A handful of styles comprise the modern MMA fighter: boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. Most other combat forms have been left on the scrap heap during the molding of MMA, and for good reason. However, as the sport continues to evolve, capoeira—a storied Brazilian martial art—is kicking its way into the cage.
On the main card of UFC on FX 4 on June 22, Ross Pearson is working the jab and throwing kicks, looking very much like a kickboxer. Opponent Cub Swanson is gliding around the cage, playing fast and loose with his strikes. Pearson is scoring, but so is Swanson. It’s mid-first round, and it’s anybody’s fight. Swanson pops off a jab and draws a left counter. Then, out of the blue, he swings wide with a right cross and follows his momentum to the canvas, where he plants his left arm and fires his right leg upward like a scythe thrown at the sky. It slaps the Brit’s neck, and he half-staggers into a takedown. The crowd surges, and a gaga Kenny Florian calls Swanson’s move a “capoeira kick” on the telecast.
“Not really,” Swanson says.
Much like P. Diddy, there are a half-dozen (or more) names for the kicks that fall outside the standard range of techniques seen inside the Octagon. Purists might argue for one name or another, but when you plant your hand on the mat, post an arm, and throw a wild kick, you’re doing capoeira, right?
Right. Unless, of course, you don’t know you’re doing it.
“My kicking skills come from soccer,” Swanson says. “I was always the one to throw a bicycle kick or an aerial kick to get a goal.”
Don’t get him wrong, Swanson loves capoeira, especially the kind in the 1993 B-movie Only the Strong, starring Mark Dacascos, otherwise known as the guy who screams the secret ingredients (“CRANBERRY!…MACKEREL!…ASPARAGUS!”) on Iron Chef America. However, Swanson has never taken a day of capoeira training in his life. If anything, the kick should be called the “Leonard Garcia Kick,” because he was keeper of that flash on the mats of Greg Jackson’s MMA Gym. Swanson calls it a funky kickboxing technique.
“It’s high-risk, but it’s high-reward,” Swanson says. “And the fans always appreciate when you think outside the box.”
So, what is capoeira? The name conjures circles of high-flying people in what looks like the friendliest battle you could ever find on a dance floor—they throw pinwheel kicks and tumble and somersault at each other, but they never make intentional contact. A tropical soundtrack accompanies them. There are calls and responses, improvisation, and a lot of smiles. It looks about the farthest thing from a fight—but maybe not.
“Every fight is a series of situations that requires solutions,” says Los Angeles-based capoeira teacher Amir Solsky. “If you have the solution, then you will last longer. If you don’t have the solution, you will get knocked out. Capoeira has a different perception than other martial arts. It has a different approach to that interaction that can give you a lot of creative ideas—a lot of intricate footwork, the way you carry your body, how you approach striking. There’s a trickiness that a capoeirista has.”
The circumstances that brought capoeira into the world were far from carefree. African slaves developed it under the oppressive rule of Portuguese colonists in 16th-century Brazil. Practitioners were persecuted when free trade brought slaves from sugar plantations to cities and street corners, replacing fields as the home for rodas, the circular formation where capoeiristas engage each other. From 1890 to 1940, it was illegal in Brazil. And yet, capoeira continued to flourish, in part, because it could blend into its environment. It was not only a fighting system, but also a form of self-expression. Its practitioners were not only dancing, but also beguiling would-be opponents into vulnerable situations from which to strike.
Still, capoeira wasn’t invited to the party in the style vs. style days of the UFC, and you can see why. Maybe the Gracie family just didn’t want to share their commercial success with another Brazilian form. But more likely, nobody took it seriously as a fighting style. Back then, the combat evolution was centered around the brilliance of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s ground-fighting techniques and the smashing of long-held myths touted by traditional martial arts. Alongside the yahoo practitioners of Ninjitsu, pencak silat, or SAFTA, capoeira might have looked just as ineffective.
Today, it’s a different story. Swanson is more closely aligned than he thinks with the storied Brazilian art. There are guys such as TUF: Brazil’s Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira and recent Bellator signee Marcus Aurelio who bring actual capoeira techniques into MMA (Aurelio’s YouTube sensation—a 20-second, 540-degree spinning-kick KO—is the very reason he got into the big show). But Swanson’s kick wasn’t just about flash. It was really an example of the mindset behind capoeira, one that allows for the kind of explosive attacks seen in his fight: malandragem and malicia.
“I try to trick my opponent into thinking one thing, and then I throw a power shot in the opposite direction,” Swanson says. “It gets in your opponent’s head that they’re not just looking out for the basic—they don’t know what to expect, so it automatically puts them on the defensive.”
The root meaning of malicia is evil, and malandragem stems from malandro, a kind of hustler. Both are bad for civilized society, but good for surviving the wild. In the context of capoeira, they’re essential to creatively understanding and reacting to complex situations that arise in physical encounters, which is pretty much what happens every second of an MMA fight.
“There’s so much imagination in fighting,” says Solsky. “It’s not always direct and obvious. There’s much more trapping and ways of setting up people. In a sense, it’s about arranging the situation so that your partner doesn’t know where the attack is going to come from, and you always try to get your partner when he’s not ready, which is very different from other martial arts, where stuff is more obvious.”
Ferreira, who found capoeira when he was 10 years old, had two guiding influences in his path as a mixed martial artist: Mestre Mao Branca of Capoeira Gerais, one of the biggest capoeira teams in Brazil, and Vitor Belfort of, well, you know. There was more money to be made in MMA, so he chose it as a career. But when he looked low and kicked high to knock out Thiago de Oliveira Perpetuo in the semifinals of TUF Brazil, his manager says that was capoeira. Others would call it the oldest trick in the book. There are many words for deception, as it turns out.
“He gets some things from capoeira and builds it into his game,” says Ferreira’s manager Pedro Lima.
Today, Solsky fields plenty of wannabe fighters at his classes in Los Angeles, and he tells them the same thing—capoeira is not a serious fighting system. Capoeiristas don’t spar the same way kickboxers do. Try to beat a Muay Thai fighter with the movie-set kicks the art is known for, he says, and you’ll likely wind up slightly concussed. If you really want to fight, he tells them, learn MMA.
But in a time where most MMA fighters more or less speak in the same tongue— employing a mix of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and BJJ—there are some fighters who are putting to use this combat dialect that’s five centuries old and deeply rooted in Brazil’s cultural heritage. Capoeira isn’t practical enough to supplant any of MMA’s major components. It might, however, be the perfect complement.
“Capoeira can benefit fighters a lot when you mix it together with other systems,” says Solsky. “At end of the day, it’s really not about the fight. It’s more about the interaction. It’s about the language. It’s about a dialogue with your body. A big part of this dialogue is martial, so there are primal elements, which is something that’s true to our nature. However, if you look at animals fighting in the wild, many times they don’t end up hurting each other—but they still fight. Capoeira brings that. It’s not about hurting each other. It’s about creating an interesting interaction.”
Capoeirista: A practitioner of capoeira.
Ginga: The most basic move in capoeira—instead of keeping a fixed stance like in most martial arts, the capoeirista keeps moving in a dance-like pattern, normally to the beat of music.
Macaco: This move is where the capoeirista steps from a crouched position into a handstand. He can either continue the rotation and land on his feet or move into another position from the handstand.
Roda: The ring of people—who clap, sing, and cheer—where the capoeiristas fight.