Old-School Event Sparks Backlash in Brazil

By Gleidson Venga and Alex Okuma Sep 26, 2007
OSASCO, Brazil -- Twenty fighters are invited to a television studio in southeastern São Paulo. A mat covers the floor, and walls and a fence make a kind of cage.

The fighters are weighed and selected. Twelve total are chosen: eight for the next day's tournament, with four reserves. The winner will take home $3,600.

It seems relatively legitimate, only this event has no crowd, no gloves, no time limit and almost no rules. The fighters head-butt, stomp and do just about anything else they want until one man has claimed the cash.

This is Rio Heroes, a mixed martial arts show in Brazil that has been called "old-fashioned MMA" by some and "disgusting" by others.

Produced since March 2007 for a Web site that also airs cockfighting, Rio Heroes held its ninth event Tuesday. Its rules are what promoter Jorge Pereira, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and former fighter, calls the "rules of honor": no eye gouging, striking the groin or biting.

In Pereira's view the evolution of MMA caused it to lose its martial arts essence.

"MMA was born in Brazil as a sport where the fighters were warriors, and they gave everything they had in the fight," Pereira says. "All of these new rules made the sport something unreal, Hollywood-like. Rio Heroes is rescuing MMA's origins."

Pereira referees the fights. He's an unusual ref, though, who yells instructions to the fighters such as, "Kick his ass!" and "Enjoy it!"

"I'm not a part of MMA nowadays," Pereira says. "We are an underground community. … The fighters in Rio Heroes fight with the same spirit I had in the ring: to kill or be killed. Sometimes people get shocked when they hear about us at first, but they are all impressed after watching it."

Among the athletes who have fought in Rio Heroes are members of well-known Brazilian camps, including Macaco Gold Team, Werdini Team and Tatá Team.

Flavio Alvaro was the event's middleweight champion before losing to Pedro Manuel -- both men are professional fighters in Brazil who have competed in major national organizations.

"I needed the money," Alvaro says. "And I wanted to know what it's like fighting under old-fashioned rules, like my idols did."

Alvaro and Manuel met Sept. 1 in the finals of a middleweight tournament. As he left the ring, Alvaro's nose and hand were both likely broken.

To Otavio Duarte, Tatá Team's leader, Rio Heroes is a different kind of MMA event that deserves notice.

"The athletes' levels were very high, and there were no unprepared fighters," Duarte says. "Everybody knew what they would face there."

João Werdini also supports the promotion -- a throwback to the extinct International Vale Tudo Championship and first-generation Ultimate Fighting Championship events.

"The first time I watched it, there were no fences, and I was terrified," Werdini recalls. "At the next event, there were fences, and then I thought it was very organized. There are medical support, respect to the athletes and a good structure. We train adapting ourselves and protecting ourselves under these rules."

The rules, or lack thereof, are a major reason why the São Paulo MMA Federation has tried to ban Rio Heroes.

"We think it is disgusting," says Alessandro Renner, the federation's president. "It's a retreat for the sport and a risk to the health of the athletes. Plus the fact they support crimes like cockfights."

Top Brazilian fighters have also condemned the organization.

"I saw it on TV, and I started to cry," says Wanderlei Silva (Pictures), the former PRIDE champion whose early career featured multiple fights in the IVC. "We work hard. We are trying to make the sport respected and recognized by being … professional, and suddenly we are seeing [Pereira] doing stupid things like this. After it I noted that the referee was a known athlete. Jorge Pereira fought in the same organization I started in. He was a serious and straight person, but now he's doing something as stupid as this. This guy should be punished by his coach or his federation. If something serious happens [in Rio Fights], it will be the end of our sport. I'm very sad and I hope that everybody helps to condemn this thing."

Says Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro, a world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and a top-ranked lightweight: "I think this is throwing years of work out the window. I think it is unnecessary. We are trying to be organized so the athletes can live by the sport, and these people are doing this underground thing, where someone could really be hurt. I think this has no value."

Asked whether Rio Heroes is regressing the development and recognition of MMA as a sport, Pereira says he is not promoting MMA.

His events, he says, are street fights.

Jose Mauricio Costa contributed to this report.
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