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Which nation has contributed the most to the development of MMA? There are only three real contenders. There’s the United States, home of UFC 1, the birthplace of more elite fighters than any other country and the locale for the most high-profile fights. There’s Japan, which exported jiu-jitsu to the world, was the breeding ground for cross training before the Ultimate Fighting Championship existed and produced Pride Fighting Championships before falling on hard times and fading in relevance. Then there’s Brazil.
The home of the Gracie family, Brazil saw the development of vale tudo and the luta livre-Brazilian jiu-jitsu rivalry. Royce Gracie was instrumental in making the UFC a success, and Rickson Gracie was pivotal to making Pride a success. Over the years, Brazil has produced some of the biggest icons in the history of the sport, from the Gracies and Nogueiras to Anderson Silva and Wanderlei Silva. Unfortunately for the proud Brazilian fighters, trainers and promoters who have contributed so much to the sport, Brazil was held back from MMA dominance in one key way. The Brazilian economy, while growing, doesn’t have the economic might of more developed nations that share an interest in the rising sport.
With more money abroad, elite Brazilian fighters were forced to mostly compete overseas. Many moved to the United States to train, as well. The sport has remained very popular in Brazil, but the country doesn’t get anywhere near the volume of high-level MMA commensurate with the sport’s national popularity. To date, the UFC has run 24 events in Brazil, fewer than it has run at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Most of those cards have been smaller TV events without the star power of the biggest pay-per-views.
The issue isn’t the popularity of the sport in Brazil. It’s simple economics. The UFC could charge much more for tickets in other markets even before the Brazilian economic decline. That’s why the UFC has been running so many big shows in Las Vegas in the past year. There’s substantially more demand for the sport in other less saturated cities, but the UFC can charge extravagant prices in Vegas because the casinos and big-roller travelers help to buy up the top-dollar seats. Additionally, pay-per-views have typically not drawn as well -- Ronda Rousey vs. Bethe Correia was a notable exception -- when emanating from Brazil, further disincentivizing the UFC running its biggest shows in Brazil.
Given this history, UFC 198 on Saturday in Curitiba serves as a much-deserved treat for a country that has given so much to the sport while not receiving as much in return. As the UFC’s fourth stadium event, the atmosphere should be electric, with the partisan crowd rooting on a cavalcade of Brazilian legends. Imagine the response to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s UFC 134 knockout of Brendan Schaub with triple the audience.
It’s unlikely that all the local favorites will come through, but there are so many top Brazilian stars that there will surely be some happy endings live. It’s one of the deepest MMA cards in quite some time, starting with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira headlining the Fight Pass portion of the card, as he fights in his home country for only the third time in a lengthy and distinguished career. With his twin brother retired, Nogueira will have the opportunity to shine away from his sibling’s formidable shadow.
Demian Maia has fought in Brazil a lot more than Nogueira, but it’s still only a small percentage of his overall career. His fight with Matt Brown is a crucial one. At 38, Maia needs to keep winning to earn a welterweight title shot in that stacked division, and a loss to Brown would be a major setback. Maia has twice headlined UFC events in Brazil but the fight with Brown is more intriguing than either of them -- he fought Ryan LaFlare and Jake Shields -- despite not even making the UFC 198 main card.
The most important fight in the spike in popularity of MMA in Brazil in recent years was Anderson Silva-Vitor Belfort. They are probably still the two biggest stars to the Brazilian audience, and both are fighting at UFC 198. It will be only Silva’s third fight in Brazil since he became a superstar. His previous two performances against Yushin Okami and Stephan Bonnar were very impressive, some of his last top-notch performances before dropping three of his last four. The dangerous Uriah Hall will test what Silva has left as a fighter.
The stakes are even higher for Belfort, who still dreams of another middleweight title shot. A win against Ronaldo Souza would put him in line for just that, while a loss at 39 could put that out of range for good. For Souza, it’s an opportunity to score a crowning achievement in a career where he has never reached the level of fame and popularity of fighters like Silva and Belfort despite his tremendous skills.
The wildcard here is Cristiane Justino, who fights for the first time in her native country since she burst onto the scene in EliteXC in 2008. It will be an interesting test to see her level of popularity and notoriety. “Cyborg” has spent the bulk of her career fighting for promotions like EliteXC, Strikeforce and Invicta Fighting Championships that have far less global penetration than the UFC. If she is treated like a big deal in Curitiba, it enhances her leverage to call for catchweight fights with star bantamweights. If it is treated as no big deal, it weakens her position substantially.
The one thing the card is missing is a transcendent main event, but Fabricio Werdum-Stipe Miocic is still an intriguing heavyweight title fight. Werdum’s improvement in recent years has been remarkable, but Miocic’s boxing and athleticism make him a tough opponent with which to deal. Werdum has been underappreciated throughout his career and richly deserves the opportunity to shine in front of his home country.
After so many years of supporting the sport and helping to build it into what it has become, Brazil deserves a card with the depth and intrigue of UFC 198. It will be a celebration of Brazilian MMA and a showcase for all its quality talent. As the country struggles with corruption, disease and economic turmoil, MMA reminds the world what Brazil is capable of and points to brighter days ahead.