Photo credit: Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com
If you punch and kick, I grapple…
There’s no way out…
Ruas Vale Tudo t-shirts with the above inscription had been seen on the streets of Rio de Janeiro since the early 90s, but on Sept. 8, 1995, the whole world learned exactly what it meant. Twenty-five years ago in Buffalo, New York, Marco Ruas won three fights in one night to capture the UFC 7 championship belt. Along the way, he forced Larry Cureton to submit to a heel hook, ground-and-pounded Remco Pardoel and in the tournament final, he used leg kicks to demolish “The Polar Bear,” Paul Varelans.
It was the first time the larger world of combat sports saw the true meaning of mixed martial arts and cross-training, as one man demonstrated high-level skills in all three phases of fighting. For that reason, UFC 7 became a landmark, the point at which no-holds-barred fighting began to evolve from a challenge to find the best style, into a sport in which the fighter who brings more tools to the game has an advantage.
The cross-training revolution of UFC 7 is not the only reason that Brazilian fans are virtually unanimous in calling for a place for Ruas in UFC Hall of Fame, however. In the same way we must look at the big picture to understand why the great Kazushi Sakuraba deserved to be enshrined despite winning only one fight in the Octagon, we must go back to the early 1980s and the streets of Rio de Janeiro to understand that UFC 7 was merely the culmination on the world stage of a lifelong quest—often alone—to prove that all martial art styles should be respected.
1984: The Historic “Pinduka” Fight
From his youth in the 1970s, Ruas had practiced many fighting styles: capoeira, boxing, judo and luta livre. In the 1980s, he was introduced to the legendary Flavio Molina, one of the key figures in introducing muay Thai to Brazil, and fell in love with the style.
To put things in context, Brazilian jiu-jitsu had been the utterly dominant art in Rio de Janeiro since the early 1940s, and nobody had the courage to face the Gracie family, who defeated most challengers for generations. During Carnival in 1982, Molina´s brother-in-law, Mario Dumar, had a street altercation with some Gracie family members, which led Rolls Gracie, the family’s No. 1 at the time, to invade Molina´s gym, Academia Naja.
In order to avoid more street confrontations, Molina suggested a three-fight challenge. The Gracies accepted and chose some of their best students to face his muay Thai team in the famous 1984 Vale Tudo in Maracanazinho. Molina did the same, but when some of his most experienced fighters didn’t wanted to face the feared Gracies, two youngsters, Ruas and Eugenio Tadeu, made themselves available to help the master.
On that night, Molina himself faced Rickson Gracie’s top student, Marcelo Behring, Tadeu faced Renan Pitanguy—also from Gracie Academy—and Ruas faced the scariest opponent of the three, Fernando Pinduka, the best of Carlson Gracie’s disciples. For the first time ever, jiu-jitsu left a style-versus-style event with a draw: Tadeu knocked out Pitanguy, Behring defeated Molina and Ruas fought to a draw against Pinduka, earning the historic draw between muay Thai and jiu-jitsu.
From that point on, Ruas was among the most respected non-jiu-jitsu fighters from Brazil. The fact is that in the 80s, when every fighter represented his art, Ruas was already giving interviews about the importance of training many styles.
Between his fight with Pinduka in 1984 and his UFC debut, Ruas, together with luta livre and muay Thai fighters, took part in Brazil’s most important vale tudo challenges and was one of the biggest nightmares for the representatives of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Ruas was directly responsible for the development of the vale tudo that would be introduced to the world by UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie a decade later.
“I remember when I was very young, like 12 or 13 years old, on Copacabana beach and I saw Ruas running really hard and doing shadowboxing alone on the beach, and I wanted to be like him,” recalls Vitor Belfort, recognizing the direct influence of Ruas on his career.
Being BJJ’s Public Enemy No. 1 cost Ruas a lot of good opportunities in Brazil. If a sponsor considered supporting him, the jiu-jitsu community immediately united to prevent it. Forced to choose between Ruas and the profitable jiu-jitsu, sponsors always chose the “Arte Suave.”
When Ruas’ first daughter was born, his wife´s family started to pressure him to give up the dream of being a professional fighter and find “a real job.” Even blacklisted by sponsors and promoters, and now receiving strong family pressure, Ruas persevered until he got a phone call from Brazilian manager Frederico Lapenda, who had heard about the “Brazilian Rocky Balboa” and invited the 34-year-old Ruas to fight at UFC 7.
1995: The Final Hurdle
Nothing in Ruas’ fighting life was easy, though, and after 20 years, his dedication would be tested once more. Two days before the fight, doing a photo shoot for the press, Ruas cut his finger on a glass window. When he woke up on the day of the fight, he couldn’t close that hand and was running a high fever as well. Lapenda brought Ruas to see a doctor, who told him there was no way he could fight.
However, Ruas had not fought his whole life just to have that be the final chapter. As there was no athletic commission governing UFC events at that time, Ruas rejected the doctor's advice and fought without using his stronger hand. The rest is history. An iconic cover photo from Japanese magazine “Kakutogi Tsushin” registered the emotion of Ruas’ triumphant moment—and his bleeding finger.
After that debut, Ruas fought on in the UFC as well as Pride Fighting Championships, defeating fellow pioneers such as Patrick Smith, Gary Goodridge, Steve Jennum and Keith Hackney, losing twice to Maurice Smith and logging a draw and a loss against Oleg Taktarov.
By the time the 46-year-old Ruas retired in 2007, his best student, Pedro Rizzo, had kept his legacy alive in the UFC, beating some of the best heavyweights of the next generation and nearly edging out Randy Couture for the belt in a five-round classic. Rizzo went on to be the main muay Thai teacher of Jose Aldo, who relied heavily on Ruas Vale Tudo’s best technique, low kicks, to go undefeated for almost nine years and certify himself as the greatest featherweight of all time.
Thanks to all he has done for the sport across three different generations, Ruas’ importance is recognized today even by his former enemies in jiu-jitsu. One of the most important BJJ representatives in MMA history, Fabricio Werdum, made a special request to Dana White after his win over Alexander Gustafsson in July. The former UFC heavyweight champ and two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club gold medalist said, “Long before the UFC existed, Ruas dedicated his life to proving that all styles were important in a real fight. He was the first in UFC history to prove that in practice by winning UFC 7. Putting him in the Hall of Fame is a matter of respect for the history of the sport. And that is my last request to Dana White as a UFC fighter.”
Just as the UFC and its president, Dana White, saw fit to enshrine Sakuraba for what he did in Pride, and honor contributors such as clothing entrepreneur Charles “Mask” Lewis and pay-per-view producer Bruce Connal for their impact on the sport, they should understand that Ruas’ importance is about more than just a number of wins or dominance in the Octagon. No matter the category—pioneer or contributor—placing “The King of the Streets” in the UFC Hall of Fame is not just a token of respect to Brazilian fans, but an acknowledgment of the history of the sport.
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