When the Ultimate Fighter Is a Woman

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Zoran Milich

Woman ultimate fighter Vanessa Porto spars with her coach Pedro Eglesias, June 10, 2007, Sao Paulo State, Brazil.

Vanessa Porto made her name in one of the most watched videos on Brazilian sports websites. There, Porto, 23, took on an opponent named Cristiane Cyborg, a woman much bigger and heavier than her in Vale Tudo, the pastime North Americans call Ultimate Fighting. Porto did not win that fight but she stood her ground and ended the match on her feet, becoming a legend by aggressively going the distance. Now, Ultimate Fighting is Porto's career and she one of a handful of women who are rising stars in the controversial male-dominated sport.

Porto is still a little queasy about what she is able to do. She ended a match with a woman in her own weight class with a chokehold that left the opponent in convulsions. , "I was a little worried about what I had done," she confesses. But, "in Vale Tudo, it's everyone for themselves. If it hadn't been her, it would have been me on the floor."

But in Brazil, it was the Cyborg match in November 2005 that was the defining moment in Porto's career. "Nobody could understand how Vanessa, who is much lighter, just kept going for round after round, and not only resisting but fighting back with great aggression," said Mauricio Costa, a Vale Tudo promoter who runs the B-Tough Agency in Rio de Janeiro, a world center of the sport.

Trim and muscular, Porto became national champion in her weight class. And on July 14, she will make her international debut in Los Angeles at the Fatal Femmes Fighting championship, where she will square off against other women competitors from around the world. Nevertheless, she is growing tired of her female opponents. She has offered to take on the best male Vale Tudo fighter in the country. "The rules won't permit it, of course," said Costa, adding that women have been involved in Vale Tudo since about 2003. "But she's totally serious about taking on men."

Vale Tudo, which translates as "anything goes" in Portuguese, originated among jiu-jitsu masters in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of jiu-jitsu academies in the world. Often called "cage fighting" or Ultimate Fighting in North America, fighters use a mixture of several different kinds of martial arts styles to force their opponent to "tap out" or give up. In Rio de Janeiro, matches became so brutal that fighters were often rushed to the hospital after their matches. There is now a 30-page rule book ("no hair-pulling, no eye-gouging, no biting"), and participants must submit to medical reviews before they are allowed to fight. But matches have been banned by the city of Rio de Janeiro and Carioca aficionados of Vale Tudo have to go to neighboring municipalities to watch the bouts. Still it is precisely the brutality that draws thousands of people to Vale Tudo matches in Brazil, and now in North America where Vale Tudo has been popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a Las Vegas organization, and Spike TV.

Although it has long been the domain of male fighters, Vale Tudo is increasingly attracting young women with a background in martial arts from all over the world. "Brazilian women are the best in the world today," said Daniel Otero, who is 24 and one of the world's foremost Vale Tudo fighters. Otero and others involved with the sport here believe that both Brazilian men and women have an advantage because they are often experts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is the art of grappling on the ground developed by world-renowned fighter Helio Gracie, and popularized by his nine sons around the world. Gracie, who is 95 and still teaching in Brazil, worked with Muhammad Ali and some of the world's great fighters to help them develop their technique.

Porto has a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and every day trains in jiu-jitsu, wrestling and boxing with her coach Pedro Iglesias, a black belt jiu-jitsu master with a gothic tattoo on his forearm that reads "Jesus." "There are no other women to train with here, so I use men and it's pretty intense and rigorous," says Porto, who despite her fierce reputation in the ring is well-spoken and has a gentle manner, especially with her dog, an uncharacteristically calm pit bull named Hannah. Training takes place in the small community center in Jua, her gritty small hometown of 150,000 in the interior of Sao Paulo state. It is an all-day affair, with a few breaks for meals and rest.

Although Porto's family supports her fighting career, others in Jua, a conservative Catholic town some four hours from the city of Sao Paulo, don't quite understand why a young woman wants to get into a ring and fight so brutally. "People don't understand that I look at this as a job," she says. "I never think that I hate my opponent or that I want to kill them. I am just there to do my job, and to do it well."