The first mixed martial arts (MMA) event Lapenda co-produced took place in Japan in 1994 at the NK Hall and was followed around the world. It set the tone for virtually all MMA shows that would follow in the decades afterwards and was widely emulated.
In 1995, after being invited to the first UFC as a personal guest of the Gracie family, Lapenda opened a groundbreaking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym in Westwood, California with head coach Vitor Belfort, who at the time was 17 years old and already pegged by Lapenda to be a star. Lapenda then created the Brazilian Dream Team, a fighting team lead by one of the senior members of the famed Gracie family with Lapenda as manager. Numerous stars from the Brazilian Dream Team went on to become fighting legends and it eventually served as the model for the Brazilian Top Team.
In 1996 Lapenda brought together three out of the six UFC champions and promoted and produced his first fighting franchise, the World Vale Tudo Championship (WVC). The event took place at the NK Hall in Tokyo and played to a packed house. The fighters on the show included UFC 7 champion Marco Ruas, UFC 3 champion Steve Jennum, and UFC 6 champion Oleg Taktarov. It is regarded as one of the best MMA fight cards ever assembled. The WVC became the most successful international event of its era and was responsible for spreading MMA around the world and developed numerous international stars.
Lapenda is considered by many as being one of the founding fathers of the sport of MMA (previously called no-holds-barred), because he introduced the first complete fighter to the fight game and co-founded Ruas Vale Tudo, which combined martial arts of all styles into a single fighting art. This mixture of styles in the cage, which had never previously been done, attracted worldwide attention and allowed Lapenda to partner with other promoters to co-produce 150 events under such brand names as Cage Fighting, Absolute Fighting, Free Fighting, and Too Hot To Handle.