This weekend in Rio de Janiero, the UFC will held its third Brazilian event of the year. More than half the fighters on the UFC 153 card – 15, to be exact – were Brazilians, including UFC legend and national hero Anderson Silva.
Along with the current middleweight champ Silva (who moved up a division to defeat Stephan Bonnar at light heavyweight), the night included one Brazilian who used to hold the interim light heavyweight title (Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira), one Brazilian who fought Silva for the middleweight belt two years ago (Demian Maia), and one Brazilian who is considered a fast riser in the stacked light heavyweight division (Glover Teixeira). Three of the current champions in the eight UFC weight divisions are Brazilian – Silva, heavyweight Junior dos Santos and featherweight Jose Aldo – plus a fourth, Renan Barao, holds the interim belt in the bantamweight division. It’s the same number of current UFC titleholders as the United States.
Up here in the northern hemisphere, Americans like to think we’re the capital of everything. We’re the world’s mightiest economic power, recession be damned. We’re the world’s mightiest military power, even if Iraq and Afghanistan have made us question our invincibility. And we’re surely the world mightiest sports power; we did just destroy the second-place Chinese in gold medals and total medals at the London Olympics, didn’t we?
So it’s a refreshing change of pace to see a country other than the United States – a country with a booming economy that’s currently the sixth-largest in the world, not to mention the country that will host the next Summer Olympics – become the undisputed capital of America’s fastest growing sport.
Brazil is to mixed martial arts as the United States is to basketball: It’s the place where the sport was born, where the sport matured, and now, as the sport grows worldwide, where the sport’s most polished practitioners train and compete. The roots of the UFC can be traced not to the wizardly business dealings of UFC president Dana White and the Fertitta brothers a decade ago but instead way back to the early 20th century in Brazil.
It was the 1920s when a combat sport known as Vale Tudo, or “everything allowed,” became popular at Brazilian circuses. The Gracie family perfected the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and brought it to the United States in the 1970s, then the Gracie family helped form the UFC in the early 1990s. And it was the Brazilian Royce Gracie who used his family’s fighting lineage to win three of the first four UFC tournaments.
Sure, America can claim light heavyweight champ Jon Jones – the newest version of UFC fighter, who combines a mastery of a variety of martial arts disciplines with a long, athletic body to take mixed martial arts to a new level – but we still can’t claim to be the capital of this sport.
“You’ve got a lot of great fighters from there, and the Gracies were the ones who brought it up here, so it’s a strong, strong tradition,” UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell told FOXSports.com. “Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a big part of our sport. It’s a great history down there. Brazil has been really important to the sport.”
The UFC is trying to monetize that deep history in the second most-populated country in the western hemisphere. Sao Paulo is among the top cities in the world for the UFC’s Facebook traffic, according to the company’s internal numbers, and UFC was the top trending phrase on Twitter in Brazil in 2011.
“There are more regular fans of the UFC in Brazil than all other countries combined,” said Marshall Zelaznik, president of the UFC’s UK division and the promotion’s managing director of international development. “If you have Anderson Silva or any big fight happening in Brazil – and we’re on free TV in Brazil – we might have 40 million people, 50 million people watching the fight live in Brazil.”
Compare that to the biggest UFC fights selling a million pay-per-views buys in the United States. At an estimated 10 people watching it for every buy, that’s 10 million viewers for a big fight in the United States, not including fights shown at commercial establishments.
This UFC fanaticism in Brazil can be attributed in part to the way of life there. They’re simply a passionate people, and when they care about something, they care deeply. But just as much of that fanaticism should be attributed to crossover athletes like Royce Gracie at the beginning of the UFC and Silva today.
“Who are these crossover athletes, the people who crossed over in American culture like these guys?” Zelaznik asked. “Brock Lesnar played an important role. With the WWE, he crossed over into the culture. Jon Jones has a real potential to be a crossover athlete. What makes the US audience unique is nationalism is very important to America, and we’re very patriotic, but America ultimately wants the best. So Anderson Silva and GSP connect to Americans…"
“But in Brazil it’s more tribal in a way,” he continued. “The way these people get behind their fighter and cheer on their fighter. The first Brazil event I was at, I thought, ‘This thing is going to erupt. We’re not going to be able to hold these people in this arena.’ ”
In Brazil, there is always a different vibe in the arena. Something more exciting. Something more alive. It wasn’t even a title fight for Silva, but that didn’t matter. The Brazilians know how important their country is in the history of this booming sport. You can feel that pride in the air. Someday, the rest of the world will pay its proper respects too.
“It’s really important for everyone to realize the value of Brazil and all our athletes in MMA today,” Anderson Silva told reporters on a recent conference call. “We have some best athletes in the world fighting in MMA today. I’m not putting down other countries – the Americans, the Japanese, the Canadians, the British. Everyone’s got great fighters. But Brazil seems to have a very strong position in MMA.”