Brazil is home to some of the most beautiful women in the world – they are one of the nation’s greatest natural resources. Unlike the American obsession with large breasts, Brazilian women pride themselves on the tone and shapeliness of their behinds. The ideal woman is different in Brazil: darker, athletic, and more authentically sexual. Where the US gave the world blonde-but-bland Jessica Simpson and the plastic sexuality of Lady Gaga, the physical vigor of Shakira, truth-telling hips and all, was the Brazilian way.
Brazilians are in general a good-looking people, and in crowds, one’s eye is drawn to unattractive people because they are out of the ordinary. In Rio, even the homely are ugly in interesting ways.
Such were my thoughts as I people watched at a posh restaurant called Churrascaria on the outskirts of Rio. Tall models with thoroughbred poise hobnobbed with pro soccer players and Rio’s business elite. It was one of those “see and be seen” type places. I was there to meet the premier power player in Brazilian mixed martial arts: Jorge Guimarães.
Everyone who knew him called him by his nickname, Joinha, which meant “shiny jewelry” or “bling.”. He hosted a weekly television show called Passing the Guard since the early nineties and was married to a popular model. The most successful and powerful manager in the country, he dealt with only the very biggest names, while still keeping his eye on the up-and-comers, looking for the next big talent. A call from Joinha would change a Brazilian fighter’s life.
As we waited, Murgel, who had known Joinha for years, told me a story about him. They were both in South Africa handling fighters for a tournament in 2001. The promoter paid for them to go on a motorized safari on an off day. When they were deep into the bush, the ATV they were crammed into came upon a pack of nine or ten lions shading themselves under some trees. The driver told everyone how dangerous the animals were and how lions in that very group had eaten a tourist the year before. Joinha shocked everybody by jumping out of the car and approaching the deadly cats.
“He was trying to get close to take their picture,” Murgel said, shaking his head. The lions paid no attention to Joinha until he got too close; at which point the huge male reared up and let loose a deafening roar. Joinha covered the distance to the car and jumped through the open window in a single bound, yelling, ”Go, go, go!” as the panicked driver sped off with an ATV full of hysterical cage fighters. Once they had escaped, Joinha told everyone, “It’s a good thing you pulled me back in or I would have grabbed that son of a bitch by the beard and shown him the real Mate Leone, which is Brazilian slang for the rear naked choke and translated means “Lion Killer.”
Joinha arrived straight from the airport after flying in from Los Angeles. His eyes were bleary, and he needed a shave, but he still cut a stylish figure in designer jeans and a black T-shirt. He exuded the nonchalant personal magnetism of a man used to living with celebrity. He was in constant motion as he smiled and shook hands with us, all the while deal-making in Portuguese on his cell phone.
Joinha had been involved with MMA since the early days. A childhood friend of the Gracie family, he trained as a teenager with Rickson and the late Rolls Gracie, who he said may have been the greatest Jiu-Jitsu fighter ever. He later moved north with Hélio’s oldest son Rorion when he set out to bring the gospel of BJJ to the United States. “Rorion was very smart. He knew what he had with Jiu-Jitsu,” Joinha told me when he finally took a seat. “He went to the US with only one thing in mind: to make Jiu-Jitsu popular in the US and eventually the whole world, and he did.”
“It was crazy,” he said. “When I first got there, he used to teach out of our garage. He had one student, a guy named Richard Pressley. The guy had a hamburger place in Hawthorne and at least two times a week Richard would bring some huge guy who was a karate champ or whatever.” Joinha smiled, remembering BJJ’s humble beginnings in the US. “So, he would always be at his hamburger shop saying, ‘I know this guy [Rorion] who will tie you into a pretzel.’ The guy would go, ‘No way,’ so Richard would bring him in, and they would challenge Rorion. Rorion was always very nice, but…well,” he said, turning both palms up. “You know the ending.”
“You might find this surprising,” Joinha said as he nodded, acknowledging someone he knows across the room, “but Rorion didn’t care about the money or anything … he just wanted to prove that Jiu-Jitsu was the best. The proof of this is when he created the UFC in 1993 with partners [Art Davie and John Milius] just to promote Jiu-Jitsu.” It worked, and soon everybody knew that to survive in a real fight you had to know how to handle yourself on the ground. Gracie Jiu- Jitsu was the best way to do that. Although Rorion eventually sold the UFC, he had validated the fighting style his father had created fifty years before. Rorion who was a lawyer, owned the copyright to the term ‘Gracie Jiu-Jitsu,’ and owned a very successful school in Beverly Hills. The UFC he created, on the other hand, has gone supernova without him.
“Over here it’s a struggle,” he said. “You have great fighters like this guy Luis Pizzoro [an up-and-coming fighter from RFT.] He has great potential but he’s a delivery boy.” He shook his head at how a top talent had to hold down a menial job in order to make ends meet. “It’s a lot easier when you are training in a first world country. You’ve got to work so much harder over here. You have guys trying to be fighters that get one meal a day. How can you train like that?”
“It has to do with the struggle for life,” Murgel added philosophically and Joinha nodded in agreement.
“Is this why it is so hard for them to succeed?” I asked His answer surprises me.
“No, it makes it easier. Because to come through some of the difficult circumstances, you have to be so mentally strong that things like training and fighting, well…they’re easy.”
“Why is there so much emphasis on the teams here and so much heat between them?” I asked.
“It’s a different culture,” Joinha said. “Over here, if you cheer for the Lakers, you can’t turn around and cheer for the Celtics later. They are like rivals. It started with Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre.”
“You don’t want to be a Creonte,” said Murgel.
“Ahh, Creonte!” Joinha smiled, recognizing the word Carlson Gracie popularized to describe fighters who switched teams. It was a grievous insult.
Suddenly, there was a huge commotion at the front of the restaurant. Joinha’s star client Anderson Silva appeared. He saw us and delighted the crowd by doing an impromptu soft shoe across the room, eliciting a round of applause from the diners in the room. The man knew how to make an entrance.
Joinha stood up and gave his star fighter a big hug before introducing us. This is the first time met Anderson and he looked bigger in person than on television.
Murgel had known Anderson since childhood, and they chatted amiably in Portuguese. Since Anderson didn’t speak English and my Portuguese was terrible we just smiled and nodded at each other. The Champ made his way to the buffet in the middle of the restaurant and returned to take a seat by Joinha, his plate heaped with pasta and bread.
“He has to stuff himself to make 205,” Joinha said as he slapped Anderson playfully on the back. Anderson had already cleaned out the 185-pound division in the UFC. In a few weeks away he’d make his debut as a light heavyweight. He had to put on 20-pounds to make the weight. He had to ate quickly because fans kept interrupting him. He made time for all of them, posing for pictures, signing autographs, and chatting with everyone.
While Anderson alternates between greeting fans and packing in carbs, I asked Joinha about Anderson’s upcoming opponent, James Irving. “Irving is big, hits hard, and has fast hands. Don’t you think it’s a dangerous fight?”
“No way man,” Joinha said, expressing perfect confidence in his fighter. “Anderson is going to kill this guy.” I caught Anderson looking up at me from his plate of pasta with a sly smile. I suspected he understood more English than he let on.
It looks like Cido took a wrong turn—the street was littered and teeming with a crowd of surly-looking people. It didn’t seem like a good place to park a car to me. Cido, insisted the car would be safe because we were close to the Brazilian Top Team gym. Murgel and Levy looked skeptical. We got out of the car and I took in the surroundings. A churlish crowd mulled around suspiciously eyeing our group.
“Levy, get some pictures. It will be good for atmosphere,” I said. Levy immediately started snapping pictures. Ther was a particularly ominous group of five men leaning against a graffiti-covered wall about 20 yards away. As soon as they saw Levy with his camera, they began angrily gesturing at us, glaring and shouting. Levy turned to me, and in his broken English said, “I go ask permission…”
“Are you crazy,” Murgel erupted. “If they think he’s taking pictures for the police, they will shoot him and probably us too.” Murgel was genuinely concerned, and for the first time, so was usually unflappable Cido. Standing in the middle of the street, we were totally exposed. I had visions of being cut down in a hail of gunfire.
I motioned for Levy to come back but was too late. He was now in an animated discussion that looked to be getting more heated but the second. They were pointing and gesturing violently at us. I didn’t look good. Suddenly, Levy turned and marched back towards us with one of the men following him.
“This is…” Levy began, carefully enunciating in English and using what I take to be a polite euphemism for gang member, “a leader of community. I tell him you…” he searches for the correct word in English “…journalist.”
“That’s right, I am.” I smiled broadly, faking calm and trying to exude the sort of confidence and authority called for in such situations. The leader of the community was unimpressed. “Show him the magazine,” Murgel slapped my arm. I produced a copy from my laptop case and handed it to the guy. He looked at the cover and back to me, scowl slightly less menacing. “Dan Henderson,” he growled, referring to the fighter on the cover, “Anderson fucked him up.”
“He sure did,” I exclaimed. Just like that, disaster was averted. Thanks Dan. The community leader walked with us, escorting us through the alleys and up the steep staircase that led to the front door of BTT, flipping through the magazine the whole time and chatting with Levy like they were old pals.
If you were a Jiu-Jitsu fighter looking to make it in Brazil, the top of the food chain was Brazilian Top Team. BTT was started in 2000 by three of Carlson Gracie’s top students, Mario Sperry, Ricardo Liborio and Murilo Bustamante. Of the three, Bustamante had the most distinguished career as a fighter, winning the middleweight UFC championship and going on a winning streak in Japan’s MMA organization, Pride, in the Nineties. He was also the only one of the founding members who remained in Brazil. When we entered BTT’s gym, the first person I saw was a UFC up-and-comer named Thiago Silva. I gave him the exaggerated glare and thumb throat cut he did does after he won his matches. H was a good sport, smiling and nodding. He probably got that ten times a day.
Thiago wasn’t a member of BTT. He was there to improve his ground skills. He was about to roll with Milton Vieira, a Jiu-Jitsu specialist who, Murgel informed me, had developed hundreds of variations on the arm triangle. Thiago dwarfed him, but once they start to roll, Milton schooled big Thiago and even tapped him out several times with his signature move.
“I have to warn you about Murilo,” Murgel whispered. “He can be…” He stiffened up and glared like a zombie in imitation of Bustamante’s famously cold demeanor. Soon, Murilo walked through the door. “Hey Murilo,” Murgel called and leapt up to introduce me.
Murilo cuts his eyes to us but didn’t his head. Every move he made was precise, slow, unconcerned and deliberate. As we approached him, I smiled but his face remains expressionless.
“This is my friend, he is here doing a story about Brazilian MMA for an American magazine,” Murgel said. I extended my hand and Murilo gave me the fish and eyed me warily. He sized me up for a moment, and with a slight nod motioned to two chairs by a table at the front of the gym. We went over and took our seats. When he finally spoke, it was in a faint rasp reminiscent of Don Corleone’s throttled delivery in The Godfather.
Despite his reputation I like him. He wasn’t rude. He was just an unhurried and deliberate individual. In conversation, he listened carefully to what you said, digested it, and weighed his response before speaking. It was a rare, but admirable trait. I often wished that I could be disciplined enough to be so thoughtful in my speech.
I ask3e him why he chose to remain in Brazil when the rest of BTT’s founding members, as well as so many top Brazilian fighters made the trek north to the States to cash in on the exploding MMA market.
“I’m a Brazilian, so I live in Brazil,” he said simply. “I’ll never move because I love my country. Of course, the business here compared with the States is nothing, but I can survive here.”
“Why is the MMA business less in Brazil, if the sport was born here?” I asked.
He thinks for a while, and then gave me a deft analysis. “It has to do with the culture of pay-per-view. Brazilians aren’t going to pay to watch something on television. In the States, people pay to watch so the money is better.” Whenever fights on television are free, they are very popular. UFC heavyweight champ Rodrigo Nogueira is becoming huge in his home country because his come-from-behind victory over Tim Sylvia was shown on free Brazilian television.
I asked him how someone becomes a member of Brazilian Top Team. “Can someone just walk in the door?” I asked.
He said the team is highly selective but every once in a while, it happens. For instance, a fighter he thought would be the future face of Brazilian Top Team and maybe even Brazilian MMA, Rousimar “Toquinho” Palhares, just showed up out of the blue.
“Sometimes a fighter will just walk through the door—Rousimar was like that. I was training every day for the 2005 PRIDE Grand Prix. I wasn’t teaching, just training. Every day, I saw him in the academy. I kept looking for who brought him or knew him, but nobody did. I would be tired from training, and I would catch him looking at me, and I would say to myself, ‘fuck who is this guy?’ I didn’t know that he didn’t have any money and was sleeping in the streets. It was his dream to come here and be part of the team. I didn’t know because he didn’t talk—he was so shy. The last day, he prayed to God and said if he couldn’t talk to me he would go back home, forget MMA, and go back to working in the sugarcane fields.
That day, I’d hurt my back in training, so I was resting. I sat down to watch my students train, and I noticed that this same guy was looking at me again, so I asked him, ‘May I help you?’ and he nearly jumped over the mat. ‘Yes sir, it is my dream to make the team.’ I explained to him that he should come to the next class, and we’d test him. But the next class was Monday, and he didn’t have enough money to stay the weekend. I could see he was so sad, so I gave him a chance on the spot, and I found he was a big talent. It’s funny, because I think this guy will become a UFC champion really fast.”
I’d heard a lot about Toquinho since I’d been in Brazil. Joinha raved about him, and Murgel was convinced he was the next great fighter from Brazil. I’d seen his fights and he was compact and explosive. In his UFC debut he dominated over a durable Ivan Salaverry, submitting him less than three minutes into in the first round with a slick rolling arm bar from the back.
Toquinho was a ferocious fighter and was notorious for his brutal foot locks that could snap his opponent’s ankle before they the chance to tap. When I met him a little later, he belied his vicious reputation.
‘Toquinho’ means tree stump, which suited him. Thickly muscled, he was nearly as wide as he was tall. He slouched his shoulders and looked down when he spoke to me. If I hadn’t known better, he would have seemed almost meek. The only thing he insisted on was being photographed with a small wooden cross he always carried. Since Toquinho speaks no English, Murgel translated. The old man had trained fighters all his life and looked at Toquinho with the excitement of a horse trainer getting his first look at Secretariat.
Toquinho told us his brother sold most of his personal possessions to raise enough money for Toquinho to come to Rio but when he finally made it to the gym nobody paid attention to him. Knowing the first impression Murilo makes, I could see why Toquinho would have been hesitant to introduce himself.
I ask him if it took a lot of faith to come. He said that he didn’t have faith in himself but that he had faith in God. With God, he knew that he could do anything. He’d started working in the fields when he was seven years old. He spent 14-hour days harvesting sugarcane or coffee, or herding cattle, depending on the season. I noticed a jagged scar on his chest. I asked him about it and he told me that is was from a childhood accident with some farm machinery.
His echoed the Luta livre fighters I met at RFT and thanked God for giving him the opportunity to earn the chance for a better life for his family through MMA. It was his dream to buy a house for his mother.
Toquinho, lived in a tenement in the alley behind the gym. He suggested we get a picture of him in front of his home. I thought it was a bad idea after our last narrow escape but before I knew it, he and Levy were out the door. I was tempted to stay inside and let them get the shot (or get shot) without me. I felt a tinge of shame for having humored such a timid thought, so I followed them. In the alley I found to my relief, that the menacing crowd from before had melted away and the street was empty except for Toquinho and Levy.