The birth of MMA actually did not start with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event. In Brazil, an early form of MMA had been going on many decades before the formation of the UFC.
This type of contest was called Vale Tudo. These violent no holds barred fights laid the groundwork for modern MMA.
For those of you that don’t know, let me tell you a little bit about the history of Vale Tudo. I’ll go over how these types of fights started, along with famous Vale Tudo fighters and some of the wildest fights that took place.
What is Vale Tudo?
Vale Tudo matches were no hold barred fights that took place in Brazil between the 1920s and late 1990s. The exact translation of the phrase means “anything goes.”
In these anything goes fights, competitors that trained in different fighting styles would fight someone that trained in another discipline. Boxing vs Judo, BJJ vs Luta Livre, Muay Thai vs Capoeira, etc.
There were no rules and no time limits in a Vale Tudo fight. The only way you would win is by knocking your opponent unconscious or hurting them until they quit.
Origins of Vale Tudo
Vale Tudo fights first began as sideshow acts at Brazilian carnivals. A skilled fighter would take on open challengers or fight against another fighter in a bout that both agreed on. This was much like in the early days of pro wrestling in the US, where wrestlers would do open challenges at circuses.
In Brazil, there were a variety of different fighting forms and martial arts that people practiced. These fighters wanted to prove that their styles were the superior style, so challenges were common occurrences.
An act called “dojo storming” that you’d see in Kung Fu movies happened frequently in Brazil. Martial artists would rush to a rival school to challenge them to see whose style was the best.
Circus promoters started hearing about these fights between martial arts schools, and figured that they could make money off of them. So, they would have the two sides agree to fight in a Vale Tudo “anything goes” style rules match. The fighters would fight in front of a paid audience to prove who had the superior martial arts fighting style.
Famous Vale Tudo Fighters
Here are some short bios of some of the more famous Vale Tudo fighters. I’ll also cover some highlights that showcase their skills.
Rickson Gracie is considered by many the best fighter of the Gracie family. He allegedly had over 500 Vale Tudo fights without ever losing a fight.
Coming from the Gracie family, you have to take this number with a grain of salt. But if you ask anyone that has trained with Master Rickson, they’ll tell you he is without a doubt the best.
Master Rickson has numerous fight stories. Some of his most popular including beating the living heck out of Japanese pro wrestler Yoji Ano in his academy, and his beach fight with Hugo Duarte.
In this Joe Rogan interview, Rickson’s beach fight with Duarte is covered in detail:
Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem
Tatu was a legendary Brazilian catch wrestler and credited for founding the martial arts fighting style “Luta Livre.” Tatu (or armadillo in English) was a physical specimen, but relied more on his flawless technique. He favored using strangles, which he dominated many of his opponents with in vale tudo competition.
As a Vale Tudo fighter, Tatu went undefeated during his career, winning numerous wrestling world titles during the late 30s and 40s. He beat the best wrestlers in the world along with a few Judo masters, as well as George Gracie. George Gracie was the cousin of BJJ pioneers Carlos and Hélio, and was at the time the national BJJ champion.
Kimura was a revered Judoka and considered by many practitioners as the best ever. Throughout his fighting career he won numerous titles in wrestling and Judo.
He is most known for his 1951 match against Hélio Gracie in a BJJ vs Judo Vale Tudo match. In the fight Kimura would famously get Gracie in a gyakuude-garami breaking the Brazilians arm.
As a tribute to him, Jiu Jitsu practitioners would refer to this technique as a “Kimura.” Which is still one of the most popular techniques in the martial art of Jiu Jitsu.
Before winning the UFC 7 tournament in the United States and fighting in Pride FC, Ruas began his career in Vale Tudo fights. In one of the first BJJ vs Luta Livre Vale Tudo matches, Ruas represented Luta Livre dispatching his opponent with ease. Ruas is an MMA pioneer and a highly respected martial artist.
The Gracie Family and Vale Tudo
Without Vale Tudo fights, the Gracie family would not have had the platform to demonstrate their style. When Carlos and Hélio Gracie were developing Gracie Jiu Jitsu, they would regularly challenge other martial artists.
Through Vale Tudo style matches, they were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of their style and gain many students. Later on, the Gracie family came up with the “Gracie Challenge.”
The Gracie Challenge was an open invitation to any martial artist that wanted to test Gracie Jiu Jitsu. There would routinely be challengers showing up to the martial arts academy in Rio during the early days.
Hélio’s son Rorion brought the Gracie challenge to the US when he moved to California to open a school. As Rorion was gradually growing his school, there would be martial artists of various styles that would challenge them.
They would have a Vale Tudo style fight and the result was alway the same: Jiu Jitsu would easily win.
Vale Tudo and MMA
When Rorion Gracie came up with the idea for the UFC, the inspiration for the contest were Vale Tudo events. In fights under Vale Tudo rules, the Gracie’s could show the superiority of Jiu Jitsu to the world.
It was even more successful than they hoped. Royce Gracie would win the first few tournaments with ease. He took out bigger and stronger competitors with the power of Jiu Jitsu.
But as MMA progressed, many realized that something had to change. They could no longer go by the Vale Tudo style format of no rules and anything goes.
In order for the sport to survive and be presented to a wider audience, MMA needed structure and rules. So gradually, promotions and athletic commissions got together to make formal rules for mixed martial arts.
As the sport got more structured, many promotions like the UFC and Pride were able to grow. They started to become more popular growing their fan bases and gave fighters the opportunity to showcase their skills (and also to get paid).
Thank Vale Tudo for MMA
Without those decades of Vale Tudo championships in Brazil, there would definitely be no MMA. Or at least, the sport of mixed martial arts would look a lot different than it is today.
BJJ may also not be as big as it is without Vale Tudo. The martial art Brazilian Jiu Jitsu also needed the platform of Vale Tudo to show its effectiveness.
Vale Tudo’s success laid the groundwork for modern mixed martial arts. Those violent no holds barred fights that took place in Brazil evolved and later became MMA. If you love MMA, you owe a big thanks to Vale Tudo for being its predecessor.