It warms the heart to see MMA treated as a legitimate sport, but it is worth remembering that the scene was far different two decades ago. In this edition of the Vale Tudo Relics series, I turn to another story from MMA’s Middle Ages, involving Roberto Traven and Leonardo Castello Branco, who set out for Russia in May 1997 with trainers Claudio Coelho and Fabio Gurgel. I was the final member of the Brazilian delegation, as I had been invited to cover the two-day Absolute Fighting Championship 2 event for Tatame, Kakutougi Tushin and Budo magazines.
Before the trip, Gurgel called Renzo Gracie to get details about Absolute Fighting Championship 1, which had been held in 1995. Gracie had traveled to Russia with his father, Robson Gracie, to coach student Ricardo Morais. “The Mutant” had beaten five fighters on the same night to win an unbelievable 16-man tournament. Gracie advised Gurgel to be ready for anything and told him he needed a 007 adventure guide in order to reach the Moscow airport and return home safely.
Gracie’s revelations made for a tense journey between Rio de Janeiro and Moscow. That was especially true for Branco, who was making his vale tudo debut and did not know the identity of his super fight opponent. Branco was famous in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world and was considered Ricardo Liborio’s primary competitive rival, as each held a victory over the other. The only information he had was that he would fight three days after Traven in the main event at an upscale hotel run by the local mafia.
Both events were to be co-promoted by Brazilian Frederico Lapenda, of the World Vale Tudo Championship, and Russian George Kobyliansky, of the Absolute Fighting Championship. When we arrived in Russia, Lapenda confirmed Igor Vovchanchyn as Branco’s opponent.
Three Russians, Eight Minutes
Six thousand people packed the Sport Palace Luzhniki for AFC 2, with a tournament featuring four Russians, three Americans and Traven -- who had debuted at UFC 11 seven months earlier -- as the lone Brazilian representative.
Traven, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, opened the show against the most technical local sambo representative, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound Artyom Vilgulevsky. The Brazilian started by clinching Vilgulevsky and taking his back, the Russian responding by rolling for a leg lock. Traven calmly defended the maneuver and quickly secured his opponent’s back. Seconds later, after a few punches, Vilgulevsky tapped to a rear-naked choke 2:28 into round one.
On the other side of the bracket, the Russians took it to their American counterparts. Joe Charles, at 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds, was eliminated by the 6-foot-1, 209-pound Karimula Barkalaev, while John Dixson, at 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds, was steamrolled by the 6-foot-3, 194-pound Maxim Tarasov with punches from the mount. Meanwhile, UFC veteran Cal Worsham, at 5-foot-11 and 234 pounds, tapped to a front choke from the 6-foot-6, 271-pound Leonid Efremov, who was cornered by Don Frye. In the semifinals, the massive Efremov submitted Barkalaev with a standing rear-naked choke, while Traven, the only foreign representative left in the tournament, used the same move to tap the tough Tarasov.
Traven knew how to exploit Efremov’s weaknesses in the final. With the guidance of boxing trainer Coelho, he let his fists fly and kept the gigantic Russian on his heels inside the cage. After absorbing a few shots, Efremov tried to grab Traven, who destabilized his opponent and landed in top position. With no jiu-jitsu guard to utilize, the Russian proved easy prey for Traven. Efremov ultimately submitted to punches 2:54 into the first round, leaving the Brazilian as the last man standing in the tournament.
Three days after Traven triumphed, Branco made his MMA debut. It was a closed-doors show for Moscow’s elite -- a completely different crowd from the one that witnessed the first day of the event. Branco’s opponent, Vovchanchyn, had already knocked out respected Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Adilson Lima and owned a 20-1 record.
After five matches, the announcer called for “Lionarrda Castiela Bianco.” Despite the pressure he was under, Branco got out to a positive start by clinching, landing a takedown and taking the Ukrainian’s back. Fueled by the crowd’s support, Vovchanchyn fought like an angry bull, punching backwards until he managed to spin and land in the Brazilian’s guard. Branco hit a sweep soon after, passed guard and secured the mount with little difficulty. Once again, the Brazilian moved to Vovchanchyn’s back, and once again “Ice Cold” escaped to the wild cheers of the audience, obliging Branco to stand. Instead, Branco went for another takedown, was denied and fell back into guard.
Fifteen minutes into the fight, Vovchanchyn threw a kick while defending a takedown and broke Branco’s clavicle. The Brazilian executed the takedown and achieved mount for a third time, but he was forced to grind through the rest of the 35-minute bout injured.
By that time, the pressure from the crowd had begun to sway the referee. With no reasonable explanation, he tried to break Branco’s mount. Outraged, Traven, Gurgel and Coelho confronted Lapenda. He informed the Russians that if the referee did not rethink his biased attitude, he would immediately leave with his fighters -- the Brazilians and the Americans -- and never return to their country. The owner of the promotion ordered the referee to allow Branco to remain in mount.
Emotions boiled over to such a degree that part of the crowd tried to attack the Brazilian’s three cornermen. Inside the cage, Branco once again took Vovchanchyn’s back, only to lose position. After the 30-minute time limit elapsed, they agreed to a five-minute overtime period. There, the Brazilian had a difficult time taking down Vovchanchyn and fell back into guard a few times. Vovchanchyn kicked at his legs, as the audience grew angry. Branco managed to secure another takedown and passed guard, but when all was said and done, the judges awarded Vovchanchyn a split decision.
‘The Walking Dead’ Hospital
Despite Branco’s loss, the post-fight mood was celebratory -- until his left shoulder started to swell. We immediately contacted the hotel doctor, who, without speaking a word of English, conveyed the need for Branco to have X-rays taken at the local hospital. We warily boarded a broken-down ambulance, along with two nurses and a chain-smoking doctor. On the way, I asked the doctor to stop smoking, as Branco had begun to vomit uncontrollably. My request was ignored.
When we arrived at the hospital, we were greeted by filth, a lack of organization and dozens of other chain-smoking doctors. To make matters worse, none spoke any English.
“Totally freaky,” Gurgel said. “It was like a madhouse.”
Once we confirmed Branco had a broken clavicle, we were informed that there were no departmental divisions and that he would have to share a room with seven patients with psychological issues. Our flight home was booked for the next night. Disturbed by the screams and moans of his roommates, Branco asked us to work out an escape plan, as the hospital did not want to be held responsible if he left without getting his head examined. Traven and Gurgel spent the night on a bench outside the room, while Coelho and I went back to the hotel to devise a plan.
“It was spooky stuff, like a horror film,” Traven said. “I didn’t get a wink of sleep. Every second, some other crazy patient walked in.”
Suffering from a lack of sleep, intense pain in his shoulder and two bruises on his face, Branco spelled it out for us: “If the doctors refuse to let us go, we’ll escape through the stairwell.” Fortunately, that was not necessary, as the doctor overseeing the next shift spoke English and complied with our wishes. Beaming as we left, we ran into the doctor from the ambulance while he was lighting another cigarette outside the hospital entrance. Coelho made sure to thank him for his efforts in Portuguese.
“You’re the one who smoked right over Castello Branco yesterday, you son of a bitch,” he said with a smile. “Stay the [expletive] out of my way, a--hole.”
The Russian doctor could not understand a word of it. Branco winced in pain from laughing so hard. After the harrowing experience at “The Walking Dead” hospital, we had just enough time to run to the hotel, pack our bags and head to the airport. During the 30-hour trip, from Moscow to Frankfurt to Rio, we became increasingly concerned about Branco. He was clearly anemic, and his chest was totally purple.
When we arrived in Brazil, Branco’s wife was waiting for us with his doctor, who immediately took him into surgery. Besides his broken collarbone, a small artery had been severed.
“The doctor told me my life was in serious jeopardy, and he couldn’t explain how I got to Rio still conscious,” said Branco, who still enjoys teaching jiu-jitsu and claims to have no regrets about participating in the Absolute Championship Fighting event. “I would do everything again. Vale tudo was an important part of the process in MMA reaching where it is today, and I’m so proud to be a part of that history.”