Simply put, Murilo Bustamante has been my idol in Jiu-Jitsu for almost 30 years now. I remember first seeing him compete on the “Gracies in Action Part 2” videotape. It was 1995 when I saw it, but the fight featured was his legendary match against Luta Livre fighter Marcelo Mendes that occurred in 1991.
As I built out my collection of Jiu-Jitsu videos in the 19, I then acquired Cantão and the Lightning Bolt Cup Sport Jiu-Jitsu championships. These events, which occurred in the 1980’s, were some of the first Sport Jiu-Jitsu championships to be filmed. My VHS cassettes were copies of copies of copies. There was no audio and the video quality was grainy black and white with frequent interruptions of tracking bars moving across the screen. There, even though I would not know his name yet, I saw Murilo win match after match.
I was drawn to Murilo and his Jiu-Jitsu for many reasons.
At the time, myself and most of the other Americans training had only really been exposed to Gracie family members. Seeing a non-Gracie who earned his Black Belt from the Gracies was inspiring and gave us hope that we too, one day, could become skilled in Jiu-Jitsu even though we were not born Gracies. The idea of us eventually becoming Black Belts, however, was still completely alien to many of us.
I always had a taller and lankier body type. When I was in high school, I was 6 feet tall and wrestled at 135 pounds. I used to feel too tall and too skinny to be a good grappler. Murilo had a taller and leaner frame than a lot of other BJJ competitors and it was great to see someone succeed in grappling despite having what I perceived as disadvantages.
As time continued, I would see Murilo successfully compete in MARS, Mundials, the UFC, ADCC and Pride. His Jiu-Jitsu was amazing to me. He was able to successfully compete at the highest levels without needing to modify his style. It was not flashy. It was utilitarian and pragmatic in the best possible sense. His Jiu-Jitsu just worked. Regardless of the opponent. Regardless of the ruleset.
Over the years, I would also see how Murilo conducted himself in interviews and witness his reactions to the various dramas within the community. Unlike many of the more flamboyant and hyperbolic characters in Jiu-Jitsu, Murilo always conveyed a stoic and serious demeanor. I always appreciated and respected that.
They say, never meet your idols. You will be disappointed. They are not who you think they are.
After spending hours with Murilo conducting this interview, I can tell you that is not the case.
As many of you know, I had always refused to have social media. I finally relented a few months ago. While I am still not a fan of social media, it has allowed me to connect with many of the important figures in Jiu-Jitsu that I would not normally have access to.
I had always wanted to interview Murilo. To sit down with him and not only hear his story firsthand, but to also tell him what his Jiu-Jitsu meant to me. I took a chance and DM’d him.
To my surprise, he responded immediately and agreed to the interview.
Over the course of around four hours, we discussed everything, his biography, philosophy, opinions, and a lot of behind-the-scenes details I had not previously heard.
I have condensed those conversations into the article below. I hope you enjoy.
Murilo was born in 1966 in Arpoador, a beachside neighborhood located between Ipanema and Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. The area is famous for being the birthplace of surfing in Brazil.
As the fifth of five children in his family, Murilo grew up idolizing his older brothers. Marcelo was nine years older and Mauricio was eight years older than Murilo. His brothers were very much into surfing and Murilo developed a passion for it as well. This interest in surfing would remain with Murilo to this day.
At seven years old, while in primary school, Murilo got his first exposure to grappling. The school had an in-house Judo program and Murilo would train there for less than a year.
His two older brothers also began training Jiu-Jitsu. It was the mid-1970’s and they were training at the legendary academy at Figueiredo Magalhães. This academy was shared by Carlson and Rolls and would serve as the origin of numerous teams, including: Carlson Gracie Team, Brazilian Top Team, Alliance, Gracie Barra, Nova União and American Top Team. Murilo’s two brothers would ultimately earn Black Belts with Marcelo receiving his from Carlson and Mauricio later receiving one from Murilo himself.
In 1976, when Murilo was ten years old, his brothers took him to watch his first Sport Jiu-Jitsu competition. While it was a small tournament by today’s standards, it was considered large at the time. There, Murilo would get the opportunity to see Rolls compete and win. Motivated to follow in his brothers’ footsteps, Murilo would begin his BJJ training the next year.
The Figueiredo Magalhães academy had two small mats on the first floor and a third, larger mat on the second floor. Carlson taught on the large mat on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings, while Rolls taught on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Murilo started out in the kids’ program under instructor Carlos Alberto. The classes were similar to today in format. The children focused on Street Self-Defense and Sport Jiu-Jitsu. They always wore gi’s and classes followed the familiar format of instruction, drilling and sparring.
Murilo would earn a Yellow Belt under Carlos Alberto before transitioning to the adults’ program as a teenager. There he would begin taking classes under Carlson and his top Black Belts.
Murilo had not hit his growth spurt yet and was still a shorter and chubbier kid at this time.
His family apartment was closer to Arpoador beach than Carlson’s academy and young Murilo would check the weather and waves daily. If the surfing conditions were favorable, he would go to the beach. If the waves were lacking, he would go to the academy and train.
When Murilo was 15, his parents divorced and he moved into a house with his mother and his brothers. His passion for surfing continued and he preferred to surf rather than to train Jiu-Jitsu. Young Murilo even dreamed of one day becoming a professional surfer. While Murilo was a skilled surfer, he was not the best competitor and did not have the funds nor sponsorship required to go pro.
His mother’s new house was closer to Carlson’s academy than the beach. Accordingly, Murilo began spending more time at the academy than surfing.
His goal at this time was not yet to be the best BJJ competitor or student, but it was at this age that he experienced his first Jiu-Jitsu competition. It was 1983, and there were not many Jiu-Jitsu competitions. Murilo would get his first exposure to competing by traveling to Niteroi and winning the Blue Belt division of the Sport Jiu-Jitsu tournament there. Murilo would be encouraged by the win, become motivated to intensify his training and begin to compete a lot more.
Murilo, while still a teenager, would be identified as a good training partner by many of the senior students at the time, such as Carlos Rosado, Fernando “Pinduka” Guimarães, Otávio “Peixotinho” de Oliveira, Antonio Buchaul and the Oliveira brothers (Carlos and José). As such, he would spend a significant amount of his training time, rolling live with the best Carlson’s team had to offer. This was an incredibly important time for Murilo’s development. As he was less skilled than these senior training partners, he would be forced to be almost completely defensive. Accordingly, this would sharpen Murilo’s defensive skillset. This is most notable in Murilo’s many later MMA matches, where he was hard to get into a bad position or hurt. Additionally, Murilo would learn many life lessons on the mat regarding resiliency, patience and perseverance while working to survive against the senior students.
Murilo took the opportunity while training with the senior students to start learning their styles of Jiu-Jitsu and to ask them their approach to various positions. As he continued to be submitted, it educated him on what people were doing and how he could negate their attacks in future matches.
As Murilo intensified his training and rapidly increased his skill, he would begin competing at every Blue Belt event available. While at Blue, he would win every weight division and absolute bracket that he entered. It was at this time, he would meet another young man who would also go on to become a legendary competitor as well, Amaury Bitetti. The two would grow very close and join Carlson’s elite competition squad, the Gold Team.
At eighteen years old, Murilo was enrolled in the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro to become an engineer. He did not enjoy it and ended up dropping out to focus on his Jiu-Jitsu career. Shortly after that, he would work at clothing store Cantão as a salesman for six months, before spending the next two years working for Company which was the largest retail clothing company in Rio.
At this time, Murilo would connect with legendary Boxing trainer, Claudio Coehlo. While Murilo would begin his training under Claudio in 1984, it was not until 1991 when he started to intensify his Boxing training. The two would develop a relationship that withstands to this day and over time Murilo would develop strong Boxing skills that would give him a distinct advantage in MMA over the one-dimensional grapplers of the era. It was also during this time that Murilo and the other Carlson fighters would incorporate slaps into their Jiu-Jitsu training to simulate Street Self-Defense and Vale Tudo situations. They would often train in this style on Saturdays and then hit the beach after training.
In 1986, when Murilo was 20 years old, Carlson would promote him to Purple Belt. At the end of 1986, Murilo would receive his Brown from Carlson. As was the standard of that time, there was no ceremony, ritual or formal announcement. Carlson would just tell Murilo to come back tomorrow wearing the next belt.
It was during this period that Brazilian companies began sponsoring Sport Jiu-Jitsu tournaments. Due to the entwinement of Brazilian surf and Jiu-Jitsu culture, driven by Carlson and Rolls, it is no surprise that surfing and beachwear companies were the first to see the financial benefit in sponsoring BJJ events. This led to beachwear brand Lightning Bolt hosting tournaments in 1986 (Murilo would win at Purple) and 1987 (Murilo would win at Brown). Cantão would also sponsor an event in 1987 that combined Brown Belts and Black Belts into a single division. Even though Murilo was only a Brown Belt at the time, he would defeat both Brown and Black Belts to win his weight class at the event.
Murilo’s success at these events caught the eye of the owners of Company, who extended him one of their first fighter sponsorships. Murilo had been previously sponsored by Cantão since he was a Blue Belt.
In 1986, Murilo would enroll in Candido Mendes University, this time majoring in Economics. Murilo felt that the class load for a business degree as opposed to engineering, would give him more time to train. At the end of 1987, Murilo would be fired from Company due to a disagreement with the manger and in 1988 he would begin teaching BJJ at the Iate Club Jardim Guanabara, which was close to his house. The sailing club’s acronym is ICJG and the logo would often be seen on Murilo’s fightgear from that period.
Earning the Black Belt and the Early Days of MMA and CBJJF
In March of 1988, a 21-year-old Murilo would be promoted to Black Belt by Carlson. While Murilo wanted to compete his first year at Black Belt, it was not to be. He ended up being sidelined for most of the year with a knee injury.
In 1989, he was fully healed and went on a two-year tear, winning every match except one. During this time, Murilo transitioned to instructing professionally full time. He would teach his classes during the day and then take class at night led by Carlson.
In 1991, the long-running tensions between BJJ and Luta Livre fighters boiled over and caused clashes on the streets when the two camps would cross paths. Leaders from the two styles decided to settle the rivalry and prove which style was best in a special Vale Tudo event. It would take place on August 31, 1991 and feature three BJJ representatives versus three Luta Livre fighters. These matches would eventually be featured on the “Gracies In Action 2” videotape that I mentioned earlier.
BJJ academies were looking for fighters to compete and people were surprised when Murilo volunteered. While he had some street fights as a kid, he was not known as a violent person or brawler. When I asked Murilo why he volunteered, he said he felt that Jiu-Jitsu had given him so much, that this was an opportunity for him to give back and to defend the reputation of Jiu-Jitsu.
Murilo would be joined by Wallid Ismael and Fabio Gurgel to form the BJJ team. The Luta Livre volunteers were Marcelo Mendes, Eugenio Tadeu and Denilson Maia. As Carlson was the Jiu-Jitsu person with the most Vale Tudo experience, he led the team’s training sessions that included many of Carlson’s top athletes as sparring partners.
I leveraged this part of the interview to ask a question that I had always wondered about. In “Gracies in Action 2”, Rorion narrates as highlights from the event are shown. He states that the three BJJ representatives were instructed not to attempt to submit their opponents, but instead to deliver their adversaries savage beatings to prove BJJ’s dominance over Luta Livre. As a teenager, it seemed hardcore and cool to me. As I became more experienced in BJJ, it seemed odd. Were they really told to do that? Or was Rorion improvising a reason why we, as the viewers, were not seeing submissions during the matches? Was he attempting to save face?
Murilo confirmed to me that he was never told to avoid submitting his opponent. It was just that the matches all ended by TKO, with the Luta Livre fighters all fleeing the ring before any of the BJJ representatives had a chance to apply submissions. Murilo’s confirmation has also been corroborated to me by Ricardo Libório, who trained with the team as part of the fight camp.
Leading up to the event, there was significant concern by the media and Brazilian government related to the event. Throughout the 20thcentury, Vale Tudo would often be banned for years at a time by the government or prohibited by the sports commissions due to the extreme violence on display or the associated chaos of the crowds. This was going to be one of the first sanctioned Vale Tudo events in many years and the fighters and organizers were able to get the event permitted by claiming that the event would only feature slaps and not full-on striking.
The fighters knew this was a lie and was only being said publicly to get the event authorized. Regardless of the public statements, the team prepared for full Vale Tudo fights.
The fights were broadcast on Globo TV on Saturday night and with the BJJ representatives winning all three of the fights, Jiu-Jitsu was firmly established as the dominant fighting art in Brazil. The event had a similar impact in Brazil as the first few UFC’s had on the American audience. Many young Brazilians were inspired by what they saw that night and began seeking out BJJ instruction. Several famous names would be part of that group, including a thirteen-year-old Ricardo Arona, who was in attendance in the crowd that night.
Two years later in 1993, the first Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship was held. While various Jiu-Jitsu practitioners had previously referred to themselves as Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Champion, the first, formally organized tournament to crown National Champions occurred in 1993. This event would be the precursor to the 1994 National Championship that would be organized by the newly created Confederação Brasileira de Jiu-Jitsu. The Confederação would eventually evolve into the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF).
Murilo would successfully close out his weight class and the absolute at the 1993 event with his teammate and longtime friend, Amaury Bitetti. This would make Murilo, along with Amaury the first, official Black Belt Brazilian National Open Weight Jiu-Jitsu Champions. At the nationals in 1994, Murilo would win his weight, defeating Leonardo Castello Branco in the final and once again close out the absolute with Amaury.
With the UFC occurring in 1993 and the explosion in worldwide popularity of MMA soon thereafter, Murilo would end up spending much of 1995 training for MMA. He would be offered a potential MMA match with Luta Livre fighter Hugo Duarte (of Rickson beach fight fame), but the fight would never materialize.
He would return to Sport Jiu-Jitsu competition in January of 1996 for the first ever World Jiu-Jitsu Championships. The event was held in Tijuca Tennis Club and Murilo ended up coming in second place in the weight class losing to Fabio Gurgel.
In June of 1996, after the BJJ World Championships, Murilo would re-enter the bare-knuckle Brazilian Vale Tudo arena. He was instead matched up with UFC veteran Joe Charles. The two would fight in the Universal Vale Tudo 2 event. Despite a significant weight disadvantage, Murilo would submit Charles via arm-triangle at the three-minute mark.
In November of the same year, Murilo would compete in his first US based Vale Tudo event. It would also be his first exposure to the single-night tournament format. The promotion was called Martial Arts Reality Superfighting, also known as MARS. In addition to the eight-man tournament bracket the event would feature a superfight between Oleg Taktarov and Renzo Gracie.
It was known that Tom Erikson, the 6’4” 280-pound American Wrestler, World Cup Champion and three-time Olympic Freestyle Wrestling alternate would be on the card. Originally, the manager of the Carlson fight team, Sergio Menteiro, thought Carlos Barreto would be their best representative to enter the tournament. While not the size of Erikson, the 6’4” 230-pound Brazilian was the largest fighter they had and had a 2-0 Vale Tudo record having previously fought on the Universal Vale Tudo 1 & 2 cards.
Murilo, however, wanted to test himself in what he knew would be a very challenging situation and insisted that he enter the tournament instead of Barreto. Carlos was Murilo’s student and Murilo said that he would not permit his student to have a tougher fight than he would have. It was then agreed that Murilo would enter the main card along with Erikson. At this time Carlson was living in Los Angeles, so Murilo spent one month in California training under Carlson to prepare for the MARS tournament.
Murilo would win his first round fight versus Chris Haseman via TKO in one minute and win in the second round versus Juan Mott via TKO in one minute. This would set up the finals of Bustamante versus Erikson. The two would battle for forty minutes before the match was ruled a draw. The match had originally been scheduled for a 30-minute time limit. Ten minutes into the fight, Murilo says the referee told the two fighters it would be a no-time-limit match. However, after thirty minutes of fighting occurred, the officials changed their mind again and declared it would be a forty-minute fight.
Much of the match was Murilo sitting on the mat with Erikson standing and refusing to go anywhere near Murilo. While some consider it a boring fight, I feel it is one of the greatest examples ever documented of the power of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. One of the greatest wrestlers in the world, has a hundred-pound weight advantage over his opponent and is afraid to grapple with him? To me, that showed Jiu-Jitsu’s ability to equalize a fight and provide the smaller fighter an opportunity to survive and even win. While many people talk about those philosophies, Murilo personified it that night.
I asked Murilo a lot about that fight. Leading into it he said he was not intimidated by Erickson’s size as he felt he was adequately prepared. Murilo’s teammates, on the other hand, were quite surprised seeing Erikson in person at the hotel before the event. However, they chose not to share those concerns with Murilo before the fight.
Murilo reiterated that you can’t let your mind take over your emotions and impact your focus on what matters. When we talked about the actual fight, it was one of the few times he became animated during our many discussions. It was clear that this fight took him to the edge and he had to dig deep to endure and to ensure he did not let down himself, Carlson or the BJJ community.
In 1997, Murilo would continue to focus on MMA competition. As I wrote about in my Craig Kukuk interview, Sheik Tahnoun, son of the founder of the United Arab Emirates, was interested in starting a US-based MMA promotion. While that did not come to fruition, the Sheik did start a Brazil-based MMA organization. The league was called Pentagon Combat and the plan was to have an ongoing series of shows, similar to the UFC.
The inaugural event occurred in 1997 and in the lead up to the event, Murilo was approached about fighting on the card. He agreed, and always striving to challenge himself, asked to fight whoever was the best fighter from the US-based organizations. The promotion offered both Frank Shamrock and Jerry Bohlander as possible opponents for Murilo with Bohlander ultimately agreeing to the fight. Murilo won the match, landing an upkick that completely spun Bohlander around. I asked Murilo if upkicks were part of his standard MMA training or if that was more of an improvised technique. He assured me it was something they often practiced and incorporated into training as part of the Carlson Gracie Team.
The fight proceeding Murilo’s was the main event, Renzo Gracie vs Eugenio Tadeu. The fight was a continuation of the BJJ vs Luta Livre rivalry and tensions between the two factions remained high. During the fight, Luta Livre fans climbed up onto the ringside platform and started attacking Renzo through the fence. A full-scale riot broke out with chairs being thrown and at least one pistol being fired. The event was halted, the fight ruled a No Contest and Vale Tudo was banned in Rio for almost ten years.
I asked Murilo about the riot. I assumed he would become animated, emotional or go into vivid detail about the craziness that ensued. Instead, he just shrugged his shoulders and calmly said, “That is the way it was back then between BJJ and Luta Livre teams.”. Classic Murilo.
With no MMA fights on the horizon, Murilo would return to Sport Jiu-Jitsu in 1998, placing third in his weight class and the absolute at the World Championships. The event had moved to July this year and Murilo was appreciative of competing in cooler weather compared to previous years’ having the tournament in January.
It was around this time that Murilo, along with friend and teammate José Mario Sperry would film the Master Series VHS instructional tapes that would be distributed by Paul Viele. The series was very popular and one of the first BJJ tapes sets that focused on techniques and strategies for Sport Jiu-Jitsu assuming your opponent was a competent BJJ practitioner. Up until that point, most BJJ instructionals focused on techniques to apply against an opponent who had no familiarity with BJJ.
I purchased the tapes at that time and I cannot overstate their importance. This was a time before YouTube, online instructionals or social media. Most Americans who trained had no exposure or access to BJJ as it was practiced and taught in Brazil. Murilo’s tape series armed me with a variety of techniques to unleash on my training partners at the academy who had no idea what I was doing to them.
I also asked Murilo about the famous Copacabana Challenge. The 1998 event that featured a no time limit, submission only Sport Jiu-Jitsu match between Royce Gracie and Wallid Ismail. The match was organized due to significant trash talking from Rorion, stating repeatedly in the American media that only Helio and his sons were the real practitioners of Jiu-Jitsu. That people that learned from other people, even other Gracies, were not legitimate in his estimation. Or course this was quite hypocritical as Rorion had used Non-Gracie Black Belts such as Murilo and Wallid to demonstrate “true” Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in his promotional videos years earlier.
Rorion would direct most of his verbal attacks on the Carlson Gracie Team fighters as they were winning a significant number of Vale Tudo events, while Royce was sitting idle at the time. This infuriated much of the non-Humaitá community and a grudge match was organized to confirm which school was best.
Leading up to the event, there was much discussion about who would represent Carlson Gracie Team and compete against Royce. Names like Bitetti, Sperry and Bustamante were mentioned. As such, it was quite a surprise when Wallid Ismail was announced as the official CGT representative. It appears that the organizer of the event, Jose Moraes, had a personal relationship with Wallid and chose to give him the opportunity over the more experienced and accomplished CGT fighters. Rorion was eager to agree to the offer as this was likely the easiest matchup for Royce. Regardless, Wallid ended up choking Royce out via clock choke at the five-minute mark, ensuring worldwide visibility for the Carlson Gracie Team and its fighters. The match, for the most part, permanently stopped the trash talking about non-Humaitá lineages and non-Gracie Black Belts.
1999 would be a tremendous year for Murilo. Over the course of the year, he would win the Brazilian National absolute title (defeating Claudio Moreno in the final) and his weight class at the World Championships (beating Fabio Gurgel in the semi-final).
Murilo did not plan on 1999 being his last year for Adult Gi competition and had entered the 2000 World Championship. Unfortunately, tragedy struck during the event when one of his students died on the mat during the competition. Distraught, Murilo chose to withdraw from the event.
Murilo would return later in the year at his first ever Masters’ World Championship, winning his weight class at 34 years old.
At this point in the interview, I asked Murilo about his take on modern Sport Jiu-Jitsu.
It is difficult to predict how “old-school” fighters will view the modern sportive version that is less grounded in actual combat. Most can be very dismissive of the modern competition scene and I was keen to get his take. Murilo said he thinks the modern sport version is great and he is supportive of the new techniques being developed.
However, he still feels Self-Defense is important and should be a mandatory part of the curriculum. Murilo did spend time talking about one of the major issues he sees with Sport Jiu-Jitsu competitions nowadays. Steroids. He feels athletes are taking dangerous drugs and that part of the role of the professor is to be a role model to their students. He was happy that IBJJF now tests for prohibited substances, but felt the penalties for athletes cheating should be harsher.
In addition to achieving tremendous success in Vale Tudo and Sport Jiu-Jitsu, Murilo would also excel in No-Gi Submission Grappling.
The Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) World Submission Grappling Championships would first occur in 1998. Mario Sperry would be the only invitee from the Carlson Gracie Team. At the time, Murilo was doing a lot of No-Gi training as that was part of how he prepared for his MMA fights. However, no one was really sure what ADCC was and how successful an event or format it would be at first.
Mario Sperry would end up winning the under 99KG weight class and the absolute to become a household name in the grappling community worldwide. Many of the other Brazilians who were unsure of whether or not to compete in ADCC were convinced once they saw the associated prestige, publicity and significant prize money awarded. Murilo was one of those whose interest was piqued.
So, in 1999, Murilo would enter the tournament. However, he would have what he felt was a lackluster performance. Murilo would arrive just three days before the event and had difficulty adjusting to the time zone and weather. While he enjoyed the first-class treatment by the Sheikh and did some sightseeing, he felt he did not perform at the level he wanted to.
Murilo would first compete in the under 99KG weight class, defeating Dexter Casey and then Ricardo Almeida. He would then lose a decision to Saulo Ribeiro in the semi-finals. This would have lined Murilo up for a Bronze medal match, but he had to withdraw due to illness. Almeida was put into the Bronze medal match to replace Murilo and he ended up defeating Rigan Machado for third place.
Still wanting to accomplish more, Murilo would enter the absolute, defeating Ivan Salaverry in the first round before losing to 3X ADCC medalist, 245-pound Ricco Rodriguez in the quarter-finals.
Murilo would have a variety of criticisms of the early ADCC. Since it was such a new event, format and environment there was not yet a high degree of polish or professionalism. There were no visible scoreboards or clocks, so it was difficult for grapplers to know the score or time constraints they faced. Referees were not experienced in officiating grappling matches and Murilo also felt there was bias in officiating toward some competitors.
He was very eager to return to ADCC in 2000 and would once again compete at under 99KG. Unfortunately, Murilo would lose via points in the first round to American Wrestler and NCAA Division 1 National Champion Mike Van Arsdale.
See below for Part 2.
The End of the Carlson Gracie Team and a Focus on MMA
In early 2000, Carlson was living in the US full time. Many of his students, Murilo included, remained in Brazil, training, teaching, competing and maintaining Carlson’s multiple academies. This was a time where there were significant opportunities being created for Jiu-Jitsu fighters, whether it be in MMA or ADCC. Carlson, being away from his team, became concerned that his students would eventually leave him and start their own team. While this was not the case, Carlson believed it was.
In order to prevent the potential breakup of the Carlson Gracie Team, Carlson had a contract drawn up that would require CGT team members to pay a percentage of fight purses to Carlson. In exchange for the payment, Carlson would let them use the CGT name and allow them to train at his academies in Brazil. The contract, according to Murilo, did not require Carlson to coach or corner the fighters.
Many of Carlson’s Black Belts were pressured to sign the contract and in speaking to multiple members of the team from this era, many said they were completely caught off guard by the request. They felt they had done a lot to keep CGT alive, having run Carlson’s academies and coached his students after Carlson moved to the US. In 1998, the remaining Brazilian students even created the Club Carlson Gracie to manage his affiliates in Brazil. Murilo was elected the president of that organization unanimously by the CGT students and instructors.
Many of Carlson’s students I talked to claimed to not have an issue paying a percentage of their winnings to Carlson as they had done so for years without a formal contract and without complaint. They did though attempt to negotiate with Carlson to ensure that he participated in their training camps and cornered them in their matches, but Carlson refused to make any concessions.
While he was attempting to negotiate with Carlson, Murilo received an invitation to fight at UFC 25. This would be Murilo’s first opportunity to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. This event, held in April of 2000, was the third UFC event to be held in Japan and was headlined by a fight between Wanderlei Silva and Tito Ortiz. Murilo was offered the co-main event, a fight with Yoji Anjo (the same man that had shown up at Rickson’s academy to challenge him in 1994).
Murilo, wanting to maintain his relationship with Carlson, offered to pay Carlson the percentage he was requesting, even without the formal contract in place. Murilo just asked that Carlson corner him for the fight. Carlson refused and Murilo went to Tokyo without his long-time trainer and mentor. Regardless, Murilo would end up submitting Anjo with an arm triangle in the second round, elevating his professional MMA record to 6 – 0 – 1.
After the fight, Murilo was informed that he had been expelled from the Carlson Gracie Team. Murilo says he tried multiple times to reconcile with Carlson, but the relationship had degraded beyond repair. According to Murilo, Carlson would not even shake his hand when they eventually ran into each other.
The situation was very disconcerting to Murilo, as by this point, he had spent twenty-five years under Carlson’s leadership and he did not want to see the team dissolve nor lose his relationship with Carlson, who he viewed as a father figure.
Unfortunately, reconciliation was not possible. Shortly thereafter, Murilo, along with fellow Carlson Black Belts, José Mário Sperry, Ricardo Libório and Luiz “Bebeo” Duarte formed their own team, the Brazilian Top Team.
Carlson continued to hold a grudge against his former students, telling others that they had abandoned him. I have discussed this situation with multiple BTT founders and this was not their perspective, as they say they were the ones that were told that they had been formally expelled from CGT.
At the end of 2000, Murilo would once again fight in Japan. It would be for the same Japanese fight promoters who held the UFC show, but this time it would be under the Pancrase banner. Murilo would fight Sanae Kikuta. While relatively unknown at the time, Kikuta would shoot to fame at the ADCC the following year by defeating Saulo Ribeiro to take Gold in the 88KG class. Murilo was not at 100% for this fight and spent time prior to the bout in the hospital with a bacterial infection in his leg. Despite not being in good health, Murilo was still able to claim the Unanimous Decision after 15 minutes of fighting.
In 2001, Libório would move to the US to form the offshoot American Top team. Murilo and the others would continue to run Brazilian Top Team and in 2007, Murilo would take over as the sole leader of BTT.
Also in 2001, the Fertitta brothers established Zuffa and purchased the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The two brothers were looking to put together big-name fights. The first UFC that Zuffa held was UFC 30, which occurred in February. The Fertittas would offer Murilo to fight Light Heavyweight Chuck Liddell and the two would square off at UFC33 in September of that year.
I asked Murilo if he was concerned about fighting up a weight class. He responded that he was not concerned about the weight difference and did not cut weight for the fight. At the time, Murilo did not subscribe to the philosophy that he needed to cut weight to gain an advantage in a fight. Unfortunately, Murilo would lose the three-round fight to decision against the larger Liddell. It would be the first Vale Tudo/MMA loss of Murilo’s career. While some fans were disappointed with Murilo’s loss at the time, I remember still being impressed. Regardless of who Murilo faced, no matter how big or dangerous they were, he would always endure and be almost impossible to submit or knock out. He lost the match, but the evidence of the Self-Defense aspect to his Jiu-Jitsu was undeniable.
After the Liddell fight, the UFC gave Murilo two options. He could either rematch against Chuck at Light Heavyweight or face Dave Menne at Middleweight for the title. While Murilo was agreeable to face Liddell again, the Menne fight would give Murilo an immediate title shot. He agreed to fight Menne at UFC 35 in January of 2002.
Murilo’s plan, unbeknownst to the community at the time, was to beat Menne, win the Middleweight title and then fight the reigning Light Heavyweight Champion. This would have made him the UFC’s first two weight class champion. Murilo felt that he was used to fighting bigger guys (Erikson and Liddell) and was fine fighting up the weight class.
Murilo would win the fight against Dave Menne by TKO in the second round, winning the UFC Middleweight title. This made Murilo the second ever UFC champion of that weight class and the first Brazilian to win any weight class title in the UFC.
He would defend his title for the first time four months later in May at UFC 37. While the fight is legendary, people were not aware that Murilo got a bacterial infection in his finger during his training camp. He was put on a strict regimen of antibiotics and could not train in the lead up to the fight. His grip was also seriously impacted. The infection proved to be so significant that Murilo had to have his finger cauterized after the fight to prevent the spread of the infection to the rest of his body. Regardless, Murilo persisted and in what would be a crazy bout, Murilo would actually defeat his Olympian opponent by submission two separate times.
As Lindland was a Pan Am Champion, World Silver medalist and Olympic Silver medalist in Greco-Roman Wrestling, Murilo knew he would face a tough opponent who would not give up easily.
In the first round, Murilo would catch Lindland in an armlock, Lindland tapped and referee Big John McCarthy would touch Murilo’s chest signaling Murilo to release the submission. Murilo did as instructed and as soon as he let go of the arm, Lindland claimed he did not tap and wanted the fight to proceed.
I asked Murilo if he popped Lindland’s arm. He said no, that he did not have time as he let go as soon as instructed by the referee. Murilo was sent to his corner for a standing restart. The normally unflappable Murilo was extremely agitated and frustrated with the situation. He said it was one of the biggest mental tests of his career to regain his focus, calm himself down and finish the job he was there to do.
Murilo was able to accomplish this in the third round, leveling Lindland with a punch before tapping him again, this time with a guillotine.
That fight left a bitter taste in his mouth regarding how the UFC managed the situation and he knew there were opportunities for bigger paydays at the Pride Fighting Championship.
It was 2003 and Pride was organizing its first ever Middleweight Grand Prix tournament. An eight-man bracket of elite fighters would be assembled with quarterfinal matches to be held at one Pride event and the semi-finals and finals to be held at a second event. Middleweight for Pride was not the same as the UFC. In Pride, Middleweight was defined as 205 pounds and under. This was the equivalent of Light Heavyweight in the UFC.
The tournament was already scheduled to include the absolute best fighters in the world at that time: Chuck Liddell, Alistair Overeem, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Wanderlei Silva and Kazushi Sakuraba.
As always, Murilo was up for the challenge and attempted to get a slot in the tournament despite being undersized for the weight class. The Pride officials instead picked Ricardo Arona, Murilo’s younger and larger student at BTT to participate. As such, Murilo pivoted his schedule, stopping his fight training and instead focused on preparing Arona for the grueling tournament.
What was unknown to the public at the time was that Arona got injured at the end of his training camp. Arona ended up flying out to Japan on August 2, eight days before the event. By Monday the 4th, Arona was convinced he could not fight and officially withdrew from the card. At this time, Murilo was still in Brazil, planning to fly to Japan on Wednesday the 6th.
However, Pride was desperate to fill the missing slot on short notice put a lot of pressure on Brazilian Top Team leadership to deliver a fighter. Murilo, not wanting to jeopardize BTT’s future business relationship with Pride agreed to take his student’s place on the card. As a reward for stepping in on such short notice, Murilo was given an additional two-fight contract from Pride.
Murilo arrived in Japan as planned on Wednesday with the fight occurring Sunday night. He had no time to prepare, but would not back down from a challenge nor a commitment. Murilo famously wore Arona’s shorts for the fight to symbolize that he was fighting in his student’s place.
He would draw Rampage in the quarter finals, who at the time was 17 – 3, with wins over Igor Vovchanchyn and Kevin Randleman. Despite not training at all and fighting one weight class above his weight, Murilo performed well. After the first ten minutes of the twenty-minute match, Murilo became fatigued. Murilo heard a voice in his head say, “let’s go” and it motivated him to keep fighting. At one point, Murilo was able to secure a guillotine, but Rampage used the ropes to escape. Ultimately, Murilo would lose the match by decision, but earn respect from all for stepping in on such short notice.
To me, this match was another great example of the power of Murilo’s Jiu-Jitsu. Who else could do what he did? Not train. Not prepare. Just hop on a plane and go fight one of the top fighters of all time, in their prime at the weight class above him. This was a time when Rampage was mauling everyone. Shortly after this fight, Rampage would knockout both Chuck Liddell and Ricardo Arona. Murilo did not need to modify his style or prepare for specific opponents. Murilo’s Jiu-Jitsu was always with him and always ready to handle any situation. What more could you ask for from a Self-Defense aspect?
Murilo would continue fighting MMA in Japan for the next four years. During that time period Murilo would go 5 – 5, but the record does not tell the full story. Murilo’s five wins included three finishes. His five losses included four decisions. As I mentioned previously, Murilo was almost impossible to finish. There were times when he lost decisions, but his Jiu-Jitsu prevented him from taking significant damage.
Unfortunately, Murilo’s MMA career would not end on his own terms. He had a previously undiagnosed medical condition where a vein in his inner ear can become compressed and cause intense vertigo. It is known as Labyrinthitis. Normally, Murilo was unaffected by the anatomical anomaly, but there were times where his head took specific impacts during training and the vertigo occurred.
It had not, however, occurred during a competition. That changed during Murilo’s 2010 fight against Jesse Taylor. The two were fighting in the Impact Fighting Championship 2 show in Australia when, during the course of the match, Murilo’s head bounced off the mat. The referee, Big John McCarthy, restarted the fighters and when Murilo attempted to stand back up, he got dizzy and fell back to the mat disoriented. McCarthy stopped the fight and it was ruled a TKO.
Murilo continues to perform physical therapy to his neck to minimize the frequency of the bouts of Labyrinthitis, but the condition, for the most part, ended Murilo’s professional MMA career. He would only have one more fight, two years later. It was a rematch against Dave Menne and would occur at the Amazon Forest Combat 2 show in Manaus. Despite being 45 at the time of the fight, Murilo won via unanimous decision after 15 minutes.
Murilo continues to live in Rio de Janeiro, lead the Brazilian Top Team and is a seventh degree Coral Belt. His goal is to create the safest environment for people to learn Martial Arts. He wants to maintain an atmosphere that is welcoming to people and one where they can learn from good instructors. His vision is for BTT to be a place where you can bring your whole family to train.
Murilo strongly believes that lessons of life are learned on the mat and that people can become more secure, more confident and change their lives for good with the help of a good BJJ program.
I have placed this article in the Globalization Era section of my website as Murilo truly embodies this theme in two important ways. As a competitor, he straddled the line, competing in both the era of a very localized and small Jiu-Jitsu community in Rio (bare knuckle Vale Tudo and pre-CBJJ Sport Jiu-Jitsu tournaments) and the world many readers are more familiar with which includes professional, global MMA leagues and IBJJF tournaments with thousands of entrants. Additionally, as a leader within CGT and later BTT he created lineages and academies across the globe, developing a generation of Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and leaving an indelible mark on the history of Jiu-Jitsu with his technique and perseverance.
Despite spending hours talking to Murilo, I feel there is so much more to cover. Perhaps one day, we can sit down and cover more. For someone who was a firsthand witness to so many important facets of our history and as someone who carved so much of that history with his own sweat and blood there is much we can all learn from him.
Murilo wearing Vitamins & Minerals gear which was popular in the early 2000's.
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