If there is one aspect of boxing that fans of mixed martial arts can be forgiven for being envious of it is the long and rich history it holds over its sibling. Theirs is a tradition that can recite the exploits of Hank Armstrong, Joe Louis, Willie Pep, and Sugar Ray Robinson, recall the glories of "The War", "The Fight of the Century", "The Rumble in the Jungle", and "The Long Count", and trace the lineage of the heavyweight title from Wladimir Klitschko today, all the way back to 1729, where James Figg, the recognized father of boxing, was the first man to ever be crowned champion. In comparison the history of mixed martial arts is practically nonexistent, its date of birth not three centuries ago but less than two decades.
The most widely accepted and commonly told story for the origins of mixed martial arts is that it was introduced to the world on November 12, 1993, when Gerard Gordeau stepped into the cage against Teila Tull at the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship. As this version of the story goes, thanks to an inspired Rorion Gracie and Art Davies, for the first time - or at least the first time in modernity - two disparate styles of martial arts were pitted against each other in a contest of unarmed combat that allowed for both grappling and striking and where victory could be attained by either rendering your opponent unconscious through blows or by forcing them to surrender from a submission hold. The sport, which was originally referred to as "no holds barred" (since the name mixed martial arts wouldn't be coined until 1995) and for which rules were practically nonexistent eventually became known as MMA and no rules gave way to Unified, a transformation not unlike that seen in boxing when London Prizefighting gave way to the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
That this creation myth for MMA would prove to be not completely accurate should come as no surprise, for when one uses the definition given above it becomes obvious that the Ultimate Fighting Championship was not where modern mixed martial arts was born, that it had been in existence for some time before then. The question therefore becomes "if mixed martial arts was not born at UFC 1, when was it"? How far back can one trace its lineage while still being able to give it the name mixed martial arts?
What was introduced at the Ultimate Fighting Championship was not a new sport but merely the renaming of a pre-existing one: vale tudo. Portuguese for "anything goes", vale tudo was and is a combative sport with a tradition that goes back years in Brazil. During its most popular periods fights would be held before teeming stadium crowds and broadcast on national television. It was also, with the exception of the Octagon, indistinguishable from those early UFC fights. [EN1]
Vale tudo contests had been taking place for decades in Brazil with its most storied fighter being Rorion's father Helio, often credited as the originator of both vale tudo and mixed fighting. While this is for the most part more of the "Gracie myth", there is a kernel of truth in it, for Helio participated in a fight that may have been the first to ever be publicly billed as a "vale tudo" match.
In February of 1935, a 22-year-old Helio faced off against Orlando Americo da Silva, better known as Dudu the Brazilian Luta-Livre champion. Dudu had originally been booked a couple of months earlier against Helio's brother George Gracie in a luta livre grappling contest (Brazilian catch-as-catch-can), but George refused to fight when Dudu and the referee insisted upon allowing forearm blows. Seeing an opportunity to reaffirm the superiority of his own brand of Jiu-Jitsu (George was feuding with his brothers at the time) Carlos issued a challenge on behalf of his younger brother Helio against the "giant" Dudu.
The "grudge match" was held inside a boxing ring at the Estadio Brasil, and was set to be for no more than 5 twenty minute rounds with only hair-pulling, eye-gouging, and groin attacks banned. It began with the 66 kg Helio throwing a front kick to the 88 kg Dudu's face, knocking out two of his teeth. Dudu countered by immediately taking Helio down, who fought back ferociously with punches, knees, and elbow. A bloodied Dudu retaliated with head-butts, breaking Helio's nose. Eventually the two returned to their feet, where Helio was able to catch his opponent with a kick to body, breaking two of Dudu's ribs and forcing him to concede the match after 19 minutes of brutal action. Dudu was reported to have urinated blood afterwards. [EN2]While this contest may have been the first legitimate prizefight to be called "vale tudo", it was not the first "anything goes" mixed fight to take place in Brazil. Nor was it even Helio's first such match. [EN3]
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