This past weekend's UFC 147 was an interesting event. What started out as Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen II in a Sao Paulo soccer stadium ended up being Rich Franklin vs. Wanderlei Silva in Belo Horizonte.
And while some fans both in the U.S. and Brazil were complaining about the card, it still wound up setting the UFC attendance record for a Brazilian event.
In many ways, it's just the latest chapter for Brazil, and it's been an interesting experience to witness the rather odd and bumpy growth of mixed martial arts in the land where it was born. I say "odd" because even though this is an authentic Brazilian sport and has been taking place in some way or form for decades, it has constantly gone through phases of rising or falling notoriety. And throughout the sport's history, those differing growth patterns have been unique even in the various regions of Brazil.
For example, although Rio de Janeiro is now the current Brazilian MMA hot-spot according to most people (with many great names coming out of the city to gain fame on the international scene) I always say that the North and Northeast regions of Brazil are the "Jurassic Park" of the sport. You will find fighters out there with 40-plus fights to their name that no one from the outside world has ever even heard of.
I remember one time when a promoter from the Amazon region contacted me to offer up spots in a tournament in which the final prize was a brand new motorcycle and the pay was rather good. But when I looked around my circle of connections to find out if the guys who were always asking me for fights wanted to take part, the reception was actually less then even lukewarm. I even remember the words of the late Luiz Alves, the great trainer and master, when I asked him if Alex Gaze wanted to fight in the tourney.
"Alex, I am not letting him go there," Alves told me. "I send guys up there, only to see them get their asses whipped by fighters we have never even heard of. That place is nuts!"
To be sure, there are events all across the Amazon region every weekend. It's a huge region with continental proportions, and one part of the region never hears about what happens in the other. Places like Macapa, Boa Vista and others have regular events and local heroes who survive quite well without ever needing to come to other parts of Brazil. And it's a wild place!
I have seen some crazy footage from the Amazon. I saw one event where the fighters fell out of the very flimsy ring, and rather then stop the fight and get them back up in the ring, the referee just jumped down, the crowd opened up, and the fight went on outside the ring. Nuts!
So, coming back to recent times and modern ages, although MMA has been experiencing this boom in the U.S., it was still rather underground in Brazil until the UFC had the cajones to come down to Brazil and put on the first "UFC Rio." This will go down as an historic event for several reasons.
First off, I do not believe anyone who was there has ever experienced anything like it. The energy of that crowd was something very hard to describe. I get goose bumps remembering it! Brazilians are very emotional beings and can be either very good or very bad audiences when they want to be. But the atmosphere was so electrical that night. You probably could have measured it with an amp meter!
There is no way to put into words the crowd's reaction to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's knockout of Brendon Schaub or the applause and love shown to all of the Brazilians on the card, from the bottom to the top. And when Stanislav Nedkov, the only foreigner on the card to beat a Brazilian that night, started getting boos, Luiz Cane shook his head, and motioned the audience to applaud the man that had just beat him instead of booing, and they followed through with an immediate understanding of what he meant. Great moments, for sure, that truly showed the passion of Brazilian MMA fans.
And the aftermath? The event was shown on network TV, on the Rede TV channel, and boy, did the nation of Brazil pick up on that! I don't believe anyone expected what happened in the days after the event. It became obvious that MMA could become Brazil's second sport, trailing only the national game of soccer!
In the days after "UFC Rio," there were people that I could never have expected walking up and stopping me and wanting to talk about the fights. Stuck in my mind is an in-law, an extremely religious lady, as are many Brazilian evangelicals. She stopped me to chat, as she sometimes does, usually to ask me about the family and to give us God's blessings. But this time was different! All she wanted to talk about was the fights and how she had seen me on TV – and how this guy fought so well and why that guy was having a hard time and how Anderson Silva is sooo good! I couldn't believe my ears! To hear that kind of normal human excitement from someone who usually just gives me God's words in every sentence was very surprising, to say the least.
But time has passed since then, and Globo bought the transmission rights, pouring cold water on this momentum because they show "The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil" at late hours on Sunday night and are not showing more then a fight or two of select UFC events. Now people must go back to Globo's premium channel, which is not affordable to everyone and is only available to a relative minority. And so it seems that MMA, though still vibrant and on the people's minds and tongues, has turned latent again to some extent.
But that's the UFC, an extremely well-produced show, the pinnacle of MMA – and even of the sports world at the moment. But how about MMA in Brazil outside the UFC? That's a whole different story.
Brazil is a huge country, and you cannot generalize much in terms of the whole nation. There are different events all over Brazil, each with different business models and different success rates. There will always be different situations in different regions. There are a few select events that have a nice following, and they often manage to fill gymnasiums with more than 3,000 paying people. Some of these will be in the North and Northeastern region I already mentioned, but this is not the majority of cases.
Most events in Brazil are held in conjunction with cities and mayorships who provide logistics and even the cash to host events, but these deals sometimes tend to be of a shady nature. The consistency of the events well depend more on political will rather then actual measures of success, be it economical or any other aspect. In this way, the U.S. is light years ahead of Brazil.
Over the past 10 years, the U.S. has developed several successful events, even if some of them are only on a regional basis. MMA is rapidly becoming an organized sport, and even with the weight of oftentimes ignorant supervising bodies, it is becoming an industry. In Brazil, on the other hand, MMA is still in the dark ages. For Brazilians to fight, they must really put their dreams and desires in first place because the money that a regular Brazilian event pays is a pittance!
Governing bodies? In Brazil, you can have multiple federations, and these are popping up all over the country. But for the most part, their intent is only to scheme money, not grow or regulate the sport.
So now Brazil – even with the possibility of becoming the biggest MMA market on earth, if you consider eyeballs watching the sport – has seen that dream shine through the clouds, only to see the gap in the clouds close again and the country revert back to the wild, wild west of MMA. The UFC simply cannot occupy this space alone. Other events must exist and operate, but they can only come into existence and become sustainable based on how much UFC the people of Brazil gets to see.
Bumpy and strange road, this one!