The UFC was initially skeptical about taking its brand back to Brazil.
As recently as mid-2010, Dana White wasn’t thrilled with the idea, saying the fight promotion would focus its international expansion efforts on potential boom markets like India, China and the Middle East instead. There was even some pie-in-the-sky talk of doing a double-secret show in Afghanistan before the UFC mentioned any serious plans of returning to Brazil for the first time since 1998.
A bit more than a year later, the world looks a whole lot different.
Junior dos Santos’ first-round victory over Cain Velasquez on Saturday night means three of the UFC’s seven champions are now Brazilian and, according to the company’s early estimates, as many as 60 million of the new champ’s countrymen tuned in to watch him fight.
If true, that number is simply staggering. You don't have to be one of the world's greatest fight promoters to know what to do next, but it doesn't hurt that the UFC has one of them on the payroll, either.
“Brazil is becoming our new Canada,” White said at the postfight media conference for UFC on Fox. “We’re going to be doing a lot of stuff in Brazil. Brazil is taking off. It’s crazy down there how popular this is becoming.”
White says the long-rumored Brazilian incarnation of “The Ultimate Fighter” will be forthcoming “immediately” and the company already had its follow up to August’s UFC 134 booked, in the form of a quick jump back to Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 14 for UFC 142.
Now it appears those two events will be the first of many happy returns.
There has been talk of doing future shows in 100,000 seat stadiums in Manaus and Sao Paolo and the company recently inked a broadcast contract with Brazil’s Rede Globo TV, the fourth-largest commercial public television network in the world. That was the deal that made it possible for those 60 million people to watch dos Santos wrap the UFC title around his waist in the first place.
Another, much smaller indicator of the sport’s success in South America’s largest country? Brazilian fighters scored big in the UFC’s first ever round of Twitter bonuses recently, with Anderson Silva, Paulo Thiago, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Demian Maia and Cristiane Santos making it a clean sweep in awards for most new followers, both in sheer numbers and by percentage.
“Imagine where we’ll be in two years ...,” White said. “What we’ve seen here in the United States and everywhere else that we go is when we take [MMA] to all the different cities around Brazil, it’ll just get bigger and bigger and bigger.”
The UFC's Brazilian renaissance isn’t just financial. The country that gave birth to modern MMA’s first champion is asserting itself inside the cage too, not only through fighters like dos Santos and Silva, but with a next wave of young guns like Jose Aldo, Erick Silva, Renan Barao and Charles Oliveira.
“There’s so much talent coming out of Brazil, it’s insane,” White said. “We’ve already done all the leg work for ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and I’m telling you guys, wait until you see the talent that comes out of this country over the next two years, it’s going to be crazy ... You’re going to see more kids training down there for mixed martial arts than soccer down there pretty soon.”
Mere hyperbole? Probably. Nonetheless, it appears the UFC may have unexpectedly found a new home away from home.
And it’s sure been a long time since anyone with the organization has said a word about China.