When you think of Brazil and grappling, the first thing you probably think of is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But BJJ wasn’t the only grappling martial art that was developed within the country. The submission wrestling art of Luta Livre was also developed and is practiced by many Brazilians.
These two grappling arts have been long time rivals for over 80 years. During the end of the 20th century, the rivalry basically turned into an all-out gang war! Fights between different academies going from competitions to violent street fights.
Let’s dive into one of the most bitter feuds in martial arts history between Luta Livre and BJJ. Highlighting the differences between the two and the most notable moments in the feud when it turned violent.
What is Luta Livre?
Many readers already know the story of BJJ, but some may not know the history of Luta Livre. The grappling art of Luta Livre is a catch wrestling based grappling art created by Brazilian legend Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem.
Luta Livre directly translates to “free fighting” and was basically an early form of No-Gi grappling. This form of grappling was developed in Brazil alongside BJJ, but was developed a little after Jiu Jitsu. It had its practitioners, while BJJ had theirs and both stayed separate.
Basic Differences Between BJJ and Luta Livre
There are two basic differences between these forms of grappling. Those being the uniforms and the techniques that each martial art taught.
Gi vs No-Gi: In BJJ, the traditional kimono or Gi is worn during training and competitions. Luta Livre practitioners trained in shorts with no shorts like in traditional wrestling competitions.
Stylistic Differences: While both are styles of grappling, there are huge technical differences between them. Since Jiu Jitsu is based off of Judo many of the techniques involve using the Gi. It also has more of an emphasis of fighting off of your back in guard.
Luta Livre being based in wrestling has more of an emphasis on takedowns and controlling an opponent in a top position. There is also more of an emphasis on leg locks that are generally shied away from in Jiu Jitsu.
Deeper Roots to the Rivalry: The roots of this blood feud went deeper than just wearing a Gi. This rivalry was deeply rooted in a classic battle between social classes.
Jiu Jitsu was co-founded by the Gracie family, who had wealth and status within Brazil. Since they had status, Jiu Jitsu was generally taught to the wealthy members of Brazilian society at the time.
The Gi was also very expensive to obtain, so this made it unable for many poor Brazilians to learn BJJ. For those that still wanted to learn grappling, the cheaper alternative was Luta Livre. A classic battle between the have's and have not's.
The First Meeting Between Luta Livre and BJJ
The first meeting between these two styles of grappling took place in 1940 between Euclydes Hatem and George Gracie. Hatem started to get notoriety in Brazil during the 1930s for being a gifted fighter that developed an effective fighting style.
George Gracie, cousin of Helio and Carlos heard news of Hatem’s ability and challenged him to a match. This was commonplace for the time period and no bad blood had formed as of yet.
Hatem would dominate George Gracie and finish the match using a wrist lock. After the match, both styles would go their own ways and continue to develop. BJJ would get national publicity and become more known in Brazil, while Luta Livre would be more recognized with Vale Tudo.
When The Rivalry Turned Violent
This rivalry didn’t turn violent until a little over 40 years after the two's first meeting. During Carnaval in 1982, members of the Gracie family got into a fight with members of a Muay Thai academy. This fight left younger Gracie members Royce and Charles injured by much older and bigger men.
Royce’s older brother Rolles was enraged at what happened and wanted retribution for his younger relatives. He gathered the best fighters in the academy and marched to the Muay Thai academy.
Rolles would handedly defeat the Muay Thai academy’s head trainer in retaliation for the attack. After the loss, the Muay Thai academy was not pleased and wanted payback.
The First Luta Livre vs BJJ Competition
After these fights, a Vale Tudo competition was set up between the 2 schools. Each school would choose 3 of their best fighters.
One of the Muay Thai fighters was also a Luta Livre practitioner by the name of Marco Ruas. a future UFC champion and hall of famer. He got the idea for the Luta Livre and Muay Thai schools to join forces against the BJJ school.
The competition would end in a draw, but not winning the competition damaged Jiu Jitsu’s reputation. They were heavily favored to win the fights, but in not doing so made them look weak.
This was just the beginning of this bitter feud and it would get more violent as time went on.
Rickson Gracie vs Hugo Duarte
The best fighter of the Gracie family, Rickson Gracie was planning to move to the US, when this was going on. Rickson would postpone his move to preserve the reputation of his family and Jiu Jitsu.
At first, Rickson challenged Marco Ruas, but after they couldn’t come to an agreement he targeted Hugo Duarte. A younger talented Luta Livre fighter.
There were rumors that Hugo would avoid the fight, which infuriated Rickson. This led to Rickson confronting Duarte on the beach in Copacabana.
Slapping Duarte on a crowded beach in an attempt to force him to fight. Gracie would humiliate the young Vale Tudo fighter with the whole fight recorded on video.
Watch Master Jean Jaques Machado talk about this incident in this video clip.
Luta Livre’s Response
After being humiliated, Duarte was enraged at what had happened. In response, he led a group of Luta Livre fighters armed with guns and knives to the Gracie Academy.
They were met by Helio Gracie, who somehow was able to diffuse the volatile situation from getting violent. Tempers calmed and the rivalry wouldn’t flair up again for another few years.
The Rivalry Restarts
This rivalry would flare up again during the early 90s thanks to some comments by Jiu Jitsu champion Wallid Ismail. He made some insulting comments towards Luta Livre calling it “a bad imitation of Jiu Jitsu.”
These comments upset the Luta Livre community causing a group of Luta Livre fighters to strom Robson Gracie’s academy. A 3 fight Vale Tudo competition was agreed upon with BJJ choosing Ismail, Fabio Gurgel, and Murilo Bustamante.
Team BJJ would get revenge, getting a clean sweep over team Luta Livre at the event. The rivalry would again die down until 1997, which would be the most violent encounter between the martial arts. Also the end of the rivalry.
The Riot at Pentagon Combat
The founder of ADCC, Sheik Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan promoted an MMA show in Brazil called Pentagon Combat. At this show, the main event would be REnzo Gracie against Luta Livre fighter Eugenio Tadeu.
Tadeu still had badd blood with Renzo for being present at the Rickson/Duarte beach fight and wanted payback. At the event the crowd was excited and kept getting closer and closer to the cage. To the point where fans were hanging on to it during the Renzo/Tadeu fight.
Renzo claims a fan kicked him through the fence and in retaliation a riot started. Destroying the arena, injuring multiple people, and even alleged gunshots being fired during the riot.
This riot made international news, which caused Vale Tudo to be abruptly banned in Rio de Janeiro.
After this riot both sides realized, the rivalry had gotten out of hand and there needed to be a truce. Since the riot, there has been peace between both sides. Many fighters today even cross train between the two grappling disciplines.
The war between Luta Livre and BJJ was the most bitter rivalry in martial arts history. Unfortunately, as both were trying to prove their superiority things got out of hand and at times turned violent.
Today both of these grappling styles are recognized for their effectiveness and practiced by many. If you would like to watch a documentary on this rivalry, MMA On Point put together a great mini doc.