We are all familiar with the “Gracie Version” of the story. Mitsuyo Maeda travelled to Brazil, taught Carlos Gracie and then Helio magically learned and optimized it, inventing a bunch of new techniques, creating Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Through the work of a handful of dedicated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu historians, I hope people are now seeing the larger and more complex story.
Multiple Japanese Judo practitioners traveled to Brazil to teach and compete, not only Maeda, but also notably Geo Omori and the Ono brothers. Other Japanese immigrants, while having backgrounds in Judo also came with experience and exposure to other Japanese arts (Soshihiro Satake to Sumo and Takeo Yano to Japanese Jiu-Jitsu). We also have seen that Maeda and other traveling Judo performers were exposed to Japanese Jiu-Jitsu practitioners as well as European and American wrestlers as they moved from country to country before arriving in Brazil.
It has also been demonstrated that the art was not solely transmitted from Maeda directly to the Gracies and that the Gracies did not invent the vast majority of the techniques we would consider to be Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Many of the sweeps, passes, guards and submissions that we use today, pre-date the Gracies. When new moves and variations were invented, contributions were not made just by the Gracies, but by other Brazilians as well.
Even with that expanded view, it is easy to view Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a single pipeline that originated in Japan and connected to Brazil. An art that was expanded by Brazilians who learned it from the Japanese. It is all developed along the same linear progression, right?
To take the most accurate view of what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is and how it came together, we cannot overlook the direct contributions of wrestlers.
Yes. Wrestlers. Specifically catch wrestlers.
Catch is a submission form of grappling that originated in the United Kingdom during the late 1800’s. It developed during a time when there were multiple formats of European wrestling that were vying for popularity. There were styles considered “proper or upright wrestling” that focused solely on takedowns, such as: the Cumberland and Westmorland style, the Devon style and Cornwall style. There was also the Lancashire style that included ground fighting, submissions and pins. The Lancashire variant would split into two evolutionary paths. One would remove strikes and submissions and develop into amateur wrestling (aka folkstyle/collegiate) and one path would develop into catch and then ultimately into pro-wrestling.
At the end of the 1800’s European catch wrestlers would arrive in America and perform catch as part of traveling carnivals and circuses. They along with other athletes would be part of what was called the “At Show” or “Athletic Show”. It was a side event, usually accompanied by “Freak” or “Geek” shows that traveled along with the carnivals and circuses. In the early twentieth century, catch would gain popularity across the US.
In traditional catch, competitors did not grab clothing, performed submissions and in some formats, could also win by pinfall. Some catch matches also involved limited striking.
The names of some catch wrestlers in Brazil keep appearing during the Foundational Era in our story. These individuals were not just competition for Jiu-Jitsu fighters. They did not exist in separate training camps and just meet Jiu-Jitsu fighters in the ring and then disappear into the night.
These wrestlers were often trainers, training partners, co-promoters, competitors or blood rivals to the Gracies. Their relationships would often cycle through the various aforementioned phases, sometimes on a week-by-week basis. The primary catalyst for the deterioration or improvement of a particular relationship would often be the Gracies view as to whether a particular catch wrestler was a help to or a threat to the Gracie Academy.
In the article below I will briefly summarize the lives and contributions of three of the catch wrestlers who were most significant to the development of what we consider Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Note: In the article below, I will often use the terms catch wrestling and Luta Livre interchangeably.
Manoel Rufino Dos Santos
Born in 1900, Manoel Rufino Dos Santos, was perhaps the first Brazilian catch wrestler. While there is little verifiable information about his early life, it is believed that he left Brazil at a young age, stowing away on a ship headed for New York. Rufino did not know any English and when he arrived in NY, he sought shelter at the local YMCA.
While at the YMCA, he would get a job and be introduced to early American catch wrestling. Rufino perhaps participated in as many as fifty catch wrestling matches while in the US. He would then join the US Navy and be deployed to the Mediterranean. There he would get more opportunities to train and compete in Spain, France, Holland and England.
Rufino would then leave the Navy returning to the mainland US where he would earn a degree in physical education. He would then return to his native Brazil where he would dedicate his life to teaching physical education and catch wrestling at the YMCA and the Naval school, where he was head of physical education.
Exactly when Rufino became aware of the Gracies is unclear, but it is confirmed that he did attend a professional fight card where the Gracies competed. The event was Jiu-Jitsu vs Capoeira and held on July 3, 1931 at the Botafogo Football Club in Rio. George, Oswaldo and Helio all had matches, while Carlos performed a demonstration of Jiu-Jitsu. George won his fight via disqualification. Helio and Oswaldo appear to have won as well, but details were never published. Rufino was not impressed with the Gracies’ performances and the brothers’ demands for restrictions to rulesets prior to the fights.
By some accounts, Rufino entered the ring after the final match and challenged the Gracies to fight. Others state that after the event, Carlos entered the ring and stated he could beat any man in three minutes or less. Rufino then supposedly entered the ring and accepted the challenge.
Other accounts state that Rufino challenged the Gracies via a newspaper article a week later. Regardless, Rufino was quite vocal about his doubt of the Gracies’ fighting ability and their method of negotiating rulesets to favor themselves.
Carlos agreed to accept the challenge and after many rounds of negotiations regarding the ruleset, the fight with Rufino was set. The fight was scheduled for five 5-minute rounds with one minute rest between rounds. The match would occur under no striking, Submission Grappling rules. Carlos likely wore a Gi and Rufino likely wore grappling trunks. The match occurred on August 22, 1931 at the Estadio de Fluminense in Rio.
Accounts in newspapers after the match were largely consistent. Rufino dominated the first two rounds. In the third round, both fighters either fell out of the ring or were in imminent danger of falling out of the ring. The referee called for a halt to the action and Rufino stopped. Carlos took advantage of his opponent’s disengagement and tried choking Rufino. The referee, noting the foul, halted the action again and Carlos left the ring in protest. The fight was delayed for around an hour with officials trying to get Carlos to return to the ring to restart the fight. By some accounts, Carlos never returned. Other accounts state Carlos did restart the fight after the hour break, but then left the ring again and did not return. Regardless, with Carlos refusing to re-enter the ring, Rufino was declared the winner.
Rufino would continue to taunt Carlos for nearly a year after the Carlos match. He would speak to the media and claim Carlos was a coward, a clown and a fraud for fleeing the ring and refusing to continue the match with him. He would also criticize the restrictive rules Carlos demanded; asking why Carlos was afraid to face him under longer time limits?
In July of 1932, a year after their match occurred, Carlos and Rufino got into a face-to-face argument. The two happened to be at the same café at the same time, the Café Mouisco. Rufino appears to have sat on Carlos’ hat which was left on a chair and the two men began jawing at each other.
On October 18, 1932, Rufino would continue to prod Carlos, publishing a letter of thirteen questions for him in the newspaper, Diario de Noticias. The questions were not designed to flatter Carlos. Amongst them:
· Why a month after the match, did you request the officials have the fight ruled a no contest?
· Why didn’t you take my student’s challenge (Manoel Lima)?
· Why didn’t you take catch wrestler’s Roberto Ruhmann’s repeated challenges?
· Why did you want to have a rest period between rounds?
· Why did you insist on 5-minute rounds instead of 20-minute rounds?
· Why did you originally want only 3-minute rounds?
· Why did you not continue to fight? Were you afraid?
· Why do you challenge other fighters on behalf of your brothers instead of fighting yourself?
He ended the letter stating Carlos knew nothing about Luta Livre.
The letter incensed the Gracies. The evening after the article was published, someone (presumably one of the Gracies) called the Tijuca Tennis Club to confirm when Rufino would be arriving that evening. Carlos, Helio, George and Oswaldo then waited in a car outside the sports club. When Rufino arrived, the Gracies ambushed him.
Oswaldo remained in the car while Helio, Carolos and George attacked and beat Rufino on the street. It has been noted that a “steel box” was used by the Gracies to beat Rufino, but Robert Drysdale feels this was not a literal metal box, but a reference to brass knuckles. The Gracies then fled in their car. You can read more about this incident and the similar Gracie attack on João Baldi that occurred earlier that year in my Steel Box article.
Rufino was hospitalized and the police opened an investigation. The brothers were charged with multiple crimes. The Gracies mounted a legal defense that appeared to contradict itself.
· The attack was in defense of their honor
· They did not perform the attack and there was no evidence that they did
· And if they did attack Rufino, they would not need three people to beat him up
The trial of the Gracies was scheduled to occur in 1933. Details of the court proceedings have not been found, but on May 24, 1934, the newspapers announced the Gracies were convicted of crimes related to the Rufino attack. Carlos, George and Helio were to all be sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
On May 28, the Gracies reported to the authorities to begin their incarceration. On May 30, as the fallout of the incident continued, Helio and Carlos were formally terminated from their roles as Jiu-Jitsu instructors for the Policia Especial.
The Gracies were able to leverage their growing cultural influence and celebrity and utilized a student to help resolve the situation. Former, private Gracie student and prominent feminist poet, Rosalina Coelho Lisboa launched a petition to pardon the Gracies. Lisboa as well as the Gracie brothers happened to be friends of the Brazilian President, Getulio Vargas. On June 6, 1934, after spending ten days in jail, Carlos, George and Helio were granted a presidential pardon.
The injuries suffered by Rufino during the ambush were career ending. Not much additional information about his later life has yet been discovered.
Some feel that the intense rivalry between Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre that reached a boiling point in Rio during the 1980’s and 1990’s stems directly from these initial incidents between the Gracies and Rufino in the 1930’s.
Orlando “Dudu” Américo Da Silva
Orlando Américo Da Silva also known as “Dudu” was a Brazilian catch wrestler. His training lineage is unclear and he may have started fighting professionally as early as 1928. While that is yet to be confirmed, it is known that Dudu moved from São Paulo to Rio in 1932. According to Dudu, while he was in São Paulo, he had a two-hour match with Geo Omori that ended in a draw. He also claimed to have victories over three Omori students: Carlos Equido, Arthur Requietto and Gatti( or Gotto) in Sport Jiu-Jitsu matches.
Additionally, Dudu claimed to have submitted National Luta Livre Champion Archemides Rogerio and had had other No-GI Submission grappling victories over William Toupsou and Theodurio Antonelli. In total, upon his arrival in Rio, Dudu had said he had over eighty No-Gi Submission Grappling and Jiu-Jitsu matches under his belt, including a Sport Jiu-Jitsu win over Ismail Haki.
Dudu also said it was difficult for him to find opponents that would face him, so in order to make ends meet, he would sometimes participate in worked matches and lose intentionally. Whether this was true or a way of Dudu explaining away losses, is unknown.
With Dudu attempting to book matches in 1930’s Rio, it was inevitable for him to come across the Gracies. In December 1932 Dudu would partner with George to help him prepare for a match with Fred Ebert. That match ended up being cancelled, but Dudu remained with the Gracies, training Helio and Oswaldo so they could perform better against larger Luta Livre fighters.
Their partnership continued into 1933, when Dudu, while training with George and Oswaldo, at the Gracie Academy would accidentally break Oswaldo’s leg in three places. The incident occurred on January 11 and sent Oswaldo to the hospital. At some point during this year, the relationship between Dudu and the Gracies deteriorated. Whether this was due to the Oswaldo injury or other factors is unknown.
This culminated in a number of matches against the Gracies. The first being a No-Gi Submission Grappling match against George on January 19, 1934. The match was scheduled for ten 5-minute rounds and ended in a draw. Many observers felt Dudu dominated the match.
Dudu would then rematch with Geo Omori. This fight would be Vale Tudo and took place on March 24. Dudu weighed 80KG (176 Pounds) and Omori weighed 68KG (150 Pounds). The match took place in Estadio Brasil with Dudu winning via Headlock/Choke in three minutes.
A rematch with George Gracie occurred on November 3 at Estadio Brasil. Dudu weighed in at 82KG (180 Pounds) and George at 62KG (137 Pounds). George entered the ring, but then refused to compete. The dispute may have been over the ruleset. The match was to be under Vale Tudo rules and it is believed that George did not agree with a rule allowing “forearm blows” (maybe elbows?). Dudu then became quite upset with the Gracies’ behavior and said they were weak and worthless. He then claimed he could beat any Gracie under any condition.
Helio accepted the challenge and said that Dudu’s own family would not recognize his face after the fight based upon the beating Helio was planning to give him. The match was scheduled for February 2, 1935 at Estadio Brasil. Dudu weighed 85KG (187 Pounds) and Helio weighed 66KG (145 Pounds). The Vale Tudo match was scheduled for five 20-minute rounds. After around thirteen minutes of attempting Ground and Pound from within Helio’s guard, Dudu became exhausted. The referee stood them up and Helio kicked him in the ribs and Dudu asked the referee to stop the fight.
Dudu would die three years later in 1938.
Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem
Euclydes Hatem was born in Rio de Janeiro on September 16, 1914. He was of Lebanese descent and gained the nickname of “Tatu” or armadillo when he was child due to his round and chubby physique.
His brother Eduardo encouraged young Euclydes to exercise in order to lose weight. He began training at his local YMCA (known in Portuguese as “Associação de Cristã de Moços” in 1928 at fourteen years old. First, he tried rowing, but then in 1930, a sixteen-year-old Tatu began taking classes in catch wrestling.
Tatu would eventually develop a large frame and usually compete between 94KG (207 Pounds) and 114KG (250 Pounds).
His primary trainers were Manoel Rufino dos Santos and Aloisio Bandeira de Melo.
Melo was often referred to as “Professor Loanzi” and claimed to have trained under Mitsuyo Maeda. I am unable to confirm Loanzi’s contention about being a Maeda student, but it is possible. As we have seen with others in our story, it was common for people to either exaggerate or outright fabricate connections to Maeda to help promote themselves. Loanzi may have also been a trainer of George Gracie at some point.
Tatu would often compete under the early Luta Livre rules of the day. This ruleset usually included 3 second pinfalls, knockouts, submissions and 20-second count outs as methods of victory. Some matches included strikes, but closed fist punching and knee strikes were often prohibited. Yu can see how today’s pro-wrestling ruleset evolved from this catch/Luta Livre approach to competition.
He began competing, at least as early as 1933, when a nineteen-year-old Tatu would win an amateur Luta Livre tournament. He would have numerous Luta Livre matches between 1933 and 1936, only losing on rare occasions. Tatu’s first loss was to a man named, “Bogma”. In 1935, Tatu would lose again, this time in a forty-minute match against a grappler who wore mask and competed under the name “Black Mask’. It is believed that the athlete competing as the Black Mask was none other than Wladek Zbyszko. Zbyszko was a famous Polish catch wrestler who competed across the globe. He weighed approximately 200 pounds and would have a draw with Helio and submit George in 1934. It is believed he concealed his face and name for the Tatu match due to contractual prohibitions related to competing in certain territories.
After winning the Rio de Janeiro Luta Livre Cup championship in 1936, Tatu would turn professional and begin being trained by Orlando “Dudu” Américo Da Silva.
It was also in 1936, when Tatu helped Takeo Yano prepare for his match against Helio that resulted in a draw. The following year, Tatu and Yano would face off in a No-Gi Submission Grappling match (Luta Livre). Yano was outweighed by around sixty pounds and would lose via choke in the third round.
The two would rematch two months later. This time, Tatu and Yano would square off under Sport Jiu-Jitsu rules. In this match, Yano was able to take advantage of his expertise with the Gi and throw Tatu, injuring the catch wrestler’s shoulder. Yano seized upon the opportunity and sunk in a collar choke on his injured adversary for the submission win. Tatu was quite upset with the loss. After having surgery to repair his shoulder, he stated he would never compete in the Gi again.
In 1940, Tatu would with the World Championships of Catch held in Belo Horizonte. The referee of his final match of the tournament would be Oswaldo Gracie. Oswaldo appears to have been a friend and training partner of Tatu and the two can be seen in several pictures together.
In 1942, Tatu would travel to Porto Alegre to have a match against George Gracie. Tatu dominated the match winning by submission. There is some confusion over the details, however. Some accounts claim George lost via Americana from side control. Others state that George survived the Americana attempt and then succumbed to a Rear Naked Choke. Some accounts say the match ended in the second round, while others state the third round.
Similar to Maeda, Tatu would travel across Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and Europe to compete in additional matches. He supposedly never lost during that time.
Yano and Tatu would meet for a third time ten years later in 1947 with Tatu winning this match via choke.
Tatu would continue to compete, eventually retiring in the 1950’s. During this time, Tatu would focus on teaching the next generation Luta Livre. It was also during this time, that allegedly, a young Waldemar Santana showed up unannounced at Tatu’s gym and challenged him to a match. Supposedly, Tatu, who would have been in his forties at the time, threw Waldemar to the ground and tapped him via choke.
Tatu’s time as a coach was equally as important as his time as a competitor. He would codify his style into what we now consider Luta Livre and teach it to many students, notably: Fausto Brunocilla, Carlos Brunocilla, Mauro Gonzaga, Hugo Mello, Ricardo Calmon, Baianinho, Alvaro Alemao and Rene Bastos.
While Tatu would pass away on September 26, 1984, Fausto and his son Carlos would carry the Luta Livre tradition forward, with Carlos Brunocilla eventually teaching Hugo Duarte, Eugenio Tadeu, Denilson Maia, Marcelo Mendes, Flávio Molina, Marco Ruas, Marcelo Bertolutti, Bosco Lima, Bigu, Marcelo Nogueira and others. Many of these fighters became archrivals of the Gracies and their students in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Other Luta Livre fighters, such as Alexandre Cacareco and Alexandre Pequeno, can trace their lineages back to Brunocilla and therefore back to Tatu, Dudu and Rufino.
So, not only did Maeda, Satake, Omori and others have exposure to catch wrestlers in their travels to the US and Europe, but Brazilians would also learn catch wrestling and then teach it directly to the Gracies, Takeo Yano and others.
We can no longer view Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as just early Kodokan Judo, but an eclectic mix of proven styles that developed over time. Catch was not isolated to the United States and Europe but an integral part of the development of our art.
Euclydes "Tatu" Hatem gets his hand raised after a Catch Wrestling match by referee Oswaldo Gracie.
No-Gi Submission Grappling was often called Catch at first in Brazil. Over time, it would be called Luta Livre.
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