I spend a lot of time on this site referencing the “Gracie Version” of BJJ history. It is the story (based upon facts) crafted by Rorion to promote the particular variant of BJJ that he was selling at the time. The established heroes of his story were Maeda, Helio and Rickson. If they were the heroes of the story, then who was the villain? The answer? Waldemar Santana.
I had heard the story multiple times from multiple Gracies over the years. Waldemar was their prized student who betrayed the Academy and Helio. He was young, huge and strong and took advantage of the old, small and frail Helio. Waldemar motivated by greed and ego challenged Helio and Helio reluctantly accepted. They fought a Vale Tudo fight for 3 hours and 45 minutes. Helio ultimately lost the fight, but I was told several reasons why he did not really lose. Firstly, Helio showed that a smaller, weaker person could survive in a fight for hours against a larger attacker. Helio’s performance so impressed people, that a day after the fight, there was a line of prospective students around the block at the Gracie Academy eager to sign up. Secondly, that Helio did not lose because Waldemar used Jiu-Jitsu that Helio had taught him. Jiu-Jitsu still won. Jiu-Jitsu was still undefeated and therefore, so was Helio.
After that fight with Helio, Waldemar disappears from the Gracie story, never to be heard from again. Was he really this evil, backstabbing, dishonorable figure? Was he really this goliath that people said he was? Did he have any skill? After this massive victory over one of the biggest names in history of fighting, he just completely vanishes never to fight or teach again? I was intrigued.
As it turns out, there is a lot more to the story of Waldemar Santana.
Waldemar Santana was born in 1929 in the Brazilian northeastern state of Bahia. Unfortunately, not much is known of his early childhood, but as an Afro-Brazilian at that time, he would have lived a lower-class life with not many opportunities for education, income or social advancement. As a youth, he demonstrated significant athletic talent and began training in Capoeira under Manuel dos Reis Machado, also known as Mestre Bimba, in the city of Salvador. Bimba was a significant figure in Capoeira and is credited with the creation of what is now known as the Regional style of the striking art.
Accounts differ, but Santana may have begun training in Jiu-Jitsu in Salvador as well, before moving south to Rio. The exact date he started training with Carlos and Helio at the Gracie Academy in Rio is also unknown, but it was likely around 1951, when Santana was 22 years old. He quickly became a member of the Academy’s professional fight team and began training daily alongside Carlson Gracie, Helio Vigio, Pedro Hemetrio and the team’s other elite fighters. As a member of the fight team, Waldemar began representing the Gracie Academy in professional fight cards in February 1953, possibly even earlier.
These matches were critical for the Gracie Academy at the time. During this period, there were numerous Jiu-Jitsu, Judo and Luta Livre (No Gi Submission Grappling) schools vying for students’ tuition money, celebrity clients and lucrative government teaching contracts. For the continued financial success of the academy, it was important that the Gracies remained prominently featured in the newspaper headlines and the new medium of television by continuing to prove their system was the best in professional contests (Gi, No-Gi and Vale Tudo). With Helio in a period of retirement after his loss to Masahiko Kimura in 1951, the burden to “defend the honor” of the academy fell on a young Carlson Gracie (19 years old in 1951) and the fight team.
It is unconfirmed, but likely, that Waldemar performed custodial work at the Academy to offset the cost of training and his living expenses while in Rio. This would have consisted of cleaning the mats and washing students’ gi’s. It is also possible, that Waldemar actually lived within the Academy, sleeping on the mat for some or all of his time there.
I will note here about Santana’s height and weight. As he transitioned from certified, Gracie representative to Gracie arch-rival, Santana’s size grew with each recounting of the story. I have heard people claim he was large as 6’4” and 240 pounds. It is similar to people telling a story about how big a fish they once caught was. In reviewing weigh-in results and pictures of Santana standing next to others (see gallery below), it appears that he was only around 5’9” and 180 pounds (at his heaviest). He was thickly muscled and quite an athlete, but he was no behemoth.
As mentioned earlier, Santana’s first documented, professional fight tool place on Feb 26, 1953. Waldemar was joined on the card by fellow Gracie Academy representatives: Robson Gracie, Helio Vigio and Moacir Braz Ferraz. As there was a shortage of opponents for Gracie representatives, Waldemar and Ferraz competed on the undercard against each other in a ten-minute Sport Jiu-Jitsu match.
Waldemar continued to compete for the Gracie Academy throughout 1953 and 1954, participating in Sport Jiu-Jitsu, No-Gi Submission Grappling and Vale Tudo fights with significant success. While skilled in all three styles of competition, Waldemar would excel at a style that many of his contemporaries would shy away from, Vale Tudo.
In 1954, Polish pro-wrestler and fight promoter, Karol Nowina, arrived in Rio and began promoting pro-wrestling shows with worked fights (matches with pre-arranged outcomes). He then tried putting together a shoot match (legitimate competition) with real fighter Rene Bastos. Rene had previously fought two of the Gracie Academy’s stars in Pedro Hemeterio and Helio Vigio and would later take on Joao Alberto Barreto (all three would go on to become Helio Gracie Red Belts).
While Helio and his students would sometimes fight against pro-wrestlers in legitimate matches, they would often avoid fighting as part of pro-wrestling promotions. Carlos and Helio were concerned, rightfully so, that the public might perceive the Gracie Academy as not offering real fighting if they were too closely entwined with the world of professional wrestling. As referenced in the George Gracie article, not all Gracies had issues participating in pro-wrestling shows or even doing scripted matches.
Santana wanted to have the Bastos fight and did not care that the legitimate match would be put on by a pro-wrestling promoter. Carlos and Helio were apprehensive but negotiated on Santana’s behalf to ensure the match took place in a format that they deemed acceptable. The No-Gi Submission Grappling match was held on Jan 15, 1955 at the Palacio de Almuminio with Carlos and Helio’s blessing. The match ended in a draw and Waldemar Santana was expelled from the Gracie Academy shortly after.
Why exactly was Waldemar thrown out of the Academy? Many insiders have claimed a variety of reasons for the falling out, but unfortunately, most don’t hold water. I will review some of the main justifications given along with my thoughts regarding their veracity.
1. Santana was associated with a fake fight promotion and therefore tarnished the reputation of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu: I don’t find this credible. Carlos and Helio negotiated the contract. That would imply they, at least somewhat, authorized Waldemar to take the match. If they had significant issue with Santana participating in Nowina’s show, they would have not helped with the contract and could have expelled Santana prior to the match.
2. Santana failed to win the match and embarrassed the academy: Once again, not credible. There were several matches throughout the 1950’s where Gracie representatives and even Gracies themselves drew. There were no other fallings out or expulsions due to having a draw. Draws were acceptable in Carlos and Helio’s eyes as they were non-losses. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and the Gracie Academy were still undefeated if there was a draw.
3. There were worked fights on the show’s undercard, and this was too close an association with fake fighting: This may have displeased Carlos and Helio, but this would not have been a surprise to them. They knew who the promoter was and what other matches would be part of the show. They agreed to the terms, so it is unlikely, this would have caused a rift.
4. Carlos and Helio wanted to add two Gracie students (one was George Medhi a subject of a future article) to the undercard to get more Gracie promotion at the event. Santana ruined those plans and caused the Gracies to miss out on increased visibility. The promoter responded to Carlos and Helio’s last minute demand to add more of their fighters by stating there was not enough time to make the requested changes. Nowina offered to delay the event so that the additional two matches with Gracie students could be arranged. Santana wanted to fight on the original date and refused to delay the show. Some accounts attribute this to Waldemar not wanting to delay his receipt of the fight purse. Other accounts allude to the fact Waldemar had given tickets to family and friends in Bahia and they were already coming down to Rio to see him fight. He did not want to let them down and cause them unnecessary expense. Regardless of Santana’s reason or reasons, Carlos and Helio were infuriated. I find this explanation quite credible. Carlos and Helio would have likely viewed this behavior as putting the needs of oneself before the needs of the academy. This was often grounds for expulsion, public ridicule and sometimes, violent confrontation. We have seen Carlos and Helio react similarly before and after this incident with Gracie students and even their own brother (George), when they felt people were not following the Academy’s approach to fights, schedules, training, match ups or in other ways not doing what was best for the academy.
5. Waldemar, while in his custodial role, negligently flooded the Gracie Academy causing damage and disrupting the class schedule: It is rumored that while Waldemar was living at the academy, he negligently left the water on unattended. The resulting flood damaged the academy and due his irresponsible behavior, he was expelled. This is a possible reason for expulsion, but as we have seen and will see throughout the Gracie Academy’s history, Carlos and Helio were able to “look the other way” to a variety of behaviors, incidents and accidents. If people were good fighters or instructors, the Gracies would keep them around.
After the expulsion, Helio downplayed Waldemar’s abilities to the press, saying he was just a sparring partner and lacked genuine technique. Santana shot back in the newspapers that he was their best student and an equal to Carlson. He went on to state that the first time he trained with Helio at the academy, it took Helio 25 minutes to submit him. They continued going back and forth in the newspapers until Santana finally challenged Helio to a match. Waldemar went on to state that he was so confident in victory that Helio could choose the format and rules of the match. Helio accepted and chose a format of Vale Tudo with Gi’s and no time limit. The only prohibited techniques would be eye gouging, fish hooking and groin attacks. Helio also wanted the fight to be a private event, but Waldemar convinced Helio to hold the fight for an audience. Helio would go on to state that he believed Waldemar was being manipulated to challenge the Gracies and that Gracie family enemies were really pulling the strings.
As he was expelled from the Gracie Academy, Santana transferred to Haroldo Brito’s academy in Ipanema to train. Brito was another former Gracie student, who had had a falling out with Carlos and Helio. George Gracie also mentioned that Santana trained with him at his separate academy (for periods of time, due to a cycle of disagreements with his brothers, George would run academies in direct competition with the Gracie Academy). However, it is unknown if George was referring to training Waldemar before or after Waldemar’s expulsion from the Gracie Academy.
The Helio Gracie vs Waldemar Santana Vale Tudo fight took place on May 24, 1955 at Associação Cristã de Moços in Rio. The event was open to media, invited guests and academy students only. Helio was 42 years old and weight 150 pounds. Waldemar was 26 years old and weighed 170 pounds. The referee was Alberto Latorre.
Waldemar dominated the fight with Ground and Pound. The match was so one sided that around the twenty-minute mark, Santana felt he had proven his point and exited the ring. He was then convinced to return and continue the fight.
Waldemar throughout the course of the fight, took down Helio three times. Helio was unable to sweep and the Ground and Pound continued. Around three hours and ten minutes into the fight, Santana once again threw Helio (some accounts describe it has a hard takedown while others imply it was slam from guard). Helio was stunned from the impact and Waldemar followed up with a single soccer kick to the head, knocking Helio out. The fight’s duration is often quoted as three hours and forty-five minutes but that number includes ring entrances, introductions and the referee’s inspection. The total, actual fight time was closer to three hours and ten minutes.
After being the first (and ultimately only) person to ever beat Helio Gracie in a Vale Tudo fight, Santana was made an instant celebrity and had offers to travel throughout South America and Europe to compete. It appears, however, that Waldemar never ventured outside of Brazil. He rapidly opened his own academy in Rio which taught Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Capoeira and Luta Livre. He was assisted by his younger brother, Waldo, who would go on to fight on Waldemar’s undercards, have his own academies and produce a long list of active competitors. Waldemar would go on to compete in Gi, No-Gi and Vale Tudo matches for an additional twenty years, fighting mainly in Rio and Salvador.
Immediately after Helio’s loss, the Gracie Academy was eager to gain a victory over Waldemar and prove that they were still the top academy for Jiu-Jitsu. A match was arranged between Waldemar and the star of the next generation of Gracies, Carlson.
This match between Carlson and Waldemar, however, would be under Sport Jiu-Jitsu rules. This was a common phenomenon throughout twentieth century Brazil. The public would want to see a Vale Tudo fight and the government or fight commissions would authorize the match to occur. The fight would be particularly violent or gruesome and then there would be public outcry that this was barbaric and non-gentlemanly behavior. That Brazilian society should not condone this kind of activity. The government or fight commissions would then ban Vale Tudo matches. Eventually, the public would then demand a Vale Tudo match and the powers that be would acquiesce. This cycle would repeat itself continuously from 1909 through the 1990’s in Brazil. If you see periods of time where fighters settled disputes through sport grappling matches as opposed to Vale Tudo fights, it was often due to not having other options.
Carlson and Waldemar’s match took place on October 8, 1955, around five months after the Helio loss. The match was scheduled for four rounds of ten minutes each, with one additional overtime round. It took place at Maracanãzinho stadium in Rio. Maracanãzinho, or little Maracanã, is a sister stadium located next to the huge soccer stadium of Maracanã. The indoor arena constructed in 1954 can host up to 25,000 spectators and hosted Brazil’s biggest fights (from Rickson/Zulu to recent UFC’s). Carlson weighed in at 163 pounds while Waldemar was 169 pounds. Despite, Carlson be the aggressive and dominant fighter, the Sport Jiu-Jitsu match ended in a draw. His victory over Helio and his draw against Carlson kept Waldemar in the spotlight. As Carlson would go on to be considered the number one fighter in Brazil for most of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Waldemar had a rematch with Carlson on July 21, 1956. The two met under Vale Tudo rules as it was permitted at this time. The fight was again at Maracanãzinho. This time, the match would be scheduled for six rounds of ten minutes, with two minutes rest between rounds. Carlson dominated this match and in the fourth round, Waldemar’s manager, Carlos Renato stopped the fight.
During this time, due to advances in technology, more and more fights were recorded on film. In some cases, the film reels would be sent across the country to various local theaters where audiences would watch boxing, Jiu-Jitsu, Vale Tudo or pro-wrestling matches. As Brazilian television shows began needing to fill airtime, several programs either presented fight recordings as part of their format or were entirely dedicated to showing fights. This led to rapid stardom for Carlson and Waldemar.
Despite the loss to Carlson, Waldemar was a still a major star and continued to compete throughout 1956. He fought Ono brothers’ student, Sakai, in Bahia. The match occurred on December 22, 1956. Sakai weighed 200 pounds and was considered a top Judoka. He had previously drew with Carlson and Pedro Hemeterio in grappling matches. But this was Vale Tudo, and he was fighting Waldemar. Santana won by verbal submission due to Ground and Pound in the third round. Waldemar would continue to fight throughout 1956 and 1957.
His most notable match of the 1957 was yet another rematch with Carlson. The two would meet a total of six times due to their significant name recognition and history. Carlson was often touted as the number one fighter in Brazil and Waldemar was considered number two. Despite the animosity between Carlos/Helio and Waldemar, Carlson would consider Waldemar a good friend and respected competitor. This particular match would take place on July 27, 1957 at Maracanãzinho. This match was not liked by fans. The two competitors fought defensively, and the crowd grew bored during the match. While I do not have many confirmed details regarding this match, I believe it to have been Vale Tudo with Carlson winning by judges’ decision.
On January 7, 1958 Waldemar competed in a Sport Jiu-Jitsu match against Gracie Academy prized pupil, Pedro Hemeterio. The match occurred in Fortaleza and was a continuation the Gracie Academy versus Waldemar feud. Pedro was an enforcer for the academy and was previously tasked with putting George Gracie in his place in 1952. The match attracted significant attention and was also broadcast live on four radio stations. The match was scheduled for five rounds of ten minutes each. The match unfolded as many Santana fights did, with Waldemar taking his opponent down and working from inside their guard. As neither fighter submitted, the fifty-minute match was ruled a draw.
Waldemar continued an impressive streak of Vale Tudo victories throughout 1958. Defeating Takeo Yano (in twenty-five minutes), Aderbal (in fifteen minutes) and George Gracie student, Jurandir Moura (in just seven minutes).
On April 30, 1959, Carlson and Waldemar engaged in their fourth match. This Vale Tudo match took place in Salvador and consisted of ten rounds of ten minutes with two-minute rest periods. During this match, Waldemar broke Carlson’s nose, but after 100 minutes of fighting, the match was ruled yet another draw.
The two had their fifth match on May 6, 1959. It was a Vale Tudo fight and held at Maracanãzinho. Waldemar was more aggressive than previous fights and took Carlson down several times, working from top. After forty minutes, the fight was ruled yet another draw.
On May 6, 1959, Masahiko Kimura returned to Brazil to perform demonstrations and compete against local fighters. This was eight years after his previous visit where he defeated Helio Gracie by armlock. Kimura trained and traveled with Takeo Yano while he was in Brazil. There was tremendous public interest in seeing Kimura versus either Carlson or Waldemar. The Gracie Academy was not interested in having Carlson nor Hemeterio challenge Kimura. Most other Brazilian fighters felt similarly. However, Waldemar was game. He competed twice against the legendary Judoka.
The first match was held in Maracanãzinho on July 1, 1959. It was a Sport Jiu-Jitsu format consisting of four rounds of ten minutes with two minutes rest in between rounds. Kimura dominated every round of the match and finished Waldemar with his trademark ude-garami armlock one minute into the fourth round. While Waldemar did last significantly longer against Kimura than Helio did in a similar match format, it is difficult to draw comparisons. It appears that in both the Helio and the Waldemar Sport Jiu-Jitsu matches, Kimura was not trying to finish his opponents as soon as possible. He controlled both matches completely and likely wanted the audiences to have some entertainment before he chose to apply the finishing armlocks.
Waldemar and Kimura rematched again on July 9, 1959. This match was Vale Tudo and occurred in Salvador. Takeo Yano, acting as Kimura’s representative, claimed prior to the match that Kimura’s knee was injured. It is unknown whether this was a legitimate injury or if Yano (who had extensive experience with pro-wrestling works) fabricated the story to either garner more interest in the match or allow Kimura to save face if he lost. Kimura seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the Vale Tudo format as he only threw one punch the entire match. Waldemar utilized a full array of strikes but was taken down repeatedly and almost armlocked a few times by Kimura. Eventually, Waldemar began targeting Kimura’s supposedly injured knee with strikes. The fight would go the distance and be ruled a draw. Despite Waldemar not being able to beat the iconic Judoka, taking him to a draw was considered a major accomplishment.
Almost six years after being expelled from the Gracie Academy, it appeared the two factions might have been heading towards reconciliation. On December 31, 1960, a television show called Noite do Aperto de Mão (Night of the Handshake) took place. It was a charity fund raising event that brought together various Brazilian celebrities that had grudges and asked them to reconcile on live television. Helio and Waldemar both appeared, smiled for the camera and shook hands.
Unfortunately, the pleasantries were short-lived. Three months later, in March of 1961, Waldemar had a rare loss in Vale Tudo, being defeated by Waldimarina Miranda da Silva in Salvador. After the loss, Helio mocked Waldemar by sending him a telegram stating, “You just got knocked out and tapped out. And in the first round! Congratulations on both accomplishments.” The animosity continued.
Waldemar continued fighting and on January 28, 1963 matched against Juarez Ferreira in Vale Tudo. Santana dominated the thirty-minute fight and was awarded a judges’ decision. The full fight was recorded on videotape and aired on TV-Continental Channel 9 on February 2. It may have been the first Vale Tudo fight to be recorded on videotape.
The two fought again on September 16, 1963. Juarez weighed 200 pounds and Waldemar weighed 176. Waldemar won the Vale Tudo fight two minutes into the first round by armlock. They would fight again on Aug 19, 1964 and Waldemar would win again by armlock. This time in just one minute.
In 1965, Waldemar began promoting fights in Salvador. He also continued to fight and run his academy now called the Academia Waldemar Santana.
Through the late 1960’s and 1970’s Waldemar kept fighting. Despite getting older (41 in 1970), he continued to take on the very best, facing two of the biggest names of the next generation of Vale Tudo fighters: Ivan Gomes and Euclides Pereira. Waldemar faced the two legends multiple times, but ended up drawing or losing in each attempt.
Carlson and Waldemar had their sixth and final match in December of 1970. The two old friends met in a No Gi Submission Grappling match which was ruled a draw. The series of matches between the two legendary fighters ended with Carlson winning two matches and the other four ending in draws.
Despite his advancing age, Waldemar continued to fight, splitting his time between his two academies: one in Salvador and one in Brasilia. His fighting career was halted, not by losses or age, but by a serious car accident that occurred in Brasilia in 1975.
Despite his significant injuries he continued to teach, mainly out of his Brasilia academy. In 1980, it was Waldemar Santana who identified a young talent from Manaus named Casemiro Nascimento Martins. He was so impressed with the fighter’s potential that he sought out a suitable Vale Tudo rival for the up and comer. Who did Waldemar call? The Gracie Academy. Who accepted the challenge? Rickson Gracie. This led to the two Rickson Gracie versus “Rei Zulu” fights in the early 1980’s and continued the rivalry that started twenty-five years earlier into the next generation.
Waldemar Santana, the Black Leopard as he was sometimes known, died from a stroke on September 27, 1984 at the age 58. He had an unbelievable career:
· The only man to defeat Helio Gracie in a Vale Tudo match
· Dozens of other Vale Tudo victories
· Vale Tudo draws against some of the greatest of all time: Carlson Gracie, Masahiko Kimura, Ivan Gomes and Euclides Pereira
· Six matches with Carlson Gracie
· A Sport Jiu-Jitsu draw against one of the Gracie Academy’s best sport competitors: Pedro Hemeterio
Despite his many accomplishments, Waldemar did not fit into the Gracie narrative. Santana beat the story’s hero. He did better than anyone else against Kimura. Waldemar was a television superstar and had dozens of high-profile wins against the best fighters of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He also had successful academies and produced high quality students. Waldemar showed there was not a monopoly by one school on Jiu-Jitsu or Vale Tudo.
For the Gracie version of history to be crafted, Waldemar’s story had to be addressed. Unlike others such as Geo Omori, Soshihiro Satake, Donato Pires or Jacyntho Ferro; Waldemar was harder to hide. His match with Helio put him in the spotlight. As he could not be removed from history, he was transformed into the story’s villain. He was portrayed as a traitor, his victory over Helio was spun into a victory for the Gracies and his other accomplishments were erased from the narrative. He won the fights but lost the war. It is a real shame. Hopefully now, over sixty years after Waldemar Santana’s expulsion from the Gracie Academy, he can begin to get the recognition he deserves.
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Waldemar Santana (1929 - 1984), one of the greatest Vale Tudo fighters of the 1950's and 1960's.
Karol Nowina, Polish Professional Wrestler and promoter of the fight that got Waldemar expelled from the Gracie Academy.
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