MMA Origins: From Vale Tudo to the Birth of MMA

MMA Origins: From Vale Tudo to the Birth of MMA

The sport of mixed martial arts has had a long journey to become the legitimate sport it is today. Even before the Ultimate Fighting Championship was a thought, martial artists in Brazil would fight rival groups. These violent no holds barred fights were called Vale Tudo and they were the precursor to what you see in modern MMA.

Vale Tudo has a unique story that is full of different characters from Brazilian martial arts history. We’re going to share you with you everything from how it started, the rules, and famous Vale Tudo matches. Particularly, the Gracie challenges and how the family made their name famous off of Vale Tudo fights.

What is Vale Tudo?

Vale Tudo is a type of fighting event, who in Portuguese roughly translates to is, “anything goes.” It first started in the early 1920’s in Brazil at circuses and various shows as special attraction event. Two people with different type of training would meet each other to fight in an agreed contest.

History of Vale Tudo

The story of Vale Tudo is similar to the early days of the UFC, but started 80 years prior. Martial artists wanted to prove that their style was the most superior style of the times.

Dojo storming was common and there was a long history of brawls between rival martial arts schools in Brazil. Promoters, who ran events like circuses in Brazil started to get the idea to make money off of these fights.

Instead of the fight happening in an academy or in the street, why not make it an event? The idea was to have fighters compete in an organized event, where spectators can buy tickets and get more exposure.

By the 1950’s, Vale Tudo fights had gained more spectators and more press - All of which was mostly negative at the time. 

The press would call these events “barbaric” and described gruesome injuries to the eyes, contusions, broken bones, and concussions.

This bad press would help keep Vale Tudo from reaching the mainstream media, leaving the fights to be run back in the underground.

Rules of Vale Tudo

The other reason why Vale Tudo stayed in the underground was the rules or lack of rules in the fights. Vale Tudo means anything goes and that means, there were no rules. They were no holds barred matches, where competitors could do anything to win the match.

There was also usually no time limits in these fights either. Which meant those fights would go until someone was KO’d, submitted, or too injured to continue fighting.

These brutal fights with subsequently no rules would stop Vale Tudo from getting mainstream success. Only the diehards that were dedicated to proving that their style was the best would fight.

Vale Tudo's Attempt at Becoming Mainstream

The Ultimate Fighting Championship wasn’t the first time a no holds barred event was attempted to be taken into the mainstream.

In 1960, Vale Tudo attempted to become a mainstream sport. The event was called “Heróis do Ringue”(Heroes of the Ring) and was a live event that took place in Rio de Janeiro.

This Vale Tudo event was made up of legitimate martial artists, which included Carlson Gracie and Carley Gracie.

Vale Tudo Bare Knuckle Boxing

During the event, a fighter named João Alberto Barreto would fight. During the fight, Barreto would get his opponent in an armbar and broke it after the opponent refused to submit.

After millions saw a man get his arm broken, the TV studio thought Vale Tudo was too violent. They immediately cancelled the show. 

Ironically, Alberto Barreto would later be a referee in the first UFC event!

The Gracie Challenges

For the Gracie family, they saw fight with Vale Tudo rules as a platform. This platform being an opportunity to demonstrate that their fighting style of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the most superior. Also to get more people to train the Gracie Jiu Jitsu style.

As the architects of the family’s style, Helio and Carlson would participate in Vale Tudo fights. They were the first members of the family to participate in these types of fights. They went up against different martial artists and wrestlers from across the world.

After Heróis do Ringue was cancelled, the Gracies would still post open challenges under Vale Tudo rules. They would offer a large sum of money to anyone that can best their style.

They would usually run these types of challenges within the Gracie Academy or a larger gymnasium. The Gracies would pay newspapers and advertisers to promote their challenge.

A large cash sum would be offered to any man that thought they could beat a Gracie Jiu Jitsu practitioner. 

The challenges would usually take place in 2 places. First in Rio de Janeiro and later in California after Rorion Gracie emigrated there in the 70s.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu vs Luta Livre

One of the biggest rivalries that came from Vale Tudo fights was between the Gracie’s and Luta Livre practitioners. Luta Livre translates to “free fighting” and it was a rival grappling art against Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

There were some key differences between these styles with the main one being Gracie’s used a Gi Uniform. Luta Livre, on the otherhand, didn't use a uniform, and was more focused in a catch wrestling type of grappling. This included footlocks as well as punches and kicks. 

The first meeting was between the two was with George Gracie and Luta Livre’s founder Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem. Tatu would win the match by wrist lock.

Luta Livre vs Gracie Jiu Jitsu - Beach Fight

It wasn’t until the 80s when tension started rising between the two. There were multiple altercations in the street between the two styles.

A famous one being Rickson Gracie beating up Luta Livre practitioner Hugo Duarte on a beach in Rio in ‘88.

The feud reached its tipping point in ‘97, when a riot broke out during a Renzo Gracie fight. After this embarrassing event both sides came to a truce and went their own ways.

Gracie Challenge in California

In the late 70s, Rorion Gracie moved to California to expand Gracie Jiu Jitsu in the US. Much like in Rio, Rorion started offering the Gracie challenge in LA to get more exposure.

The challenges would also turn out just like most of the challenges in Brazil. Everyone from different martial arts styles would take the Gracie challenge and all would fail.

Everyone from Kung Fu practitioners to bodybuilders would get embarrassed by a Gracie student. Usually a student much smaller than the challenger to the effectiveness of Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

Vale Tudo and MMA

The first UFC event first came into fruition in 1993 in the McNichols Sports Arena in Colorado. This event was basically a Vale Tudo event that was put in place with the help of Rorion Gracie. 

What he wanted to do was make a giant advertisement for Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Sell a no holds barred tournament between different types of fighters on PPV, where they could show Gracie Jiu Jitsu’s superiority.

Much like the problems Vale Tudo faced, the UFC faced the same problems. The media also called it barbaric and shouldn’t be sold to the public.

UFC 1 - Royce Gracie vs Ken Shamrock

Realizing the mistake Vale Tudo made by not changing the rules, the UFC realized they needed to adapt. Gradually more rules were implemented and the fighters were made to wear gloves to protect the fighters.

As time went on, UFC started to become more formalized and became a legitimate sport that fans have come to grow and love. 


Vale Tudo definitely inspired what we know as modern day MMA. Now mixed martial arts is watched by hundreds of millions across the planet and aired on major networks. Without Vale Tudo first laying the groundwork for MMA, the sport may not have existed today.

Many legendary fighters first made their names in Vale Tudo before becoming all time greats. Names like Rickson and Renzo Gracie, Murilo Bustamante, and Wanderlei Silva fought in Vale Tudo fights before making it big.

BJJ also owes a great debt to those old no holds barred Vale Tudo fights. They gave BJJ a platform to show it is one of the most effective martial arts in the world!

For more info on Vale Tudo, check out:

From Vale Tudo to MMA: 100 Years of History