The UFC Returns to its Roots
Above: The man credited with bringing Jiu Jitsu to
Brazil, Jigoro Kano. Below: A newspaper article
promoting a contest between Helio Gracie and
With the exception of the United States, no country has more professional fighters in the top ranks of MMA than Brazil. When you compare the number of registered fighters in this behemoth country against its total population, no nation enjoys more pugilistic power per capita than Brazil. With a monumental trip back to Brazil for UFC 134 on Aug. 27, a stroll through Brazil’s fighting history is in order. It seems that Brazilian culture fervently embraces MMA in the same way that South Africa clamors for rugby or Canada harps for hockey.
Fighting is an inseparable part of Brazilian culture. More than 100 years ago, street fights over girls, money, and honor were just as common in Sao Paulo and Brasilia as anywhere else, but there was no real fighting style for the Amazon basin to call its own. Capoeira originated there, but it was a martial art developed by slaves that blended dance, sport, and music, and it was not solely for self-defense. Additionally, Capoeira was dealt a blow in 1890 when it was banned in Brazil due to its connection with the slave population, which was despised by the masses during this time. It was not until an immigrant landed on Brazil’s shores that the martial arts truly flourished south of the equator.
You can’t speak of MMA’s history without visions of Gracies rolling through your head, but the man who taught the arts to the Gracie family wasn’t a Brazillian—he was a Japanese journeyman named Mitsuyo Maeda. Maeda was a highly skilled Judokan who was trained by the legendary Jigoro Kano. In 1908, Maeda decided to take his skills on the road, and he wandered the globe to challenge anyone and everyone to Jujutsu-style matches. Maeda did not call his style Judo, possibly because he was one of the earliest students of Kano, who blended together several styles of Jujutsu to make Judo. Throughout his life, Maeda reportedly won more than 2,000 fights and lost only twice.
In 1914, Maeda and his caravan headed to Brazil and never left. Something about the country intrigued him, possibly it’s casual acceptance of fighting as a necessary part of life. After a six-year world tour, Maeda finally threw down his stakes and established a Jujutsu school in Belem, where he charged a hefty fee that had the intended effect of keeping the impoverished outside the dojo. Before long, a 13-year-old student named Carlos Gracie, a well-todo third-generation descendant of a Scots immigrant, found his way to Maeda’s doorstep, and the world of fighting was changed forever.
As the oldest of five brothers, it was Carlos’s birthright to learn Jujutsu from Maeda and, in turn, teach it to his family. In 1925, Carlos opened his own Jiu Jitsu (as it became commonly spelled) academy in Rio de Janeiro, but he spent most of his time establishing the family name by challenging other schools to fights— just as Maeda had done during his travels. When Carlos’ brothers (Osvaldo, Gastao, Jorge, and Helio) were old enough, they did the majority of the actual fighting while Carlos managed and trained them. The youngest brother, Helio, was sickly and frail, but ended up as the standout of the family, and he is the one credited for improving the Gracie system.
It was Helio who catapulted the family’s style into prestige and the Gracie name into legend. He modified his Jiu Jitsu to accommodate his smaller stature and refined his techniques so that he was less reliant on strength and better able to defeat a larger, stronger opponent with skill. Like his master, Mitsuyo Maeda, it is believed that Helio Gracie only lost two fights in his long life.
“It wasn’t their way of being arrogant or aggressive,” says Helio’s son, Rorion Gracie. “They just had a lot of conviction. They were completely convinced that Gracie Jiu Jitsu was the best style of self-defense, and they were willing to put their necks on the line to prove it. My father was 140 pounds soaking wet, but he was willing to fight anybody to prove that Jiu Jitsu was the most effective form of self-defense.”
In 1951, Helio challenged the greatest Judoka of the day, Masahiko Kimura, to a fight in front of 20,000 people, an attendance that included Brazilian President Getulio Vargas. Kimura won the fight by virtue of a reverse ude garami lock, breaking Helio’s arm in two places in a futile attempt to get the Brazilian to submit. It was only Carlos throwing in the towel that forced a halt to the match. After this devastating public loss, the Gracie family looked inward to further evolve their style of Jiu Jitsu, adding elements of Judo to the budding art, and in the process, they honored Kimura’s victory by re-naming the reverse ude garami judo lock as a Kimura submission.
The event had a significant impact on Jiu Jitsu, far greater than any other fight had to date. Filling an arena with 20,000 people was a monumental accomplishment for a martial arts match and signaled a rise in Jiu Jistu’s popularity that did not go unnoticed. Japanese practitioners were attracted to the new market in Brazil and came to Rio, but none were able to establish schools as successful as the Gracies. Japanese Jujutsu failed to attract the masses because it was focused on throws and winning points instead of submissions that end a fight. It was a cultural and philosophical divide on the principles of fighting that the Japanese masters were unable to overcome in Brazil.
Jiu Jitsu’s popularity also opened the door for a resurgence in other martial arts, including Capoeira. Though still banned in Brazil, a fighter named Mestre Bimba founded a Capoeira school in Salvador in 1932. Bimba felt that the art—long underground and passed on illegally—was losing its efficiency. He was right. Capoeira was taking a back seat to Jiu Jitsu, and even bare-knuckled matches were more popular. Bimba and his student José Cisnando Lima made Capoeria more combat focused by adding moves from traditional fighting styles, like Batuque (an African from of grappling) and, to a very limited extent, wrestling. By the 1940s, Capoeira was gaining traction, but it was a candle under the sun of the surging Jiu Jitsu.
The popularity of Jiu Jitsu in the 1950s touched off a wave of bare-knuckled and freestyle competition that continued until fighting was as frequent and accepted as baseball is in the USA today. Luta Livre was particularly popular. It was another variant of grappling, centered on no-gi submission wrestling, which built a large fan base over the decade. It didn’t take long for the two disciplines to meet in the rings of Brazil, challenge matches that were overwhelmingly won by Gracie Jiu Jitsu artists. As much talent as Luta attracted, it still could not compare to the talent pool that Jiu Jitsu was drawing from.
By the 1960s, Luta Livre matches, and the more brutal Vale Tudo (anything goes) fights, were taking advantage of a new technology called television in Rio de Janeiro. Starting out as a circus sideshow act that pitted various fighting styles against one another, Vale Tudo had evolved into a strong underground sub culture based in and around Rio de Janeiro by the middle of the 1960s.
Vale Tudo of that day was something that the politically correct crowd of today might find vulgar, but in Brazil, where an attitude of honor prevails, it was completely accepted. This was (and still is) the culture of Brazil and is the main reason why fighting has enjoyed such a fervent home in South America’s biggest country.
“Brazil is very much a laid back and easy going place,” says Brazilian Top Team founder and head trainer at American Top Team Ricardo Liborio. “It’s all about having fun, but any sort of challenge or insult is met with violence. You just don’t disrespect someone without knowing the consequences.” It’s a little like the Wild West in the 19th century United States, where a man would not stand for a challenge to his honor and where his word was his bond. If you threw down the gauntlet, you’d better have had the cajones to back it up.
Despite the big three disciplines becoming Brazil’s identity, Judo was actually the Elvis Presley of fighting during this time. Judo’s popularity, partly because of Kimura’s defeat of Helio Gracie in 1951, eclipsed all the other forms. But in the 1970s the tides began to turn. All classes of Brazilian, from rich to poor, who sought a self-defense style, wanted what worked. Jiu Jitsu had proven itself in challenge matches, and the participation level at annual grappling tournaments was soaring in size and stature. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federations sprang up, and with them came larger and larger tournaments, making it the most popular style in Brazil. With that popularity, however, came change.
Jiu Jitsu’s simple practicality in a country plagued by poverty and civil violence was enticing to the poor. Gracie Jiu Jitsu was not cheap, and was very exclusionary for decades, but it’s own efficiency forced it to become more accessible. Before 1980, only the well-to-do could afford Jiu Jitsu, until it was in such demand that the vox populi cried out for inclusion and dojo’s across the land acquiesced. As an unintended side effect of its efficiency, Jiu Jitsu became the fighting art of choice in the poorest favelas of Brazil, which in turn produced some of the art’s greatest practitioners, though they were not always accepted. Brazil is, after all, a country with deep divides along class lines.
“The camaraderie in the 1990s was really marginal,” says Liborio. “It used to be a dojo in Brazil was very tight knit and family oriented, but as the poorer demographic started coming in, that really made it deteriorate.”
Above: Wallid Ismail represents the Gracie clan against Luta Livre
rival Eugenio Tadeu. Below: Luta Livre master Roberto Leitao with
a dedicated student.
Once reserved only for the wealthy, Jiu Jitsu was forced to throw its doors open to anyone who could learn it. It’s upper-class exclusivity was eliminated and the face of the art was changed forever. Much like Muay Thai is seen as a sport for street urchins in Thailand, Jiu Jitsu lost its luster in Brazil. Like Muay Thai, however, Jiu Jitsu also became a force for good, taking children with no future off the streets and putting them into the dojos. Despite it’s reluctant metamorphosis, the martial arts became a vessel for positive socioeconomic change.
“In 1991, there was a televised event on open-air TV here in Brazil that was a challenge of Jiu Jitsu versus Luta Livre, and Jiu Jitsu ended up coming out on top,” says former Chute Boxe Jiu Jitsu coach Cristiano Marcello. “MMA was around, but Jiu Jitsu was the most popular of all the arts at the time.” While Mixed Martial Arts was sprouting in the Vale Tudo rings of Brazil, Jiu Jitsu was enjoying its coronation as the king of the martial arts in Brazil. Helio’s son Rorion decided to take the family tradition a step further and put his Gracie Jiu Jitsu on a stage where it would be appreciated by a fan base that enjoyed combat sports—The United States.
It was only natural for Rorion, since his father had done so, and his teacher before him, Maeda, was renowned for throwing down with anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Rorion spent years teaching his family’s art out of his garage in Torrance, California, and challenging anyone in the area to a no-holds barred fight when he and Art Davie conceived the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. Rorion believed the UFC would catch on in the U.S. the same way his father’s 1951 match with Kimura lit a fire for fighting in Brazil, but it would be 12 more years before that happened. Back in the homeland, his vision was having a small effect.
Royce Gracie’s victories at UFC 1 and 2 added to the aura of Jiu Jitsu in Brazil, and even though the events were not televised, people found videotapes and marveled at the Gracie’s international success. “Seeing him take on everyone and win really helped to promote and propel the style forward,” says Marcello.
The UFC made its first appearance in Brazil in 1998 in Sao Paulo at an event that would crown Pat Miletich as the organization’s first welterweight champion and introduce Pedro Rizzo and Wanderlei Silva to the Octagon. Even in its wilder days, the UFC was not the same as Brazilian Vale Tudo. There were rules and something many Vale Tudo fights did not have—gloves. It also was not Luta Livre, which was based more in wrestling, so instead of morphing the three forms of combat entertainment in Brazil into one, the UFC actually kept them segregated. Though it strengthened the reputation of Jiu Jitsu, it did not make converts to MMA.
“The UFC wasn’t something big in Brazil,” says Marcello. “It was more for serious fans and people involved in the sport itself, as well as some curious spectators, so the UFC didn’t really have any effect on Brazil back then. MMA was cool, but Jiu Jitsu was what everyone wanted.”
Surprisingly, those who did want to see MMA were more interested in Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships. The boxing style ring and gigantic stadiums had more of an allure than the eightsided cage and smaller venues in the United States, so that’s where the best of Brazil went to fight—until the buyout. When the UFC purchased Pride in 2007, the periscope naturally shifted from the Far East to North America. Now that Zuffa has also purchased its largest rival, Strikeforce, there is no doubt that every Brazilian with a scar or two earned in a fight has Octagon dreams.
Today, Brazil churns out powerhouse fighters who constantly bring new dimensions to MMA—Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, Shogun Rua, José Aldo, The Nogueira brothers, Junior dos Santos, and Cristiane Cyborg Santos are just a handful of the rich talent pool coming out of places like Curitiba, Fortaleza, and Rio de Janeiro. The UFC’s return, after being away for 12 years, is an affirmation to Brazilians that their country IS MMA.
“In Brazil, the majority of people have always looked down on MMA, but that has been changing greatly in recent years because the UFC has given the sport much more exposure by having all their events live on either cable or open-air TV,” says Marcello. “I believe that after UFC Rio, things will explode in Brazil just as they have in the United States, and you will see more and more fighters emerge.”
To those of us in the United States who see the great fighters coming out of Brazil, the thought that MMA has not really caught hold yet there is not just exciting, it’s a paradigm for sports. Brazil has had a profound impact on the world of combat sports, so the possibility that its talent pool has not really been tapped into creates a hope that MMA could actually be as big as the other major sports of the world someday.