Vale Tudo Relics: Beginnings from the Amazon Rainforest

By Marcelo Alonso May 13, 2016

Fabricio Werdum and Ronaldo Souza will star in the two most significant fights at UFC 198 on Saturday in Curitiba, Brazil. There, Werdum defends the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title against Stipe Miocic in the main event, while Souza faces Vitor Belfort in a co-headliner that could decide the next No. 1 contender for the UFC middleweight crown.

In the latest installment of the Vale Tudo Relics series, travels back some 13 years to Jungle Fight 1, an event promoted by Wallid Ismail and Antonio Inoki on Sept. 13, 2003. It was there, in the middle of the Amazon Jungle, that Werdum and Souza each fought on Brazilian soil for the first time. The show also featured Lyoto Machida’s meeting with Stephan Bonnar, along with American wrestling legends Mark Schultz and Rico Chiaparelli in separate bouts against Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialists.

A New Stage

Anyone who sees Jungle Fight recognizes it as one of the most successful Brazilian MMA promotions, responsible for launching some of the best fighters from Brazil into the UFC. No one could have foreseen its success from such humble beginnings.

Ismail retired from MMA and jiu-jitsu in 2002 and met Inoki on a flight from Japan to Los Angeles. During the long flight, the Japanese legend told Ismail about his ecological concerns about Brazil and the ongoing destruction of its rainforest. Ismail informed Anoki that he had been born in the Amazon and wanted to organize a mixed martial arts event there. Inoki liked the idea, entered into a partnership with Ismail and agreed to help him promote his first show on one condition: The event was to take place in the middle of the Amazon Jungle and had to be broadcast live to Brazil, the United States and Japan in an effort to bring global attention to the “world’s lungs.” Even with no promotional experience, Ismail jumped at the chance, and a few weeks later, he settled on the amazing Hotel Ariau Towers as the venue.

Located a little more than 40 miles from Manaus, the hotel sits on huge stilts and is made up of eight wooden towers connect by almost five miles worth of footbridge. Getting there was difficult enough. Imagine the trouble associated with transporting the infrastructure necessary to promote an MMA event featuring 12 fights. Along with the 24 fighters and their teams, television equipment, power generators and a live event staff of almost 150 people had to be put in place. The thought of holding an event in such a setting would give even the most experienced promoter pause, much less someone who had never even organized a small jiu-jitsu competition. Jungle Fight 1 had all the ingredients to go down as one of the greatest disasters in MMA history.

To bring the show to life, Ismail and Inoki booked fighters from all corners of the world and invited the most reputable MMA journalists from Brazil, Japan and the United States.

“We had close to 150 people,” Ismail said. “We had to split everyone into two huge boats and more than 50 rooms. It was pure madness.”

After he spent two hours on a boat weaving through the heart of the Amazon rainforest on the Rio Negro, Ismail checked to see how the arena was coming along and whether or not the ring had been set up. He then ran into his first problem. The height from the ring canvas to the straw roof covering the improvised arena was less than seven feet, meaning the 6-foot-8 Ricardo Morais could not fit into the confined space for his match with Mestre Fumaca. As a result, two days before the event, organizers decided to take apart the ring and saw off four inches from four structural beams in order to give the Brazilian giant the room he needed.

After solving the first issue, Ismail gathered together everyone for a rules meeting in an auditorium at a nearby restaurant. There was one glitch: Ismail had not discussed the rules with Marcus Vinicius Di Lucia, the head referee, and only realized his oversight when international fighters began asking questions. Were soccer kicks or elbow strikes permitted? Ismail and Di Lucia looked at one another and decided. At that point, Chiaparelli realized what was happening and chimed in: “You’re making up the rules on the spot. This is rules making, not a rules meeting.”

Despite the disorganization, everyone seemed to grasp the amount of effort Ismail was putting into pulling off the event. They did their best to keep their composure, and they all wanted to pitch in. When all was said and done, there were plenty of questions and a few arguments, but everyone appeared to be on the same page.

Monkey KOs an Alligator

Jungle Fight 1 could not have featured a better main event, as Souza took on Jorge Patino. As the most respected jiu-jitsu player in the world at the time, “Jacare” entered into his MMA debut against one of the most experienced vale tudo fighters in Brazil. Patino had 28 fights under his belt, with 23 first-round knockouts.

After just 20 days of formal boxing training, Souza surprised everyone and engaged “Macaco” on the feet and even managed to wobble the veteran with one of his strikes. Despite the success Souza enjoyed, Patino’s experience shone through and the Sao Paulo native finished the fight 3:13 into the first round.

“When I faked a takedown, he dropped his guard,” Patino said. “I got him on the chin with my straight, and he went down.”

They say true champions are revealed in moments of adversity. After 24 years of covering this sport, I have grown accustomed to seeing the same reactions from fighters leaving the ring after being knocked out. Angry, sad and sometimes traumatized, they prefer not to even think about the next fight. Souza’s behavior showed me he was something special.

“Man, I loved the experience of fighting vale tudo,” he told me soon after exiting the stage. “He surprised me with a good shot, but I’m ready for more. I can’t wait to return to boxing class. That loss just made me eager to train more, improve and learn. You can bet I’ll be among the best in the sport.”

In the days, months and years that have followed, “Jacare” made good on his promise. He has lost just three times in 25 appearances since, capturing the Strikeforce middleweight championship along the way. Now, Souza finds himself closer than ever to achieving his dream: fighting for a UFC title.

Werdum vs. Gonzaga: Fight of the Night

Another clash of black belts stole the show at Jungle Fight 1 and showcased two jiu-jitsu stars, as Werdum battled Gabriel Gonzaga. Despite their limited standup experience, their match was decided on the feet. Regarded as the breakout star of the 2003 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships, Werdum had already won three MMA bouts in Europe. Gonzaga was viewed as his toughest test to date and entered their match on the strength of a victory at Meca World Vale Tudo 9, where he submitted Branden Lee Hinkle with a triangle choke.

Werdum started with a capoeira kick, but Gonzaga delivered a takedown, controlled the ground game and at one point even advanced to mount, clearly winning round one. However, the Rio Grande do Sul-born Werdum fought back in the second, where, after almost securing a foot lock, he connected with heavy punches and nearly knocked down “Napao.” Gonzaga had nothing left for round three, as he succumbed to a knee strike and follow-up punches from mount.

Years later, Gonzaga joined the UFC and etched himself into the memories of MMA fans everywhere by knocking out Mirko Filipovic with a head kick. Werdum, meanwhile, made his way to Pride Fighting Championships a year and a half later and submitted Tom Erikson. He went on to defeat Alistair Overeem, Antonio Silva, Brandon Vera, Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Cain Velasquez, establishing one of the best resumes in the history of the heavyweight division.

Enter ‘The Dragon’

Machida gave the inaugural Jungle Fight show another future star at which to point, as he bested Bonnar, an undefeated Carlson Gracie protégé from Hammond, Indiana. “The Dragon” combined his karate kicks with the boxing skills he had been honing with Inoki’s team in the United States, opening a massive cut on Bonnar’s face and forcing a doctor stoppage 4:21 into the first round.

Gracie directed his anger over the matchmaking at Ismail.

“When they’re my guys, he gives them tough fights,” he said. “Everyone else gets tomato cans.”

In subsequent years, Bonnar went on to show that Gracie’s faith in his talent was well-founded. His encounter with Forrest Griffin at “The Ultimate Fighter 1” Finale is regarded as one of the most significant bouts of all-time, and many credit it with playing a pivotal role in MMA overcoming boxing in the eyes of the mainstream audience in America.

Meanwhile, Machida accomplished even more. He traveled the world sharpening his techniques -- he spent time training with Inoki, Dan Henderson, Chute Boxe and Black House -- and became a sensation in the Ultimate Fighting Championship through the use of his father’s Shotokan karate. Machida won his first six fights in the UFC before knocking out Rashad Evans to become light heavyweight champion in 2009.

Among Snakes, Piranhas and Alligators

Just past midnight, there was a break between the sixth and seventh fights, and attention turned to the Rio Negro. Inoki had jumped into the river to swim to the venue, the sounds of his “Inoki Bombaye” theme song playing in the background. When he arrived, Inoki dressed in a suit, received a monkey as a gift and was accompanied to the ring by two women dressed as natives. The sight thrilled close to 50 Japanese fans who had traveled with Inoki to Brazil on a chartered flight.

“That was insane,” Ismail said. “The river is full of alligators and piranhas. He was very brave but had me really worried.”

Beyond the Black Belts

The event belonged to more than just jiu-jitsu black belts.

Rodrigo Gripp de Sousa was choked unconscious by a guillotine when he attempted to take down muay Thai and luta livre ace Ebenezer Fontes Braga, an understudy to Luis Alves and Joao Ricardo. Another one of Ricardo’s students put on a show of his own, as Evangelista Santos stopped Lucas Lopes with punches and a leg kick 4:08 into the second round.

Ismail did not miss his chance to present the rivalry between jiu-jitsu and wrestling, which was the major draw for international events at the time. He brought in two American wrestling legends to face up-and-coming Brazilian jiu-jitsu players. Regarded as one of the most technical wrestlers of his generation, the 39-year-old Chiaparelli made his pro MMA debut against Luiz Pantera, a De La Riva brown belt. Despite Chiaparelli’s understandable jitters, the man who brought Henderson, Erikson and Randy Couture to mixed martial arts displayed complete superiority. He hit powerful takedowns on the Brazilian to control all three rounds and win a unanimous decision.

While Chiaparelli had no trouble with the unknown Pantera, the same could not be said for Schultz. Entering the ring with a small gut and a handful of white hairs showing through, the Olympic gold medalist tapped to a triangle choke from Leopoldo Montenegro, Souza’s tough-as-nails training partner. It was over 2:40 into the first round.

In the most one-sided fight of the night, the gigantic Morais -- he was originally booked opposite K-1 vet Jan Nortje -- did not break a sweat in steamrolling capoeira stylist Fumaca. After taking down Fumaca, Morais mounted and forced him to tap to punches 2:06 into the first round. Morais’ training partner, Marcelo Tigre, scored a quick victory of his own over African boxer Joseph Bamguish. Tigre followed a takedown by advancing to mount and securing the rear-naked choke 88 seconds into round one.

It was almost 3 a.m. when the event ended and Ismail could finally celebrate the success of the mad idea that had been hatched on a plane a few months earlier.

“It’s definitely much easier to fight than to promote an event,” he said. “I still can’t believe we did an event in the middle of nowhere, with no structure, and broadcast it live all over the world.”

Upon hearing that Jungle Fight 1 had set the pay-per-view record on Sportv in Brazil, Ismail had no doubt about the direction of his career: “I love the adrenaline. You can bet it’s going to be the first of many.” Thirteen years later, Ismail has overseen 86 Jungle Fight events that helped launch countless Brazilian mixed martial artists into the combat sports universe.
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