The teacher kneeled on the center of the mat, his students gathering around him. One of them stepped forward to be on the receiving end of the demonstration. The teacher wrapped his right arm around the volunteer’s neck, his wrist on the throat, while his left palm held the arm in place. He gently pulled up, and the student tapped him hard on the arm, almost involuntarily.
The teacher was Afonso Celso “Cego” dos Santos Silva Jr., a 35-year-old mixed martial arts (MMA) athlete and grappler from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who came to Manila to introduce luta livre, a grappling system that shares some characteristics with “no-gi” Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) but differs in strategy, techniques, tradition, and rules. Cego received his luta livre black belt from Joao Ricardo, a legendary figure of the sport in Brazil.
Luta livre, which means, “free fighting,” is said to be a cross between catch wrestling and judo. It was founded by Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem, a Brazilian wrestler and who gained notoriety in vale tudo matches in the mid 20th century. Tatu’s fame grew after his submission victory over George Gracie, brother of BJJ pioneers Helio and Carlos Gracie. A rivalry between luta livre and BJJ soon followed that resulted in numerous fights between champions of the two arts.
True to their catch wrestling roots, luta livre athletes do not train with a gi, the thick jacket worn by BJJ and judo practitioners used in executing submission holds. Cego explained that the absence of the gi allow for an easier transition to MMA, where clothing is limited to shorts.
Luta livre’s fighting strategy is also distinct. According to Cego, luta livre fighters do not put themselves on their backs, preferring the “top game” like most wrestlers. “In luta livre rules, if you pull guard, you lose one point,” Cego said. Pulling guard is a BJJ move where a fighter drags his opponent into his “guard,” a supine position where he can control his opponent or launch an attack.
Luta livre teaches submission holds commonly practiced in BJJ schools such as armbars, kimuras, chokes, and guard passing techniques, but a large part of its repertoire are techniques banned from most grappling schools and competitions like neck cranks, leg locks, and a variety of pain holds. MMA rules, however, allow some of these moves.
In a demonstration, Cego taught his students how to execute a neck crank hold from the north-south pinning position. Another move was how to escape an opponent’s armbar attempt from the “guard” by using one’s knees to pin the opponent’s face to the ground, and then bracing against it to pull the arm free. Such pain holds are spurned in most grappling schools and tournaments, but practiced liberally in luta livre.
Over the years, a number of famous fighters have flown the luta livre banner. Cego’s list of the best luta livre fighters in MMA include former Shooto Lightweight Champion Alexandre Franca “Pequeno” Nogueira, UFC and Pride veteran Milton Vieira, UFC 7 Champion Marco Ruas, Ruas’ protégé Hugo Duarte, and former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Renato “Babalu” Sobral. Newer talents, he said, include Glaico Franca, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 in the lightweight category.
Federation of School Sports Association of the Philippines wrestling director Karlo Sevilla 3rd, Cego’s first Filipino luta livre blue-belt, said luta livre will benefit local MMA fighters because of its “comprehensive” techniques and Olympic wrestlers because of the art’s intensive training in pins.
Sevilla added that the art might attract more people into grappling because there is no need to invest in a gi. “Economically,” he said, “more people can afford it.”