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The Brazilian Colosseum

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Built in 1954, Maracanazinho is one of the most important places in the history of the fighting we see today -- bare-knuckle, vale tudo or MMA, whatever you wanna call it.

Mario Tama

UFC 179 will feature the last remaining Brazilian champion Jose Aldo in a rematch against featherweight No. 1 contender Chad Mendes, which is dramatic in itself. Yet the venue it will take place in, Maracanazinho, is also historic. It was built in 1954, and a year later, in 1955, was the first connected with vale tudo fights.

One year after Waldemar Santana defeated his former trainer Helio Gracie in the longest fight in the history at ACM -- a brutal clash that lasted 17 minutes shy of four hours behind the goals at the soccer stadium -- Carlson Gracie entered a ring looking to avenge his uncle’s loss. In 1956, vale tudo events were legal again, and the two went to war in a historical night at Maracanazinho in front of every Brazilian news outlet going.

That night, Gracie and Santana -- two of the greatest fighters alive -- battled for nearly 40 minutes. With mere seconds left in the fourth 10-minute round, Carlson avenged his uncle by forcing Santana's corner to throw in the towel. It was a classic bout, and it set up a rivalrous series between the two. They would go on to fight four more times before it was all said and done. The Gracie family would celebrate another win in 1957, this time on points, while the other three encounters were declared a draw.

"Carlson told me once that there were 30,000 fans at Maracanazinho [that first fight], and 5,000 waited in a line outside the gymnasium, trying to get inside to watch the fight," Brazilian journalist Marcelo Alonso said. "It was a really tough fight, but he ended up knocking Waldemar out."

***

Vale tudo would only return to Maracanazinho 23 years later. No-holds-barred fighting was prohibited by the military government since 1964, and it became an instant success when the Gracie family was finally cleared to bring back the martial arts challenges to Rio de Janeiro.

Rickson Gracie, one of the best soldiers of the Gracie army, stepped up to rematch Casemiro Nascimento Martins -- better known as "Rei Zulu," father or PRIDE veteran Zuluzinho -- at Maracanazinho. The jiu-jitsu black belt, who tapped "Rei Zulu" four years earlier in Brasilia, was finally back for his second official vale tudo fight.

"They wanted to promote a boxing match, and came up with the idea to do a vale tudo fight," says Rickson Gracie, who claims to have retired undefeated after 400 fights. "Zulu was challenging anyone on TV, but nobody wanted to fight him. The event’s promoter and Globo TV asked me if I wanted to rematch him. We negotiated, and I took the fight.

"In my mind, this was an opportunity for me to confirm my technique," he continued. "I was anxious to fight again. The first fight was really tough, my worst fight, since I had no experience at that time. I won, but it was a tough one, so a rematch would be a great opportunity for me to confirm my technique. And everything went as planned.

"In the first fight, Zulu spent most of his energy trying to beat me as quick as possible, and I eventually finished him when he got tired. This time, he used more strategy. He had Vaseline on his body, so he was pretty slippery, and he fought more intelligently. Fighting to a draw after three rounds would be great for him, so I had to be smart."

Just like in the first match, Gracie finished his rival with a rear-naked choke.

Rickson Gracie says he never thought for a second that his rematch with "Rei Zulu" would become so important for the sport.

"That was the return of vale tudo to Rio after more than 20 years," Alonso says. "This fight was absolutely important for the sport. Every media outlet talked about it. Maracanazinho was sold out, everybody screaming ‘jiu-jitsu, jiu-jitsu.’ That’s when jiu-jitsu started to grow again in Rio de Janeiro.

"I breathe jiu-jitsu, so I never had this outside view of the sport," Rickson Gracie said of the importance of his rematch with "Rei Zulu." "It was always a motivation to represent this clan and fight for jiu-jitsu. One way or the other, everything that happened helped jiu-jitsu grow. Jiu-jitsu is an animal that never stops growing."

vale tudo

***

One of the Gracies' usual attacks would be the first step to another epic night at Maracanazinho. On March 21, 1982, members of the Gracie academy invaded the Naja Academy in Rio de Janeiro. Flavio Molina, leader of the muay Thai practitioners in the city at that time, was against retaliation. He wouldn’t accept his student’s suggestions of payback by invading the Gracies' academy.

"I taught classes that time in a gym next to Naja, and I heard about that invasion," Marco Ruas says. "Molina was teaching kids that day, and they showed up beating everybody, choking people out. Most of his students left the gym after that incident. Molina was devastated."

In 1984, he found the perfect way to try to give a little payback.

"When Robson Gracie challenged the kung fu community to a vale tudo event, Molina saw an opportunity to avenge his gym," Ruas says. "He called his students to fight there, but they declined. So he called Eugenio Tadeu and me. I had no idea what it was, but I always loved challenges."

Rolls Gracie passed away in 1982, so Rickson was the biggest name of the family in the following years. Molina wanted to face the undefeated Gracie who dominated the streets of Rio de Janeiro, but he would have to prove himself first against one of the family’s greatest students first: Marcelo Behring, a black belt under Rickson.

The "Jiu-Jitsu vs. Martial Arts Challenge" was set.

Behring, along with Fernando Pinduka and Renan Pitanguy, got the call to represent jiu-jitsu against Flavio Molina,  Ruas and Eugenio Tadeu, respectively. Muay Thai and Luta Livre united against the Gracie family. In less than a month, they would collide at Maracanazinho.

"We only had 10 days to prepare for the fight," Pinduka said. "They came up challenging us, with the date set and everything, so we had to hurry to get ready. But how can you get ready for a vale tudo fight in 10 days? It’s craziness. We fought with our hearts to defend our martial art we loved and the family that always supported us."

In the first fight of the night, Molina came up short against Behring. Helio Vigio, a police officer and jiu-jitsu black belt under Carlos Gracie, was the referee. Molina, who tried to postpone the event due to a knee injury, couldn’t avenge the academy invasion. He was getting beat up really bad by Behring after dislocating his knee on his first kick. Molina’s corner threw in the towel, but Vigio used it to clean the sweat of his face.

"I wanted him to surrender, to give up before everybody’s eyes," Vigio said at that time. Molina didn’t tap, and the referee eventually mercifully stopped the bout and awarded Behring a TKO victory.

"My father was a hero," says Marcelo Molina, Flavio Molina’s son. "He blew his knee out 15 days before the fight, and didn’t even train for it. Helio Gracie, the Dana White of that time, threatened go after them in the streets if they tried to cancel the event, saying that it would be better for them to show up that night. (Carlos) Brunocilla tried to convince him to postpone the event, Molina too, but Helio declined."

Later that night, Pinduka represented the Gracie family against Ruas. Pinduka, one of the best students on the Carlson Gracie army, was undefeated at that time. "I helped Carlson Gracie and was doing well in jiu-jitsu competition, so they asked me to represent jiu-jitsu in this challenge," Pinduka says.

He wasn’t the first option to fight Ruas, though. "They changed my opponent three times. Relson Gracie to Fred Bomba to Pinduka," Ruas says.

Pinduka saw Ruas as "the toughest opponent for jiu-jitsu that night." With powerful kicks and solid punches, he was a dangerous threat to the jiu-jitsu specialist. Pinduka would probably win a decision if there were judges that night, but they left the ring without a winner.

"If I had to, I’d do that all over again," Pinduka says with a laugh. "This time, I would fought under Helio Gracie’s rules, no time limit. I was mounted on Marco, and he would never get out of there, but the round ended before I could submit him. He had outstanding cardio, but he would eventually tap to my jiu-jitsu."

"I had the ground game of a blue belt, let’s put it like that," Ruas says. "I took the subway to go to the gym, and 99 percent were Gracie. I had a few friends at Maracanazinho, but they were in the last row. The entire Gracie family was around the ring. Rickson, Helio, everybody. But I got this draw. To me, it was like a win. Pinduka was a great fighter, and this fight gave me a name and opened a lot of doors. Maracanazinho opened a door for me in the UFC."

In the third fight that really mattered -- Ignacio Aragao’s bout against kung fu’s Bruce Lucio wasn’t a big deal -- Eugenio Tadeu knocked Renan Pitanguy out in a matter of minutes. Jiu-jitsu couldn’t dominate the other martial art that night, and that gave them power to further the rivalry.

"Another martial art tied with jiu-jitsu for the first time," Alonso says. "Ruas fighting to a draw with Pinduka, Molina losing to Behring and Eugenio knocking out Pitanguy. Jiu-jitsu went 1-1-1 that night, and that’s when the rivalry started."

More martial arts challenges took place in Rio de Janeiro in the following years, while Rorion Gracie did the same with jiu-jitsu in the United States. In 1993, his own version of "Jiu-Jitsu vs. Martial Arts Challenge" was created by the name of Ultimate Fighting Championship.

"From that night on, I saw vale tudo with different eyes," Ruas says. "It’s not about a single martial art -- you have to know everything. That event was something personal, the jiu-jitsu guys trying to prove something. I didn’t understand it, but wanted to fight. After that, I spent 10 years trying to get a new fight with them, and that’s how I became an enemy for them. They didn’t see me as an opponent. All I wanted was a fight."

***

The UFC was growing fast in the United States, while the Gracie family continued with their own martial arts challenges in Brazil. Maracanazinho held another show in 1995 -- the same year that Royce Gracie fought to a draw in his rematch against Ken Shamrock at UFC 5 -- and jiu-jitsu suffered one of its toughest losses.

A black belt under Carlson Gracie, Amaury Bitetti, was selected to represent his team in a one-night, eight-man open-weight tournament produced by Joao Alberto Barreto, one of Helio Gracie’s students. Bitetti quickly earned his spot in the final after a pair of quick finishes. In the other bracket, Sidney Goncalves Freitas -- better known as "Mestre Hulk" -- emerged as the finalist after a couple wins.

"I fought Pedro Otavio in the semifinal, a very hard fight, and I got back to the ring in less than 20 minutes for the final against Amaury," "Mestre Hulk" says. "I was really tired, and I was already happy with my previous wins. I wanted to win the tournament, of course, but I knew that Amaury was a great fighter and most of the vale tudo fights eventually went to the ground, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to stop him from taking me down."

The jiu-jitsu community was more than confident heading into the final. Royce and Rickson Gracie won their one-night tournaments in the United States and Japan in 1993 and 1994, respectively, and Bitetti was one fight away from achieving the same feat at Maracanazinho. The tournament winner would win a belt, and earn a shot at Rickson.

"Mestre Hulk" was a capoeira fighter, and a huge underdog against Bitetti. With more than 90 percent of the crowd backing Bitetti in the final, the crowd went silent just 23 seconds in. "Mestre Hulk" knocked Bitetti down early with a right hand, and followed with punches, forcing referee Joao Alberto Barreto to stop the action.

"I knocked him down, and I wouldn’t let him come back up," "Mestre Hulk" says. "I kept punching him, landing more than 14 punches. Amaury was getting back up and falling on the ground again."

It wasn’t over yet, though.

While "Mestre Hullk" celebrated one of the biggest upsets in the history of jiu-jitsu, Bitetti’s teammates protested the stoppage. It was pretty clear that Bitetti couldn’t continue fighting, but they wanted the bout to be restarted. Even the referee was a member of the Gracie academy, so "Mestre Hulk" had no idea what would actually happen that night.

"How can your coach referee your fight? He’s going to help his student, of course," "Mestre Hulk" says of Barreto being the referee. "Especially that night, with the tournament being made to crown jiu-jitsu as the best martial art in Brazil.

"I was a member of the police at that time, and police officers were around the ring to protect me, When the fight was over and the jiu-jitsu guys started to protest, I saw one reporter scream ‘the dark-skinned guy won.’ Helio Gracie, who was on the other side of the ring, stood up and said, ‘Joao, the fight is over. The dark-skinned won. What else do you want?’ That’s when I knew it was over. Mr. Helio Gracie saved that event."

"Mestre Hulk" never received the promised accessory, nor the shot at Rickson.

"I never got my belt, though," he said. "I can’t prove it, but some people said they had made the title with Amaury Bitetti’s name on it already, so they never gave it to me."

Disappointed with the finish, Bitetti blamed overconfidence.

"I had two wins that night, and I didn’t concentrate going into the final," he says. "I was already celebrating. I got lost. My head wasn’t into it anymore. The punch landed, and that’s it. I offered him a rematch several times."

For years, Bitetti claims he even offered "Mestre Hulk" a brand new car as prize for the rematch, but the capoeira fighter disputes that story.

"I always wanted an opportunity to talk about this. I was the champion, but nobody interviewed me about this, and I always saw Amaury saying his side of the story to the media," "Mestre Hulk" says. "A club at Jardim Guanabara was building a new gymnasium, and they wanted to promote a rematch as their first event there. They offered a car to Amaury and me, but I said, ‘he’s the challenger, so why is he getting the same prize as me?’ We all left, and Amaury would come back with a new offer later, but he never did. I saw Amaury saying in interviews that I was offered an apartment and money and declined, but that never happened."

***

Bitetti would make his return to Maracanazinho 14 years later, this time as a fight promoter. MMA was banned from Rio de Janeiro after a huge brawl erupted during Renzo Gracie vs. Eugenio Tadeu in 1997, but the popularity of the sport overseas helped it get cleared again in the city. Bitetti, who had good connections with the local government at that time, built one of the best MMA cards in the history of Brazilian MMA.

September 12, 2009.

Headlined by Ricardo Arona vs. Martin Eastman, Bitetti Combat 4 featured a handful of PRIDE veterans. Paulo Filho vs. Alex Schoenauer, Murilo Rua vs. Alex Stiebling and Pedro Rizzo vs. Jeff Monson were the great stars of the night.

Glover Teixeira, Fabio Maldonado, Vitor Miranda and Luiz Jorge Dutra Jr., who are fighting under the UFC banner today, were featured in preliminary bouts. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was also set to fight at the card, but withdrew after signing a deal with the UFC.

"That was one of the best cards in the history," Bitetti said. "Arona, ‘Paulao,’ Pedro Rizzo. I had the support of the mayor to do this event, and it was great to bring MMA back to Maracanazinho."

That was also a special night for Rizzo. A former UFC heavyweight title contender, Rizzo decided to get into martial arts because of Marco Ruas, who fought Pinduka in that same gymnasium 24 years earlier.

"I was only 10 when I watched Marco Ruas fight at that vale tudo event in 1984," says Rizzo, who defeated Monson via decision at Bitetti Combat 4. "When I watched his fights on VHS, I decided I wanted to be like him. Six years later, I met Marco and started training with him."

The UFC would finally make its return to Brazil a couple years after Bitetti Combat 4, but Bitetti proved that night that the sport was ready to become mainstream. Dana White’s promotion will make its first show at Maracanazinho on Oct. 25 and Rizzo will be there one more time.

"We can say that Maracanazinho is the house of Ruas Vale Tudo," he says with a laugh. "Marco started everything there. I fought there years later, and now Jose Aldo is fighting there. Aldo is a Nova Uniao fighter, but he always trains with us and says he has RVT in his blood, too. Maracanazinho belongs to RVT."