing to make the jump and test their technical ability under a foreign set of rules. Considering how varied jiu-jitsu’s rulesets can be, it is understandable that hardly ever do we see the transition being made, though we still see, to this day, high-level judoka testing themselves in BJJ deep water. On this piece, we will go through a few of the highest level judoka to attempt a career in jiu-jitsu.
DAVE CAMARILLO (USA)
One of North America’s most well known grappling coaches, David Camarillo is the founder of Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu, a system that merges his two favorite martial arts styles: Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, having, with this product, influenced the games of athletes such as BJ Penn, Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, and Cain Velazquez.
As an athlete himself, Camarillo’s judo achievements far outweigh those of jiu-jitsu. He was a champion at the important international event, Rendez-Vous Canada Montreal (2002) and Rome Grand Prix (2000) as well as a 3x bronze medal placer at the US National Championships (97/99/2000).
In jiu-jitsu, Camarillo was most active as a purple belt, earning very important matches in some of the late 1990s top promotions, including Oscar de Jiu-Jitsu, Joe Moreira International, Copa Pacifica. He would earn his black belt in BJJ under Ralph Gracie before launching his own brand of grappling.
LEONARDO LEITE (BRA)
Arguably the most successful judoka of all time in jiu-jitsu is Leo Leite who reached peak performance in both sports simultaneously, meaning that Leite played both grappling sports at an international level in parallel, a deed unheard of prior to Leonardo and not really accomplished since he hung-up his gi.
In judo Leonardo Leite earned a Pan American title (U100kg) in 2001, having the previous year conquered his 2nd gold medal at the IBJJF world championship (1999-2000). With sporadic inclusions in BJJ’s tournament circuit during the years that followed (CBJJ Brazilian title 2009 and silver medals at IBJJF World Championship in 2003, 2006, 2008), Leite was mostly active in judo where he conquered 7 World Cup medals as well as Brazilian and South American titles.
SATOSHI ISHII (JPN)
One of the biggest Japanese judo competitors of all time is the 2008 Olympic gold medal Satoshi Ishii, a sporting super-star in his home country who has also had a prosperous career in mixed martial arts (MMA).
With more judo titles than we can afford to mention here, Ishii has recently turned his focus to jiu-jitsu – particularly nogi, having competed in Polaris, Quintet and the IBJJF NoGi World Championship. Some of this interest could have spawned from his recent relationship with BJJ black belt Kristin Mikkelson, though regardless of the reason we hope Ishii will stick around for a while.
Satoshi’s interaction with BJJ has been somewhat of a mixed bag, having a win over Frank Mir at a super-fight, a few draws and hard losses at the IBJJF Worlds to Max Gimenis (absolute) and Tex Johnson (weight).
MOACIR MENDES JR (BRA)
Another international judoka who made headlines in the jiu-jitsu world was Moacir Mendes Júnior. One of the most successful judo players of his generation, with Junior titles at the IJF World (1999) and Pan American Championships (1998) as well as CBJ’s Brazilian Nationals (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006), Moacir also earned the honorary title of ‘Best Newaza Athlete in Judo’ back in 2012. Much of his success on the ground came by way of his BJJ instructor, Mário Reis, who awarded Moacir Mendes his BJJ black belt in 2008.
In jiu-jitsu Moacir Mendes has earned plenty of titles in the Brazilian circuit, including the CBJJE Worlds (2010) and 2nd place at the South American Championship (2010). Mendes has also worked extensively as an instructor both in judo and BJJ, with some of his most famous students being João Neto, Nicholas Meregali and Fábio Alano.
YACINTA NGUYEN (CAN)
Growing up in a household with a big tradition in judo, Nguyen’s start in the Japanese martial art came by the age of 6, and her path in that sport was nothing short of impressive. A multiple time Junior Canadian National and a Pan American champion, Nguyen was part of her country’s national judo squad prior to joining jiu-jitsu at the age of 22 and was at the World Championship in Morocco representing the Canadian flag.
Still in her 20s right now, Yacinta has a long career ahead of her in BJJ. So far she has conquered the 2nd place at the IBJJF Pans at black belt, having also a bright list of achievements in the colored belt divisions of our sport.
MARIA MALYJASIAK (POL)
Poland’s Malyjasiak was part of her country’s national squad from her teens and into adulthood. Among Maria’s biggest achievements in judo are her Polish U17 and U20 national titles, International class A title (2007) and a 5th place at the Olympic Hopes International Tournament.
In 2011 Maria found out about jiu-jitsu, competing that same year and slowly favoring BJJ over judo. In 2018 Malyjasiak moved to the United States to focus on coaching grappling and competing in the IBJJF circuit where she conquered a few very respected medals at black belt, namely gold at the IBJJF Pans (gi and nogi ), silver at the World Championship (2018) and bronze at the ADCC (2017).
MARCO BARBOSA (BRA)
Barbosa is well known today as a jiu-jitsu coach, owning one of our sport’s strongest talent producing stables in São Paulo, the B9 academy, but during the early, to mid-1990s Marco Antônio Barbosa was one of Brazil’s brightest judo prospects.
After dedicating his early teenage years to judo, Marco earned a scholarship with the University of Tenri in Japan where he studied, trained and competed extensively. In 1995 he returned to Brazil and started adding jiu-jitsu to his training schedule to improve his newaza, earning his BJJ purple belt in 4 months of training.
In jiu-jitsu, Marco Barbosa became well known for pressure passing and his wins over the “unpassable” guards of Fredson Alves and Royler Gracie. Barbosa’s rivalry with the Gracie was also one of the best head-to-heads available in the Masters’ division of the late 1990s.
FELIPE BEZERRA (BRA)
Arguably the best judo player ever produced by the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte is Bezerra, who is also a black belt under the Checkmat academy. On December 2017 Bezerra became the first athlete of this region to earn a spot at the Brazilian National A team, a deed achieved after he won the Brazilian team trials in Bahia.
The fact that Felipe had a big chance of making it to the 2020 Summer Olympics have slowed down his, otherwise impressive, jiu-jitsu career during 2018. Nonetheless, Bezerra did earn himself a Brazilian title at black belt last year, in one of his only two appearances on the BJJ mats of 2018.
EDUARDO LOPES (BRA)
Lopes started his judo career at the age of 6, earning numerous state titles until being offered a scholarship at one of the most successful judo training centers in the world, the famous Projeto Futuro (PF) in São Paulo, Brazil. Training alongside some of the best Brazilian athletes of his time, Eduardo became part of the Brazilian National Judo Squad, an honor he kept up until 2013 when issues of a personal nature drove Lopes away from the sport.
Eduardo returned to judo a few years later, a career he ran in parallel with his newly found love for jiu-jitsu. Since then “Duzão” Lopes conquered numerous international titles in the colored belt divisions of BJJ and has recently earned his black belt from Luiz Guilherme. He is a large man, with great tricks while standing, to which he added to a strong ground game. With these tools, he is expected to be a big player in the ultra-heavyweight division of the IBJJF.
TRAVIS STEVENS (USA)
Currently the world’s most familiar judoka among the BJJ crowd, Stevens has represented the United States of America in 3 Summer Olympics (2008, 2012, 2016) being the third American male judoka to win a silver medal at the event.
Stevens is a black belt in jiu-jitsu under John Danaher, which he earned in 2013. Travis’ most visible participation at a high-level BJJ event was at the Copa Podio Grand Prix back 2013, where he competed at middleweight and earned a respectful 4th place.
Still involved in jiu-jitsu on a regular basis, Travis competed at Fight To Win more recently and coaches judo as well as BJJ at a Renzo Gracie team affiliate.
RHADI FERGUSON (USA)
Another huge name for American judo during the early 2000s was Rhadi, who defended the US flag at the 2004 Summer Olympics and earned 4 American National titles in the sport.
Although much more committed to his career in judo than he was with his BJJ, Ferguson did compete at the ADCC World and Pro Am events, earning his black belt from the prestigious Ricardo Liborio.
Today a motivational speaker, Ferguson went on to excel at other combat sports such as wrestling and mixed martial arts (MMA).