When the UFC returns to Brazil for the second time in its history this Saturday, August 27 for UFC 134: Rio it will mark a huge step in the popular acceptance and legitimacy of MMA in one of the sport's parent countries. Despite more or less being invented in Brazil where it has been known as "Vale Tudo" or 'anything goes' fighting since the 1940s, MMA has never really been recognized as a legitimate sport in the country of its origin.
Now that the sport has become a popular success in the United States, nearly 18 years after the first Ultimate Fighting Championship broadcast on American pay-per-view, it's coming back to Brazil in a big way. UFC President Dana White claims that demand for tickets in Rio de Janeiro is so strong that he should have hired a soccer stadium instead of the 15,000 seat capacity HSBC Arena.
UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva is a Brazilian but only came to real prominence in his home country when his bout with Vitor Belfort at UFC 126 was heavily promoted in Brazil due to Belfort's celebrity status. He'll headline UFC 134 against Yushin Okami of Japan.
It's fitting that Silva's opponent is Japanese since the blending of Japanese and Brazilian martial cultures have been at the heart of MMA since its beginnings.
A Kodokan Judoka named Mitsuyo Maeda brought jiu-jitsu to Brazil in the 1910's. He'd been barnstorming across North America, Europe and Latin America since 1904. Maeda was one of several students of Judo's founder Kano Jigoro to be sent abroad to publicize the fighting style.
He ended up competing on the professional wrestling circuit across three continents under a variety of rules sets (and you can almost be certain that many of his exhibitions featured pre-arranged outcomes as well) and eventually settling in Brazil where he taught Judo and jiu-jitsu to the Gracie family.
By the 1930's the Gracie brothers were engaging in challenge matches of their own, often against other grapplers, but also sometimes in "vale tudo" matches that allowed striking. Carlos Gracie was known for his bouts against judoka Geo Omori and wrestler Manoel Rufino. His younger brothers George and Oswaldo fought opponents from boxing, capoeira and wrestling before their youngest brother Helio became the family champion.
Dave Meltzer gets some good context:
"In 1930 in Brazil, it was still, ‘The Law of the Strongest Man,' " said Pedro Valente, a ninth-degree red belt under Helio Gracie and a vale tudo historian. "So they would use jiu-jitsu to teach that the strongest man doesn't always win the fight."
These early fights were not held with blaring music or TV cameras. There was no big money at stake. Except during the heydays of the 1930s and again from 1950 to 1962, the fights usually took place in small buildings, and sometimes empty gyms. The biggest fights were often held in private to avoid being shut down by the authorities.
During its popularity peak, fights would be held sometimes in large outdoor soccer stadiums, sometimes without a ring (cages didn't exist). Other times, fights were held on basketball courts, where fighters would be taken down and thrown on hardwood floors.
During most of the last 80 years, the media and the government wanted the events banned. Often, the promoters had to earmark money to charities or be forced to shut down. At various periods, they were outright banned.
Helio battled judoka Takashi Namiki, wrestlers Fred Ebert and Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko and many others in the 1930s. Although his brother George lost to luta livre (a Brazilian variant on submission wrestling) stylist Euclydes "Tatu" Hatem in the 1940s, Helio remained undefeated until one of Japan's most talented Judoka, Masahiko Kimura, beat him in a pure grappling match in 1951.
Meltzer talks about Helio's second big era of popularity in the 1950s:
Helio had a second heyday, coinciding with pro wrestling becoming big in the country. Masahiko Kimura, considered by many as the Babe Ruth of judo in Japan, the world champion who never lost in his sport since 1935, had been recruited and taught pro wrestling in Hawaii, and became a big drawing card. A newspaper in Brazil brought him and other judo champions in to start a pro wrestling promotion in 1951. The group became big in Rio de Janeiro, where Helio, 37 at this point, was teaching and was still a local sports hero remembered for his fights in the 1930s.
Gracie vs. Kimura was held at Maracanazinho Stadium and was a huge event at the time, drawing politicians, national media coverage and about 20,000 fans.
Here's Kimura vs Helio. You'll notice it's a submission grappling match with gi's on, but that doesn't stop Helio from insisting on getting his arm broken rather than tap to the Kimura.
In 1955 Helio's student Valdemar Santana beat him in 1955 in a three hour plus bout that ended when Santana soccer kicked Helio into unconsciousness. This brought Helio's nephew Carlson forward as the family champion. Carlson beat Santana several times. Carlson's era coincided with the peak years of vale tudo's acceptance as the Gracies produced a weekly TV show called "Heroes of the Ring" featuring weekly bouts. The series was cancelled in 1962 when a fighter refused to tap to an arm bar and got a compound fracture on live television.
More from Meltzer:
This loss was devastating to the family. Students left the Gracie Academy for a school Santana set up. Carlson, who had been Santana's close friend, was chosen by the family to exact revenge. Santana became an even bigger star from pro wrestling and knocking out Helio. The broad interest from this closed-door match enabled organizers to get vale tudo fights legalized. This led to a series of fights between Carlson and Santana.
The first and most famous took place on Aug. 3, 1956 at Maracanazinho Stadium before 40,000 fans. Carlson weighed 158 pounds and Santana weighed 195 pounds. It ended at 39 minutes when Santana's corner threw in the towel. They fought several other times, either with Carlson winning or ending in time-limit draws.
Valente remembered being at one fight at a soccer stadium with the canvas on the grass. They fought way off the canvas. There was a dry moat about six feet wide and six feet deep around the perimeter of the field. The two fell into it. They continued fighting until officials pulled them both out. Then they started once again.
"If it were not for me, after I beat Waldemar Santana, the Gracies would be selling bananas in public market," said Carlson Gracie before his death in an interview with Full Contact Fighter.
Carlson became a well-known fighting star in Brazil, although he was never the national sports hero Helio was. Arguably the mainstream peak of the sport was from 1960-1962, when Carlson and Helio hosted a show called "Heroes of the Ring," which aired live vale tudo fights. The boom ended quickly after a fight with Joel Alberto Barreto against Vinagre which saw a television close-up of an armlock that led to Vinagre's bone sticking through the skin in a compound fracture.
Here's Carlson vs Valdemar Santana:
The Gracies continued to engage in challenge matches and Carlson lost to Euclides Pereira a luta livre stylist with considerable jiu-jitsu training beat in 1968. In the 1970s and 80s, fighters continued to engage in Vale Tudo bouts but they were not consistently legal in many jurisdictions and generally had to promise any profits to charity in order for bouts to be held.
The hero of this Vale Tudo in exile period of history was Euclides Pereira. Meltzer has more about him in this week's Wrestling Observer (subscription required):
Pereira, also known as "The Blond Devil," was the most popular fighter in Northeastern Brazil when Vale Tudo had all but vanished in Rio de Janeiro. Because he never fought in Rio, and he had no affiliation with the Gracies, he's completely forgotten in history. But in that part of the country, Pereira, who was about 175 pounds, is considered by many as the greatest fighter who ever lived. During the heyday of Northeastern Brazil Vale Tudo from 1960-66, he was the main star of TV Ring, a Vale Tudo television show that aired every week on Monday night in prime time in the region.
Pereira was the forerunner of the modern fighter, who not only trained Jiu Jitsu under Jurandir Moura, who studied in Rio de Janeiro under the Gracies in the 30s, but also learned catch wrestling, karate and boxing. He traveled all over Brazil, and was never beaten. The promoters spent five years trying to set up the showdown with Carlson Gracie. To build it up, Santana, 41 at this point, who was from Salvador, Bahia, and considered the local fighting hero, faced Pereira in 1968. Pereira gave Santana such a beating that Santana walked out of the ring and refused to return.
With all the years of build, Pereira vs. Carlson Gracie, a fight that most in Brazil aren't even aware ever happened, is considered in the state of Bahia to be the most important fight in Vale Tudo history.The match took place at a sold out Fonte Nova soccer stadium, with 35,000 fans, with fans coming from all over the Northeastern portion of the country. To make the match, Pereira and the local promoters agreed to every demand the Gracies asked for. Helio was instrumental in this, as he was used as the spokesperson, or manager in pro wrestling terms, going to the press and saying that Pereira would not last five minutes with Carlson to build up the fight.
When the fight took place, Pereira was able to defend well enough on the ground when he got taken down, and dominated the standup portion of the fight. Gracie suffered a broken nose and had his eyes blackened. The match went five 10 minute rounds to the time limit, with Pereira winning via decision. While Gracie always called it a home town decision, in Salvador, Bahia, it was reported that it was an obvious decision.
Here's an interview with Pereira from Inside MMA:
Pereira and wrestler Ivan Gomes were two of the most feared fighters in Brazil in the 1970s.
Here's an Ivan Gomes highlight. Gomes was one of the 1970's fiercest fighters:
More from the Wrestling Observer on Gomes:
"My hardest fight was against Ivan Gomes, he was a monster," said Carlson Gracie in an interview when he first came to the United States. "Afterwards, he became my student and became world champion. That was a terrible fight, with three ten minute rounds and it would only stop if one of us fell out of the ring. He was 98 kilograms (215 pounds) and I was 73 kilograms (161 pounds), but I was in really good shape. If it wasn't for that, I would have lost."
The fight didn't have judges and newspaper reports from the time indicated that Gomes dominated the fight. Although Pereira, because he was smaller and more technical, was the most popular fighter from the TV ring era, Gomes, bigger and more powerful, who was also Brazil's biggest pro wrestling star, was generally considered at the time the toughest man in Brazil.
Helio Gracie, who also helped promote the fight as Carlson's manager, then brought Gomes to Rio de Janeiro, to be the Gracie school shooter. He trained at the academy from 1964 to 1967, while frequently returning home to fight in television matches. Gomes, who started training with Pereira, was Carlson's main training partner for his Pereira fight.
Legend has it that Pereira and Gomes fought hundreds of fights, neither ever losing. Pereira claimed 380 wins and about 20 draws, while Gomes claimed 570 wins and 30 draws. There are no such things approaching real records, and Gomes' followers listed 86 of his wins coming in Japan, which were matches in New Japan Pro Wrestling. While no doubt the numbers are inflated, fighters in that era in the Salvador, Bahia based circuit fought all the time, regularly on television as well as a thriving house show circuit that hit all the cities, both large and small. Clearly, a human body can't take that many real fights, nor could any two people fight that often for that many years and never lose. How much of this was shoot, work, a mix, exaggerations or fabrications is unknown.
In the next installment I'll talk about vale tudo in Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s, before and after the start of the UFC.