Brazilians View U.S. as MMA Home

By Josh Gross Jul 7, 2007
LOS ANGELES -- Since its inception, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been a platform for Brazilian fighters.

The organization's first star, Royce Gracie (Pictures), started the invasion by manipulating clueless combatants on the canvas. And over the years, many others have followed.

Saturday night at the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif., Brazil's participation in the UFC will hit a high note when Anderson Silva defends his UFC middleweight title, Hermes Franca (Pictures) challenges for the UFC 155-pound belt, and former PRIDE heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures) enters the octagon for the first time.

It is a new era for the elite in Brazilian mixed martial arts, said Ed Soares, whose Tough Media management company has helped redirect a pipeline that once flowed to Tokyo from Rio, Sao Paulo and Curitiba.

"If you're big in Japan, hey great man, you're big in Japan," Soares said at his Sinister Brand warehouse, where Silva and Nogueira were getting in workouts a week before their fights. "But if you're big in the U.S., you're big all over the world."

When the UFC swallowed the PRIDE Fighting Championships earlier this year, the door to the States for top international mixed martial artists, particularly Brazilians, was jarred wide open. Among that group was Nogueira, one of the best heavyweights in the game and arguably the best South American mixed martial artist of all time.

Silva had already made his way to the UFC and in just two fights became the 185-pound champion; in the new world of MMA, that's how fast things can happen.

"Look at who he is today compared to who he was a year ago," Soares said of Silva, alluding to the power of fighting for the UFC. "And the only thing holding him back from breaking through to be a superstar is his English."

"Minotauro" -- fluent in English after spending several years in Florida -- made his professional debut in the U.S. in 1999, when MMA struggled against unfriendly cable television operators and state regulators. There was no mainstream media attention. There were no mega paydays. There was no opportunity to become a star.

If a fighter -- regardless of nationality -- wanted to make it big, he had to fight in Japan. And that's what Nogueira did. It wasn't long before he was widely regarded by diehard MMA fans as the top heavyweight on the planet, a title that has since escaped him.

When Nogueira steps into the cage tonight against Heath Herring (Pictures), he'll introduce himself to a legion of fight fans who are much more likely to know Forrest Griffin (Pictures) than Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures).

"Many people don't know me, but I have to start again and show my style," Nogueira said. "I hope they like it. I will show my best in the ring. I will show my heart like I did before in Japan and I hope they like me like they liked me in Japan."

An impressive UFC debut makes Nogueira an important cog in what Soares described as the "Zuffa marketing machine."

While the company that promotes UFC has been accused by some longtime followers of the sport of catering only to casual fight fans, the signings of Nogueira, Silva and other top foreign fighters suggests otherwise.

Despite an inability to carry a conversation in English, Silva was thrust into the spotlight in just his second fight. Now Soares said that Silva's Sinister Brand t-shirt line stands behind only former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell (Pictures) in sales, which last year helped bring in close to $2 million in gross sales for the company.

"I think that sometimes you can't really put a monetary value" of fighting in the UFC, said Soares, "because the marketing machine, in a way, is an investment in [a fighter's] future."

"The perfect example is Anderson Silva," he continued. "We were walking around the mall and people were stopping him for pictures and autographs. I was in Brazil with him two months ago in the biggest shopping mall in Rio De Janeiro going to a movie, and not one person even blinked an eye. Here, everywhere we go, everyone knows who he is. That says something about the media power that the UFC has."

Longtime friends

Despite being reared in rival fight camps, Nogueira and Silva were friends long before the U.S. overtook Japan as the home of MMA mega promotions.

Eight days before each man was set to fight in Sacramento, they got a pretty good sweat going in the back of Soares' warehouse, the contents of which were in the middle of being packed up and moved to bigger digs in a nicer part of town. Business is good.

As Silva and Nogueira trained in the cage, which wore a camouflage skirt and was framed by three large faded-green drapes emblazoned with the lettering and symbols of the Sinister clothing brand, Soares, whose Portuguese is as good as his English, sat in his office filling out paperwork for the California State Athletic Commission.

"You have to understand," Soares said of Brazil, "it's almost a third-world country. They look at this as their opportunity to make it. Yeah, of course they want to be famous. Who doesn't? But overall they're really happy to get an opportunity."

With 10 fighters in the Tough Media stable -- including Silva, Nogueira, Paulo Filho (Pictures), Ryoto Machida (Pictures), Vitor Belfort (Pictures) and Pedro Rizzo (Pictures) -- there are lots of opportunities these days, not just inside the UFC but throughout the sport.

Most of the group is located in Rio, where Soares' partner George Guimaraus oversees Black House, a top of the line training facility that housed both fighters in the lead up to UFC 73.

For Silva, who began his career in Curitiba, Brazil as part of the Chute Boxe Academy, Black House represents a fresh start.

"What I really try to do at Black House is pass on my good experiences and bad experiences that I've had in life and help the team get on the same page," said the UFC champion. "Hopefully, my experiences can help them in some way or another."

Synonymous with Brazilian Top Team, Nogueira said he might make training at Black House a regular practice.

"They have a cage," Nogueira said when asked why he hadn't trained at BTT. "I'm a professional and have to train in a cage. That's why I changed."

Considering prior team experiences, Soares said his group is sensitive to Nogueira and Silva, and hasn't asked them to officially join the Black House fight squad.

"We don't want to pressure them into anything," he said. "At the end of the day, Anderson is his own guy. Nogueira is his own guy before Black House even started. And we're just working with them. We manage them. We just want them to be the best that they can."

Guimaraus introduced Soares to Nogueira in Nov. 2003 when the clothier traveled to Japan as part of Chuck Liddell (Pictures)'s entourage. Three years later Nogueira approached Soares about making his own line of clothes and "he told me ‘why don't you go to the UFC. The sport is growing,'" said the heavyweight. "At that time we had a contract with PRIDE and we respected that. I waited until that contract is over, so he brought me to talk to (UFC president) Dana White."

"It wasn't really a pitch," Soares said of Nogueira's UFC negotiations. "I explained to them that he was interested in coming to the U.S., he speaks English, he's a talented fighter and they said ‘well, if he's really interested we're going to give him a better deal than anyone else out there' and that's exactly what they did."

It didn't hurt that Nogueira had seen Silva's success since moving to the UFC from England's Cage Rage organization. The two fighters became close when Silva's relationship with Chute Boxe soured, and Silva particularly ingratiated himself to the Nogueira brothers by spending three weeks with them during the Christmas season in 2003 to help Minotauro's younger brother Rogerio prepare for a New Year's Eve fight against Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures).

"We became friends at a time in my life when there was a lot of turmoil," remembered Silva. "I was contemplating not fighting anymore and me sitting back and watching him, how he was being a champion, he's been a great example to me to be a champion. He's a big idol of mine. Who knows if I would be here today if I wouldn't have met him."

Nogueira secured fights for Silva in Korea and England, and watched as the former Shooto champion continued to find international success.

"I tried my best to do all these things because I know the guy is a champion," Nogueira said. "If I was blind I could see that.

"He's got special skills. I've never seen anyone who does something like that. I'm very proud to be with this guy. We've been training together four to five years and I'm very happy for that. I'm very happy for him because he's getting there. He's holding the title and I hope he holds it for several more years."

And what of the former PRIDE champion's aspirations to become the next Brazilian to hold a UFC belt?

"All the events I went to before, I got the belt," Minotauro said. I don't want it to be a different story here. I just came here to do my best."
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