Which Celebs Have Joined the Jiu Jitsu Craze? (Hint: A lot!)
Following in the footsteps of many celebrities who have sung the praises of grappling arts, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was recently photographed winning his first Jiu Jitsu competition as a white belt. As a fellow white belt, I was impressed. Now that even tech billionaires are joining the Jiu Jitsu cult – ahem, sport – I think it’s safe to say that this addictive activity – with a massive cult following – is at peak popularity.
Be it the influence of Joe Rogan, or just a general growing interest, the rise in Jiu Jitsu’s popularity has been epic as of late. Four new schools have opened locally since I began training in 2021, and there were already quite a few. With superstars like Gordon Ryan and John Danaher amassing massive followings, great things seem to be happening for this fun and unusual activity that’s been around since the 1970s but has only recently made it into popular culture.
So what is Jiu Jitsu? Where does it come from?
A brief history of BJJ
Jiu Jitsu is a grappling-based self-defense martial art/sport. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which is the kind practiced in the US, was invented in 1917 by Carlos Gracie. Gracie (perhaps the most well-known name in all of BJJ history) adapted it from the Japanese style of Jiu Jitsu, which was introduced to him by Mitsuyo Maeda, an immigrant to Brazil from Japan. Carlos Gracie fathered 21 children, 13 of whom became black belts, which is how it first reached the United States in 1972. One of his sons, Carley Gracie, was invited by US Marines to teach Gracie-style Jiu Jitsu on their base in Virginia. Carley then went on to teach in various states and finally landed in California, where he set up camp in 1979. Eventually other family members joined him in the US, setting up schools all across the country, until eventually the name Gracie became synonymous with the sport of Jiu Jitsu (and, also, controversy — that family has had a lot of drama).
In 1994, IBJFF — the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation — was founded. It now hosts several of the largest and most prestigious competitions for the sport, in addition to Grappling Industries and Fuji, with tournaments scheduled all over the country nearly every weekend for non-professionals who just compete for fun. ADCC, however, is like the Super Bowl of Jiu Jitsu; it’s only held every two years, and features the best of the best in the sport.
The 21st Century
The sport continued to grow in popularity through the early 2000s; more competition series were founded, more schools opened. The last ten years, however, saw a massive jump in gym openings and new students. There are now more than 10,000 Jiu Jitsu schools in America, making it quite the popular martial art. It is a bit of a revolving door, however. 90% of people who start will quit before they get their blue belt; many quit prior to that as well. It’s not an easy skill to learn, and it’s easy to get injured or simply give up.
Celebrities Who Do Jiu Jitsu
Joe Rogan is probably the most famous and most vocal Jiu Jitsu practitioner around. Not only is he a UFC commentator and a black belt in the sport, he is personal friends with BJJ superstar and ADCC champion Gordon Ryan. He has had many professional Jiu Jitsu competitors and coaches on his hugely popular podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience. Plus, he lives in Austin, where all the big-time grapplers train nowadays.
Tom Hardy made waves back in 2022 when he snuck into a U.K. Jiu Jitsu tournament to compete as a blue belt. He won, too, so he must be pretty good!
Married…With Children’s Ed O’Neill is not only a black belt in Jiu Jitsu, but he got his belt from Rorion Gracie, son of BJJ legend Helio Gracie and nephew of BJJ inventor Carlos Gracie!
Snatch director Guy Ritchie is a black belt under Renzo Gracie, grandson of Carlos Gracie. If you’re noticing a pattern, yes, the Gracies are a pretty big deal around Jiu Jitsu! There are also a lot of them.
Action hero Jason Statham is a purple belt under Renzo Gracie as well!
Lopez won a gold medal in the blue belt division at an IBJJF tournament in 2022 and was recently promoted to a purple belt. His wrestling background probably helps his quick ascent!
There are rumors that Nicolas Cage, who starred in the science fiction martial arts film titled Jiu Jitsu pictured above (which, oddly, has very little Jiu Jitsu in it), is a black belt, but this has not been confirmed, so it’s probably not true. Who wouldn’t show that off?
Hawaii Five-0 actor Scott Caan is a BJJ black belt, and trains with fellow actor Alex O’Loughlin.
Although he is just a white belt like me, Reeves also spent a lot of time training in Judo, Karate, and Krav Maga before starting Jiu Jitsu, where he is coached by the legendary Machado brothers. They’re not Gracies, but they’re world champions, so he is probably in very good hands.
That ’70s Show star Ashton Kutcher will likely join the Celebrity BJJ Black Belt Club sooner rather than later! He is a brown belt under 8th degree black belt Rigan Machado — which, coincidentally, is the association my own gym is under. Machado got his black belt from—you guessed it—a Gracie. Carlos Gracie Jr., to be specific.
This is probably not surprising, but this Walker, Texas Ranger star was awarded a black belt by the Machado brothers.
A purple belt and very vocal champion of the sport of Jiu Jitsu, Brand trains under another Gracie-awarded black belt coach, Roger Gracie.
(This is not even the full list of celebrities who roll, and it’s sure to get longer the more awareness is brought to it.)
I’m not a celebrity, but I did write my second novel about a mysterious murder in Chicago in which all the suspects belong to the same close-knit Jiu Jitsu gym. If you like Jiu Jitsu, or spicy domestic thrillers with unusual settings, you can check it out here!