Waldemar Santana, The First Gracie Nightmare

February 8, 2015
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Waldemar Santana, aka the Black Leopard, is one of the most underrated and forgotten fighters in MMA history. If you think Sakuraba, or even Eddie Bravo, play the role as the Gracies’ biggest foe, you are wrong. Waldemar was getting into the Gracies’ heads more than 60 years ago. The humble Brazilian was a blue-collar worker at the Gracies’ academy at the beginning of the 50´s. The huge athlete was one of the clan’s best students, besides being Master Helio’s most loyal employee. The Black Leopard also had great boxing and Capoeira skills. He was a true mixed martial artist from Bahia, a state well known to develop great combat sports athletes like Junior dos Santos and the Nogueira brothers. Waldemar’s biggest skill was his athleticism. He was famous for rolling for hours in a row with full power and strength. Master Helio Gracie had noticed that and made him a sparring partner and even an instructor when Jiu-Jitsu’s biggest legend was away from the gym.

waldermar-santana-vs-helio-gracieThe relationship between Waldemar and Helio wasn’t all roses. The Leopard kept complaining about the way Master Helio treated him at the gym. The Gracie was accused of being crude and boorish. He was concerned that all the Master’s attention was focused on other athletes, like João Alberto Barreto and Helio Vigio. Waldemar was only scheduled to fight on preliminary bouts and undercards.

The main reason that the partnership between Helio and Waldemar ended is still a mystery. There are two main versions why the Black Leopard left the Gracie Clan. The first and most famous tale is that Waldemar booked a pro wrestling fight without the concern of any of his masters. Helio raged because he was totally against arranged bouts and felt that Waldemar disrespected the clan’s hierarchy.

The second version is a bit more intriguing. Waldemar used to do cleaning work at the Gracies’ gym. One weekend he forgot to close the main tap, and the location was flooded by Monday. Helio was furious and didn’t measure words to repress his student. Waldemar felt disrespected, and for the first time, exchanged rude words with his Jiu-Jitsu mentor.

As soon as he was fired from the academy, Waldemar started to train with Mr. Haroldo Brito, a Gracie dissident himself. Shortly after breaking up with MMA’s first family, and strongly advised by his coach, Waldemar challenged his Master Helio Gracie.

Helio accepted the challenge pronto, even being 44 years old and 60 pounds lighter than Waldemar.

They battled for almost four hours, a record in combat sports history. Helio was a mature man and handled the pressure until the point that he was exhausted. Tapping was not an option to the Gracies back then, so Waldemar was able to lift the tired small frame body to the sky and slam it fiercely to the ground. The huge takedown was followed by a deadly soccer kick that turned the lights out for Master Helio. Waldemar became the new people’s champ. He had just crushed a guy that possessed all the mystics of a legend. The Black Leopard became famous and was enjoying his glory traveling nationwide showing his fight skills.

The Gracies were seeking for revenge since they considered the match unfair due to the difference of age between fighters. But the weight was not subject to complaints, facing bigger opponents was a walk in the park and the Gracies’ trademark.

The clan member chosen to pursue retaliation was a rising star in the family, the one and only…

  • DamianCross

    Great read! More please.

    • Gary Fredericks

      Yes DamianCross, I totally agree! I would love to hear some more stories of the MMA and Catch Wrestling scene of this era.

      Anyone suggest any books that are in English on this subject?….assuming their are some out there?

      • DamianCross

        Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting by the ever lovable Jonathan Snowden is actually quite good.

  • Aaron Gustaveson

    Very interesting and pretty well written, personally I find phrases like “mad respect” offputting and it takes me out of the story, emersion wise, but Im probably in the minority on that.

    • Bogo

      No you are not the minority on that. There’s a time to use “blog” oriented language and a more journalistic tone.

  • Figo

    Its a shame times of respect and real martial artists are almost over. Wish more stories like this were posted here. Those were the real worriors.

  • Bogo

    These kinds of stories make me hungry for more. Kudos.