Although, many will say that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) started with the Gracie family, it would be a tremendous disservice to ignore their teacher, Mitsuyo Maeda, and his teachers. To fully understand the evolution of BJJ, it is important to educate oneself on its origins. Below is a brief excerpt from http://www.shenwu.com/bjjhistory.html.
Judo is the creation of Jigoro Kano (1860-1938). Jigoro Kano was a highly educated man (he is considered the founder of the modern Japanese educational system) that sought to combine and preserve the ancient martial traditions of Japan. Kano refined the techniques he had learned primarily from two traditional systems, the Tenshin Shin'yo Ryu and the Kito Ryu, and founded his own style, Kodokan Judo in 1882. One of the most important innovations in Kano's Judo was the emphasis placed on "randori", or non-cooperative free sparring practice. The majority of the ancient Jiu-Jitsu styles based their training on pre-arranged sequences of attack and defense known as "kata" . Although Kano acknowledged the value of kata practice (kata training is present in Judo training to this day), he also realized the absolute necessity of learning to apply techniques in the most realistic manner. Randori allows the practitioner to develop the mindset and technical proficiency needed to apply techniques against fully resisting opponents in as realistic a venue as safety allows. Kano's new style was put to the test in the famous tournament of 1886, hosted by the Tokyo Police. Of the 15 matches pitting Kodokan Judo fighters against fighters of various classic styles of Jiu Jitsu, the Kodokan won 13 matches and tied the other two. Kano's hybrid martial art and revolutionary methods of training had proven most effective.
Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941) was a martial arts prodigy who eventually became one of the greatest fighters in the history of Judo. Maeda originally practiced classical styles of Jiu Jitsu, eventually entering the Kodokan to study Judo. After remaining undefeated in Judo tournament competition, Kano sent Maeda to the U.S.A. in 1904 to spread the message of Kodokan Judo. Over the course of his career, Maeda fought in literally hundreds of matches, grappling with and without the gi, and fighting in "mixed" matches (that included striking and kicking, commonly referred to as "no-holds-barred" fights). During his travels, Maeda fought in the United States, Great Britain, continental Europe, Cuba, Mexico and finally Brazil. Throughout his career as a professional fighter, after engaging in over 1,000 free fights, Maeda retired without ever losing a match. The culmination of Maeda's training in classical Jiu Jitsu and especially Judo, tempered by his extensive combat experience against all types of challengers, resulted in a realistic, street effective method of fighting.
Mitsuyo Maeda finally settled in Brazil and opened an academy of "Jiu Jitsu". One of his students was a young man named Carlos Gracie. After studying with Maeda for several years during the 1920's, Carlos opened his own academy in 1925. Carlos and his brothers established a solid reputation by issuing the now famous "Gracie Challenge". All challengers were welcome to come and fight with the Gracies in no-holds-barred (NHB) matches. The Gracie fighters emerged victorious against fighters of all different backgrounds. The Gracies continued to develop the strategies and techniques they learned from Maeda, honing their skills with the realities of real fighting.
Several members of the Gracie family began to immigrate to the United States in the late 1980's. BJJ became world famous in the mid 1990's when Royce Gracie won a string of victories in the early Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitions, an event pitting martial artist and fighters of various disciplines against each other in an NHB format. Shortly after, Royce's brother Rickson went undefeated in similar events in Japan, and other members of the Gracie clan were equally as successful in MMA events around the U.S. It became quickly apparent that fighters versed only in punching and kicking lost every time they faced a BJJ trained opponent. At present, all fighters in open rules events (now popularly called "mixed martial arts" or MMA) train in BJJ to some extent. The emergence of the Gracies and their particular brand of Jiu Jitsu, with its time tested and proven effectiveness in challenge matches and MMA fights, have had a major impact on martial arts worldwide.
BRAZILIAN JIU JITSU
The overall fighting strategy of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is designed to equip a physically smaller or weaker individual with an effective method of defending against a larger and stronger attacker. When applying BJJ techniques, leverage is paramount, as leverage is the secret to the amplification and most efficient use of force. BJJ also has the most developed methods of fighting while on one's back; a position weaker fighters will often find themselves when attacked. The innovations of the Gracie family, most notably by grandmasters Carlos and Helio Gracie, and continuing with BJJ fighters today, through constant testing and refinement in the crucible of actual fights, has resulted in this unique style of Jiu Jitsu.