BJJ vs. Luta Livre (What’s The Difference?)

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s success, both technically and in terms of popularity, was made possible largely because of its fearlessness in taking on challenges from other styles.

This way, BJJ has proven to be an extremely effective fighting style and has won many more fights than it lost. But one of its most formidable competitors back in Brazil was a form of catch wrestling called Luta Livre.

From today’s standpoint, BJJ can be declared the winner based on its popularity, but the historical rivalry at points was as bitter and heated as they get.

We will look at what caused this clash, the technical differences between BJJ and Luta Livre, and how the whole drama played out.

BJJ Origins

BJJ’s origin story is well-known and popularised by the Gracie family, who are credited with creating and spreading the style. The man who brought the initial skillset to Brazil was judo and jiu-jitsu master Mitsuyo Maeda, who met local businessman Gastao Gracie, the father of Carlos and Helio Gracie.

The two brothers learned from Maeda and eventually branched off, focusing more on ground fighting and creating their own style, which used more leverage and technique so smaller men could defeat stronger foes.

The Gracie clan and their students took on challenges from many other styles like Luta Livre, catch wrestling, judo, and striking styles and emerged victorious more often than not, spreading the fame of the style and gaining more and more popularity.

The big step came with the expansion to America and the creation of the UFC, which initially aimed to showcase BJJ’s dominance over other styles.

The events were a resounding success, with the unassuming and inexperienced Royce Gracie winning three of the first four tournaments and cementing BJJ’s place as one of the premier martial arts on the planet and a fundamental part of MMA.

Luta Livre Origins

Luta Livre means “wrestling” in Portuguese, although the word Luta translates to ‘fight’ and Livre translates to ‘free,’ meaning that the more proper translation can be ‘free fighting.’ The style was created by Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem, a catch wrestler who gradually started implementing new techniques and creating a complete fighting system.

Hatem trained with two accomplished wrestlers, Orlando Americo da Silva and Rufino dos Santos. He competed in catch wrestling from the 1930s to the 1950s and was unbeatable.

A historical match in that period is his fight against Geroge Gracie in 1940, in which Tatu defeated Gracie with a keylock (the reports of this fight and the results are disputed).

The win solidified Luta Livre as a legitimate martial art, and it thrived on the Vale Tudo scene because it encompassed equally all elements of the almost no-rules fights.

The evolution of the style was continued by fighters such as Euclides Pereira and, most of all, Roberto Leitao. Leitao was a university professor in mechanical engineering but had a deep passion for martial arts and was at the forefront of Luta Livre in the 1970s. He even wrote a book on the biomechanics of fighting.

While at the end of the heated rivalry between jiu-jitsu and Luta Livre, BJJ emerged victorious by winning more of the direct battles and producing the more prominent MMA champions, there have been more than a few world-class fighters coming from the Luta Livre school who trained under Leitao.

These are fighters like Marco Ruas, Pedro Rizzo, Renato Sobral, Jose Aldo, Darren Till, and Vicente Luque, among others.

Differences Between BJJ and Luta Livre

Luta Livre vs BJJ

Uniform And Accessibility

The biggest difference between the two styles is the attire. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is done in the traditional gi, which is used and manipulated in almost every move. On the other hand, Lutra Livre has no uniform, just regular shorts, and an optional T-shirt. But in addition to the different techniques it allows, the gi was also a symbol of status.

An important distinction between the two styles throughout the 20th century was their accessibility to different classes of society.

The Gracie family were people of wealth and influence, and their style was practiced by those of the middle and upper classes. This was reinforced by the necessity to wear a special gi, which was expensive (and still is) and not affordable to many people at the time. 

On the other hand, Luta Livre needed no special equipment and had a much lower entry cost. For a long time, it was considered that Luta Livre was for poor kids who could not afford to buy a gi.

This meant BJJ was taught more to light-skinned upper-class people, while Luta Livre was practiced by those who lived in the favelas and were usually darker-skinned.

This class division is one of the core reasons for the heated rivalry rather than the stylistic differences and approaches to combat.

Luta Livre Has Striking

Luta Livre has a lot more developed striking elements than BJJ. While Gracie jiu-jitsu does include some simple strikes, Luta Livre has full-fledged striking, and practitioners do not necessarily look for the takedown.

Luta Livre has also had extensive contact with Muay Thai in Brazil, which has further developed the striking skills of practitioners.

Striking is more prevalent in Luta Livre on the ground as well. Where BJJ grapplers look to advance position and lock in a submission, Luta Livre fighters use ground strikes much more often.

Philosophy and Approach

Because Luta Livre is derived from catch wrestling, the goal is to win the fight as quickly as possible. This approach leads to fast submissions or using strikes to force the opponent to submit. This is in stark contrast with the motto of BJJ, which I am sure you’ve heard a million times: “position before submission.”

Luta Livre is more aggressive, while BJJ is more methodical. This is a generalization, and not every fighter from both styles always follows the same game plan, but these are the overarching principles taught in the two schools.

Submissions and Ground Techniques

Most submissions, like the armbar, guillotine, rear naked choke, and arm locks, are the same in BJJ and Luta Livre. What doesn’t cross over are the gi techniques exclusive to jiu-jitsu.

But Luta Livre has the advantage on another front: leg locks. They have been a core part of the style because of Luta Livre’s catch wrestling origins, while BJJ purists have always frowned on using leg locks.

The situation is similar today, with no-gi grappling embracing leg locks while traditional gi BJJ still refuses to add them to competitions, even for black belts. Modern no-gi BJJ is much closer to Luta Livre regarding techniques and approach than the traditional version.

For those who want even more in-depth analyses of different approaches, 6-time ADCC veteran and accomplished Luta Livre grappler Nicolas Renier has a whole series of fascinating videos detailing technical differences between the two styles:

The Historical Rivalry Between Luta Livre and BJJ

There is no denying that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Luta Livre have been influencing each other from the very start because they were developed simultaneously and in the same region.

As I mentioned, jiu-jitsu was practiced by upper-class Brazilians and was seen as an elitist style, while Luta Livre was super popular in the favelas. And given that both are very effective styles that evolved by winning challenges against other styles, the conflict was almost unavoidable.

The first meeting we mentioned was between Geroge Gracie and Euclydes Hatem, won by Tatu. But the true animosity sparked in the 1980s.

The story goes that in 1982, a taekwondo/Thai boxer named Mario Duma got into an argument over a woman with the young Charles Gracie at the carnival celebrations that year, and Gracie got the worst of it.

Charles’s uncle Rolls was infuriated because he was still a kid while Duma was a grown man. He assaulted the Naja kickboxing academy owned by my Muay Thai pioneer in Brazil, Flavio Molina.

To settle the bad blood between the academies, a vale tudo event was held with three matches pitting a jiu-jitsu representative against a Naja academy fighter.

A fighter named Marco Ruas trained to strike at Naja but also did grappling with Luta Livre practitioners and took his teammates there to prepare for the fights. Ultimately, the score was 1 knockout per faction, with Ruas battling Fernando Pinduka to a draw.

A few years later, when Rickson Gracie and Hugo Duarte got into a brawl, the rivalry between BJJ and Luta Livre reached an all-time high. The two men were supposed to fight, but Duarte allegedly backed out because he wanted months to prepare.

Rickson had already planned to travel outside Brazil to teach BJJ in the USA and did not intend to wait for Duarte. Rickson discovered Duarte was a frequent visitor to one of the local beaches and challenged him there.

In the scuffle, Rickson mounted Duarte and unleashed ground strikes, resulting in a brutal beating. It was a setback for Luta Livre’s reputation because Duarte didn’t appear to have any answers for the style of Gracie.

Duarte’s ego was severely bruised as a result of the humiliating beating. He gathered a large group of his students and went to a local Gracie Academy for a fight in 1988.

According to some eyewitnesses, Duarte’s gang stormed the Gracie academy with guns, knives, and other weapons. Fortunately, Helio Gracie was present at the time and could calm things down and devise a safer solution.

Duarte and Rickson agreed to fight in the parking lot to settle their differences. This time, Rickson triumphed again, and Duarte accepted his defeat.

At that point, the rivalry was far from over. Another Vale Tudo event pitting three BJJ fighters against three Luta Livre fighters occurred in 1991. This time, all three BJJ fighters won their matches, increasing Brazil’s popularity.

The Luta Livre vs. BJJ rivalry exploded when Renzo Gracie faced Eugenio Tadeu in yet another BJJ vs. Luta Livre matchup. Renzo complained about being kicked by spectators during the fight, and when he retaliated, a riot broke out, destroying the venue and injuring several people.

The story made international headlines, prompting the Brazilian government to intervene and order both parties to end their feud or face criminal charges. That effectively ended one of the most bizarre rivalries in martial arts history and stopped the Vale Tudo events in Brazil for years.


Ultimately, without a doubt, BJJ won the war with Luta Livre by becoming infinitely more popular worldwide. At the same time, Luta Livre was absorbed into Vale Tudo and MMA and did not have the same individual recognition.

But BJJ has also changed, and in recent years, the no-gi submission grappling scene has merged many grappling styles, making the initial distinction between BJJ and Luta Livre not nearly as pronounced.