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The Bad Boys (and a few girls) from Brazil: How Rio came to rule ultimate fighting

GlobalPost's Simeon Tegel visits the Brazilian gym that's a training ground for some of the world's toughest cage fighters.

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American C.B. Dollaway, right, fights Brazilian Daniel Sarafian during the Ultimate Fighting Championship at Ibirapuera gymnasium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Jan. 20. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The roundhouse kicks reverberate around the gym like artillery shells exploding down the block.

For 30 minutes, the fighter glides across the ring, flicking out rat-a-tat-tat combinations of seamless jabs, straight rights and those brutal kicks, crashing his lower shins into the pads held head-high by his trainer.

Just a couple miles away, locals and tourists are sunning themselves at Copacabana beach. But here in Rio’s Flamengo district, at the Nova Uniao team’s training center, the name of the game is unarmed, full-contact, hand-to-hand violence.

Brazil might be the nation of samba, string bikinis and caipirinha cocktails, but it’s also the epicenter of the world’s fastest growing sport: mixed martial arts (MMA), or “cagefighting.”

And right now no gym on the planet is better at producing champions than Nova Uniao. It’s home to Jose Aldo and Renan Barao, the featherweight and interim bantamweight champions, respectively, of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s premier MMA franchise.

Then there's the fighter I'm watching work up a sweat in the ring, Eduardo Dantas, the current 135-pound champion of Bellator, the No. 2 MMA tournament.

His power and technique are just plain scary. Watching him and his Nova Uniao teammates work out, it comes as no surprise that roughly one in five of the hundreds of fighters on the UFC roster is Brazilian.

Only US collegiate wrestling rivals the South American country’s hardscrabble favelas, or slums, as production lines for world-class MMA competitors.

But a gulf of money, opportunity and class separate the two.

“Americans fight because they choose to be fighters. Brazilians fight because they have no choice. We fall in love with the sport but we start fighting for the money,” says Nova Uniao’s Claudia Gadelha, 24, a top contender in Invicta, the leading competition in the rapidly evolving world of female MMA.

Yet grinding poverty alone doesn’t explain Brazil’s ultimate fighting success. After all, there are plenty of other corners of the world awash with desperate want and senseless violence.

The secret is more likely the country’s long, unique tradition of no-holds-barred combat sports.

Decades before the first UFC tournament was staged in 1993, crazy Brazilians were duking it out in “vale tudo,” or “anything goes” contests.

“Brazil is where it all begins,” says Dennis Asche, a former MMA pro from California who has settled here. He’s the founder of Connection Rio, a travel agency for foreigners, both pros and enthusiasts, looking to improve their combat skills at the city’s numerous elite martial arts academies. “Brazilians had a huge jump on the rest of us.”

Despite the name, vale tudo, first documented in the 1920s, does have rules — biting and eye gouging are not permitted — but not many. Throughout its history, two disciplines have dominated vale tudo: Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) and luta livre.

Jujitsu is all about the "submission." A highly technical form of anatomical chess, it uses a myriad of complex chokes and limb locks to incapacitate — or "submit" — opponents.

Jiujitsu practitioners struggle for a hold. Courtesy of Connection Rio.

The South American variant of the ancient Japanese art famously allows practitioners to win fights against physically dominant opponents — in other words, while their adversary is lying on top of them pounding them into oblivion — through highly technical moves that take years to learn. While earning a black belt in karate, judo or taekwondo may take a committed practitioner as little as three or four years, in jiujitsu it usually takes a decade.

BJJ exploded onto the world stage when Royce Gracie, scion of the legendary Brazilian clan that developed the discipline, won three of the first four UFCs, routinely taking on fighters who weighed as much as 70 pounds more than him.

Luta livre is Brazilian submission wrestling. Although many moves are similar to BJJ, it’s regarded as more athletic and less technical.

Andre Pederneiras, the fifth-degree BJJ black belt who runs Nova Uniao, tells me that the first thing he looks for in wannabe fighters is a strong ground-game.

“A great kickboxer or boxer will need a long time to learn submissions,” he says. “A jiujitsu black belt can learn basic