In Rio people ate dinner late. This worked out because Murgel and I often didn’t finish our working day until well into the evening. One night, over a late-night meal that included no less than forty different types of meat, Murgel continued to discuss the Gracies.
“Carlson was the best coach of fighters I ever saw,” he said. “It was Carlson who really opened up Jiu-Jitsu. He would teach anything to anybody as long as he thought they could be a good Vale Tudo Fighter.” Before Carlson, the Gracies were doing very well teaching their secrets to the rich and powerful. They didn’t want their system to become too widespread. When Carlson loosened his criteria to accept anyone, he upset the apple cart.
Murgel agreed with what Master Álvaro told us earlier about the degradation in the quality of Jiu-Jitsu instruction in the United States. He found it particularly galling when skeptical new students would try to prove how tough they were by straining and resisting the techniques the instructor was trying to demonstrate.
“For example,” he explained, “Hélio Gracie invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but if he’s demonstrating an arm bar and you weigh 250 pounds and are full of muscles and happen to power out of it? Come on; Hélio is 95 years old and 120 pounds so if you resisted the arm bar when the master applied it, does it mean the arm bar doesn’t work? No! It means you’re an asshole.”
Murgel could be a little rough around the edges but was also fiercely intelligent and wise. Imagine a cursing version of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid or a Yoda who liked to drink beer; that was Master Murgel.
“This is close to where Rickson Gracie had the famous fight with Hugo Duarte,” Murgel said as we jogged along Ipanema beach the next morning. We met every morning at 8 a.m. sharp and went running along the scenic beach made famous by the song “Girl from Ipanema.” The fight Murgel referred to was in 1988 when Hugo Duarte, a fighter from a competing Brazilian martial arts discipline called Luta Livre, insulted the Gracie family. Rickson approached him on the beach and slapped him in front of huge crowd that had gathered to watch the confrontation. After a fight lasting a little over eight minutes, Gracie mounted Duarte and beat him into submission. A tourist caught the fight on tape, and it became famous when the Gracies featured the footage in a video they used to market Jiu Jitsu called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action.
Gracie’s beat down of Duarte was one of the most famous battles in a decades-long war that took place between the practitioners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre (free fighting). In gyms, on the street, on beaches, and ultimately in front of the whole nation at huge live events, the two sides engaged in a bitter rivalry that had social implications as well as fistic ones. The traditional gi was a source of conflict between the two camps. Jiu-Jitsu devotees swore by the thick, traditional outfits. They said the gi helped develop technique and was a more sanitary, safer way to train. Luta Livre fighters said that since people don’t walk around wearing gis, it was ridiculous to train techniques that required them.
The to-gi or not to-gi argument was a manifestation of a deeper chasm between the two disciplines: a gi costs money and, whereas Jiu-Jitsu had its origins among the affluent, Luta Livre was created in the slums, for the poor people of Brazil.
The hills that surround Rio de Janeiro were covered with shantytowns, or favelas. When viewed from the beaches below the favelas looked like mosaics made out of colorful houses, unpainted brick and corrugated tin roofs that glimmered from the bright sun. From afar you’d never suspect that they are home to the most destitute members of Brazilian society. These slums were controlled by powerful gangs that used them as their base of operations for the narcotics trade.
The largest gang was called Comando Vermelho or Red Command. Everyone in the city knew which slums were Red Command’s territory and were off limits to anyone without permission. For the most part the police stayed away and let the gangs impose their own rules, and taxation, on the favelas but occasionally the gangs would commit one too many outrages and the police would have to enter the favelas to quell the public outcry.
These operations were essentially coordinated military strikes and could take days of pitched battle between hundreds of police, helicopters and armored vehicles on the one side, and thousands of machine gun-toting gang members on the other. There was a state of open warfare between the gangs and police. According to a UN survey, of the nearly five thousand murders committed in Rio during 2008, one in five were committed by police in what were termed “extra judicial killings.”
While outsiders rarely ventured into the favelas, the same couldn’t be said of the reverse. Every day, a wave of poor citizens flooded into the city. The lucky ones worked menial jobs, but many came to beg or commit crimes. Rio had one of the highest crime rates in the world, not unexpected in a place where the rich and the poor existed in such close proximity. In America, the homeless and destitute had a glazed over, defeated look. In 2008 in Rio, they looked wide-awake.
My first thought upon meeting Roberto Leitão at his gym was how rare and shocking it was to see someone so old in such a state of undress. Stripped to the waist and clad in wrestling tights, his unkempt white hair stuck up at crazy angles. Leitão was the greatest living master of Luta Livre. Fighters come from all over the world to train with him and learn the finer points of the obscure grappling art. He spoke English, with the flair and elocution of a man familiar with the tenets of classical oratory. “Luta Livre is the oldest sport known to man,” he said. “It began in prehistoric times because man used to fight to survive,” he rolls his r’s with panache: “Man has always had to fight to surrrrrvive.”
“There are two paths for MMA in Brazil,” he said. “One starts with the Jiu-Jitsu people who learned from Count Koma in the north of Brazil. He taught Carlos Gracie, George Gracie, and Gastão Gracie.” He spat out the names and deliberately omits Hélio. “But you know,” he said slyly. “Koma was a Judo teacher…” I sensed that this was some sort of dig. “They learned Judo from him, but since Judo is basically takedowns and they liked to fight on the ground, they called it Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Murgel looked like he wanted to say something but didn’t.
“On the other path, you have people who came from professional wrestling,” he continued with flair. I mentioned that when most Americans heard the term “professional wrestling,” they thought of the fake, televised spectacle. “Well, the pro wrestling guys are artists. It’s a show,” Leitão conceded, “but Luta Livre isn’t a show at all. It’s a real fight. You have to submit the guy by a choke or arm bar. There is no punching. It’s very technical. If you put punches with Luta Livre, it becomes MMA.”
“Why don’t more people do Luta Livre?” Murgel asked Leitão pointedly.
“The problem is that for a true sport to develop, you must have teachers who are able to make a living teaching it. And it used to be that many guys started doing Luta Livre but they didn’t earn money teaching, and that’s a big problem. Judo and Jiu-Jitsu developed because they had many teachers living off teaching Judo or Jiu-Jitsu,” Leitão answered with a scowl.
“And why is that,” Murgel pressed.
“Because when Gracie started Jiu-Jitsu, he was selective about who he trained. So in the beginning Jiu-Jitsu people had more power and money. Back then, Luta Livre had no money or power, it was for the poor people,” he said, with a hint of hostility in his voice.
I notice that Murgel’s attention had drifted. He left us to go watch two behemoths throwing around a 120-pound slam dummy in a corner of the gym. 25 years ago, he and Leitão would have been at each other’s throats by now. As it was, Murgel met Leitão’s story with polite indifference.
With greater financial and organizational resources at Jiu-Jitsu’s behest, it became more widespread and well-known than Luta Livre. Despite this, Leitão believe that Luta Livre, which he helped create, was the superior martial art. “I studied biomechanics for thirty years,” he said. He then made a statement that would be considered blasphemy by many people in Jiu Jitsu circles. “Gracie was stubborn,” he said, referring to Hélio.” He believed that leverage was enough, but he was wrong.” Leitão offered as evidence how well wrestling, which he said was identical to Luta Livre, did against Jiu-Jitsu fighters in the early days of MMA once they had adapted. He pressed on my forearm with the knuckle of his forefinger to demonstrate how little pressure is required to cause pain in your opponent if you utilize all the body’s natural tools, however small.
“Every time you touch your opponent”, he told me, “it should hurt him.” He told me that he’d just completed a book about Luta Livre. It took him 30 years to complete and was the summation of his life’s work. “I have taken the principles of Archimedes and Newton and applied them to Luta Livre,” he said proudly.
Later, I watched the half-naked, white-haired old fox as lecture his students. For some reason, the thought occurred to me that this is what Socrates might have looked like 2400 years ago.
“In the old days, Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre hated each other. You did Jiu-Jitsu or you did Luta Livre, and it was like carrying the flag for your country.”
Walid Ismail told me. Walid was one of Carlson Gracie’s best students and one of the main soldiers in the BJJ/Luta Livre wars. A short stocky man with a bald head and cauliflower ears that jut off his head at odd angles, he reminded me of a faithful pit bull. He was a good man to call your friend and a dreadful one to have as your enemy. He was beloved in Brazil for his dedication to his late master Carlson Gracie and for his habit of always speaking from the heart. He exuded a manic energy that was infectious and alarming, at the same time.
“[To prove Jiu-Jitsu] we had many fights in the street,” he said. He got so excited about the old days he lost his train of thought. “What was your question again?”
“About Luta Livre,” I said to him, carefully, as he returned a confused look.
Murgel jumped in to guide him back to the subject. “This was the man who won a famous challenge match between Luta Livre and Jiu-Jitsu,” he said.
“Yes!” Walid exploded, then, announced triumphantly, “I was the one who challenged Luta Livre!”
As a young man, the hot-blooded Walid got mad when a Luta Livre fighter named Eugenio Tadeu beat a BJJ fighter named Renan Pitanguy. “This is one of the few times this happened,” he assured me.
To add insult to injury, Tadeu won the fight by holding onto Petanguy’s gi, the symbol of BJJ’s power and influence, with one hand and beating him with the other until Petanguy’s corner threw in the towel.
Walid, who was a young purple belt at the time, swore revenge. He said Carlson Gracie cooled him down, telling him he was too inexperienced to fight Tadeu. A few years later, in another high-profile match, Tadeu drew against Royler Gracie. In that fight, Royler didn’t wear a gi. Instead he fought in tights like the Luta Livre fighter. The casting off of the gi was a moral victory for Luta Livre.
“I said, ‘This cannot happen,’” Walid growled. “Luta Livre was growing a lot at the time and Jiu-Jitsu was starting to lose its stake in the market,” he admited frankly.
“I started training and when I felt good, I went to the paper and challenged them.” It was a gutsy move. Walid was by this time a brown belt under Carlson. The hype surrounding the fight became huge. It was shown on network television in Brazil and called Desafio: three BJJ fighters were matched against three Luta Livre fighters. The main event was Walid vs. Tadeu. Walid fought without a gi and dominated Tadeu. “Before the second round, I took out my mouthpiece and threw it to the crowd and they went crazy.” He re-enacted tossing something into the bleachers and whipping the crowd into frenzy, reliving the moment in his mind.
The fight ended in the second round when Walid threw Tadeu out of the ring. The Luta Livre fighter stayed on the floor and was counted out, giving Walid the victory. The fight made him a star in Brazil, and he spoke about it like a war veteran who long ago turned the tide of battle. In a way, maybe he did. On that night, all three BJJ fighters defeated their Luta Livre opponents, and reestablished Jiu-Jitsu’s credibility.
The conflict between BJJ and Luta Livre would continue for six more years until it reached its explosive climax in 1997 at Pentagon Combat, an event that almost spilled over into legitimate warfare. This time it was be Renzo Gracie vs. Tadeu.
Many Luta Livre supporters were in the crowd and several hundred of them gathered around the cage, pressing against it during the fight. Several minutes into the match, which until that point had been even, the lights went out in the arena. Chaos ensued as spectators from both sides saw their chance to get at each other.
Fights broke out, chairs were thrown, and shots were fired. When the lights came back on, there was a near riot and the police had to be called in to restore order.
After the Sept. 27, 1997, fiasco, Rio’s mayor banned live Vale Tudo events in the city. The feud had touched too many nerves and things had gotten out of control between the two camps. In a country like Brazil, where social inequality abounds, and the tacit threat of social unrest and violence is always simmering beneath the surface that could not be allowed to happen.
“Thank God we have rules today,” Walid said referring to the old “anything goes” days of Vale Tudo in Brazil.
Walid mellowed as grew older and even considered some of the Luta Livre guys his friends. A rising tide lifts all boats and the success of MMA in the United States and the financial opportunity it created made it more profitable for them to be at peace. Walid was a successful promoter of a league called Jungle Fight and even worked with some of his old enemies when he put on events.
“Before, it was crazy. We saw the Luta Livre guys on the street and we would want to fight. There were weekly street fights. This is the old view. Today this view doesn’t exist because everybody trains together, everybody is friends.” Walid did his best attempt at a smile, but even then, he looks ready to pounce if necessary.
A somber air pervaded the train as it lumbered up the steep slope of Corcovado. Levy was quietly snapping pictures of the dense green jungle from the side window of the train. Tiny monkeys chirped and leapt from limb to limb, sometimes stopping to peer back at us. Cido struck up conversation with two girls at the front of the car while Murgel seemed lost in thought looking out the window into the jungle.
The statue of Our Savior sat on top of the 2300-foot peak and could be seen from anywhere in Rio. The view from the pedestal was remarkable, with the urban sprawl of the city on the right and the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the left.
Christianity is the great religion of consolation ministering most powerfully those at the end of themselves and the statue overlooked the largest city of a deeply religious nation. In fact, there are more Catholics in Brazil than in any other country in the world.
When we got to the top the plateau was crowded, but people were quiet and reverential. On the return trip down the mountain the atmosphere was changed. There was a four-piece samba band playing and the mood was giddy. People laughed and clapped. People even managed little jigs between the crowded rows of seats.
After the disaster in 1997, most of Luta Livre schools in Brazil closed due to lack of students. The more prominent Jiu-Jitsu teams picked up the orphaned fighters who began in Luta Livre. Starting in the late Nineties the money shifted from the crowded market for martial arts schools to the fighting and promoting. Responding to the new economic terrain he once elitist BJJ teams became more willing to recruit from the Luta Livre talent pool.
A select few Luta Livre fighters who were left without a home when the original schools closed formed RFT or Renovação Fight Team, headed by one of Eugenio Tadeu’s students, Marcio “Cromado” Barbosa. As I watched them train in their cramped gym, I was impressed by the athleticism and showmanship of the fighters.
Cromado held the pads for several of them working in a row. He had them finish each combination with a showy jumping knee. How effective the dramatic maneuver was, I don’t know. But I am sure it was a crowd pleaser.
“The first reason for the success is our excellent coach and the commitment of the athletes. We all have one thing in common: we want a better life,” the fighter Lucian Azevedo said once he was done training. “We want to get out of the country to fight in one with a strong currency so that we make money to send back to help our families.”
He told me that his involvement in Luta Livre and then MMA saved him. “Many of my friends went to the wrong side of life with gangs and drugs, so I thank God that MMA has given me the opportunities to go to the right side, and also support my family by doing what I love as a living.”
A fighter called Chatuba echoed this sentiment and told me that many of his childhood friends had been killed, arrested, or caught up in the gang lifestyle. “Would you have ended up that way if it was not for Luta Livre?” I asked.
“Most likely,” he said. “Being a fighter is a less stressful lifestyle than the other,” he answered pragmatically. “It’s less risky.”
They all said that their coach Cromado was the driving force behind the team and the man most responsible for their success.
“Cromado is the man. He takes care of everything for us” said another fighter named Chocolate. In the past Jiu-Jitsu had better organization and management and this freed up the students to concentrate solely on fighting. Luta Livre never had that until Cromado.
Cromado looked a good deal younger than his 35 years, with a kind face and happy eye. He was proud to be carrying on the traditions of Luta Livre and of his teacher Eugenio Tadeu.
He told me that he started fighting in 2000 and created RFT as a “dream” six years ago. The team’s record wasn’t spectacular and most of the fighters had multiple losses on their record. However, this wasn’t how they judged success. To them, it was a victory just to be able to have the chance to earn a living by fighting. “Others live to fight, we fight to live,” is the way another fighter, Luis, put it.
From one standpoint it would be easy to conclude that Jiu-Jitsu crushed Luta Livre. In the rivalry’s aftermath, the few major Luta Livre schools closed and Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu schools sprouted up everywhere. The final tally of the hundreds of street battles that took place is unknown but in the public events BJJ dominated.
The vast majority of fights were won by BJJ fighters in resounding victories. But the story doesn’t end there. The early Vale Tudo contests in Brazil were an integral, if brutal, part of the huge modern phenomenon of mixed martial arts. And no one, not even the Gracies, continues to fight in the gi in MMA matches. All across the world, “no gi” Jiu-Jitsu is taught, which was very similar—some would even say identical—to Luta Livre. So, Luta Livre was at least victorious when it came to the issue of the gi. But if you ask Master Cromado and his boys at RFT, they will tell you that the gi was never what it was really about.
Next: Chapter Three: Beauty, Honor, and Struggle