is no surprise in the world of fighting that a Japanese nicknamed “Count Koma” taught Carlos Gracie the art of jiu-jitsu, at the beginning of the 20th century. What many don’t know is that Koma, whose real name was Mitsuyo Maeda, was the last great Japanese jiu-jitsu fighter, and maybe the greatest of all time. He travelled around the world proving his grappling art to be superior to every other, at a time when, paradoxically, the art was disappearing, overtaken by the popular explosion of its younger sibling, judo. The history of the unique Japanese myth is fascinating, and will be set out, in detail.
Mitsuyo Maeda was born in 1878 in a small town called Aomori, located north of the Japanese island of Honshu, known for its freezing winters. As grinding poverty assailed the region at the end of the 19th century, many residents would move to Tokyo or other cities to try and make a living and to escape the bitter cold. This was not the case for the young Maeda, who remained there until 1886, when he finally moved to Tokyo. While living in Aomori, he attended the elite Hirosaki school, where he was known as the “sumo-kid,” because of his fascination for the art his father had taught him, as well as for the many matches he would win against school mates.
As he arrived in Tokyo, Maeda started going to one of the country’s most traditional schools, and later, entered Waseda University, known throughout Japan as a great teaching centre. At Waseda, he was taught the techniques of classical jiu-jitsu. Later on, he would knock on the door of the Kodokan, a famous Judo academy that exists to this day, but at the time was already considered to be the best martial arts centre in Japan. The founder and eventual master of the academy, professor Jigoro Kano, was a studious man who gathered many styles of ancient jiu-jitsu to create judo, which reached its apex in 1964, when it first appeared in the Tokyo Olympic Games; but, that would happen long after Maeda’s day.
At that time, professor Kano had just modified the art and left out the more lethal elements and brutal striking techniques inherited from the samurais, who used specific combat techniques whenever their swords broke on the battlefield, and they were forced to resort to hand-to-hand combat. Ancient judo was, therefore, a martial art art, bereft of the rules which characterize today’s sport judo, and jiu-jitsu. In that period, competition was held every month at the Kodokan. It is suspected that Maeda practised hard for months before premiering in these competitions, because he didn’t want to risk doing badly. On December 25, 1898, he finally made his initial appearance. Wearing a white belt, he easily beat five or six opponents and was immediately promoted to purple-belt. The same day, while some celebrated Christmas, Maeda would go on to defeat more and more adversaries until, after overcoming 15 fighters in a row, he was granted the first degree black belt. Thus began the career of an incredible competitor.
A man of average build, measuring 5’6’’ and weighing 150 lbs, Maeda wasn’t quite what one would call intimidating. He loved drinking sake, singing, and wouldn’t back off whenever challenged to fight on the street. He wouldn’t take long to take or knock down the naïve challenger. Constantly evolving, he was promoted to the third degree in 1901 and became a judo instructor at the universities of Tokyo, Wasoeda, and Gakushuin.
In 1904, master Jigoro Kano appointed prodigy-pupil Maeda to travel to the United States in order to propagate judo. Before the judo “ambassador” left, he received the fourth degree from the hands of his professor.
Leaving the port of Yokohama in November, Maeda arrived in San Francisco, California, before the end of the year. At the time, Americans already knew a bit about Japanese martial arts, since president Theodore Roosevelt, was a big fan of the Japanese people and its culture – he even had a jiu-jitsu tutor named Yamashita. In order to improve their self-defense, some American military men were already learning the art at their headquarters.However, to demonstrate the efficacy of the “new” art created by Kano, Maeda and his mates were appointed to fight the Americans and prove the superiority of jiu jitsu. In the famous military schools of New York, Maeda faced a football player who also practised wrestling. After falling inside the guard, his back to the floor (which in wrestling rules would mean he lost) Maeda continued the move and won with an arm lock. The Americans didn’t accept the submission and proposed a new challenge, this time against Maeda’s partner, a more experienced student of Kano’s named Tomita. The Yankees believed facing Tomita would be a greater honor, because he was a more experienced fighter; in reality, Tomita was much more of a professor than a hands-on, active duty fighter.
Tomita, unfortunately, was embarrassingly defeated, when his opponent managed to transpose his legs and immobilize him. Made moved to New York, where he maintained himself by taking part in underground challenges. In the first of these, in front of a wrestler a foot taller and who liked to be called “The Butcher,” Maeda knocked the adversary down several times before finishing with an arm lock. Three fights and three wins later, Maeda decided to challenge the world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, considered by some specialists to be the best boxer of all time. Thus the Japanese began the tradition that would be followed by the Gracies of challenging the reigning boxing champions of their day (Helio challenged Joe Louis, whereas Rickson targeted Mike Tyson). The boxers also created a tradition of their own: that of never responding to such challenges.
Three years later, in 1907, Maeda travelled to the United Kingdom, where he won 13 more fights, and then to Belgium, where again he won. He returned to America, this time to Cuba, where he reigned, undisputed. Maeda achieved no less than 15 victories, plus four more while passing through Mexico. And, this only reflects the fights with official records. If we also include the innumerable street challenges, in Cuba alone, the roster easily exceeds something like 400 bouts.
Since he parted from Tomita, Maeda had become independent in the U.S. In his travels, Maeda insisted on calling his art jiu-jitsu. This choice may have come from the fact that, before entering the Kodokan, he was already familiar with classical jiu-jitsu, and probably used many of the moves Jigoro Kano had banned when creating judo. Naturally, the Kodokan’s strict protocols wouldn’t approve of Maeda’s challenges, and this may have been another reason for the adoption of the name, jiu-jitsu.
After travelling the world in 1910, Mitsuyo Maeda went to Santos, Brazil, where he stayed for a short time, establishing himself in Belem. He travelled to the UK, New York and Cuba, where he sometimes used the name Yamoto Maeda (“Yamoto” is an ancient word for “Japan”) but, it was only in Spain that he became known as Count Koma, using the name of the jiu-jitsu academy he founded in Belem. In his academy, Maeda would teach jiu-jitsu to immigrants, as a form of self-defense. In the early 1920s the now, already famous count was involved in a program introduced by the Japanese government to found an immigrant, farmer colony in northern Brazil, where Koma met a man of great political influence named Gastao Gracie, whose forefathers had immigrated from Scotland. Their friendship grew, until one day Gastao asked Maeda to teach jiu-jitsu to his son Carlos. The rest is history!
Maeda died on November 28th, 1941, aged 63. It is estimated he fought from one to two thousand matches, without losing a single one. Many Japanese immigrants and Brazilian friends attended his funeral and thanked the master. Maeda’s body was buried at the Santa Isabel cemetery, in Belem.
We have little accurate information about the time Carlos Gracie was Koma’s pupil; however, we know that Carlos learned from Maeda for more than two, but less than five years. Koma taught Gracie things like using the opponent’s strength against them, as well as efficient techniques for beating anyone in mixed martial arts bouts. His main fighting method was using stomping and elbow strikes to get closer to the adversary, before the takedown. In the academy he developed “randori,” training created by Kano in substitution of katas (which featured no contact). In 1925, Carlos opened his own academy, and taught his pupils the methods he developed himself throughout the years. Meanwhile, Maeda travelled the country and the globe, but jiu-jitsu’s survival was guaranteed, since the entire Gracie family had assumed the task of developing and promulgating Count Koma’s art.