Brazilian journalists Adriano Albuquerque and Raphael Marinho regard the night in 2011 in which Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort—two of Brazil’s greatest fighters ever—faced each other in the Ultimate Fighting Championship as the night when mixed martial arts truly exploded onto Brazil’s scene. Before then, mixed martial arts still remained in the peripheries of the public gaze, although the sport already had ingrained itself in the nation’s collective memory.
It’s not without reason that Brazil’s output of fighters is more prolific than the rest of the world’s—in a country riddled with poverty and very little access to the paths through which a man could rise in society, Brazilian jiu jitsu and vale tudo provided the only way out for hundreds of people.
When Hélio Gracie faced and lost to Masahiko Kimura in 1951, his loss was a symbolic victory for the country. Hélio ascended to the rarified sphere reserved only for national heroes. His academy received endless students, and several journalists would cover the daily goings-on of his academy, as though they were covering the most groundbreaking and latest news. However, Hélio had aged by now—he was 38 years old—and was no longer fighting.
In the 1950s, Brazilian jiu jitsu was living its golden age, and vale tudo events got the kind of media coverage reserved only for the greatest exhibitions. And that’s what Carlson Gracie versus Waldemar Santana was—the greatest exhibition the Brazilian people had seen up to that point. It was a unprecedented frenzy that rivaled the most ferocious of football crazes. It surpassed people’s wildest ideas of what a sporting event could be.
The two encounters between Carlson and Waldemar at the Maracanãzinho (they went on to fght a total of seven times) were worth so much more than just a belt or a title—a victory meant the honor of the Gracie name, which had been tarnished when Hélio Gracie lost to Waldemar Santana when the latter challenged him. Disgraced, the Gracie family sought a new representative to carry the torch. It would be Carlson’s duty to regain the prestige and status for the royal family of jiu jitsu, because when Hélio lost, a natural order had been shaken.
Carlson Gracie, Carlos’s oldest son, soon rose to fame by achieving victories over some of the time’s biggest names like Luiz "Cirandinha" Aguiar. At age 22, Carlson Gracie was named the best fighter of 1954.
Waldemar Santana was the bastard son of the Gracie family. A marble worker by trade, the Bahia native arrived at the Gracie academy to work, but also received lessons from Hélio. He was in some preliminary fights in Carlson’s appearances, but was never spotlighted like other fighters. Nevertheless, he became friends with one of the journalists who covered the academy’s day-to-day affairs, a man named Carlos Renato—who eventually would become his manager. Carlos Renato is often held responsible for instigating the trouble that bloomed between Waldemar and Hélio. “The Black Leopard,” as he was known, complained that Hélio mistreated him, and broke off from the team when he took on a match without approval from the academy.
This transgression equated to an attitude the patriarch simply did not accept, but after being expelled from the academy, Waldemar Santana challenged Hélio Gracie. Hélio accepted, even though he had not had a fight in a few years. Rio’s newspapers sold the match-up as a battle between a victimized, poor worker and an evil boss. Both them met on the 24th of May of 1955 for a vale tudo match: the fight went on for an intense three hours and 43 minutes. Hélio put up a fight worthy of the Gracie name, but was ultimately knocked out by a kick to the face.
Waldemar Santana became the people’s hero—he was crowned the new champion, the new national hero. It was a tale of a socioeconomic underdog taking down the man. To that day, the Gracie grasp over the sport was unmovable. So when Waldemar stepped up to Hélio Gracie—venerated patriarch—he had the support of hundreds of people who wished to see the Gracie vice-grip loosened and dropped.
The fight had barely finished, Waldemar was still in the ring, when Carlson Gracie challenged him—his former sparring partner—to a vale tudo match, to avenge his uncle’s loss.
Reports say that it took weeks for Waldemar to accept the challenge. During those weeks, Waldemar embraced his newfound fame and took the opportunity to see the parts of the country that, until then, remained out of his grasp. In the meantime, the Carioca media heavily criticized the ugly violence of the grudge match between Hélio Gracie and Waldemar Santana, demonizing the “savagery” of the fight. Eventually, the police announced these fights would no longer be permitted in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Thus, when Waldemar agreed to face Carlson Gracie, it would be in jiu jitsu. According to Waldemar, he would never want to be involved in a “spectacle” such as the one in which he beat Hélio Gracie, because its ferocity, he said, had no humanity in it.
As expected, the match between Carlson and Waldemar attracted a lot of attention—this time, however, Waldemar would take on a man who matched his 26 years of age and size. When he defeated Hélio, he was 43 years old. Several newspapers put out spreads advertising the fight and it soon became one of the most anticipated encounters in Brazilian history. The day of the fight, October 8th of 1955, 25,000 people attended the match, when the true capacity of the Maracanãzinho was only 14,000. Brazilian newspapers said people were fighting for a spot on the stands—that the calmest place in the whole venue was the ring itself. The story told is that the newspapers weren’t even able to write a proper coverage of the fight because they couldn’t see them on account of not being able to find seats.
The fight itself was disappointing—after five lukewarm rounds the match was declared a draw. People in the stands booed. The people there wanted to see a vale tudo match, they wanted to see the full potential of the martial artist. However, Waldemar alleged that Carlson had fought dirty, doing things that were illegal by the rules of their fight. According to him, Santana struck him illegally several times. If Carlson was to fight him like this, their next encounter might as well be in vale tudo.
Carlson accepted that challenge. They met again on the 21st of July of 1956, for an encounter the media dubbed “the biggest fight of all times.” Interestingly, the Gracies’ connections and influence were able to uplift the ban implemented by the authorities.
The fight was set up for six 10-minute rounds, and the rules stated that every sort of strike was allowed, with the exception of striking of the genitals as well as unsportsmanlike behavior such as grabbing ears, nose, pulling of the hair and maneuvers of the sort. Once again, the venue was overflowing with spectators, including celebrities. Reports claim over 40,000 people were there.
The fight gave fans what they came looking for. Carlson dominated the fight from start to finish in what was dubbed a massacre. Carlson’s ground play, as well as his boxing, was considerably sharper and more effective than Waldemar’s, although he certainly gave Carlson a tooth-and-nail fight. He won by technical knockout nine minutes into the fourth round, because Carlos Renato, Waldemar’s manager and corner, told the referee that Waldemar would not continue. Both fighters were exhausted, and only Carlson could continue.
The “Big Boy” was carried out of the ring on the shoulders of his fans, relieved of having reclaimed his family’s honor. In an interview years after the fight, Carlson Gracie said that had he lost that evening, the Gracies would no longer be, that it would have marked the very end of the storied Gracies. At the end of the day these events solidified Brazil’s love for the sport of jiu jitsu and vale tudo, laying down the only ground on which someone like Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida, José Aldo, Shogun Rua—the list goes on—could thrive.
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