MMA History XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre

In this MMA History series, we've talked about some of the big camps that dominated MMA in the 1990s. We've covered Carlson Gracie's BJJ…

By: Nate Wilcox | 14 years ago
MMA History XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

In this MMA History series, we’ve talked about some of the big camps that dominated MMA in the 1990s. We’ve covered Carlson Gracie’s BJJ camp, the R.A.W. Team, Mark Coleman’s Hammer House and Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den.

One camp that won their share of fights and placed fighters in all the major events was the Budokan Luta Livre camp of Johil de Olivera and the allied Luta Livre camp headed by Hugo Duarte.

Luta Livre esportiva
is a fighting style based on catch wrestling founded by Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem (pictured). Tatu beat George Gracie by submission (not sure what the rules were, could’ve been grappling only, might have been vale tudo) in 1940. From the looks of the picture, he used a Kimura lock to get the win.

The style was carried on by fighters like Euclides Perreria who beat Carlson Gracie in 1968 and Roberto Leitao, a master technician who articulated the theory of Luta Livre (pdf).

By the 1980s the style was represented by such young lions as Hugo Duarte and Eugenio Tadeu who were willing to accept challenges from jiu jitsu’s toughest representatives (see Hugo vs Rickson Gracie, Eugenio vs Wallid Ismael, Eugenio vs Royler Gracie). The Luta Livre guys trained no-gi grappling and studied leg locks at a time when the jiu jitsu purists refused to do either. Many viewed Luta Livre as a style for poor kids who couldn’t afford gis.

In earlier installments I’ve talked about the 1991 Desafio JJ vs LL card that Wallid Ismael mounted. I’ve also covered the disastrous Renzo Gracie vs Eugenio Tadeu fight that ended in a riot, killing the 1990s Vale Tudo boom in Brazil. So I’m technically backtracking here, but I found a bunch of fights online and wanted to give the LL guys their propers.

Unlike the other top camps, none of the Luta Livre guys ever achieved greatness in modern MMA, they suffered from their jack-of-all-trades approach. They couldn’t strike as well as Chute Boxe, certainly couldn’t outwrestle Hammer House, couldn’t out grapple the jiu jitsu fighters, and weren’t as athletic as the Lion’s Den.

However, they did get their share of wins against the other big camps. Ebenezer Fontes Braga submitted both Jeremy Horn and Mark Coleman protege Brandon Lee Hinkle but came up short against Kevin Randleman and Kazushi Sakuraba. Johil de Olivera managed to notch a decision win against Chute Boxe’s legendary Jose “Pele” Landi Jons at WVC 4 in March 1997 and tied John Lewis at Extreme Fighting 3 in 1996.

Sadly, Johil was the victim of a freak pyrotechnic accident at an early PRIDE event and never really recovered his eyesight — even though he continued to fight for years afterwards(!). This Sherdog interview from 2004 is pretty telling, both of Johil’s woes but also what happened to Luta Livre.

Also typical of the luck of Luta Livre was Hugo Duarte’s embarrassing UFC 17 debut in May 1998. Duarte entered the event 5-0 and highly regarded. And looked good early against Tank Abbott, getting a quick takedown. Then instead of using his formidable ground and pound, he jumped for an armbar, giving up position and taking a vicious beating to the back of the head. He then fought Mark Kerr at PRIDE 4 and disgraced himself by doing everything but fleeing the ring to avoid fighting.

Luta livre experienced a rapid decline in the early 2000s when many of their top fighters defected to jiu jitsu — familiar names like Renato Babalu Sobral and Gesias JZ Calvancante actually started out as Luta Livre fighters. Pretty much the only top fighter who stayed loyal was shooto champ Alexandre Franca “Pequeno” Nogueira and even Pequeno trained with the Brazilian Top Team.

Three things seem have combined to kibosh Luta Livre —

  1. The failure to produce a great champion who could’ve popularized the style;
  2. The sudden popularity of no-gi grappling in events such as ADCC, broke down the jiu jitsu camps’ resistence to no-gi grappling;
  3. The professionalization of MMA which ended the blood-feud between Luta Livre and Jiu Jitsu and resulted in so many LL fighters moving to the larger jiu jitsu camps.

Tons of classic 1990s fights in the full entry.

Let’s start with the Luta Livre associate who enjoyed the greatest success in MMA, Marco Ruas. Typically for the luck of Luta Livre, he branded his fighting style as Ruas Vale Tudo because only his ground game was Luta Livre. He was a Muay Thai fighter brought into the Luta Livre world. Here he’s putting those grappling skills to good use to get a win over UFC veteran Patrick Smith at WVC 4 on March 16, 1997. Ruas had a bad run of luck against fellow UFC tournament winner Oleg Taktarov — one loss and one draw. So his wins over second tier, but name, UFC fighters like Pat Smith and Steve Jennum was very important for his career momentum. Unfortunately, the copyright trolls at the WVC think they’ve got a hot property on their hands and won’t let me share this fight with you.

Here’s one of Luta Livre’s biggest triumphs. Ebenezer Fontes Braga beat Hammer House wrestler Brandon Lee Hinkle at IVC 6 on August 23, 1998.

Ebnezer Fontes Braga vs Brandon Lee Hinkle Part 1, IVC 6 August 23, 1998

Ebnezer Fontes Braga vs Brandon Lee Hinkle Part 2, IVC 6 August 23, 1998

Here’s the fight where Braga’s run for the top effectively ended. Coming off wins over Hinkle and Jeremy Horn in the UFC, he ran into Kazushi Sakuraba at PRIDE 6. At the time Sakuraba was probably the best fighter alive.

Ebenezer Fontes Braga vs Kazushi Sakuraba PRIDE 6 July 4, 1999

This next one was considered the worst decision ever at the time.

Johil Olivera vs Darryl Gholar at IVC 5 on April 26, 1998

This next one is a bit of a slog but shows how well Fontes Braga could hang with the 1997 version of the top flight wrestler in MMA — Kevin Randleman:

Ebenezer Fontes Braga vs Kevin Randleman, UVF 6, March 3, 1997, Part 1

Ebenezer Fontes Braga vs Kevin Randleman, UVF 6, March 3, 1997, Part 2

Ebenezer Fontes Braga vs Kevin Randleman, UVF 6, March 3, 1997, Part 3

Previous installments of MMA History:

XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba’s Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion’s Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie’s Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

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About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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