The United States and Japan were beginning to dabble in forerunners to modern MMA in the 1990s. The forerunners were known as No Holds Barred, Tough Guy or Ultimate Fighting in the United States and Shooto and Hybrid Wrestling in Japan. However, the sport known in Brazil as Vale Tudo, a form of free fighting, had already existed for the better part of a century. Its beginnings lie in being a decent side show at carnivals in the early 20th century and for a variety of reasons, it became the preferred method of the Gracie family to publicize and showcase their style of jiu jitsu, derived from Kodokan Judo, which had been adapted by both the Gracies and their teacher Mitsuyo Maeda.
The Vale Tudo rules varied from more sedate mixed grappling to near no actual rules brawls. Vale Tudo was a violent, disjointed sport that changed to suit the fighters within it. As Vale Tudo matches grew more popular and the Gracies became celebrities, more groups and divisions appeared in the Brazilian martial arts scene. The newcomers, splinter groups and public attention created a web of friends, enemies, alliances and betrayals as complicated as a season of Game of Thrones.
There was Helio Gracie, his immediate family and his students forming the core of the Gracie forces. A group of spurned Gracie students, like Waldemar Santana, broke away, formed their own schools and constantly challenged the Gracies in Vale Tudo matches. Of course, there was the arch-nemesis of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the catch-wrestling inspired Luta Livre, an independent martial art whose adherents were relatively united in their opposition to Jiu Jitsu fighters.
The rivalry between Gracie jiu jitsu and Luta Livre occurred on several levels. First, there was the simple rivalry between two competing martial arts, as each side wanting to prove their style the strongest. There was also a socio-economic element to the rivalry, as the Gracies were a well to do family and charged a healthy fee for their lessons - causing jiu jitsu fighters to generally become a martial art of the upper and middle-class people who could afford those prices. Luta Livre, on the other hand, became somewhat the martial art of the favela poor and working class people.
There was also a racial piece to this relationship as the descendent of European immigrants tended to be in the middle or upper class while decentness of native Brazilians and African slaves tended to be in the lower classes. When this complicated network of tensions, money and public attention was put together, the result was a heated and lasting rivalry that played out in Vale Tudo matches, in the bleachers of those matches and in the streets and beaches of Brazil.
The struggles with Luta Livre caused a philosophical divide in the Gracie family and Carlson Gracie broke away from Helio's academy to start his own gym, focused on using competition jiu jitsu and jiu jitsu to be used in Vale Tudo. There was also a separate branch of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu stemming from one of Mitsuyo Maeda's other students, lead by a man named Oswaldo Fadda, that managed to last as long as the Gracies (while the others withered or were subsumed). This group of academies were eager to prove themselves the equals of the Gracie lineage and fought many matches with Gracie students. And other tradional martial art styles such a Judo, Karate, Boxing, and the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, all had students step into Vale Tudo rings to compete for supremacy.
But in the late 80's and early 90's a new player entered this game - one which would change the face of Vale Tudo and become as integral a part to the Brazilian style of MMA as jiu jitsu: Muay Thai.
A combination of several Southeast Asian striking arts, Muay Thai is a kickboxing art that makes use of not just punches and kicks, but also knees and elbow strikes. Historically centered in Thailand, Muay Thai today is an extremely popular combat sport worldwide. A Taekwondo black belt named Nelio Naja is credited with bringing this art to Brazil. Nelio learned Muay Thai during a trip to Thailand and took to it quickly. At the time, Taekwondo did not have the Olympic point-sparring aspect influencing it and was a much harder art which included leg kicks and elbow strikes. So the transition to Muay Thai was easier and more natural for Nelio than it would be for most Taekwondo students today.
When he returned to Brazil in the late 1970s, Nelio began sharing his knowledge with a few students and fellow Taekwondo black belts. Located in Curitiba, the largest southern city in Brazil, Nelio sparked an explosion of Brazilian interest in Muay Thai and is credited as being "the father of Brazilian Muay Thai".
One of the students of Nelio was a Taekwondo black bet named Luiz Alves. A native of Rio de Janerio, Alves took to Muay Thai and decided he wanted to move back to Rio to start his own team. He opened Boxe Thai in the early 1980's with the help of several friends - including fellow Muay Thai pioneers Paulo Nikolai, Flavio Molina and Luta Livre fighter Marco Ruas. Luta Livre fighters were far more open to cross-training in striking than their jiu jitsu counterparts, so many of whom were dogmatic in their devotion to grappling.
As a result, it was Luta Livre fighters who first began training in Muay Thai and bringing it to the Vale Tudo arena. Alves' friendship with Ruas allied Boxe Thai with the biggest Luta Livre academy in Rio, the Academia Budokan and many of the best Luta Livre fighters of the 80s and 90s trained with Alves. Eugenio Tadeu, Pedro Rizzo, Renato "Babalu" Sobral, Johil de Oliveira and Artur Mariano all learned Muay Thai at Boxe Thai.
As early as 1984, that cross training began to pay dividends at the Vale Tudo "Jiu Jitsu vs Martial Arts" event. Several members of Boxe Thai faced Gracie black belts in no holds barred matches. Founding member Flavio Molina did not have the grappling knowledge to win his match, but Marcos Ruas fought his opponent to a draw. However, the highlight of the event was Luta Livre star and Boxe Thai student Eugenio Tadeu facing Gracie fighter Renan Pitanguy.
Tadeu used his grappling ability to keep the fight standing and then used his striking ability to batter Pitanguy to a TKO stoppage. This was one of Luta Livre's signature wins over Jiu Jitsu in the 1980s and it was a result (to a certain degree) of the striking ability Tadeu had gained in Muay Thai.
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(Eugênio Tadeu x Renan Pitanguy 1984)
Alves, Molina, Ruas and the rest of Boxe Thai were instrumental to the introduction of Muay Thai both into Vale Tudo and to gyms all across Rio. But as they expanded in Rio, another Muay Thai gym was growing into a powerhouse back in Curitiba.
After suffering a sever injury in a bicycle accident at the age of thirteen, Rudimar Fedrigo was told by doctors that he should find a sport to help regain his strength. Fedrigo found Nelio Naja's Muay Thai gym and was instantly hooked. He would open his own Muay Thai gym to sate his appetite for the martial art and dubbed the gym "Chute Boxe".
Chute Boxe spent the 80's as purely a Muay Thai gym, but in 1991, Fedrigo added a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu program and officially made the gym a Vale Tudo training ground. One of the gym's first Vale Tudo stars was José "Pelé" Landi-Jons, who would become one of the greatest Brazilian fighters of all time. Pele made a name in the early 90's, winning fights with an aggressive combination of striking and submission skills, but it wasn't until 1996 that he was launched to stardom.
Jorge "Macaco" Patino was a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter based out of Sao Paulo with an impressive 14-1 record and had developed a reputation as a bit of a bully. On November 1st, 1996, Macaco and Pele met in a heated match full of taunting and action. That battle would be hailed as the best MMA match of the 1990s.
(JORGE PATINO MACACO VS JOSÉ PELÉ LANDI PT 1/ 3)
(JORGE PATINO MACACO VS JOSÉ PELÉ LANDI 2/3)
(JORGE PATINO MACACO VS JOSÉ PELÉ LANDI 3/3)
This match launched Pele and Muay Thai into the awareness of MMA fans all over the world, as VHS copies of the fight were traded on internet forums for years to come. Pele became known as a vicious striker, but it is important to keep in mind that he was not a pure Muay Thai striker, as he was an aggressive grappler also. Chute Boxe's success would be based on their fighters possessing both striking ability, but also the grappling experience to help them continue to attack once on the ground.
Pele and Macaco would rematch a few months later, and again the result was an exciting fight that Pele would win -this time by a cut stoppage. While the rivalry with Macaco would prove the high point in Pele's career in terms of visibility, he would go on to have a very successful, if under the radar, career. Pele in his career would defeat Evangelista Santos, lose a decision to the much larger Chuck Liddell, defeated Pat Miletich in the middle of his UFC title reign and Pele knocked out Matt Hughes a few months before Hughes won the UFC Welterweight title.
The mid-1990's was the closing of an era in Brazil as Luta Livre slowly faded from its prominence as a major rival to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to be a martial art practiced in a small scattering of gyms across Brazil. In an amazingly short time, Muay Thai had gone from a fringe martial art in Brazil to becoming an important aspect of every Vale Tudo fighter's game. There was a power vacuum in the Brazilian Vale Tudo world and Chute Boxe was ideally placed to rise to the occasion as young fighters flocked to the gym. Even while Pele was at the peak of his skills, Chute Boxe had two young fighters who would carry the Chute Box banner to Japan and the next era of Brazilian MMA.
(Wanderlei Silva vs Dilson Filho, Wanderlei's professional debut on the same card as Pele vs Macaco I - 1996)
(Anderson Silva vs Raimundo Pinheiro, Anderson's professional debut - BFC 1997)
A special thanks to Sherdog's Jordan Breen who was extremely helpful in the researching of this article.