There are many martial disciplines that fall under “grappling,” but one art remains on top of one’s mind, thanks to the predominance of its use in grappling and mixed martial arts tilts: Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). But BJJ is not the only grappling art that can be used in full-contact bouts as one Frenchman discovered after witnessing luta livre in action.
Nicolas Renier is a Paris-based grappler who devoted most of his life to the study and practice of luta livre, a Brazilian martial art that resembles no-gi BJJ, but differs in techniques, history, and approach. At 30 years old, Renier is one of the most decorated grapplers in Europe. He is a four-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club, or ADCC, veteran, three-time FILA Grappling champion, and two-time NAGA Europe champion, among others. And he won them all using an art that even the best grapplers around the world are oblivious to.
“I was playing tennis and ping pong for 10 years. I wanted to train some martial arts. I tried kung fu and BJJ at first,” Renier said on the sidelines of his seminar in Xtreme Martial Arts, one of the only two places in Manila that teaches luta livre. Eventually, he gravitated toward BJJ more and studied it for nearly three years. But the arrival of Flavio “Peroba” Santiago, a luta livre black belt, caused him to question the level of his training.
“It was the beginning of BJJ in France. The level was very low,” Renier said. “When Flavio came to France, I saw him fight, and, oh, I wanted to be like him. I wanted the same technique.” Renier gave up the kimono and trained under the luta livre black belt for more than eight years, up to the time he received his brown belt.
Renier describes luta livre as a very efficient grappling sport that is easy to learn. “We only try to submit and go directly to the submission.” This is in contrast to BJJ, where positional dominance is sought first before attempting a submission hold. Renier demonstrates this submission-over-position philosophy in his matches, where he attempts guillotine chokes—a luta livre specialty—with almost total abandon.
Peroba would often bring another luta livre standout, Alexandre “Pequeno” Noguiera, to France for seminars. Pequeno was the longest-reigning lightweight champion of Japanese MMA league Shooto. Renier brought his training to an ever-higher level by training under Pequeno, who awarded him a black belt.
Renier’s training with Pequeno soon paid off. He won prestigious competitions in Europe; defying the belief that one needs to train with the gi to make it to the higher levels of no-gi competitions. His view on MMA grappling is no different. “I think you lose a lot of time training with gi to be good in MMA,” Renier said. “I really think when you go to the best MMA schools, they don’t train with gi. Sometimes they say, ‘We train BJJ.’ But it is not BJJ; it’s without gi. Like what Helio Gracie was saying: BJJ without gi is not BJJ.”
Despite his success, Renier admits that the “highest levels” are still dominated by BJJ athletes. According to him, the problem lies in competition, or the lack of it among luta livre practitioners. “In luta livre, we don’t have a federation. We have some federation, but it’s not a big federation with some good competition. In Brazil, there is only one or two competitions a year.” In contrast, BJJ has the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation that holds numerous competition events in different countries year round.
Because of the lack or organization, Renier explained that competitive luta livre athletes would often leave the sport for Olympic wrestling, where funding is available, or BJJ or MMA, where competitions are abundant.
Renier, however, remains bullish on his and his students’ chances. “If I wouldn’t believe this, I would not compete. I think I can win against the best guys. I need to have my day.” Renier believes that luta livre practitioners have a game that can counter BJJ, but like a true grappler, he would rather prove it on the mats. “Training is one thing. We need to prove it in competition.”
Asked what he wants for the future of luta livre, Renier summed it up in one word: respect. Luta livre’s reputation suffered a huge blow after BJJ fighters defeated every luta livre representative in an MMA event called Desafio in 1991 in Rio de Janeiro. “I want BJJ guys to respect us,” he said. “I don’t want rivalry. I want to propose another vision of ground fighting.”