The Rise of Brazilian Muay Thai Part II | A Hero's Journey

The Torchbearer

In 1979, a Brazilian martial artist traveled along the coastline of Brazil and beyond, on a quest to spread the art of Muay Thai. That man was Taekwondo black belt and Muay Thai ambassador Flavio Molina. Starting in his hometown of Rio De Janeiro, Flavio spread Muay Thai across cities such as Sao Paolo, Salvador, Fortaleza, and Brasilia. After a few years of spreading Muay Thai across Brazil and competing in Taekwondo, Flavio organized the first Muay Thai competitions in his home country. The first took place in 1982 and pitted Rio De Janeiro vs. Curitiba, which Molina competed in. Another took place in 1983 when Rio fighters took on guys from Sao Paolo.[4] Although it's unclear how many times Flavio competed under a Muay Thai rule set, it's clear he was a great teacher. In the early 80s, Flavio started working with Marco Ruas. You may remember Marco from the first part of this series, where we talked about him pulverizing Paul Varelans with leg kicks. In 1984, Molina and his team at Academia Naja were invited to participate in the now-famous event in Rio De Janeiro called “Jiu Jitsu vs. Martial Arts”. He would go on to train Marco along with Eugenio Tadeu, both guys being first-generation Brazilian Muay Thai fighters. All three guys would compete that night in 1984, with Flavio being handed the only loss on the team.[4] Flavio would continue to coach Marco Ruas throughout the 80s. He even started training in Luta Livre, becoming the main training partner of his own students.[4] Being a man of many talents such as lifeguard and air rescue specialist, Flavio Molina sadly passed away in 1998 while participating in a rescue training program, leaving behind a massive legacy.[4] Now that we've talked about what Flavio Molina has done for Brazilian Muay Thai, we can safely ask, why did he do it? After learning the art and completely immersing himself in it for two years, he certainly had the desire to teach it to as many people as possible. In addition, there was another force pulling him in that direction. This mysterious force was another Rio martial artist by the name of Nelio "Naja" Borges De Souza.

Flavio Molina2 Flavio Molina circa 1982. Photo courtesy of BJJ Heroes.

A Hero's Journey

And when I say "mysterious", it is not a word to be taken lightly, being that Nelio is as enigmatic as any martial arts teacher of the 1970s. Grandmaster Nelio was a man born in Rio De Janeiro, in 1952.[3] Not much is known about his childhood or personal life, and some of the details of the period between 1970 and 1978 are in question, but we do know that Nelio was the first man in Brazil to learn and teach Muay Thai. It is at this point I will concede that deep into my research of Nelio Naja, I discovered that the original timeline of events I constructed was completely wrong. Furthermore, I also learned that the manner by which he learned Muay Thai is uncertain, and dubious at best. In scouring the web for as much information as I could about Nelio, I stumbled upon an article titled “He Himself Told It: Nelio Naja, The Production Of a Myth”, posted by a Brazilian archive website named Scielo Brazil. The article is a study published in 2020 and cites various journals, essays and books to attempt to dissect the stories told by Nelio Naja, specifically regarding the genesis of Brazilian Muay Thai. This topic is significant in itself so we will not dive deeply into it, but if you are interested in learning about the stories surrounding Nelio, this article is fantastic and you can read it here. In short, the study presents three potential narratives for explaining how Nelio learned Muay Thai. Here are all three: 

Narrative One - This is a commonly repeated story and the one you will see most often when you look up Nelio’s name. The tale is that Nelio served in the Brazilian Air Force as a paratrooper and during his tenure, he traveled to South Asia and became fascinated with Asian culture. This experience inspired him to travel to Bangkok and live there for two years after he was discharged from the military. During his time in Thailand, he learned Muay Thai and fell in love with it. He then came back to Brazil, settled in Curitiba, and taught Muay Thai there. The known (or most universally accepted) timeline would put his military service sometime between 1970 and 1972 - although this conflicts with his Taekwondo Master Woo Jae Lee’s account of training Nelio for the first time in Rio De Janeiro in 1972. On top of that, when Scielo contacted BINFA (Brazilian Air Force Infantry Battalion), they were informed that Nelio did not serve in the Air Force at all and that no international missions took place until the 1990s.[1] 

Narrative Two: According to Welington Narany, Fabio Noguchi, and Rudimar Fedrigo (all a big part of the Brazilian Muay Thai scene), Nelio’s family met a Thai man in Curitiba who needed a place to live and subsequently stayed in their family house. These events led to the Thai man teaching Nelio the art of Muay Thai. How long this mysterious man lived in their house is unknown, and so is the influence he had on Nelio.[1]

Narrative Three: Nelio learned Muay Thai techniques through an Anime called Kick No Oni (“Demon Of The Kick”). This particular show followed a Karateka named Tadashi Sawumara who challenged a Thai boxer to a fight, and lost. Upon losing the fight, Sawamura dedicated himself to Muay Thai and became a master of the discipline. Rudimar, Wellington, Sandro Lustosa, and Augusto Cunha specified that Nelio was influenced by this anime, as it was seminal in Brazil during the late 1970s. The proposed theory is that by watching this show over and over again, Nelio learned the techniques, practiced and refined them, until he knew them well enough to teach them.[1]

NelionajaNelio is pictured on the right. Photo Courtesy of Bloody Elbow.

A Grandmaster Never Reveals His Methods

There is a lot more to the story that I won’t cover here. The founding of Brazilian Muay Thai involved a very small community specific to Rio De Janeiro and Curitiba from 1976 to 1980. What is not in dispute is that Nelio Naja started training in Taekwondo in 1972 at the Frama Academy located in Aterro do Flemengo (“Flamengo Park”), a neighborhood in the southeast tip of Rio De Janeiro.[1] We also know from Woo Jae Lee that he awarded Nelio his black belt in 1976.[1] This gives Nelio roughly two years or so to have learned Muay Thai techniques well enough to teach them. By 1978 he would have a handful of disciples, which led to Flavio opening the Naja Academy in September of the same year.[2] Nelio has stated that the Brazilian Muay Thai lineage starts with Flavio, and entrusted him to teach the art throughout the country of Brazil. Another anecdote of Nelio came from his own Taekwondo master. Lee described Nelio as “Demonstrating discipline and performing the positions perfectly”, alluding to Nelio’s extraordinary learning ability, and quality of technique.[1] None of the accounts I have read contained a single grain of doubt with regards to Naja’s level of skill, technique, and ability to teach, as it relates to either Taekwondo or Muay Thai. Whatever Nelio did to learn Muay Thai - whether he summoned an ancient spirit, or rewound a VHS tape 500 times to refine his techniques; he is referred to by those of his lineage as “The Father of Brazilian Muay Thai”. Nelio spent the last fifteen years of his life as a recluse and in 2018 he was found dead in his home, an unfinished house in Almirante Tamandare, Curitiba. His cause of death has not been revealed.[6]

While Flavio, Ruas, and many other fighters were busy cross-training in other disciplines throughout the 80s to grow and improve as martial artists - roughly twelve hours away in Curitiba, an even bigger pot was bubbling. That pot would be Chute Boxe Academy, opened by Nelio's standout student Rudimar Fedrigo in 1978. In the next part of this series, we will discuss Chute Boxe Academy and the impact it had on fighting in the 90s and 2000s. 

References

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  1. Muller, I. L., & Capraro, A. M. (2020). “HE TOLD IT HIMSELF”: NÉLIO NAJA, THE PRODUCTION OF A MYTH. SciELO Brazil, 26. https://doi.org/10.22456/1982-8918.99251
  2. "Entrevista NéLio Naja." YouTube, uploaded by PrimeiroRound, 6 May 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6Gu45WnHA&t=100s.
  3. "Nélio Naja." Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 May 2023, pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%C3%A9lio_Naja.
  4. "Flávio Molina." Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 May 2023, pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fl%C3%A1vio_Molina.
  5. Alonso, Eduardo. "Interview with Pele Landi." Full Contact Fighter, 23 Nov. 2001, fcfighter.com/interview-with-pele-landi/.
  6. "NéLio Naja, Introducer of Muay Thai in Brazil, Dies." Globo Esporte, 12 Jul. 2018, ge.globo.com/pr/noticia/morre-nelio-naja-introdutor-do-muay-thai-no-brasil.ghtml.

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