Murilo Bustamante’s heroic efforts highlighted the MARS event in 1996. | Photo: Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com
Conceived as a three-fight challenge series pitting Brazilian jiu-jitsu against sambo with an eight-man open weight tournament as its backdrop, Martial Arts Reality Superfighting cemented its place in MMA history as the event in which Murilo Bustamante fought to a heroic draw with American brute Tom Erikson -- a man who outweighed him by 90 pounds. The show also featured a sensational Renzo Gracie upkick knockout on the much heavier Oleg Taktarov.
The fruit of a partnership between Brazilian Sergio Monteiro and American entrepreneur Thomas Huggins, MARS took place on Nov. 22, 1996 in Birmingham, Ala. Gracie and Taktarov were paired in the main event.
“We envisioned a three-fight challenge series between jiu-jitsu and sambo, where jiu-jitsu would be represented by Murilo Bustamante, Zé Mario [Sperry] and Renzo,” said Huggins, who now resides in Rio de Janeiro. “Being the heaviest Brazilian, Carlos Barreto was booked in one tournament bracket representing jiu-jitsu, while Tom Erikson would fight in the other bracket. However, Murilo chose to fight in the tournament instead, and Carlos took his spot in the challenge series.”
At the time, Mark Coleman was threatening Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s supremacy with ground-and-pound assaults in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Bustamante felt a calling.
“Due to his experience and understanding of what that fight represented, Bustamante decided to take on that responsibility, even though he would be paid the same, whether it was three fights or one super fight,” Huggins said. “That gave me a great respect for Murilo.”
As expected, Erikson opened the event by mauling Russian sambo champion Aleksander Khramstovskly in a little less than nine minutes, punishing him with brutal punches and elbows. It took him a mere 31 seconds to bounce Dutchman Willie Peeters in the semifinals, where he took a submission via neck crank. Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, Bustamante dispatched Australian Chris Haseman in 1:01, as he took him down, mounted him, moved to his back and fired off a series of elbows to the back of the head, forcing Haseman’s corner to throw in the towel. In Bustamante’s semifinal, the Carlson Gracie-trained black belt once again wasted no time. Just 1:08 into the match, he had taken Juan Mott’s back and forced him to tap to a volley of punches.
The manner with which Erikson had bulldozed his opponents led to a reluctant union being forged between the rival Gracie Barra and Carlson Gracie camps. The American wrestler entered to a chorus of “USA! USA!” chants from a supportive Alabama crowd; the nearly 30 Brazilians at cageside answered with cheers of their own: “Jiu-Jitsu! Jiu-Jitsu!”
When the tournament final began, Bustamante tried to attack Erikson’s leg and pull the mammoth wrestler into his guard. Even from the bottom, Bustamante defended well and countered with punches and upkicks. He nearly surprised Erikson with a heel hook. However, thanks to the guidance of cornerman Rico Chiappareli -- he had trained jiu-jitsu with Renzo Gracie -- Erikson managed to escape each and every one of the Carlson Gracie protégé’s submission attempts.
Fifteen minutes into the fight, organizers suddenly decided to lift the 30-minute time limit that had been settled upon. After some protests, they moved it to 40 minutes. In the midst of the confusion, Bustamante started to show signs of fatigue. Erikson at the 19-minute mark chose to listen to his corner and try his luck in the standup, where he could exploit his reach advantage. Unsure of how long the fight would last, Bustamante did not want to risk a striking battle and instead remained on his back, his guard up. Noticing the Brazilian had tired, Erikson jumped into Bustamante’s guard with heavy punches, bruising and lacerating his face.
Once 40 minutes had elapsed, the bout was stopped and declared a draw. Bustamante’s David-versus-Goliath moral victory became a defining moment in the history of mixed martial arts. Because of his heroic effort and that of Fabio Gurgel against Mark Kerr two months later, it had become more evident that the time had come for the establishment of weight classes and rounds. Thus, vale tudo began to evolve into the sport of MMA.
BRAZILIAN JIU-JITSU 3, RUSSIAN SAMBO 0
Though the battle between jiu-jitsu and wrestling resulted in a draw in the tournament final, the three MARS super fights pitting Brazil against Russia ended in a series sweep.
The 6-foot-4, 227-pound Barreto put Brazil in the lead by disposing of 6-foot-2, 213-pound Russian Alexander Rafalski in just 60 seconds with a barrage of punches from the mount. The Brazilians made it two in a row when Sperry put on a clinic against Andrey Dudko. Though he was 24 pounds heavier, Dudko tapped to a kimura 4:15 after the match began.
In the third bout and MARS headliner, Renzo Gracie faced Taktarov, the top sambo representative in MMA at the time. A whopping 28 pounds lighter than his opponent, Gracie had his work cut out for him. The fight had no time limit, so the Brazilian needed to finish a man who had been finished just once previously. Unfazed by the weight of responsibility, Gracie remained in good spirits. Minutes before the fight, he spoke to the press.
“Tonight,” Gracie said, “we dine on chicken à la Kiev!”
No sooner said than done. Less than a minute into the main event, Gracie fired off a kick, only to see “The Russian Bear” snatch his leg and take him down. From the bottom, he connected with an upkick to Taktarov’s face that sent him to the canvas in a semiconscious state. The Brazilian then stood and delivered a right hook to the defenseless Taktarov’s head to polish off the 62-second knockout. With a bloodied Taktarov still on the mat, Gracie climbed the cage to celebrate jiu-jitsu’s triumph and a 3-0 sweep.
In wake of the event, MARS organizers put together a gala dinner to mark the occasion. As usual, Carlson Gracie was the star of the party. He gathered all the Brazilians to one table and made them laugh ’til they cried like only he could. With that, the bow had been tied.