Although not as world-famous as some other martial arts forms, Brazil’s Luta Livre has an undistinguishable excitement and allure since its beginnings in the early twentieth century. This grappling art combines kicks and punches with aggressive takedowns and ground control. Its strong influences from catch wrestling and its Vale Tudo (anything goes) style make it an early form of Brazilian MMA.
To be a Luta Livre fighter, you must develop multiple skills in order to be successful in a match. You need both striking skills and ground fighting skills. This means learning how to kick and punch on your feet while using chokes and holds on the ground that is not allowed in other grappling forms.
Though luta livre incorporates striking, the base of the art is a grappling style that is similar to catch wrestling. Of course, today there are really two forms of Luta Livre. There is the more complete martial art of luta livre and then there is the luta livre sport. The sport just focuses on the grappling aspect of the art.
The rest of this article will explore how to get started in this discipline that has so many skills to learn and take a peek into the history and rivalries that have defined Luta Livre throughout its history in the grappling arts. By understanding the skills and how they were leveraged historically, you will be one step closer to your first match.
Luta Livre History
Although this fighting form lacks current popularity, its wild history is reason enough for it to be of interest around the world. Luta Livre’s birth story is full of rivalry, scandal, controversy, violence, victory, and heartbreak. If you want to practice this form yourself, it is necessary to understand the context from which it comes.
Where Did Luta Livre Come From?
When literally translating the term Luta Livre from Brazilian Portuguese, you get “freestyle fighting.” However, more colloquially, it simply signifies “wrestling.” This new discipline, marked by its wild blend of previously unallowed moves, first came about in 1909.
While its takedowns and ground control are a classic part of the grappling arts, Luta Livre caught attention for the striking it included as well as the different holds and chokes that had not previously been seen as a traditional part of grappling.
Its origins can be traced to both catch wrestling and Judo. Catch wrestling, also known as “Catch As Catch Can,” is an English-born style of fighting that focuses on getting the opponent to submit through brutal moves. In fact, catch wrestling was is all about taking down the opponent and getting submission quickly and aggressively.
Catch wrestling valued the ability to inflict pain on the opponent. By knowing how you can cause pain and how the opponent is likely to respond, you gain control of the situation and can more effectively manipulate the outcomes. This was unseen in other forms, such as the soon-to-be rival, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
When it comes to takedowns and formalities, this is where you can best see Judo’s influence. You can see Judo-styled takedowns used in Luta Livre matches.
Also, the ranking system of color belts that comes from Judo exists in Luta Livre as well. However, the catch influence is much stronger, as you can see when witnessing a fight itself. As catch wrestling took hold in South America, it took on a life of its own in Brazil, most strongly informing Luta Livre.
One other part of Luta Livre that was quite revolutionary at the time was the lack of gi. The judogi, or more commonly referred to as gi, is the traditional white kimono-style uniform from the Judo tradition. At the time in Brazil, these were expensive and difficult to obtain. The fact that Luta Livre did not use it meant it was a fighting style accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Esportiva & Vale Tudo
Within Luta Livre itself, there are two main styles of fighting. First is “Esportiva” or “sporting,” which is considered the more structured of the two. This style is more traditionally a grappling art, focusing on submissions. This can be thought of as a more traditional, competitive wrestling sport.
And now we come to Vale Tudo, or literally, “anything goes.” Here, the name says it all. We have mentioned the wide range of never-before-seen moves in grappling and it was here they were allowed. Striking, locks, holds, chokes, brutal takedowns, aggressive submissions. It was all allowed in this style, encompassing a wide range of influences that laid the foundation for future Brazilian MMA.
The Rise Of Luta Livre
In the 1930s, one top fighter began to emerge. He was a man by the name of Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem. Tatu, meaning “armadillo” in English, started fighting as a catch wrestler as a teenager and became known as one of the most important men for this Luta Livre. He was constantly challenging others to fight him and was continuously defeating them. One of his most famous challenges in 1940 would set the tone for a fierce rivalry that would extend for decades.
Luta Livre And Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
That brings us now to the wild rivalry between Luta Livre and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which we can refer to as BJJ, began when a Scottish family named Gracie came to Brazil and married into the Brazilian upper class. The family would become the greatest legacy in BJJ and pass the sport down through the family for generations. You can know more about this in the video below.
The First Challenge
That brings us back to 1940 when Luta Livre’s Hatu and George Gracie faced off in a challenge. In this much-hyped, Vale Tudo, no-gi fight, Hatem managed to submit the prominent Gracie and claimed victory for Luta Livre.
This was not only important in terms of sport, but in terms of what the victory represented. The Gracies represented Brazil’s upper class, those of European descent and typically with a light complexion. To train in this style, you needed money to access the in-demand trainers and the required gi uniform.
On the other hand, Luta Livre was a more accessible version of the sport with little to no cost to participate. This style was usually taken up by the Brazilians of African descent, with darker complexions. To see Luta Livre take victory over BJJ through real fighting skill and not through affluence or social power was invigorating to those in the Luta Livre camp.
Keep in mind the time that these challenges were occurring in. In the 1940s and 1950s around the world, racism, separation, and socioeconomic division were still very much the norm. In this particular moment, a sportsman rivalry that highlighted real-life disparities was particularly powerful.
Intensified Rivalry and Subsequent Popularity
So, the rivalry exploded. Fans on each side would instigate incidents on the street while the biggest names from both camps would face off in challenges that added fuel to the flame. Let’s have a look at a few other high-stakes matches between the Gracies and the Luta Livre crew.
This time, it was Euclides Pereira who was to face a Gracie in a Tudo Vale challenge. In 1968, Pereira and Carlson Gracie fought for 50 long minutes, causing Gracie to suffer a break to the nose and other injuries around his eye. Pereira claimed victory in the 4th round, creating another electrifying victory for the Luta Livre discipline.
The Beginning of the End
However, the 1980s was the peak of popularity for Luta Livre. Towards the end of the decade and into the nineties, however, brought a few rough moments for the discipline. This was around the time when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the United States began to emerge and the Gracie family joined in with this new North American venture.
A Handful of Sand and A Smack Across the Face
Two other specific incidents In Brazil damaged the upward climb of Luta Livre. One is the famous altercation between Hugo Duarte of Luta Livre and Rickson Gracie of BJJ. They allegedly ran into each other on the beach one day in Rio and so began one of the most legendary challenges in Brazilain grappling history.
It’s hard to know exactly what has happened that day, even though there were people there recording it. The recordings have been edited by the Gracies to be used as marketing materials, so it’s impossible to know both sides of the story. However, two things have become iconic from this fight, whether or not they are entirely true.
The first iconic moment is when Gracie offered his hand to Duarte in a friendly gesture but flipped this into a smack across the face. The second is when Gracie allegedly grabbed a handful of sand and threw it in the face of Duarte. Whether or not the fight was fair, which fans of Luta Livre would insist that it wasn’t, this was considered a victory for Gracie and BJJ.
The Final Challenge
The next monumental event was the 1997 event called the Pentagon Combat. This event had very real implications for the decade that followed–the complete banning of MMA from Rio de Janeiro.
So, what happened? This event had been designed to showcase a wide range of fighters from both Luta Livre and BJJ disciplines. The headlining fight was set to be between Eugenio Tadeu from the Luta Livre side and Renzo Gracie from the BJJ camp. However, this match would never be seen to completion and no victor would ever be announced.
The rivalry between the two groups, which had been going on for decades at this point, was so deep-seated not just between fights but with the fans. It was not uncommon for fights to break out in the streets of Rio due to the allegiance of fans. However, this night at the Pentagon Combat, tensions exploded and could no longer be contained during the headlining match.
After the fight had begun, the fans became increasingly agitated and excited. This escalated to the point that it could not come back from. It has been reported that Luta Livre fans pushed their way onto the fighting stage, and by doing so, the venue erupted in chaos and pandemonium ensued.
Somehow, according to the story, Renzo Gracie got kicked in the face, which only made the situation worse and more explosive. This added fuel to the flame for the BJJ fans that were becoming equally outraged and expressive about it. After this violent altercation that shut down the event, MMA gatherings of this kind were to be outlawed in Rio for the next decade.
Luta Livre’s Fall
Unfortunately, this only continued to push Luta Livre out of the mainstream. From the defeat on the beaches of Rio to the perceived violence and chaos of the Pentagon incident, the reputation of the discipline was not strong enough to compete in the popularity contest that BJJ was winning. Especially as many BJJ stars went to the USA to participate in the UFC, Luta Livre could not keep up.
However, this is not to say their legacy has been lost. Luta Livre has undoubtedly influenced how MMA has developed in Brazil. Being such a powerhouse for fighters, any influence felt in Brazil is certainly felt worldwide. Even though Luta Livre may not be a household name anymore today, it has certainly shaped the martial arts that we do know around the world.
How To Get Started In Luta Livre Today
Because Luta Livre doesn’t have the same mainstream popularity as its closely related rival Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, it may be more difficult to locate a master trainer in your area or even access the same amount of information as other disciplines have. However, that does not mean that you can’t take some steps to get started today.
Luta Livre’s combination of aggressive takedowns and submissions with added striking makes it appealing to fighters from all different disciplines. Since it utilizes so many different moves, it’s important to lay some foundation in each of these areas. Let’s take a look at how you can start to lay that foundation.
Luta Livre For MMA
When you start your fight, you will begin with stand-up fighting, as you see in boxing or Muay Thai. You’re on your feet, needing some solid footwork and some strong, speedy punches and kicks. Taking Muay Thai classes or even some boxing will start to build these necessary skills.
In order to strike effectively, you are going to need to increase your power behind each punch or kick as well as the speed. Regular practice and sparring with as many different people as you can will give you plenty of practice, improving your striking skills. This means regularly practicing how to deliver these strikes, as you can do in combination with a punching bag and a real-life partner.
However, once you start practicing with a partner, you will quickly realize that it’s not just about landing blows, but how to protect yourself from the ones coming back to you. This means learning the corresponding counter-strikes to develop in order to properly respond to what is happening on the mat.
The other set of skills you will need to begin creating a foundation for is your ground fighting abilities. Luta Livre takes huge influence from England’s catch wrestling, where they understand that most fights go to the ground eventually, so excellent ground fighting skills are a must.
However, the missing piece between the standing fight and the ground fight is the takedown. You will need to learn and drill different takedown moves, or the moves you use to take your opponent down to the mat. This is where we see the biggest influence of Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
And of course, if you’re learning how to do something to your opponent, you are also in need of learning how to defend against that attack when it is being done to you. Takedown defense is another area of practice you will begin to understand as your training goes on.
Once you have your opponent on the ground, now it’s time for the range of moves Luta Livre is so famous for. There is a wide range of locks and chokes that are typically not allowed in other forms of grappling. This form is famous for an emphasis on leg locks, meaning you will spend plenty of time drilling these types of holds. As you progress with your training, you can continue to build on your skills of chokes and holds that will increase your abilities on the ground.
Join A Luta Livre Gym
You may be wondering now– well, how do I get started with all of these necessary skills? A great first step is joining a gym. If you have a specific Luta Livre gym in your area, you are in good shape to train with fighters experienced in this discipline. They will be able to guide you through the blend of skills necessary to engage in this aggressive grappling form.
However, as we’ve mentioned before, due to the lack of current mainstream popularity or perhaps your geographical location, it might not be possible for you to train with someone who is officially a Luta Livre trainer. If you can’t find something clearly defined as “Luta Livre,” it doesn’t mean you have to delay your dreams of getting started.
Most modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) gyms will be able to guide you through the mix of styles you need in order to get started developing your skills. Since you can think of Luta Livre as an early version of Brazilian MMA, you should be able to work with your local trainer to be guided through the drills and practice you need to encompass the range of necessary skills.
It’s so important to be in the physical presence of a teacher who can help you adjust your technique and catch your bad habits before they become too practiced. Practicing in a gym will also give you plenty of opportunities to practice with a partner. Training for any type of martial art is not just about what you can do on your own, but how you can respond to the other person in that particular moment.
Practicing with as many people as possible is a great way to keep developing your reflexes and skills. Naturally, as you improve, seek out partners that continue to be at the right level for you. As you continue practicing with skilled other fighters, your skill level will naturally increase as well through practice.
Online Luta Livre Academies and Resources
It’s clear that you cannot learn any kind of fighting style from watching videos alone. Without a real-life teacher to observe you and adjust you, it’s very easy to continue practicing a move incorrectly, creating much larger problems for yourself down the line. It is simply imperative that you need to be practicing physically, face to face, and receiving feedback on a regular basis from a qualified teacher.
However, that is not to say there is nothing you can do outside of the gym as a way to supplement. There is a vast amount of online resources that you can access from home that can help you understand concepts better and help you fill in gaps in your knowledge.
There are plenty of academies online that have created professional-grade training videos to instruct their students on the best form and practice of Luta Livre techniques. You can also find a variety of YouTube videos you can access freely from highly skilled fighters. By watching the videos, understanding the explanation, and seeing the move in action, you can absorb information and understanding you can apply when you head back to the gym.
This is a good idea as you begin training and you start to understand your own personal weaknesses. For example, if you are taking a class with other students and there is a move that you seem to be struggling with, but the rest of the class has moved on from, this would be a great move to study online. You would be able to focus your attention on your weak areas, spending more time developing the skills that need your extra time and attention.
If you have more experience and technical skills, you may still consider some online study not just for yourself, but for the experience of how this knowledge is passed on in a learning environment. This would be beneficial for you if you are considering becoming an instructor one day. By seeing a model of how to pass on your own experience, you will be better equipped to help your future students.
Luta Livre Instructional DVDs
There are also a few good luta livre instructionals available on bjjfanatics.com as well. Though there is not an extensive list there are a few highly rated instructional. Here are some examples!
Luta Livre Concepts: Basic submissions by Nicolas Renier
One of the best things you can add to your grappling game from luta livre is submissions. Even if you are familiar with submissions from other grappling arts, these can help you have an advantage.
You will learn submissions that will catch your BJJ partners off guard. Nicolas Renier is an excellent teacher and an ADCC legend.
Luta Livre Concepts: Attacking the Guard by Nicolas Renier
Another great instructional by Nicolas Reiner. This DVD will not only teach you to pass the guard, but it will also teach you to attack the guard. This is a great skill to learn, especially when rolling with BJJ players.
Luta Livre Guard Passing by Thomas Loubersanes
Thomas Loubersanes is simply a beast when it comes to no-gi grappling. This DVD will teach you some amazing guard passes for no-gi grappling. This aggressive passing style will help you out grapple the guard players at your school.
Getting In Shape
Besides studying, there is still plenty you can do when you are out of the gym in order to benefit your training. Fighting takes an incredible amount of energy, strength, willpower, and stamina to get through a match that may only match a few minutes. If you spend the time building up your body in the appropriate ways, you will have more to draw from when you are in the midst of a fight.
Make sure you have a healthy mix of cardio workouts and some high-intensity workouts as well. By adding a few runs into your week and the occasional HIIT workout or sprint, you are getting your body ready to go further and for longer on the mat. Now is a good time as well to check what you’re putting into your body for fuel.
Doing a simple check to make sure you are drinking enough water and eating a fresh, nutritious diet will help you maximize all of the work you are doing in and out of the gym.
Brazil & Camps Around the World
Whether or not you have access to a real Luta Live master in your region, you might enjoy the idea of using your next vacation to deepen your practice and skills. In many countries, Luta Livre camps and workshops are organized where fighters can come together, learn new skills and practice, and compete with each other.
These types of programs are offered all over the world, featuring masters from Luta Livre, who will work with you in the discipline you wish to improve in.
Depending on your situation and location, you may consider a short program in an area of your country, or perhaps to Brazil itself, where Luta Livre started. By spending your next holiday in Rio De Janeiro at one of the original Luta Livre gyms, you will not only gain technical skills but the cultural context that the sport was born out of.
Getting Your Mind Ready
An easily overlooked piece of getting started is the preparation you must be willing to do for your mind. Part of the training is getting your mind ready for what your body is preparing to do. Stepping up to your opponent without letting fear overtake you is a mental process and one that is best initiated before your first fight. Preparing yourself mentally to not give in to intimidation is a big piece as well for beginning this sport.
By reading this article, it means you are not only ready to begin the physical preparation needed for this martial art, but you have also equipped yourself with a deeper understanding of the sport. Understanding where Luta livre comes from, how it has fought to prove itself, and the incredible grit and spirit that its fighters had will give you a whole experience as you begin to be one of those fighters yourself.