Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and Brazilian Luta Livre (BLL) black belt Afonso Celso dos Santos Silva Jr., more popularly known as Mestre (Master) Afonso Cego, shared his martial art skills in a series of training sessions held in Manila last September 2 to 13. With participants mostly from local MMA team SPRAWL, the 35-year-old Rio de Janeiro-based Mestre Afonso generously imparted almost 40 moves from the submission grappling art of Luta Livre.
Luta Livre history
According to the website of Team Renovacao Fight Team (RFT) Deutschland, the term luta livre rose to prominence in Brazil in 1909, a Portuguese translation of the then “newly introduced English style of ‘Catch-as-Catch-Can’ wrestling.” In the early 20th century, it grew in popularity, with training sessions held at Copacobana beach alongside other sports. Back then, Luta Livre featured techniques in taking down an opponent to the mat, pinning holds, submission maneuvers from head to foot, and striking.
Distinct to the other popular grappling arts like judo and jiu-jistu, and more similar to amateur and professional wrestling, Luta Livre is played without a gi or kimono. “While jiu-jitsu attracted the wealthy and elite, many of Brazil’s working class poor gravitated to Luta Livre where they didn’t have to pay for lessons or a gi,” wrote Jonathan Snowden and Kendall Shields for The MMA Encyclopedia. This affinity with the working class is similar to England’s ‘Catch-as-Catch-Can’ wrestling in the mid-20th century, which became the sport of choice in the mining town of Wigan, and practiced in Billy Riley’s gym.)
Regular Luta Livre matches were held in the following decades. Even members of the renowned and pioneering Gracie family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) participated in Luta Livre in various capacities: as fighters (Carlson and George Gracie, with the latter eventually winning a title as Luta Livre champion), trainees (George and Oswaldo), organizer (Carlson) and even referee (Oswaldo).
The rise of Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem
The most influential force in Luta Livre, is Brazil-born Euclydes “Tatu (Armadillo)” Hatem (September 16, 1914 – September 26, 1984) who dominated the Brazilian fighting scene for two decades from 1930s to 1950s. His first teachers were famous practitioners Manoel Rufino dos Santos, Orlando Americo da Silva “Dudú” and Aloisio Bandeira de Melo.
In 1933, Hatem joined the Luta Livre Amateur Championships where he impressed spectators by beating heavier and veteran fighters.
From 1935 to 1940, Hatem’s star rose higher when he won over formidable international opponents. Among them were Attilio of Italy, “Tigre de Texas” of the USA, and Kutter of Australia (whom the Brazilian defeated for his professional debut), Takeo Yano of Japan and Charles Ulsemer of France.
In 1942, he faced a compatriot who was also making a name for himself: George Gracie. Well-versed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Gracie also trained in Luta Livre and even became a national champion in the sport. Hatem and Gracie fought for the Brazilian Luta Livre title, and Mestre Tatu overwhelmed his game opponent till he surrendered in the third round.
Mestre Tatu persisted in his fighting career, competing in his home country and abroad. He continued vanquishing foreign fighters, including the feared Leon “Man Mountain” Falkenstein of Russia, defeating him via his favorite submission technique: the choke hold.
Mestre Tatu finally retired from professional fighting in the 1950’s, but continued teaching Luta Livre to many interested fighters.
Read Part 2 here