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Luta Livre’s Hold on Manila

Why the popularity of this Brazilian style of catch wrestling is growing in the Metro.

WORDS BY KARL R. DE MESA | IMAGES BY ADEN MICHAEL MANALO

T he slams and taps echoing throughout Dojo Supremo of Makati were all sounds common to grappling, but the grunts and aggression of movement were of a different frisson. In truth they sounded more like the exclamations at a Pentecostal church, except accompanied by the thud of bodies hitting the mats.

Credit it to luta livre. Not to be mistaken for the high-flying art of Mexican professional wrestling (lucha libre,) luta livre is the Brazilian style of catch wrestling which translates from Portuguese as “free fighting.” While the grappling style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) may be better known and has more practitioners today, this style—its old rival—remains one of the few original styles whose history and roots are traced to training deeply and exclusively (sans a kimono, or “no-gi.”) It is also known for studying leg locks, foot locks, cranks, and pain submissions at a time when the jiu-jitsu purists refused to do none of those, considering it a “dirty” style of fighting. Abbreviated as LL, credit the art too for forcing BJJ fighters to study leg locks, or at least learning to hide their feet and ankles to defend against the lower body attacks of LL adepts.

The unique differences of LL and BJJ don’t just end with the no-gi techniques; it’s also in how the aggression and flowing of attacks are encouraged. If jiu-jitsu was synonymous with arte suave, or the “gentle art,” this prompted former UFC champion Josh Barnett to call catch wrestling and its stylistic off-shoots like LL, “the violent art.”

These days, the so-called “violent art” is being practiced Manila. It set-up shop four years ago and has quietly bloomed under the leadership and tutelage of Afonso Celso dos Santos Silva Jr, who’s been based in the Metro after leaving his native Rio. Afonso is a Brazilian luta livre 2nd degree black belt and pro MMA fighter who everybody calls Cego—his fight moniker, which means “blind.” I’ve been training with the man for a few years now, currently holding a beginner’s orange belt under this style.

“You can use LL not just as a fitness tool but also for self-defense in case you get attacked,” said the upbeat and easygoing LL master. And it’s one of the things he’s come to understand since his relationship with the art started.

(Right) Afonso Celso dos Santos Silva Jr., the man responsible for luta livre’s popularity in the Metro.

B efore becoming a practitioner and teacher of LL, Cego was at university in Rio, studying physical fitness and fighting in Muay Thai. His friend then brought him to an LL gym. Falling in love with the style, he hasn’t looked back since. As far as ranks go, Cego can trace his storied lineage back to Rio de Janeiro, where he received his luta livre black belt from Grandmaster Joao Ricardo in 2013 at Academia Budokan-RJ. Ricardo is a legendary figure in Brazil, regarded as the architect of modern LL aside from being a 9th degree black belt.

Gathering what he learned from the man, Cego moved to Manila in 2016 and started growing LL under his banner of Team Showfight which has a regular cadre of students. Under his leadership, it has forged links with local grappling schools, participated in local exhibitions, and fought in Filipino MMA leagues like the Universal Reality Combat Championship and the Tiger Black Brawl of Bacolod City.

This is partly the reason why LL has been gaining a lot of attention here. Outside the country, however, the story of its rise is a bit different.

Brazil’s violent art has an equally violent history, most of it stemming from the feud with jiu-jitsu and its primary proponents in Brazil, the Gracie family.

Euclydes Hatem, a strongman and wrestler, is credited as creating the early foundations of LL when he began teaching catch wrestling in Rio de Janeiro in 1927, all while experimenting and innovating his own grappling techniques. Hatem was better known as Tatu, the armadillo, and he went by this fight moniker whenever he fought. It’s recorded that one of Tatu’s big successes was when he submitted George Gracie in 1940.

After the 1940s LL had become known as a style for the poor, the favela kids and rough teens, who couldn’t afford gis, the often expensive heavy kimonos that were the uniform and centerpiece of jiu-jitsu techniques. Because of this, jiu-jitsu become a martial art associated with the middle and upper class of Brazil—the predominately lighter skinned mestizos—while luta livre was for the economic underclass who had darker skin and were of African descent.

These socio-economic and racial elements blossomed into lines of rivalry between rival martial arts schools that simmered and sporadically broke out into real fighting through the decades across the cities of Brazil.  

This luta livre versus jiu-jitsu feud found expression at sanctioned cage matches, like the real-life rival schools of fight camps Chute Boxe (LL) and Brazilian Top Team (BJJ), in the Ricardo Arona (BJJ) versus Wanderlei Silva (LL) at Pride FC in 2005, or at the disastrous Renzo Gracie (BJJ) vs Eugenio Tadeu (LL) fight that ended in a riot in 1997, a mess so distasteful to the public that it finished the popularity of vale tudo (no holds barred matches) in Brazil.

The rivalry also constantly spilled over out of the cage, like when Rickson Gracie (BJJ) jumped Hugo Duarte (LL) at Pepe beach in Rio in 1988. Another example is the infamous gym raid where Duarte’s LL camp invaded the Gracie Academy later that same year as retaliation, rounding up a mob of 70 men armed with knives and guns.  

“We invaded the Gracie Academy with over 60 psychopaths,” Hugo Duarte would later recount to the media. “[Gracie clan patriarch] Helio Gracie, who must’ve been over 80 years old, not only convinced Rickson to fight me, but he got in the middle of our group and totally controlled the whole situation. It was one of the greatest displays of manhood I have ever seen in my life.” 

One of the last known public displays of this abiding feud was in the cage, at UFC 112, where LL practitioner and then-middleweight champ Anderson Silva fought jiu-jitsu wizard Demian Maia with a full arsenal of technical striking, defensive grappling, and taunts that brought back the ghosts of decades past.

Silva would mock Maia with “Momma’s boy, show me your jiu jitsu! You no respect me. Where’s your jiu-jitsu now, playboy?” That jive became one of Silva’s most iconic lines complete with themes of bad blood between LL and BJJ, rich vs poor, light vs dark-skinned, gi vs no-gi, being played out in the UFC cage.

T hese days, in the Asia-Pacific Union of Luta Livre, the dying embers of the rivalry have become less than ashes as no-gi techniques are now viewed as a valid part of becoming a well-rounded grappler. Luta livre, both its esportiva, grappling-only aspect and integration of vale tudo striking and self-defense styles ala MMA, is seen as a vital and legitimate field of study.

LL has, in recent years, also enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks in part to big name MMA fighters with pedigrees in the art. They include pioneering veterans like Marco Ruas, Ebenezer Braga, Alexandre “Pequeno” Nogueira, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, modern day stylists like Milton Vieira and Rousimar “Toquinho” Palhares, to active UFC fighters like Darren Till and Jose Aldo.

LL as a viable alternative for practitioners who wanted to eschew the gi and focus on techniques without the kimono has spread through the rest of South America like Chile and Argentina. It also came to European countries like Germany, the UK, and France. In Asia, China, Malaysia, and now the Philippines, all have their own LL black belts.

For Manila, Cego has, as the head coach of luta livre in the Philippines, since graduated five advanced belts and opened an affiliate school in Japan under LL brown belt Yuji Fujita in Tokyo—a student of legendary MMA fighter Kazushi Sakuraba.

Meanwhile, many LL practitioners have taken up jiu-jitsu, with the thinking that they should also be studying techniques in the gi to develop in all relevant areas. Cego himself holds a brown belt in jiu-jitsu.    

Goodwill has also become friendship. Cego’s Team Showfight has even forged a bond with Team Fabricio, one of the major Filipino jiu-jitsu tribes, and its black belt Prof. Stephen Kamphuis, the head coach of KMA—the Fabricio International Team headquarters in Manila.

Cego’s fighters have competed and won medals as an affiliate of Team Fabricio at grappling competitions like the Manila International Open, the Asia-Pacific Submission-Only International, and even the prestigious Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC).   

Last August, the Asia-Pacific Union held its first LL training camp and seminar in Manila at Dojo Supremo in Makati, outside the organization’s headquarters in Sabah, Malaysia, for the first time. It was attended by visiting black belts Prof Antonio Batistessa (head coach of Sabah Top Team) from Kota Kinabalu and Prof Leandro “Buda” Carvalho (a two-time LL world champ) from Beijing, who taught attendees the intricacies of the violent art, from takedowns, ground control, to finishing submissions in signature LL style, that is with economy and aggression of movement.       

It culminated in the Luta Livre Supremo Challenge, where competitors fought under Asia-Pacific rules. While limited to only three weight classes (at a maximum of 8 competitors per weight class) with only a single adult age group and only two belt ranks (beginner and intermediate), this was still the first competition of its kind using the tournament rule set in the country.

“We now have some coaches teaching in other places,” said Cego, adding that there are now affiliate gyms in Quezon City, Cavite, and Cainta.”But all of them are teaching under our supervision.”

Inquire at Dojo Supremo to train luta livre with Mestre Afonso Cego.

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