Vale Tudo – A Complete Guide to the “Anything Goes” Martial Art 

There’s BJJ, MMA, Karate, Taekwondo, and thousands of other martial arts disciplines you may be familiar with. But one you may not know (at least by name), is Vale Tudo.

Yet, while you may not recognize the name, if you’re a fan of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA, the basics of Vale Tudo will likely be familiar to you. Both these martial arts owe a lot to this classic Brazilian combat sport, which is still alive to this day.

Keep reading to learn everything there is to know about the brutal art of Vale Tudo.

What is Vale Tudo?

Vale Tudo is a martial art that originated in Brazil, with a full contact, “no holds barred” ruleset. The term itself is Portuguese, which translates to “anything goes” in English.

It can be compared very closely to mixed martial arts (MMA). They both share the common philosophy of pitting different fighting styles against each other, in a competition with very few rules and referee interruption.

Vale Tudo is on the more extreme side compared to MMA. While MMA does have a unified set of rules and a number of areas you are not allowed to attack, as shown by the name, anything goes in Vale Tudo.

In this sense, it’s a lot closer to the early days of MMA, such as the first UFC events, where fights were essentially no holds barred contests.

Vale Tudo figher Artur Mariano – photo by Hidrocodona / CC BY-SA

History of Vale Tudo

Vale Tudo’s roots trace back to the 1920s in Brazil. It was an event held as part of traveling circuses and carnivals – a kind of freak show with two men fighting each other, often with significant weight and height differences.

An account from 1928 describes one of the first recorded Vale Tudo matches, between a giant Capoeira fighter from Bahia and a small Japanese man. The smaller Japanese man utilized an early form of Jiu Jitsu to win the fight against a much larger opponent.

The sport continued to be a brutal sideshow event like this until the 1960s, where it was featured on Brazilian TV show Heróis do Ringue (“Heroes of the Ring”). In this show, legitimate practitioners from different martial arts would face off against each other. Fighters included members of the famous Gracie family, including Carlos Gracie, the eldest son of Carlos Gracie.

The show was canceled after an incident where fighter João Alberto Barreto broke his opponent’s (a Luta Livre fighter) arm via an armbar, after the fighter refused to tap out and submit. The incident helped shape Vale Tudo’s reputation as a brutal, violent sport, which stopped it from entering the mainstream for some time.

Vale Tudo, BJJ & MMA

MMA and the UFC owes their creation largely to Vale Tudo. Since the 1960s, the Gracie family took their brand of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on the road and tested it in Vale Tudo, against fighters from disciplines such as Luta Livre and Capoeira. 

Rorion Gracie, eldest son of Helio Gracie, brought BJJ to the United States when he emigrated there in the 1970s. He, along with his brothers Royler and Rickson Gracie, eventually began taking part in Vale Tudo-style exhibition matches with experts of other martial arts, who were dubious about the effectiveness of BJJ.

These exhibition fights continued to take place, largely underground in gyms and martial arts academies, until the 1990s, when Rorion Gracie, John Milius and Art Davie birthed the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which was essentially a Vale Tudo event – fighters from different martial arts backgrounds fighting in a no rules, submission-only tournament.

Modern MMA is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Vale Tudo, with more rules introduced to protect fighters’ safety. You can also say that Vale Tudo is responsible for BJJ’s rise in popularity. It’s due to the Vale Tudo-style exhibitions that the likes of Rorion Gracie, Rickson Gracie and Royce Gracie brought Gracie Jiu Jitsu to peoples’ attention, for it to eventually grow into the uber-popular sport it is today.

Does Vale Tudo Still Exist?

Vale Tudo still exists, however not in the same vicious form it did in the 1960s-1980s. True Vale Tudo events take place underground and unsanctioned, as it pushes the line of what’s acceptable in the mainstream. Even so, the sport has banned some acts like groin strikes and eye-gouging, making it a lot closer to what we know as MMA.

Several promotions ran Vale Tudo fights during the 1990s, including Shooto in Japan, and the World Vale Tudo Championship (WVC) and International Vale Tudo Championship (IVC) out of São Paulo in Brazil. The latter two came to an end in the early 2000s.

Other Vale Tudo promotions include Vale Tudo Japan, Meca World Vale Tudo and Rio Heroes. The last two stopped holding events in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Vale Tudo Japan last held an event in 2013, though was only running regularly between 1994-1999.

Notable Vale Tudo Japan fighters include Rickson Gracie (who won the first two tournaments in 1994 and 1995), Enson Inoue, Dan Severn, Frank Shamrock, Caol Uno, Jean Jacques Machado, Randy Couture, Andre Pederneiras, Takanori Gomi and Kyoji Horiguchi.

Vale Tudo Gear

The gear for Vale Tudo is much like what you’d wear in MMA. In the early days there were no gloves and no rules on uniforms (in the later years, fingerless gloves like we have in MMA were introduced).

The commonly used uniform and most recognizable symbol of Vale Tudo are Vale Tudo-style fight shorts. These are the tight compression shorts that a lot of MMA fighters prefer to wear – like these.

Reebok UFC Fight Night Authentic Vale Tudo Short

The look of pride-era fighters such as Shogun Rua is a great example of what many Vale Tudo fighters wear (not much).

Other than this, if you’re planning to train Vale Tudo, just get the same gear you’d invest in for MMA.

How to Train Vale Tudo Today

If you want to train actual Vale Tudo today, there aren’t really a lot of options. You’d probably have to look to Brazil or Japan, where people may still teach the discipline. Be warned, however, that anywhere offering legitimate Vale Tudo may be more dangerous than your average MMA class.

Today, it’s best to see Vale Tudo as the historical predecessor to MMA and the UFC. The changes from Vale Tudo to MMA’s unified rules make sense, for the most part. It’s necessary to tone down some of the more violent moves such as groin strikes, eye-gouging and headbutts. Not only to preserve your safety, but to allow the sport of MMA to come into the mainstream and out of the underground.

Some sports still do retain the vestiges of Vale Tudo in some ways – Burmese kickboxing style Lethwei uses full contact striking, including headbutts, while bare-knuckle boxing is becoming increasingly popular today. However, it’s unlikely we’ll see a return of the true, “anything goes” fighting style that was classic Vale Tudo.


Featured image credits: Valdemar Mendes / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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