Vale Tudo, MMA prototype
Vale Tudo, Brazil’s version of MMA has been entertaining crowds since the 1920s.
While most fight fans were not aware of all-in, no-holds-barred fighting until UFC 1 in 1993, and only a select few were going to cage fights in bars on the wrong side of the tracks before then. In Brazil, what would pass for modern MMA was practiced throughout most of the 20th century and named “Vale Tudo”, or “Anything Goes”. While the USA had a tradition of “Rough and Tumble” fights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pitting wrestlers against boxers, such as Farmer Burns vs Billy Papke in 1910, these contests died out by the time Vale Tudo began in Brazil.
Vale Tudo rules allowed for both grappling and striking of all kinds, much like what was seen in the early UFC promotions. The term was mostly used during circus side shows until the 1950s, when it began being used for more public matches. In 1955, a 41-year old Helio Gracie stepped into the ring to fight a grudge match against his disgruntled former student Valdemar Santana. Santana was 16 years younger than Gracie and 60 lb heavier. After 3 hours and 40 minutes where Gracie fought from his back, using his elbows and knees to strike, Santana’s punches and headbutts began to tell. Santana slammed Gracie to the mat and finished him with a soccer kick to the head. Gracie never fought again, despite being challenged by a retired Luta Livre founder Euclydes Hatem.
The Gracie family began hosting a style-versus-style show on the local television channel called Heróis do Ringue in 1959, with much the same premise as UFC 1. The show was cancelled in 1960 after one of the fighters, João Alberto Barreto broke his opponent’s arm with an arm bar when he refused to submit. In an interesting turn of fate, Barreto was one of the referees for UFC 1.
Through the 1960s and 70s, Vale Tudo was not on the mainstream radar. It went underground, with feud matches between BJJ and Luta Livre rivals. The sport began to come out of the shadows when Rorion Gracie brought it to the USA in the 1970s and subsequently went on to help found the UFC. From that point, the trajectory and direction of the sport in the USA is well known, becoming the modern MMA that we see today.
In its native land, Vale Tudo went through a revolution in the early 2000s, with high profile promotions such as Jungle Fight, banning some of the more brutal elements of the sport in favour of MMA rule sets. Today, the sport is almost indistinguishable from MMA in the mainstream, but true “anything goes” fights still form a part of Brazil’s fighting subculture. While the media cries out against these shows, proponents say that true Vale Tudo is not the same as its American cousin MMA and should be allowed to stay as brutal as ever.