Throwback Thursday: Carlson Gracie vs Waldemar Santana (1955)

T.P. Grant kicks off a weekly series that will feature a classic MMA fight, complete with context. To kick off we celebrate the birthday of Carlson Gracie.

This Tuesday was the birthday of the late Carlson Gracie, a 9th degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and a trailblazer in the development of Mixed Martial Arts.

In the 1950s, the Brazilian form of proto-MMA called Vale Tudo was growing in popularity. Fighters hailed from a variety of schools and represented arts from karate, Jiu Jitsu, luta livre, Capoeira, judo, among others and it all came together in a shifting landscape of alliances and betrayals worthy of Game of Thrones.

Helio Gracie was the leader of the Gracie family at this time and one of his star pupils was a talented young man named Waldemar Santana. Helio brought Santana into the inner circle of the family and personally trained him. It even reached a point at which Santana taught classes at the Gracie Academy. But one weekend, Santana left a sink running after cleaning the mats at the academy, and Helio returned on Monday to find his academy flooded. Helio dressed Santana down in front of the academy and when heated words were exchanged, Santana was cast out. Santana joined the academy of another Helio castoff. He then challenged his former mentor to a Vale Tudo fight and Helio accepted despite being forty-two years old to Santana's twenty-four. The match was set and strikes in addition to grappling would be allowed.

Santana knocked his former teacher out with a soccer kick after about four hours of fighting and both fighters left the ring in bad shape.


Carlos Gracie, Helio's older brother, was in the Gracie corner and immediately challenged Santana, but he was in his fifties. So Carlos' son, the young Carlson Gracie, took his place. Despite his youth, Carlson was already an experienced fighter, and believed that physical conditioning was just as important as his technique when it came to fighting.

It was decided that like the match with Helio, strikes would be allowed, but unlike the original fight Santana and Carlson would fight without gis. This was a huge departure from standard Gracie operating procedure by Carlson, but his father was so confident of victory he laid a huge wager down with Santana that Carlson would defeat him. This proved to be a mistake as the rules of the match was that the only methods of victory in the match could be knockout or submission and if time expired the match would be declared a draw.

The fight ended in a draw and Santana collected his money from Carlos, and the Gracies grumbled that Santana fought conservatively in order to ensure winning the wager. The first fight received a fair amount of attention and the outcome didn't satisfy anyone outside of Santana's wallet, so the two re-matched in front of a crowd of 40,000. This time, Carlson was to muster a stronger offense; he mounted Santana and rained strikes until Santana's corner threw in the towel.

There is only video of the first match, and it ended in a draw.

Carlson would go on to become a centrally important coach as his students would go on to win championships in the UFC, Pride, and competitive grappling. His lineage would also give birth to the famed schools Brazilian Top Team, American Top Team, and Nova Uniao. Happy Birthday Carlson, you are missed.

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