Skip to Content

What Is Luta Livre? The Forgotten Brazilian Grappling Art

Nowadays, only a few people are familiar with the art of Luta Livre, one of the most effective grappling arts that is forgotten. You may wonder what Luta Livre represents as a system and how it differs from the other grappling arts.

Luta Livre is a Brazilian grappling art based on catch wrestling and kosen judo techniques. Unlike other traditional martial arts, it does not utilize a gi and incorporates striking in the “combat” version. While similar to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Luta Livre emphasizes self-defense over sports competition.

This briefly explains what Luta Livre is as a system, so be sure to read this article to learn more about it.

History of Luta Livre

The name “Luta Livre” translates to “freestyle fighting” in Brazil; it was initially used as an umbrella term to describe different styles of wrestling at the beginning of the 20th century. But the term diverged from wrestling as Luta Livre evolved into a separate combat system in the 1920s.

Early development

Luta Livre was founded in the 1920s by Euclydes Hatem, a skilled catch wrestler. While teaching classes in Rio de Janeiro, Hatem began experimenting and developing his own grappling-based combat system. He started mixing wrestling takedowns and holds with Judo, Jujutsu chokes, joint locks, and positioning.

Hatem also introduced ground striking, which completely changed the concept of submission grappling.
Unlike most other grappling styles, Luta Livre practitioners can use full-contact strikes while rolling on the ground. The concept enables them to use palm strikes and kicks on the ground to hurt the attacker or set up submissions by forcing the opponent to react.

The original Luta Livre is primarily no-gi, but some schools have adopted a gi uniform in modern times. There are two main styles of Luta Livre:

  • Esportiva — is a sport variation that includes standup grappling and ground fighting. 
  • Combate — is a self-defense variation which apart from grappling, also includes ground striking. Practitioners are allowed to hit each other with palm strikes and kicks, but the emphasis remains on submissions.

The Rivalry Between Luta Livre and BJJ

Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is conceptually very similar to Luta Livre, and the rivalry between these two systems was inevitable. On one side, Luta Livre was described as a martial art for poor kids who couldn’t afford a gi. On the other hand, the upper class was primarily made up of those who practiced BJJ. 

These social class differences, rivalries, and the fact that both martial arts emerged from the same town (Rio de Janeiro) gave them more reasons to become archenemies against each other.

Luta Livre gained immense popularity when Hakem defeated George Gracie, a legendary BJJ fighter of his time, using an arm lock. This particular match also elevated the rivalry to a new level. Fighters from both camps and “clans” would constantly challenge each other in the gyms and even spout into street fights.

This rivalry between these two camps ultimately led to the creation of Vale Tudo. This first no-holds-barred promotion was one where fighters from both arts fought each other under limited rules. In some ways, Vale Tudo is considered a pioneer of modern MMA fighting.

However, the rivalry started to decline in the late 80s and early 90s when the Gracie family began focusing more on expanding BJJ in the US market.

The Fall of Luta Livre

When the Gracie family moved to the US to spread the art of BJJ, they also continued to organize Vale Tudo-like tournaments. But they did it under a new banner called the “Ultimate Fighter Championship (UFC)” when it was first launched in early 1990s.

When Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) was not widely recognized globally, the Gracie family dispatched Royce Gracie, one of their youngest and most skilled fighters, to participate in a no-holds-barred UFC event in the US. The sole objective was to demonstrate the unparalleled effectiveness of BJJ.

When Royce debuted in the UFC, he demonstrated his remarkable mastery of jiu-jitsu techniques, establishing himself as a superior fighter among his peers. Despite being smaller in size, Royce Gracie made larger and stronger opponents tap out with ease simply by utilizing his jiu-jitsu skills. He revolutionized the perception of ground fighting at a time when it was largely unknown.

Although there were Luta Livre UFC champions like Marco Ruas, who won UFC 7, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) quickly surpassed it as the most popular combat system associated with ground fighting in MMA. Again, this was all thanks to Royce Gracie’s impressive display of jiu-jitsu in the UFC, previously unseen by the world.

In the world of MMA, BJJ became the dominant grappling style adopted by many academies. They utilized BJJ teaching methods to train their athletes for ground fighting, leaving Luta Livre in the shadows. As a result, Luta Livre has become relatively obscure, while BJJ has become a popular global sport.

How Effective is Luta Livre for Self-Defense?

Despite not being popular, Luta Livre is one of the most underrated martial arts when it comes to self-defense. It is highly effective in just about any freestyle fighting scenario you may encounter in real life.

Each technique students learn is designed to be practical and help them get out of trouble.

Further, teaching methods focus on preparing you for the intense mental and physical aspects of real combat. And unlike in BJJ, competition is not that important in Luta Livre, and most schools emphasize the self-defense aspect instead.

Practicing Luta Livre

Realistic Methods of Teaching

Luta Livre learning curriculum is rooted in the practical application of techniques. Almost every school focuses on sparring as the best method to develop skills to fight in real life. Sparring is the only way students can simulate a real fight and learn how to apply techniques against a resisting opponent. By rolling on a daily basis, they also condition themselves how to stay calm under pressure and avoid panicking.

Battle-proven techniques

Luta Livre focuses only on battle-tested techniques. You won’t waste a minute of training time doing something unrelated to skill enhancement. As a versatile grappling system, it covers both the standup and ground fighting aspects.

On the feet, students learn how to close the distance, secure a strong grip, and manipulate the opponents’ weight to take them down. They use pure wrestling takedowns, judo throws, trips, and sweeps. Once on the ground, the focus switches to maneuvering into a dominant position. This further enables you to subdue the opponent with holds, pins, chokes, and joint locks.

Unlike most other grappling systems, Luta Livre also includes ground striking, which adds to the realism of the fighting you may encounter on the streets.

Gives you a big advantage in a freestyle fight

Athletes trained in Luta Livre enjoy a significant advantage over those not trained in martial arts. While throwing and blocking punches and kicks are part of human instincts, grappling is all about leverage, manipulation of weight, and technique. People can’t rely solely on sheer strength to defend against takedowns, transitions on the ground, and submissions.

You must spend many years training in grappling to defend against these attacks. This makes Luta Livre very effective, notably in closed spaces such as the bar or room, where they can quickly get a hold of the attacker.

Safe to apply

Luta Livre techniques do not cause serious injuries such as full-blown punches and kicks to the head, for example. Taking the opponent down is relatively injury-free.

Still, trained athletes know how to apply enough force to prevent this from happening. In most cases, just a well-executed takedown and strong top control are more than enough to subdue the attacker.
This is crucial in terms of self-defense, as you don’t want to cause any serious injuries to the attacker while defending yourself.

However, the techniques you learn in Luta Livre can break bones and tear ligaments with submissions and put people to sleep if not careful, no matter how safe a martial art is.

How Effective is Luta Livre for MMA?

Luta Livre was designed for freestyle combat and is considered one of the most influential combat arts that gave rise to mixed martial arts (MMA).

In modern MMA, submission grappling is more important than ever. You can’t expect to win matches and succeed without knowing how to grapple and fight on the ground. Thus, the entire concept of Luta Livre transitions well into MMA fighting.

The only reason why Luta Livre is not as relevant in MMA and has fewer representations in the UFC is that conceptually comparable martial arts, mainly Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), are significantly more popular. Luta Livre was a more relevant combat art in the early 90s, but it quickly got suppressed by BJJ as the sport began to rise.

Although it fits well within the sport’s rules, much better than other martial arts, Luta Livre is not internationally popular or accepted. If you live outside Brazil and want to learn submission grappling, you are more likely to train in no-gi BJJ than find a Luta Livre school.

Despite being relatively unknown, Luta Livre is great for MMA because it’s designed to be practical in combat situations. It emphasizes aggressive submission grappling without using a gi, which is how MMA fighters grapple in the cage. On top of that, it teaches you how to defend against ground and pound and how to mix striking and submission grappling together.

Some of the most popular MMA fighters with strong backgrounds in Luta Livre were:

  • Marco Ruas
  • Pedro Rizzo
  • Jose Aldo

Are There Luta Livre Competitions?

Luta Livre competition is prevalent in Brazil, but not that much outside of it. The “Brazilian Confederation of Luta Livre Esportiva” oversees most events. The organization also puts a lot of effort and resources into spreading into European and US markets. However, Luta Livre competitions are nowhere near as popular as BJJ or wrestling competitions.

For instance, there are no World or European Championship Luta Livre tournaments. There are very few international events where athletes from different countries can compete against each other.

As a result, Luta Livre athletes compete in other hybrid submission grappling competitions, such as ADCC submission fighting championship, where they enjoy some success. One fighter who represented Luta Livre in ADCC was the famous Nicolas Reneier.

Luta Livre vs. BJJ: What Are the Main Differences?

BJJ and Luta Livre are conceptually very similar but also differ a lot in certain aspects, such as the clothing and emphasis of the system. Here is a detailed explanation of all the major differences.

Clothing and strategies

In traditional BJJ, all students must wear a gi uniform in training and competition. This includes long pants, a jacket, and a rank belt made of thick cotton. Luta Livre doesn’t include any uniforms, and students usually wear shorts, a T-shirt, or a rashguard.

This difference in clothing completely changes the concept of the game. In BJJ, grapplers have more grips available and ways to stall the action, and the overall rolling pace is much slower. It forces you to rely more on technique, setting up attacks, and thinking three steps in advance.

In Luta Livre, practitioners roll much faster due to the lack of friction. They can also rely more on sheer strength and athleticism to overwhelm the attacker with pressure.

Ground striking

BJJ and Luta Livre are both martial arts that focus on grappling techniques. However, BJJ does not involve striking on the feet or the ground, while Luta Livre incorporates striking on the ground in its combat variations. This is very beneficial, notably if you want to switch to MMA, where ground and pound are allowed. And it also improves your self-defense abilities.

It should be noted that in the sport version of Luta Livre, striking is prohibited, and the focus is on submission grappling rules.

Belt ranking

Luta Livre employs a ranking system akin to that of BJJ and Judo. While senior ranks recognize ten levels of black belts, lower ranks use a variety of colored belts to denote their ranks. To achieve the coveted black belt, one must undergo 10–15 years of grueling training in both martial arts. See below for a thorough breakdown of both ranks.

CategoryLuta Livre
Black (1st to 9th Dan)
Red and White (10th black belt)
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Senior)
White belt
Blue belt
Purple belt
Brown belt
Black belt
Black belt with a red stripe (1st to 8th dan)
Red belt (9th and 10th dan)
BJJ Belt Ranking System – Easy To Understand For Beginners

Final Thoughts

As previously mentioned, Luta Livre is a highly effective martial art that has yet to gain popularity beyond Brazil. However, this does not diminish its value as an effective combat art. The entire curriculum is designed specifically to prepare individuals for real-world fighting scenarios.

Luta Livre is still widely practiced in Brazil, with numerous high-quality gyms to train in and opportunities for competition to test one’s skills against other fighters.

Currently, Luta Livre is as popular as it was 50 years ago. It’s difficult to predict if this will change in the future. However, it’s clear that Luta Livre missed a big chance to grow through participation in MMA and submission wrestling tournaments like ADCC.