From the Gracies To the Silvas: The Dominance of Brazil in MMA

Chris SandersonCorrespondent IAugust 10, 2010

If you were to survey random strangers and ask them what sports they associated with Brazil, you would mainly hear soccer and volleyball. It's not until you approached the guy wearing the Tapout shirt that you would probably hear mixed martial arts mentioned.

As famous as the Brazilians are for their soccer prowess, upon closer inspection it would appear that the country is not actually as dominant as the casual fan would believe. 

While there is no denying Brazil is world famous for their Samba flair and legendary players; the entire continent of South America is obsessed with soccer and every country within the continent produces superstars in a general ratio to their population density.

Brazil has a population of almost 200 million, more than every other South American country combined; so it makes sense that they would stand out from the crowd in the soccer mad continent.

These days you could put forward a solid argument for Argentina having a stronger soccer culture than Brazil; with the world's best player in Leo Messi and a deeper roster on their national team. Yet Argentina is a nation with only one fifth the population of Brazil.

It is actually in the thriving sport of mixed martial arts that Brazil can be seen to be truly dominant. There are Brazilian fighters throughout every major MMA organization in the world, usually sitting at the top of the food chain.

When was the last time you saw a Columbian or Argentine fighter in MMA?

There is only one country that does compare to Brazil, both in high level fighters and simple weight of numbers. That country is of course America.

There are a number of reasons for this. The martial arts of boxing and wrestling have proven their relevance in MMA over time. Both arts have deep rooted history in the United States, and are showcased at their highest levels by American fighters.

There is also the fact that four of the largest organizations in MMA are based in America, being the UFC, WEC, Strikeforce, and Bellator. On top of this is the successful reality series, the Ultimate Fighter, which is the brainchild of MMA overlord Dana White, and his partners at Zuffa.

This show provides the perfect breeding ground for fighters wishing to break into the MMA spotlight.

Of course fighters from all over the world are eligible to apply for TUF; however it is far easier for talented young American fighters to feature on the show, most notably because the show is based in America.

So what is it that makes Brazil such a dominant force in the sport of MMA?

At this point in time the overall resume of Brazilian fighters in MMA is second to none. The country can lay claim to having the best pound for pound male and female fighters in the world, in Anderson Silva and Christiane "Cyborg’" Santos.

Brazil has also produced the two best light heavyweights in the world in Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Lyoto Machida; as well as the most dominant featherweight in Jose Aldo, and an absolute plethora of high level middleweights.

Most MMA fans are familiar with the impact the legendary Gracie family of Brazil has had on the sport. It was the duo of Rorion Gracie and businessman Art Davie that bought the UFC into being.

While this was considered the birth of MMA in the United States, the foundation of the UFC was based on the Brazilian combat sport of Vale Tudo (meaning anything goes) which has been around since the 1920’s.

Vale Tudo originated as a circus side show act pitting various fighting styles against one another, and by 1960 had evolved into a strong underground sub culture based in and around Rio de Janeiro, mainly focused on the fierce competition between practitioners of Gracie Jiu Jitsu and Luta Livre (Portuguese for wrestling).

Considering this, Brazil has had a massive head start on the United States in terms of the evolution and development of their MMA culture.

One of the defining moments in the growth of Brazilian MMA came in an epic Vale Tudo encounter between Helio Gracie and the Japanese Judoka, Masahiko Kimura in 1951.

Kimura is widely touted as one of the greatest Judoka to ever grace the earth and was a strong favorite heading into the bout, despite the contest taking place in Brazil, in front of 20,000 fans, including the president Getulio Vargas.

Kimura won the fight by virtue of a reverse ude garami lock, breaking Helio’s arm in two places in a futile attempt to get the Brazilian to submit (this supposed display of courage in refusing to submit would become a hallmark of the Gracie family in the years to come).

After thirteen minutes of domination at the hands of the master Judoka, Helio’s brother Carlos threw a white towel into the ring officially ending the bout.

After this devastating public loss the Gracie family looked inwards to further evolve their style of Jiu Jitsu, adding elements of Judo to the budding art and in the process honoured Kimura’s victory by re-naming the reverse ude garami judo lock as a Kimura in their style of BJJ. 

While BJJ is the most successful and highest profile martial art to feature in the development and evolution of Brazilian MMA, it is actually the esoteric and often disregarded art of Capoeira that was truly behind the birth of Brazilian martial arts.

Capoeira (the dance of war) was developed in Brazil by African slaves as early as the 16th century. A popular theory is that in order to hide what they were truly doing from their master’s; the slaves developed a style of fighting that appeared to the un-educated eye to be some sort of ritualistic dance.  

The early forms of Capoeira were actually quite violent, with headbutts and elbow strikes common among the more zealous combatants.

Brazil has a long and colorful history in the development of MMA, and a lot of that has to do with the culture of the country itself.

Some areas of Brazil are so poor that the roads are made of dirt and the surrounding houses lack running water. Poverty is widespread throughout the country, and often children are forced to work from the age of five, in order to help their family survive. 

There are an estimated 50 million Brazilians living in the favelas (slums), and with the temptations of crime and drug dealing in an effort to escape the poverty, it can be all too easy for children to take the wrong path in life.

While many children turn to soccer, with dreams of making the big time and being able to support their family, very few will reach that elite level.

In a lot of the poorer areas, fighting amongst children is as common as a soccer game breaking out, and many children become adept street fighters at a very young age.

There are also elementary schools where martial arts are a part of the curriculum. School children of all ages can take lessons in Jiu Jitsu, Judo and Taekwondo, either on sports days or in after school programs, with the goal being to keep the children interested in school and off the streets where they can get into mischief.

With the success in MMA of stars like the Nogueira brothers and Anderson Silva, and the constant growth of the sport in general, many talented and athletic Brazilian children now have a different path to follow in their efforts to escape poverty.

As more and more Brazilian fighters infiltrate the top ranks of MMA, it has set off a snowball effect in Brazilian youth, where more and more children now have fighters as idols, rather than soccer players.

This leads to fighting and training with a purpose. Instead of just beating each other down due to boredom or frustration at their living conditions, more youth are training seriously with the purpose of following their hero's into the big time.

In today’s MMA world you will find Brazilians at the pinnacle of every dominant fighting style, bar wrestling. No longer are Brazilians considered one dimensional fighter’s, who rely on taking a fight to the ground to be effective.

Top Brazilian fighters are now regularly associated with the elite Boxing and Muay Thai academy's, be they in Brazil or America.

When you consider the best boxers in MMA, you need look no further than Vitor Belfort, Junior dos Santos and Anderson Silva.

If you were contemplating the most dangerous Muay Thai exponents, the likes of Mauricio Rua, Thiago Alves, Jose Aldo and Rafael dos Anjos would have to be considered along with an army of Silva’s, including Anderson, Wanderlei and Thiago.

When it comes to practitioners of the traditional Asian striking arts, Lyoto Machida is up there with the best of them.

In fact many of the truly dangerous strikers in MMA are Brazilians. While it is often automatic to assume a Brazilian fighter would possess a black belt in BJJ; these days it is violent and accurate striking that the top Brazilian fighters are becoming known for.

A country once noted for producing the best grapplers is now becoming associated with producing many of the most dominant strikers in the world, and as MMA continues to evolve, it is the Brazilian fighters that are pushing the pace.

While the major MMA organizations are predominantly American, the immense growth and popularity of the sport over the last decade would not have been possible without the deluge of high quality Brazilian fighters that have invaded the sport.

As time goes on, it is inevitable that most of the Brazilian fighters will take the time to learn English, as it is this connection with the western world that will expose them to the lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals that will come to the top fighters with the growth and evolution of the sport.

The ability to hype up a fight to a predominantly English speaking fan base, through interviews and trash talking, will directly result in more PPV buys, and therefore larger pay days for the big name fighters.

As interest in the sport continues to grow, and more and more young Brazilians grow up watching their heroes get paid to kick ass, it is inevitable that they will find their way into MMA and continue the proud tradition of Brazilian fighters.



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