SAN JOSE -- Abdullah Davis spent four minutes tugging, pulling and struggling with an opponent who was at least a head taller than him. But the smile rarely left his face, even after he lost a close decision.

"Jiu Jitsu is just in me," said Abdullah, 13, of Fremont, who weighs 77 pounds and trims his hair into a Mohawk. "It's hard not to smile."

His competitor, Muhammad Elmarouk, who just happened to be his good friend, agreed.

"We all love this," said Muhammad, also 13, of El Sobrante. "It's just a fun sport."

The emerging martial art is on display this weekend at San Jose's Independence High School as approximately 900 competitors from the Bay Area and around the country gather for the seventh annual American Cup Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament -- the largest of its kind in Northern California.

Much of the focus Saturday was on youngsters as 350 kids -- one-third of them girls -- donned kimono-style uniforms tied together by colored belts and took to the mat barefoot.

"I'm kind of small, but you don't need a lot of strength if you know the right technique," said Daysha Patalot, 14, of Sunnyvale, after a match. "Jiu Jitsu has a lot of strategy that makes it different from other sports like karate."

The Bay Area long has been hotbed for martial arts, and now Jiu Jitsu is growing in popularity. For the uninitiated, Jiu Jitsu resembles wrestling because it's ground-based with an emphasis on control and submission holds. Proponents say it's ideal for self-defense.


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"If a woman is attacked, you're probably going to end up on the ground and be grappling," said Claudio Franca, a native of Brazil who is the event organizer and operates academies in San Jose, Santa Cruz and Watsonville. "Well, that's exactly what Jiu Jitsu is."

But Jiu Jitsu's profile really has surged in the U.S. thanks to the runaway success of mixed martial arts. Jiu Jitsu techniques have proven instrumental in violent Ultimate Fighting Championship matches.

There is, however, a world of difference between this tournament and what you might see from Cain Velasquez -- the South Bay resident who is the reigning UFC heavyweight champ.

"The Jiu Jitsu that you see in UFC can give people the wrong impression about the sport," Franca said. "Jiu Jitsu here is more about exercise, building self-esteem, feeling good about yourself. I don't like my son even watching MMA."

Tom Kenyon, of McKinleyville in Humboldt County, said he got his daughters Lydia, 13, and Haley, 10, into Jiu Jitsu primarily so they could protect themselves. But that has evolved into competitions.

"I don't want to do the kicking and punching," Lydia added. "I want to do the wrestling and trying to get the other person to tap out with choke holds."

The goal is to get the opponent to submit -- Jiu Jitsu's version of "cry uncle" -- with chokes or other holds. Striking is not allowed. And if matches go the distance, winners are decided by points.

The adults will take center stage Sunday, including black belt matches. But the competitors were more pint-sized, with some as young as age 5, as the tournament started Saturday. Family members crowded around barriers, shouting encouragement and recording the action on smart phones as kids competed on six mats.

Occasionally some feelings were hurt, but nobody seemed to be getting physically hurt as referees kept a watchful eye.

"I totally get that some parents would be worried," said Nathan Chesmore, of Roseville, who watched son Nathan, 15, and daughter Kayla, 11, compete. "But believe it or not, it's really safe. We used to do dirt-bike riding, and I have an older son who broke his leg. This is so much safer."

Later, Kayla proudly showed off the medal around her neck.

"I always wanted to do Jiu Jitsu," she said. "It's not like any other sport."

For more information about the American Cup Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament, including live-streaming of the event, visit http://bjjtour.com.