The MMA rivalry that keeps on giving
Camp to camp. Style to style. Fighter to fighter. You name it, more than half-century's worth of evidence shows that Brazilians love to feud about it. On Saturday night in Las Vegas, Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort will once again have opportunities to contribute to this rich legacy. Though it's the first time the middleweight pair will fight, their histories are inexorably related and complicated by rivalries touching every aspect of the sport in their home country.
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After years spent in the dark, mirroring in its own way the struggles of American MMA, the Brazilian fight scene is on the verge of a boom, one that should draw upon a past full seminal MMA clashes.
Last week I ran into Wallid Ismail in San Jose in advance of a Strikeforce card that included two of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world. Ronaldo Souza got his MMA start in Ismail's promotion, Jungle Fights. It's not tough to figure out Roger Gracie's connection. As one of the legendary -- some might say infamous -- figures in Brazilian MMA, Ismail has played a role in several rivalries, which come together like lasagna. Piece by piece, they're worth a taste. Taken together, something terrific happens.
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When I mentioned to Ismail that I was putting together this list, his eyes went wide and he hit me on my chest. His run-ins with different factions of Gracies are legendary, but the first thing that came out of his mouth was the battles with Luta Livre. That would seem, then, to be the best place to begin.
In no particular order, here are 10 Brazilian rivalries that color Saturday's impending middleweight war between Silva and Belfort.
Luta Livre versus jiu-jitsu
In 1991, Ismail claims he kick-started a rivalry between grappling styles that played out in gymnasiums, on beaches, and anywhere else until a riot six years later nearly rendered MMA dead. Its roots really belong to the 1940s, when Euclydes "Tatu" Hatem, the founder of Luta Livre -- which consists of wrestling and submissions, loosely translates to "free fighting," and was a haven for poor kids from the favelas -- defeated George Gracie in a match by submission. This wasn't necessarily a Gracie-centric rivalry. Many fighters rose on the jiu-jitsu side to defend their art.
It carried on around the globe, but the rivalry never recovered from a melee that broke out during a fight in Rio de Janeiro between Renzo Gracie and Eugenio Tadeu. As jiu-jitsu took the upper hand over Luta Livre, the back-and-forth also helped elevate MMA in Brazil. Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed -- who more than a decade later would buy a 10 percent stake in the UFC -- put the money up for Pentagon Combat. In the second round between Gracie and Tadeau, who had success against the jiu-jitsu side, fans moved near the cage. Chairs flew. And that was that.
Rickson Gracie versus Hugo Duarte
Three Luta Livre fighters from the 1980s stand out. Tadeu. Marco Ruas. And Hugo Duarte. Only one of them fought Rickson Gracie, he of the "400-0" record and pantheon spot in Gracie lore after the passing of his cousin Rolls in 1982. Years of verbal blows led Gracie and Duarte to notoriously opt for real ones on a Brazilian beach, all of which was videotaped. I remember hearing tales of Gracie kicking sand in Duarte's eyes and Duarte fighting dirty. Either way, it was bound to happen somewhere. Rickson's well-known televised clashes against brawler Rei Zulu made him famous, but the disdain he and Duarte shared is more noteworthy, and part of the larger jiu-jitsu-versus-Luta Livre rivalry.
Pele versus Macaco
If you're looking for an in-ring vale tudo (anything goes) war on home soil, it doesn't get better than Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons and Jorge "Macaco" Patino. For one thing, they hated each other, and not necessarily because of the fighting styles they represented. Macaco was tabbed as the next big thing, someone to step in for Rickson Gracie. Pele was just the best at his weight in the country, and couldn't stand the idea of anyone else getting in on the discussion. The prefight posturing was unlike anything before or after. They openly mocked one another. Standing within two steps of Pele, Macaco launched himself into a backflip. This was before the fight. When they finally went at it, it was wild. Macaco looked solid early, but faded late as Pele increased his pressure. With the finish approaching, Macaco attempted a weak shot from too far out. Pele sprawled and proceeded to embarrass Macaco by gyrating his crotch on his rival's head. The fight, each man's third of the evening, came in the final of an eight-fighter 176-pound tournament in 1996.
Chute Boxe versus Brazilian Top Team
As the sport evolved, so did the nature of its feuds. Fight camps emerged as the dominant source of clashes in the late 1990s and through much of the next decade. Though they played out under the guise of past traditions, fights between the Muay Thai-influenced Chute Boxe crew and the jiu-jitsu base of Brazilian Top Team were rooted more in success, money and championships. They also helped define an era of great fights. Nowhere was this more evident than in Japan. Pride played up issues between the camps and helped make Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua, Ricardo Arona, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and many others famous.
Ricardo Arona versus Wanderlei Silva
Tensions between Chute Boxe and BTT were at an all-time high when Silva, champion of Pride and at the top of his game, ran into Arona, a physically imposing light heavyweight grappler, in 2005. They met in the semifinals of Pride's Grand Prix tournament. The fight wasn't overly exciting, though it was highly intense. Arona squeezed out a decision win, the first time Silva had been defeated at 205 pounds in Pride. Arona was stopped by Silva's Chute Boxe teammate "Shogun" Rua in the championship round. They met again four months later with Silva's Pride title on the line, and Arona fell on the bad end of a split decision.
Wanderlei Silva versus Vitor Belfort
As MMA in Brazil died on the vine after the riot in 1997, the UFC, battling its own problems at home, traveled to Sao Paulo a year later. Six fights into their respective careers, Silva and Belfort were considered tremendous prospects. The chance to fight in the UFC on home soil was enormous and, at the time, carried major implications. Though the fight was surprisingly one-sided as Belfort blitzed Silva in 44 seconds, a longstanding rivalry began. They never fought again, though it's been discussed many times.
Carlson Gracie Sr. versus the rest of his family
Belfort, like Ismail and many others, was a disciple of Carlson Gracie's. As seismic shifts go, few mattered as much as Gracie's decision to part ways with his Uncle Helio's side of the clan. Carlson's move opened up the art, exposing techniques that had previously been kept from outsiders. The rivalry played out until Carlson -- whose father Carlos co-founded Gracie jiu-jitsu with Helio -- passed away from heart failure in 2006 at the age of 73. Carlson's departure also gave rise to Brazilian Top Team, a group of fighters who studied under Carlson's instruction until a money dispute in 2000.
Wallid Ismail versus Gracie family
Many of Carlson's firefights with his family played out through acolytes, none more devoted than Ismail. Some of the most infamous examples feature Ismail ranting incoherently against Royce Gracie and Ryan Gracie. They never fought under vale tudo rules, but Ismail and Royce eventually grappled in a highly anticipated showdown. Flanked by Carlson, Belfort and others, Ismail slapped on a clock-choke that rendered Royce unconscious. The prolonged celebration by Ismail and Carlson showed the level of animosity that had built up on all sides. Ismail doesn't like talking about it much these days.
Helio Gracie versus Waldemar Santana
Betrayal plays a major factor on this list, and that is true of Helio Gracie and his student Waldemar Santana. Always undersized, Gracie mastered the intricacies of using leverage to defend against and defeat larger threats. He gave up close to 40 pounds to the rogue Santana, but answered the challenge and fought for four hours before finally losing. Helio's nephew Carlson, then 23, defended the family's honor by challenging Santana in 1955. In all, they fought four times -- Carlson won three and earned a draw.
Lyoto Machida versus Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
At its highest levels, the modern-day rivalry is reserved for the U.S. after UFC supplanted Pride as the top promotion in the sport. Rooted in competition, the latest brought together Machida -- whose camp and style don't play into any of the old feuds -- and Rua -- whose camp and style do -- two years ago in Los Angeles. The result was one of the most discussed in recent memory after a decision many felt belonged to the challenger went instead to Machida. Rua left no room for the debate when he knocked out Machida in the first round of their 2010 rematch.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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