Joao Alberto Barreto worked as a referee at UFC 1. But he made history as an undefeated fighter decades before.
A red belt in jiu-jitsu under the legendary Helio Gracie, Barreto was invited by Helio and Rorion Gracie to referee four of the eight UFC 1 matches in Denver, Colo., in 1993. He had previous experience as a fighter, promoter and ref in the Brazilian vale tudo circuit, but he wasn’t a fan of the promotion’s “no rules” concept.
“The Hawaiian fighter got kicked in the face by the Dutch fighter and lost his teeth,” said Barreto. “He got so bloody that I stopped the fight.”
That, of course, was the UFC’s first-ever match, a contest between Savate specialist Gerard Gordeau and sumo wrestler Teila Tuli that dropped jaws around the world, not to mention those who watched it cageside.
“Kathy, what do you think?” karate champ Bill “Superfoot” Wallace asked kickboxing champ Kathy Long as Tuli labored to right himself after a headlong charge met octagon fence. Gordeau wound up.
“I think we’re just missing teeth, there,” Long deadpanned.
Barreto was also the third man in the cage for Royce Gracie vs. Art Jimmerson, Gordeau vs. Kevin Rosier and Jason DeLucia vs. Trent Jenkins. He said Rorion Gracie and other promotion officials didn’t like the fact he chose to interrupt the fight due to Tuli’s missing tooth and the amount of blood on the mat. That was the reason he never came back after UFC 1.
“Rorion came to me and asked why did I stop the fight, and I asked him, ‘Why not? The guy all bloodied up,’” Barreto said. “The idea of the show was that it could get ugly, a brawl with lots of blood, but that idea was a mistake. If MMA is a sport, it can’t ignore the ethics of the sport – you can’t win by hurting the other. Do you fight to hurt your opponent? Where’s the technique, man?”
It wasn’t that Barreto was unfamiliar with brutality. In fact, he was partly responsible for a brutal scene earlier in his career that led to his exit from the national stage.
Decades before he stepped into the octagon as the third man in the cage, Barreto was the star of a weekly TV show that featured vale tudo fights. A protege of Carlos and Helio Gracie, he was once called “the best teacher in the Gracie academy” on Herois do Ringue. But one stubborn opponent ended his run.
“The Brazilian society was very conservative back then, especially in Rio de Janeiro,” Barreto said. “I broke the arm of a fighter, and there was a bit of disgust from the violence of fighting after that.
“You’ll probably ask me if I wanted to break his arm? Not at all. I told the referee it was going to break it because he wasn’t tapping to the kimura, and then he tried to escape to the wrong side and ended up fracturing his humerus.”
In other words, a lack of technique was to blame for the gruesome scene. Until that point, the show was the same kind of commercial for Gracie jiu-jitsu that the UFC was in the 90s.
Every week, the 160-pound Barreto would fight for three, five-minute rounds with no gloves and just a few rules. Judokas, capoeira fighters, boxers, wrestlers, and whoever else wanted to try their luck against a member of the Gracie team would be standing across a boxing ring. His “training camp” for all fights consisted in sparring marines, he said. Helio would line up 20 men, and Barreto had to drop half of them using his boxing. The following day, he had to beat them only using his jiu-jitsu.
“I won every fight I had,” said Barreto, who competed on the show for almost eight months and claims to have won all but one of his fights via submission, also defeating one “greased” opponent via TKO. “It was an exceptional TV show. There was no fighter in history that fought every week, and I had that privilege.”
A TV executive pitched him for the show after he built a reputation as a Gracie protege, traveling with the family to Ceara, Brazil, a hotspot for sanctioned fights and otherwise.
Back then, “official” street fights were very common. One day, Barreto beat a man despite getting shot on the leg during the fight in Copacabana. Both were sent to the hospital for different reasons: Barreto for treatment after a bullet grazed his leg, and his opponent for a swollen face.
“[I got shot] during the fight, but the fight wasn’t over because of it,” Barreto said with a laugh. “I wasn’t even feeling it. You can’t feel anything in the heat of the moment in a fight.”
Gracie convinced Barreto to put his skills to use on TV.
“‘You’ll have a fight every Monday,’” Barreto remembers of Carlos Gracie’s advice. “‘If you win, you get your full pay. If it’s a draw, you get half. If you lose, there’s no money at all. Are you in?’
“Money or not, I’m here for you. Doing these fights will be great honor for me.”
Gracie had pushed Barreto before to represent his family. Six months after Barreto started training with Helio, the jiu-jitsu forefather decided to test his student.
“Helio took me to the A Noite newspaper office to issue a challenge,” Barreto said. “The story read, ‘The Gracie Academy will fabricate a new champion. A 15-year-old challenges any amateur fighter from Rio de Janeiro to face him in six months.’”
It was probably for the better that no one responded to that challenge, Barreta said with a laugh, because he might have gotten beaten up after just a few months of training. But his day in the ring would come a few years later.
When Helio Gracie fought Jukio Kato the first time at Maracana stadium on Sept. 6, 1951, Barreto challenged a man in a jiu-jitsu match in the prelims. Both matches ended in a draw. Gracie submitted Kato in a rematch three weeks later in Sao Paulo, but Barreto didn’t get the second shot he was hoping for when his opponent fell out due to an injury.
Gracie was finally given a chance to face Japan’s Masahiko Kimura the following month in front of approximately 40,000 fans at Maracana stadium. He lost via kimura, a technique named after the Japanese legend.
Earlier on that day, Barreto scored his first official jiu-jitsu victory.
The two first met in 1951, when Helio Gracie was looking for a venue to hold his vale tudo fight with Landulfo Caribe. Antonio Carlos Barreto, father of Joao Alberto and the director of the National Institute of Education of the Deaf in Rio de Janeiro, was approached by the Gracies about using their gymnasium for the event.
The Gracies were highly respected by the community and had ties with important people in the government, so Antonio Carlos Barreto decided to rent the gymnasium free of charge.
“I went there to watch it and thought it was very complicated,” Barreto said with a laugh. “Two guys on a gi, grabbing each other? What is this? [laughs] Helio won with ease, Caribe’s technique was no match for our great master.”
The Gracies were invited to a cocktail party at Barreto’s house later that night to celebrate Helio’s victory. That’s when Carlos Gracie first noticed the 15-year-old kid.
“I studied at the military school and loved sports and was a strong boy,” said Barreto, who had nine brothers. “My father asked me to take my shirt off and show my physique to professors Carlos and Helio. I said, ‘No, dad.’ I was kind of embarrassed, but took it off in the end.
“Carlos Gracie looked at me and said, ‘Dr. Barreto, this boy looks like a champion, and the Gracie academy will give him a scholarship.’”
Barreto accepted the ”great gift” and went to Carlos Gracie’s gym days later. Carlos was waiting for him with a brand new gi, and he immediately turned to one of his students and asked him to grapple with Barreto.
“Try not to lose – he knows more than you,” Gracie told the young newcomer. Barreto tried his best, but obviously was no match considering he only had five minutes or so of jiu-jitsu experience. Barreto didn’t give up, though, and worked hard every day until he finally beat his teammate.
Carlos Gracie realized he had a promising talent and agreed when Helio suggested a grappling match between Barreto and a man known as “Japanese.” Helio held weekly competitions on Sundays at his farm in Teresopolis, 60 miles away from Rio de Janeiro, and “Japanese” had just become the No. 1 guy in the area.
“Joao Alberto only has three months of training, but I bet he won’t lose to ‘Japanese,’” Carlos told Helio, according to Barreto. The match took place in Rio de Janeiro and ended in a draw. Helio lost the bet, and agreed to book a rematch for two weeks later, this time in Teresopolis.
Barreto won the contest, and Helio decided to take him under his wing. Before long, he started his vale tudo career, traveling with the Gracies and scoring victories around the Brazil.
After his exit from Herois do Ringue, Barreto was working as a trainer and psychologist when he got another call from the Gracies. A no-rules martial arts competition held in Denver needed a referee.
Barreto has learned a few lessons about technique and brutality in his years in and out of the cage. As the UFC celebrates his 27th birthday, the undefeated veteran has a request: walk away from elbows strikes on the ground, and remove this “violent” aspect of the MMA.