In its own way, the story of Vale Tudo is the story of modern competitive mixed martial arts. It is a story of innovation, grit, persistence, and a loyal fan base. There’s also a healthy dose of controversy to top it all off.
“Vale Tudo” is the Portuguese equivalent of the term ‘anything goes.’ It is an accurate way to describe this no-rules, no-holds-barred martial art. The appeal of Vale Tudo is in its incorporation of any and every fighting technique you could think of. Watching a Vale Tudo bout is exhilarating, and you never really know what a fighter has up their sleeve. This explains why it remains popular despite a decades-long reputation as a dangerous sport.
In the ‘90s, the UFC made its ascent to prominence in the global martial arts scene. The nature of UFC fights pushed mixed martial arts to the forefront of popular culture. Being a mixed martial art by nature, Vale Tudo rode this wave of popularity to emerge from the shadows of the underground scene. Here is the story of Vale Tudo, from inception to its present-day significance.
The nature of Vale Tudo: Rules and techniques
There’s no limit to what a creative fighter can do with a no-rules martial art like Vale Tudo. You can grapple your opponent to the ground, or you could use a precise sweep to execute a takedown. If you can use a Jiu-Jitsu throw to your advantage, go for it. Add every manner of punch, kick, and submission technique to your arsenal you have yourself a limitless source of material to hand-craft your fighting style. As martial arts go, Vale Tudo offers some of the most practical self-defense lessons out there.
It’s worth mentioning that Vale Tudo lacks both rules and time limits. This earned the fighting style a reputation based on flaws, both real and imagined. From time to time, fighters would sustain serious injuries, which would result in predictable bad press. The lack of a time limit also increased the chances of serious injury when stubborn fighters would refuse to tap out.
We explore how the reputation of Vale Tudo influences its place in the world of martial arts and track its influence on modern MMA.
The Brazilian origins of Vale Tudo
Like Japan, Brazil is a martial arts mecca in its own right. It is the home of world-famous fighting styles like Capoeira and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Vale Tudo developed alongside these martial arts, borrowing from them to become the truest form of mixed martial arts.
The early 20th century saw Brazilian martial artists build on fighting styles like Karate and Judo. Pioneers like the Gracie family would work grappling, submission, and boxing techniques into their fights. It didn’t stop there.
Fighters of different disciplines would compete against each other to test and compare their skills. This was a natural progression for a country that is passionate about martial arts. It turns out that these fights would create a massive and loyal fan base. They would also attract fighters from every discipline. The fact that these fights allowed every technique at fighters’ disposal gave rise to the term ‘Vale Tudo’ or ‘anything goes.’
The mixed martial arts take off
In the 1920s, there were gyms and martial arts studios of every discipline you could imagine. The owners of these establishments noticed the popularity of Vale Tudo circus fights and saw an opportunity to make money. This turned out to be a financial decision that paid off in the long run. Here is how it started:
The Gracie brothers developed a fighting style that allows fighters with a smaller frame to hold their own against a bigger opponent. They were excited to test their innovative techniques against martial artists of other disciplines. The brothers issued ‘The Gracie Challenge,’ a provocative series of ads that asked fighters to test their skill against what we now know as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
This challenge was the birth of Vale Tudo bouts and tournaments. Fighters from different martial arts disciplines would line up to match their skills against members of the Gracie studio. The Gracie brothers offered a cash prize to any fighter who would win a fight against a Gracie fighter. These fights became wildly popular with martial artists and fans alike. Vale Tudo fights also propelled BJJ and the Gracie family to the limelight.
Reputation, underground fights, and mainstream acceptance
You would think that a fighting style that propels the Gracie brothers to fame would become famous in its own right. Not so.
It started with the ‘branding,’ specifically the name and reputation of the fighting style. ‘Vale Tudo’ is a term with origins in the Brazilian circus circuit. In the early 20th century, Brazil’s circus side-shows included fights where people from different martial art disciplines would match their skills.
The name of this new fighting style stayed in the circus circuit and with enthusiasts of the sport. It remained a niche term until a disastrous 1960 TV appearance. Before an audience of millions, a Vale Tudo fighter snapped his opponent’s arm with an arm lock.
This appearance did considerable damage to the reputation of the sport, pushing it underground. It didn’t help that many Vale Tudo bouts were actual street fights that resulted from real-world rivalry. The seventies and eighties were active years for underground Vale Tudo fights, even as BJJ continued to enjoy growing prestige.
The rise of the UFC and its effect on Vale Tudo
The early nineties saw the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), an organization that Rorion Gracie founded when he emigrated to the United States. Fighters from every discipline and from different parts of the world trained to participate in the UFC.
The UFC was able to bring the spirit of Vale Tudo to the mainstream by creating what is now known as the unified rules for MMA.
UFC bouts have many more safety measures than Vale Tudo, and organizers of the Brazilian sport took notice. They added a few rules to improve the safety of fighters, but mainstream success remained elusive. Vale Tudo remains a niche sport, with a solid underground following that prefers the pure, no-rules version. The MMA circuit is the safer version that is widely popular today.
There’s a straight line from Vale Tudo to MMA
The very DNA of mixed martial arts comes from pitting fighters from different disciplines against each other. It’s easy to trace this practice back to the streets, underground venues, and circus side-shows of 20th century Brazil.
It’s safe to say that the rough edges of Vale Tudo add to the magic that makes MMA bouts as exciting as they are.
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