This article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
Master Leonardo Martins Correia stands on the tatami mat and stares straight at his students. Despite the heat, he wears a camouflaged kimono and thick black pants. On his chest, close to his heart, he sports a patch of the Brazilian flag. On his right arm is another patch that depicts two snakes facing each other, ready to attack. Almost like a military trainer, Correia barks,
Roughly ten students answer with a yell that can't be replicated in words, and proceed to place their closed fists in front of their waists. Their feet are apart in parallel position. Their knees are semi-locked. In less than five seconds, the salutation continues:
"Attention!" Correia says, as he raises his right fist to his, now open, left hand and closes his legs; a soldier saluting. The class mimics the move.
"Salute!" he cries.
"Brazil!" respond the students.
The nationalist pride and military apparel come naturally. Uru-Can is 100 percent Brazilian, created by Paulo César da Silva Lopes, a black, evangelical officer in the military ranks of 1970s Rio de Janeiro.
Lopes served in the Parachute Infantry Brigade, which was stationed in the military quarters of Rio. During his time there, he thought the modalities of martial arts that were being taught weren't good enough for the officers, who needed to learn techniques that could be used in real combat. Along with three other armed force members, Lopes mixed and refined techniques used in Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu, Judo, and Jiu-Jitsu. He also integrated self-defense training, nunchucks, knives, and rifles. Free of the restraints and rules of most competitions, the new martial art had only one mission: Lethality.
But because there wasn't a real commercial vision behind Uru-Can, it took almost ten years for the name to get established. Initially, it was called "Paulo Associação de Lutas Brasileiras," then "Karate Brazil." The definite name came only in 1983: Uru-Can Brazil — a name that represents the alliance of two breeds of snakes unique to Brazil, Urutu and Caninana.
The plan was to teach the technique in different military quarters throughout Brazil, but that didn't quite work out. So Lopes took his created technique beyond the borders of the military. After his death in 2003, the martial art started to get passed down by his former pupils. Today, it's mainly taught in the suburban outskirts of Rio.
The lesson we shadowed took place in Pedra de Guaratiba, a neighborhood in the far end of western Rio. The place is so far from the touristic southern parts of the city that it even exudes a curious geographical pride to the visitors who actually manage to get there. The area feels like a small town, you can gauge the geographic distance by the way people there speak, in significantly different accents.
The demo took place at Val Fitness, which feels more like a nightclub than it does a gym. Since the instructor, the 42-year-old Geraldo dos Santos, hasn't been able to put together a full class yet, he invited fighters from other units located in areas such as Sepetiba, Campo Grande, and Santa Cruz, to join the event. Correia, 39-years-old, was among the people invited. He learned Uru-Can techniques from Lopes himself: "I started fighting when I was 8-years-old, but I only met the master when I was 16. By 18, I was teaching with him in the army."
Correia led most of the lesson and the demonstrations. While the students were warming up and practicing a 180-degree spinning kick, the instructor recapped some of Uru-Can's principles out loud: "On the streets, never fall restrained. Restraint is for tournament. You must finish as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, dos Santos explained to me some specific things about Uru-Can: "When you're down, there's no way to roll. I'm not forced to defeat my opponent by following the rules. I throw my opponent down and finish him off anyway I can. It doesn't matter how—wringing or breaking his neck [is fine]. You have to wipe them out anyway you can." He proceeds by making sure he emphasizes the peaceful nature of the martial art. Given that we're mere mortals, extreme reactions must be used only as last resorts.
"We must be ready to fight against more than one person," Correia declares loudly. The students execute a sequence of jabs, throw a right hook, followed by a spinning kick. Some are able to kick so hard that, even with protective gear, the person getting kicked backs off due to the force used. "We're training on the tatami here, but Uru-Can is about the actual ground. The first thing the trainees learn is how to fall down and roll away."
Much like Karate has katas, which are patterns of movements that hone a person's skills, Uru-Can also has its own formulas which are called the seven fundamental basics. They weren't included in the demonstrations, but Correia explained to me what each one was about:
Candle: You stand still, like a candle.
Dog: You sit like a dog, with your legs slightly open.
Horse rider base: You stand as if you were riding a horse.
Scorpion: One leg is flexed while the other is straight, and the back leg mimics the tail of a scorpion.
Praying mantis: This move is similar to the Kung Fu technique.
Cat: Move like a feline getting ready to pounce and lurks to attack.
Snake: Move sideways and turn forward, as a coiled snake does before it attacks.
Because Uru-Can was made for the real world, its lessons also integrate potential instances of conflict. One example of a feigned situation is a bar fight. On the tatami, the students put two white plastic chairs (they couldn't find a table) facing each other — a position also known at the MoMa as the Marina Abramović.
One of the chairs is occupied by Wesley de Souza, a 24-year-old trainee. On another chair sits Correia. They face one another, trying to look serious and having a difficult time holding back their laughter. "Your father is a wimp!" teases Souza.
It's a performance, fortunately with more action now. Correia stands up to attack, pushes the imaginary table away, and punches the opponent's face with his right hand. De Souza defends himself and also uses his right hand to catch Correia's fist in order to pull him closer and, at the same time, to clear enough space to punch Correia with his left hand. Then he forces the instructor's arms down and elbows him on the back just below his neck. All of this is staged, of course.
At that point, dos Santos needed to leave to go teach a fight/dance lesson—called Uru-Can Fight Dance—which he created. "I mixed it up: I took the art and put it into a playful aerobic style. For instance, I work on movements and exercises that flex the hips and extend the knees, but they're actually all frontal kicks."
Down on the tatami, Correia was getting ready to finish the lesson. Earlier, he'd told me that there were approximately 500 people throughout Brazil who practiced Uru-Can and that his goal was to promote the martial art as much as possible, which would fulfill the wishes of his master Lopes. "I only hope that when people talk about martial arts, like Karate or Krav Maga, that they mention Uru-Can too. That's all. But unfortunately our politicians don't value what we do very much. We have a lot to fight for, and I'm proud to fight," he said.
During his last speech, he thanked us for the coverage, thanked the students for coming, and thanked God. He concluded the lesson as he'd started it:
"Salute!" he cried.
"Brazil!" the students shouted in response.