In the second part of my series on the birth of MMA in Brazil, originally published in FIGHT! Magazine, I learn about how the social dynamics of the country impacted the growth of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and ultimately MMA.
The View From Ipanema
“This is close to where Rickson Gracie had the famous fight with Hugo Duarte,” Master Ricardo Murgel tells me as we jog along Ipanema beach after a morning workout. Murgel is that rarest of creatures, a Brazilian with a correct sense of punctuality. He meets me every morning at 8:00 sharp and we go running along the famous Ipanema beach. The fight Murgel is referring to took place when a young Rickson Gracie, golden child of the revered Gracie clan, was confronted at the beach by Hugo Duarte, a fighter from a competing discipline called Luta Livre. Gracie became incensed when Duarte said something disparaging about his family, so he slapped Duarte. After a fight lasting about eight minutes, Gracie mounted Duarte and beat him into submission. The fight was caught on tape by a tourist. It subsequently became very famous when the Gracies featured the footage in videos they used to market Jiu-Jitsu as a realistic fighting system.
Gracie’s beatdown of Duarte was one of the most famous battles in a war that took place in Brazil during the 80s and 90s between the practitioners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre (free fighting). In gyms, on the street, on beaches, and ultimately in front of the whole nation in huge live events, the two sides engaged in a bitter rivalry that had social implications as well as fistic ones. The traditional gi became a symbol of contention between the two camps. Jiu-Jitsu devotees who swore by the gi said it helped develop technique. Luta Livre fighters said that since people don’t walk around wearing gis, it was silly to train techniques that required them and the two sides often came to blows over the effectiveness of the traditional gi as a training tool. There was also a less obvious element to Luta Livre’s argument against the gi: a gi costs money to buy, and from the beginning Luta Livre was from the slums, for the poor people of Brazil.
The hills that surround the city of Rio de Janeiro are covered with these colorful shantytowns, or favelas. Although they are home to the some of the most destitute members of Brazilian society, when viewed from the beach they are not unsightly, with red roofs and stark white walls reflecting the bright sun. Powerful gangs control the slums and run the drug trade in Rio. The biggest is called Red Command. Everyone in the city knows which slums are Red Command’s territory and therefore off limits to anyone without permission to enter. This includes the police.
While the wealthy residents of Rio never venture into the favelas, the same can’t be said of the reverse. A wave of poor and less fortunate citizens floods into the city every day. The lucky ones work at the city’s menial jobs, but many come to beg and commit crimes. Rio has one of the highest crime rates in the world, and the rich and the poor exist in close proximity. The unfortunates here seem different than those back home. In America, the very poor and homeless often have a glazed over, defeated look to them. In Rio, they are wide awake and their eyes are fierce.
The Archimedes of Grappling
Later in the day I meet one of the founding fathers of Luta Livre, when Murgel accompanies me to meet Master Roberto Leitao. Leitao has trained many prominent mixed martial artists, including Babalu Sobral, Pedro Rizzo and Marco Ruas. He is sought out for his expertise in grappling by fighters all over the world . Leitao, a well-preserved 71, is teaching his class above a gym in a fashionable section of Rio. As we enter, two huge heavyweights are tossing around a 120-pound slam dummy like a pillow.
Leitao is stately, and seems gentlemanly even stripped to the waist and clad in wrestling tights. He speaks English, with the fl air and elocution of a man familiar with the tenets of classical oratory. “Luta Livre is the oldest sport known to man. It began in prehistoric times because man used to fight to survive,” he begins with panache. “Man has always had to fight to survive.” He gestures with his hand in a flourish worthy of Cicero. He is a born showman. He tells me about the development of MMA in Brazil and his version is different form the one I’ve heard from the Jiu Jitsu Grandmaster’s I’ve spoken to.
“There are two paths for MMA in Brazil. One starts with the Jiu-Jitsu people who learned from Count Koma in the north of Brazil. He taught Carlos Gracie, George Gracie, and Gastao Gracie.” I notice he doesn’t mention Helio, who is regarded as the patron saint of BJJ by most people. “But you know, Koma was a Judo teacher…” he says slyly. I sense that this is some sort of dig. “They learned Judo from him, but since Judo is basically takedowns and they liked to fight on the ground, they called it Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.” I notice out of the corner of my eye that Murgel, a grizzled BJJ veteran, looks like he wants to say something but doesn’t.
“In the other version, you have people who came from pro wrestling,“ Leitao continues in his most pedantic tone. Looking at the bare-chested, silverhaired old fox as he lectures, I think that this is what Socrates might have looked like. “When most people in America hear the term professional wrestling, they think fake.” I say.
“Well the pro wrestling guys are artists. It’s a show. But Luta Livre isn’t a show at all. It’s a real fight. You have to submit the guy by a choke or arm bar. There is no punching, it’s very technical. If you put punches with Luta Livre, it becomes MMA.” One of Leitao’s best students, MMA legend Marco Ruas, was one of the fi rst fi ghters in MMA to incorporate Muay Thai and striking with his grappling expertise. It was a revolutionary concept for it’s time and he was a prototype for today’s balanced mixed martial artist.
“Why don’t more people do Luta Livre?” Murgel asks Leitao pointedly.
“The problem is that for a true sport to develop, you must have teachers who are able to make a living teaching it. And it used to be that many guys started doing Luta Livre but they didn’t earn money teaching, and that’s a big problem. Judo and Jiu-Jitsu developed because they had many teachers living off teaching Judo or Jiu-Jitsu.” Leitao answers with a scowl. “And why is that?” Murgel presses.
“Because when Gracie started Jiu-Jitsu, he was selective in whom he trained so in the beginning Jiu-Jitsu people had more power and money. Back then, Luta Livre had no money or power, it was for the poor people,” he says, his delivery denoting a trace of hostility long buried.
Leitao contends that it was the greater financial and organizational resources of the Jiu-Jitsu people, as he calls them, which caused it to be more widespread and well known than his own Luta Livre. Despite this, he thinks that Luta Livre, which he helped create, is the superior martial art. “ I studied biomechanics for thirty years” he says.
I notice that Murgel’s attention has drifted and he leaves us to go watch the two behemoths train. And to speak to Pedro Rizzo who has just walked in for his daily training. When I ask Master Leitao about BJJ and modern MMA, he tells me something that would be considered blasphemy by many people in Rio.
“Gracie was stubborn,” he says, referring to Helio Gracie, the great architect of BJJ and patriarch of the Gracie family. ”He believed that leverage was enough, but he was wrong.” Leitao offers as evidence how well wrestling, which he says is identical to Luta Livre, did against Jiu-Jitsu fighters in the early days of MMA once they had adapted.
He tells me that he has recently completed a book about Luta Livre. It has taken him thirty years to complete and represents his life’s work. “I have taken the principles of Archimedes and Newton and applied them to Luta Livre.” He says proudly.
Carrying The Flag
“In the old days, Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre hated each other. You did Jiu-Jitsu or you did Luta Livre, and it was like carrying the flag for your country.”
I have just met Walid Ismail, one of the Late Carlson Gracie’s best students and one of the main soldiers in old BJJ/Luta Livre wars. A short stocky man with a bald head and cauliflower ears that jut off his head at odd angles, he reminds me of a faithful pit bull. This is a good man to call your friend and a dreadful one to be your enemy. He is beloved in Brazil for his dedication to BJJ and his master the late Carlson Gracie, and for his habit of always speaking from the heart. Standing next to him I feel like Walid is going to bite my head off.
“[To prove Jiu-Jitsu] we had many fights in the street!” He is so excited telling me about the old days that he becomes sidetracked, losing his train of thought. “What was your question again?” he asks. “About Luta Livre,” I say to him, and he looks at me confused. Murgel jumps in to gently guide him. “This was the man who won a famous challenge match between Luta Livre and Jiu-Jitsu.” He says. “Yes!” Walid says, suddenly remembering. He then announces triumphantly, “I was the one who challenged Luta Livre!”
As a young man, the hot-blooded Walid became incensed when a Luta Livre fighter named Eugenio Tadeu beat a BJJ fighter named Renan Pitanguy. “This is one of the few times this happened,” he assures me. To add insult to injury, Tadeu won the fight by holding onto the jacket of Petanguy’s gi, the symbol of BJJ’s power and influence, with one hand and beating him with the other until Petanguy’s corner threw in the towel. Walid, who was a young purple belt at the time, swore revenge. He says Carlson Gracie cooled him down, telling him he was too inexperienced to fight the older Luta Livre fighter. A few years later, Tadeu had another high-profile match, against Royler Gracie, that ended in a draw. In that fight, Royler didn’t wear a gi. He instead fought in tights like the Luta Livre fighter. It was a moral victory for the underdog Luta Livre style.
“I said, ‘This cannot happen,’” Walid growls. “Luta Livre was growing a lot at the time and Jiu– Jitsu was starting to lose its stake in the market,” he admits frankly. In the early days, many of Jiu-Jitsu’s challenge matches were held in order to protect the economic turf of the Jiu-Jitsu schools that were springing up around the country.
“I started training, and when I felt good, I went to the paper and I challenged them.” The move was a gutsy one by Walid who was by this time, a brown belt under Carlson Gracie. Surrounded by media hype, the fight became huge. Called Desafio, it was shown on network television in Brazil and three BJJ fighters were matched against three Luta Livre fighters. The main event was Walid vs. Tadeu. Walid fought without a gi and dominated Tadeu. “Before the second round,” he recalls “ I took out my mouthpiece and threw it to the crowd and they went crazy.” He re-enacts tossing something into the bleachers and whipping the crowd into a frenzy, reliving the moment in his mind.
The fight ended in the second round when Walid threw Tadeu out of the ring. The Luta Livre fighter stayed on the f oor and was counted out, giving Walid the victory.
Afterwards, Tadeu contended that the huge crowd of BJJ supporters that gathered around him when he was hurled to the floor prevented him from reentering the ring. Walid and the BJJ supporters say that it was because Tadeu was either injured or too frightened to return to the ring and face the wild man Walid. The video of the fight is inconclusive.
That fight made Walid a star in Brazil, and he speaks about it like a war veteran who long ago turned the tide of a battle. In a way, maybe he did. On that night, all three Jiu-Jitsu fighters defeated their Luta Livre opponents.
The rivalry between BJJ and Luta Livre reached its climax six years after Walid’s victory at Desafio. This time it would be Renzo Gracie vs. Tadeu. Many Luta Livre supporters were in the crowd at the event, and several hundred of them gathered around the cage, pressing against it during the fight. Several minutes into the match, which until that point had been even, the lights inexplicably went out in the arena. Chaos ensued as the BJJ supporters and Luta Livre people saw their chance to get at each other. Fights broke out, chairs were thrown, and shots were even fired into the air. When the lights came back on, there was a near riot, and the police had to be called in to restore order.
After the Sept. 27, 1997 fiasco, Rio’s mayor banned live Vale Tudo events in the city. Things had gotten out of control between the two camps, and in a country like Brazil, where social inequality abounds and the tacit threat of unrest and violence is always simmering beneath the surface, that could not be allowed to happen.
“Thank God we have rules today,” Walid says, referring to the old “anything goes” days of Vale Tudo in Brazil.
He has mellowed as he has grown older, and even considers some of the Luta Livre guys his friends. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the success of MMA in the United States and the financial opportunity it has created makes it more profitable for them to be at peace. Today, Walid is a successful promoter, putting on events and even working with some of his old enemies.
“Before, it was crazy. We saw the Luta Livre guys on the street, and we would want to fight. There were weekly street fights. This is the old view – today this view doesn’t exist because everybody trains together, everybody is friends.” Walid is trying his best to end on a friendly note, but even when he smiles he looks like he wants to kick my ass.
Fighting to Live not Living to Fight
It is undeniable that the victor in the BJJ/Luta Livre war was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In the major competitions between the two styles, BJJ won all but two of the matches. BJJ and the Gracie family continue to thrive. It is said only half in jest that you can find a Jiu-Jitsu gym on every block in Rio. The few schools that once taught Luta Livre were closed due to a lack of students. When they closed, many of more prominent Jiu-Jitsu teams picked up the fighters that began in Luta Livre.
Today the money isn’t in martial arts schools. Now the money is in the actual fighting and promoting, and the once elitist and aristocratic BJJ teams have shown themselves more and more willing to recruit from the Luta Livre talent pool.
A select few Luta Livre fi ghters who were left without a home when the original schools closed formed RFT or Renovacao Fight Team, headed by one of Eugenio Tadeu’s students, Marcio “Cromado” Barbosa. Watching them train in their cramped gym, I am impressed by the athleticism and showmanship of the fighters. Cromado holds the pads for several of them working in a row. He has them finish each combination with a showy jumping knee. How effective the dramatic maneuver is, I don’t know. But I am sure it is a crowd pleaser.
I speak to several of the fighters as my friend Master Murgel acts an interpreter, Leonardo Nasciment, who goes by the nickname Chocolate, tells me that when they started the team the idea was to go slow, step-by-step, but it skyrocketed. Today, the RFT fighters get invitations to fight all over the world. Chocolate has made some waves in Europe where he recently won the Cage Rage Championships.
“The first reason for the success is our excellent coach and the commitment of the athletes. We all have one thing in common; we want a better life,” he says, referring to the team’s commitment to escape poverty and help their families do so as well. “We want to get out of the country to fight in one with a strong currency so that we have money to send back to help our families,” he says.
Luciano Azevedo tells me that his involvement in Luta Livre and MMA has saved him. “Many of my friends went to the wrong side of life with gangs and drugs, so I thank God that MMA has given me the opportunities to go to the right side, and also support my family by doing what I love as a living.”
A fighter called Chatuba echoes this, and tells me that many of his friends that he grew up with have been killed, gotten arrested, or caught up in the gang lifestyle. “Would you have ended up that way if it was not for Luta Livre?” I ask.
“Most likely,” he says. “Being a fighter is a less stressful lifestyle than the other,” he answers pragmatically. “It’s less risky.” They all say that their Coach Marcio Cromado is the driving force behind the team and the man most responsible for its success.
“Cromado is the man. He takes care of everything for us.” Says Chocolate. He says that in the old days the Jiu-Jitsu fighters had better organization and management and this freed up their attention to concentrate solely on fighting. Luta Livre never had that until Cromado.
For his part, Cromado, a man who looks a good deal younger than his 35 years, with a kind face and happy eyes, is proud to be carrying the tradition of Luta Livre and of his teacher Eugenio Tadeu into the future. He tells me that he started fighting in 2000, and created RFT as a ‘dream’ six years ago. The team’s record is not fantastic, and most of the fighters have many losses on their record. This isn’t how they judge success, however. To them, it is a victory just to be able to have the chance to earn a living fighting. “Others live to fi ght, we fight to live,” was the way Luis put it.
It is easy to believe that Jiu-Jitsu crushed Luta Livre in the great rivalry. In its aftermath, the few major Luta Livre schools closed, and Brazilian Jiu– Jitsu schools sprouted up everywhere. The final tally of the hundreds of street battles that took place is unknown, but in the public events, BJJ dominated. In the vast majority of the times they faced BJJ fighters the ones from Luta Livre were resoundingly defeated.
But the story doesn’t end there. The early Vale Tudo contests in Brazil were an integral, if brutal, part of the huge modern phenomenon of mixed martial arts. And, no one, not even the Gracies, continues to fight in the gi in MMA matches. All across the world, “no gi” Jiu-Jitsu is taught which is very similar, some would say identical, to Luta Livre. So Luta Livre was at least victorious when it came to the issue of the gi. But if you ask Master Cromado and his boys at RFT they will tell you that it was never really about the gi.