Today in MMA History: The UFC cracks open Brazilian market, where it will feast for years to come

As a member of the foreign media assembled inside HSBC Arena on the night of the UFC’s historic return to Brazil, let me assure you of one thing: We were not ready.

These days, of course, everyone knows what the expect when the octagon travels that far south. They know about the rowdy crowds, about the chants promising imminent death, even about the occasional throwing of celebratory beers.

But back then, on August 27, 2011? I know it sounds naive, but we were caught by surprise. We didn’t know how they do it down in Brazil. Then Anderson Silva and the rest of the boys showed up ready to party, and we found out in a hurry.

First, some historical context. While Brazil became a staple market for the UFC shortly after this event, UFC 134 marked only the second time that the organization had hosted an event in South America’s biggest country. The first came nearly 13 years earlier, with “Ultimate Brazil” in October 1998. There, early MMA greats like Frank Shamrock and Pat Miletich fought alongside rising locals like Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort.

It seemed like a logical idea at the time. Brazil had, in many ways, given birth to the modern UFC, which began at least partially as an extended ad for the Gracie jiu-jitsu academies that had popped up in the U.S. The country was an early adopter of “vale tudo” events and still had a voracious appetite for this form of sporting combat, so why not bring the UFC back to the cradle of its own civilization?

But after Zuffa bought the UFC in 2001, the new owners hit pause on international expansion efforts. Over the next few years, the UFC strayed from its home base in Las Vegas only sporadically, and when it did it was often for other casino towns like Atlantic City, N.J. and Uncasville, Conn.

By 2011, however, things had changed. The UFC had successfully opened markets for itself in the U.K. and Canada, thanks in part to marquee fighters hailing from those locales. After that, it only made sense to go straight at the biggest, most fiercely loyal fan base in the entire sport. It didn’t hurt that Brazil had also produced one or two decent fighters over the years.

The UFC arrived in Rio de Janeiro near the end of Brazilian winter. An open workout on Copacabana Beach was met with sporadic rain, and still the enthusiastic local crowd danced on the sand as it waited for the UFC middleweight champion to show up.

But there were suggestions that this momentous return to Brazil might not end up being a good thing for everyone. After a pre-fight press conference at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, UFC heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira limped up the stairs to meet reporters on a recently repaired hip. Yes, Nogueira admitted, he may have rushed his return from surgery. But how could he miss a chance to fight at home in Brazil?

Watching him walk across the room with the gait of a senior citizen, it was hard not to think that Nogueira would be easy prey for the younger, bigger Brendan Schaub. If they’d been scheduled to compete in a footrace, the old Brazilian battler wouldn’t have stood a chance. But then, this was a fight. It was also in Brazil. And on this night, the locals would prove to have the advantage.

This was no Vegas crowd, filtering in late with empty seats visible in large clumps throughout the prelims. HSBC Arena was packed to the rafters in time for the first prelim, and when the Brazilian fighters met with foreign opponents the masses showered the outsiders with the same chant that had been a feature at pre-fight festivities all week – “uh, vai morrer!”

You’re going to die.

Even for the fighters who didn’t speak the language or asked to have the phrase translated, the vehemence with which it was delivered as they walked to the cage seemed to get the point across.

One after another, Brazilian fighters cruised to victory over the foreign invaders. Paulo Thiago, an actual special police commando, nearly blew the roof off the place when he entered to the theme song from “Tropa de Elite,” a film about the BOPE squad that Thiago was employed by.

Then Rousimar Palhares followed, only narrowly avoiding disaster after he stopped his attack on Dan Miller and celebrated atop the octagon fence before the fight was officially over, only to have to be coaxed down to continue on toward a decision victory.

When a Brazilian was finally beaten by a foreigner – Bulgarian fighter Stanislav Nedkov knocked out Luiz Cane to kick off the pay-per-view portion of the card – the crowd fell into instant, eerie silence. Then, when Nogueira pulled his broken body into the cage long enough to knock Schaub out cold in the following fight, the festive mood returned in the form of flying plastic cups filled with beer.

One after another, the Brazilians beat the world. And with each sudden stoppage came more cups, more beer, some of which landed in the cage and some of which fell short and merely showered the pricey electronics all along the perimeter.

After one reporter had a cup full of suds land liquid end down directly on his laptop keyboard, the rest of us smartened up enough to cover our equipment with our bodies by the time Mauricio Rua stopped Forrest Griffin with punches in the first round.

When it finally came time for Silva to defend his middleweight title against old foe Yushin Okami, it was a wonder the crowd still had any beer left to throw. And yet, when Silva dropped Okami with a right hand and then brutalized him en route to a stoppage in the second round, the party was only just getting started.

UFC executives had reason to smile. Not only was the event an enthusiastic sellout, but the exuberant local media coverage suggested that here was a market worth cultivating, which is exactly what the promotion did. The UFC would return three times the following year, and seven times the year after that.

Almost before we knew it, Brazil had become the UFC’s favorite international destination. All it took was that first event to crack it wide open.

“Today in MMA History” is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving “a daily journey through our sport’s history.”

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