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Well before MMA, there was a style of competitive fighting that would help inspire its creation. This fight style was known as Vale Tudo and started in Brazil decades before organized MMA bouts. Without Vale Tudo, MMA would look a lot different today and might not even exist.
What is Vale Tudo? Vale Tudo is a no rules, no holds barred, fight between 2 martial artists of different styles that took place in the country of Brazil. In Portuguese, Vale Tudo translates to “anything goes”. These fights were very popular and started in the late 1920 and had a run for about 70 year, losing it’s popularity in the 1990’s.
We’re going to lay out the complete history of Vale Tudo in this article. Everything from how it started, the Gracies, historic moments, and notable Vale Tudo fighters.
Vale Tudo fights started around 90 years ago in Brazil. These fights were first organized by Brazilian circus promoters as a sideshow attraction. Pitting martial artists with different backgrounds and disciplines against each other to see who was the best.
Brazil is a country that has various martial art disciplines that are practiced there. Many rivalries started between these disciplines.
An act called ‘dojo storming’ was very common throughout the century in Brazil. This act is when groups of martial artists would storm a rival groups academy and challenge them to a fight. Or in other cases, these rival groups just had outright brawls in the streets.
Different Brazilian promoters saw these rivalries as an opportunity to make money off it. Hold an organized fight between these martial artists, where they can sell tickets to spectators.
These fights generally had no rules or time limit. The winners would receive money and boast that they have the superior fighting style.
Over the years as Vale Tudo started to gain attention and began attracting larger audiences. None of the press Vale Tudo received was good press.
Newspapers used words to describe these events as ‘barbaric,’ and ‘gruesome’ spectacles that had no place in society.
The Brazilian media’s hatred of Vale Tudo would keep it from ever reaching mainstream success.
The Rules Of Vale Tudo
The main reason why Vale Tudo never reached mainstream success was because there were no rules.
Anything went in these fights, except there were no weapons allowed. All unarmed combat with no gloves sometimes fought in a ring and sometimes just in an open space. Later in a cage during the 90s.
There was no time limit, so it was common for these fights to go on for more than an hour.
They generally ended in KO, submission, or if a fighter was too tired or injured to continue fighting and quit.
Martial Arts Styles Seen In Vale Tudo Fights
There were many different forms of martial arts that were practiced in Brazil. Practitioners from each form wanted to test themselves in these Vale Tudo fights.
Basically like the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but predating it by around 70 years.
The martial art forms you’d see in Vale Tudo fights would include:
Strong Men/Street Fighters
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Vale Tudo And The Gracie Challenge
Carlos Gracie was one of the first students of Judo master Matsuyo Maeda, who helped introduce Judo in Brazil. After spending a few years learning under Maeda, he began to show his brother Hélio Gracie techniques he had learned.
The problem for Hélio was he was small, frail, and couldn’t do many of the Judo techniques that required strength. So, he and Carlos began altering the techniques to benefit his body type.
They switched the focus of sweeps and takedown to a more ground based system of fighting. Using the leverage instead of strength to beat bigger and stronger opponents.
What they helped create was their form of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that they called Gracie Jiu Jitsu. The brothers wanted to prove that their system was legitimate and wanted to get more students. So, Carlos came up with the Gracie Challenge.
The Gracie Challenge was an open challenge created by the Gracie brothers to prove that their fighting system was superior. They would compete against other martial arts practitioners in Vale Tudo fights offering cash prizes if they were defeated.
Hélio and Carlos fought in Vale Tudo fights for a few decades only being defeated a few times. Throughout the century, they helped train students and family members to compete in Vale Tudo matches.
Vale Tudo was the platform that helped spring Brazilian Jiu Jitsu into a popularly practiced martial art in Brazil. Not only that, but those no holds barred fights helped the Gracie family rise to prominence.
Vale Tudo’s Failed Attempt At Becoming Mainstream
The term Vale Tudo was actually a circus term and did not reach the vernacular of the Brazilian public until 1960. It was at this time Vale Tudo got a chance at the mainstream with a national tv show called ‘Heróis do Ringue.’(Heroes of the Ring)
This event took place in Rio de Janeiro and featured top fighters at the time like Carlson Gracie. It was the first time the public got to see what Vale Tudo was outside of the streets and Circus.
Unfortunately the show would only last one episode after fighter João Alberto Barreto snapped his opponent’s arm with an armlock. After millions saw this horrific injury, the TV stations deemed it too violent for television and was abruptly cancelled.
Barreto would go on to ref the first UFC event, but Vale Tudo was forced back into the underground.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu vs Luta Livre
For a 30-40 year period, there was a rivalry between BJJ and Luta Livre in Brazil. Often the tension between the two led to Vale Tudo matches against one another.
They both practiced grappling, but BJJ used the gi and Luta Livre trained no gi. Essentially it was class warfare between groups of rich and poor martial artists.
Tension got really bad in the 80’s as street fights would break out between the rival groups. One of the most notable being Rickson assaulting Hugo Duarte in Copacabana.
The groups would routinely meet each other in Vale Tudo matches with each trading wins. BJJ would gradually come out on top later in the rivalry.
Tensions boiled again in 97 during a Pentagon Combat event, where fans stormed the cage during the main event. Renzo Gracie was fighting Eugenio Tadeu, when fans got next to the cage assaulting them.
This riot destroyed the building causing riot police to step in and quell the violence. After this event made world news both sides were embarrassed by the event and truce between them was agreed on. Since then the sides have been peaceful and both groups generally train together today.
Vale Tudo And The UFC
After Rorion Gracie moved to California to spread Gracie Jiu Jitsu, he would continue doing the Gracie challenge. He and his students would continue to take challenges against rival martial artists and fight them in Vale Tudo fights.
Many of these fights were recorded and put on the Gracie Jiu Jitsu In Action tapes. These tapes demonstrating their techniques and their effectiveness helped grow Gracie Jiu Jitsu immensely.
But Rorian wanted to go a step further. Since pay per view came along he had the idea to air a live Vale Tudo tournament. His goal was to present Gracie Jiu Jitsu to a world audience and show its effectiveness.
Gracie partnered with businessman Art Davie to make his idea a reality. He recruited his brother Royce Gracie to compete and represent Gracie Jiu Jitsu in the tournament.
After beating all of his opponents with ease, Royce showed the effectiveness of BJJ to the world. It would change the martial arts world forever.
Later the UFC later got away from the Vale Tudo style of fighting with no rules. To make MMA more marketable, they needed to add rules and regulations. Present it as more of a sport than a no holds barred fighting event.
Vale Tudo Organizations
The most prominent Brazilian Vale Tudo organizations included.
Universal Vale Tudo Fighting
Brazilian Vale Tudo Fighting
World Vale Tudo Championship
International Vale Tudo Championship
Notable Vale Tudo Fighters
This isn’t a complete list, but here is a list of the most notable fighters that competed in Vale Tudo.
Hélio participated in 21 fights that spanned over 30 years. Gracie Jiu JItsu wouldn’t be what it is today if Hélio had not competed in these Vale Tudo fights.
He would go on to train many of the best Jiu Jitsu practitioners ever and be known as Grandmaster Hélio.
Kimura is considered one of the greatest Judokas of all time. Earning numerous titles in Judo and wrestling.
One of his most notable victories was against Hélio Gracie in 1951 after the Brazilian challenged him while visiting Brazil. In the match after repeatedly throwing the smaller Hélio, Kimura would pin Gracie to the ground. Locking in gyakuude-garami and breaking the Brazillian’s arm.
In a tribute to defeating Hélio, Jiu Jitu practitioners changed the name of the move to a ‘kimura.’ Masahiko after a stint in pro wrestling would be challenged again in 1959 by Waldemar Santana. Santana was famous for knocking Hélio out, but lost two matches to Kimura.
Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem
Hatem was a Brazilian catch wrestler, who founded Lute LIvre and went simply by Tatu. Tatu was an accomplished wrestler that started taking part in Vale Tudo matches during the 30s. As well as a number of submission grappling tournaments.
He went on to have much success and most notably defeated Hélio and Carlos’ relative George Gracie. After going on tours around the world fighting the best martial artists in the world, Tatu semi-retired in the 50s.
Hatem would open a gym and teach his Luta Livre style, but would continuously be challenged. Waldemar Santana came to his gym and challenged him, but Hatem beat him quickly. Promoters also later proposed he fight Hélio, but the fight never came to be.
Generally regarded as the best of the Gracie family, Rickson was allegedly undefeated taking part in hundreds of fights without losing. His record is highly disputed, but his skills as one of the best Jiu Jitsu fighters ever definitely isn’t.
There are many legendary stories of Rickson fighting including severely beating a Japanese pro wrestler that challenged him in Brazil. Other noted fights were against Luta Livre practitioner Hugo Duarte. He first fought Duarte on the beach in Copacabana and later in an organized bout beating him twice.
Today, he is still regarded as one of the best ever.
Early MMA pioneer Marco Ruas started in Luta Livre and later trained Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. His first recorded fight was in 1984 and during the BJJ vs Luta Livre rivalry he represented Luta Livre. Dispatching some of the best BJJ fighters in the world at the time in a series of matches.
Later he would go on to win the UFC 7 tournament finishing all of his opponents. He would also go on to hold titles in various Vale Tudo organizations..
Ruas’ nickname “Rei das Ruas” translates to king of the streets. He is a widely respected pioneer of MMA and lives in California, where he still trains and teaches.
Bustamante is another MMA legend that got his start competing in Vale Tudo during the BJJ vs Luta Livre rivalry. Representing BJJ and winning his fight by TKO.
Later in his career, he would become UFC middleweight champion and found Brazilian Top Team. Bustamante is regarded as one of the best coaches in the world and an all time great fighter.
Renzo was right in the middle of the BJJ vs Luta Livre rivalry. He fought in his first Vale Tudo in 92 and various bare knuckle matches early in his career.
He also fought at Pentagon Combat in ‘97, when the infamous riot happened.
While Royce did not fight in any Vale Tudo fights in Brazil, he did take part in the early UFC.
An idea of his brother Rorion, which was basically bringing Vale Tudo style fights to a bigger audience.
Thanks to Royce’s performance in the early days of the UFC it allowed BJJ and modern MMA to grow.
“The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva got his start in Vale Tudo organizations before his amazing run in Pride FC.
It is where he started to craft his vicious style using the clinch and delivering devastating knees.
Many people know the Iceman for his run in the UFC becoming the light heavyweight champion. But in his second professional fight, he took part in a bare knuckle Vale Tudo match in Brazil.
Winning a decision over dangerous MMA veteran Jose Landi-Jons.
Vale Tudo and Modern MMA
Much of the history of Vale Tudo was a subculture in which fights took place in the underground. But if it wasn’t for Vale Tudo, MMA and BJJ wouldn’t be what they are today.
Vale Tudo gave martial artists the platform to prove that their style of fighting was effective. Without the platform that Vale Tudo provided martial arts like BJJ wouldn’t have prospered.
Modern MMA would definitely look a lot different if it wasn’t for Vale Tudo. Those no holds barred fights laid the groundwork for MMA to become a widely popular sport.
Let's Roll BJJ aims to be the leading source of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Grappling information and news on the web. Dorian, the owner and editor of Let's Roll BJJ is a purple belt in Jiu Jitsu and has been training and competing for over 6 years.
Apart from being a BJJ geek, Dorian is a software developer by trade, a husband, and a father of two wonderful kids who he's recently began teaching Jiu Jitsu. When he's not training, coding, or writing, you can find him hiking, camping or occasionally binging on video games.