UFC President Dana White views Brazil as a fertile market. | File Photo
For more than a decade, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has kept Brazil at a distance, plunging its promotional efforts into the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and Australia. On Saturday, when UFC 134 “Silva vs. Okami” touches down at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, its focus finally shifts back to the home of some of its most accomplished superstars.
Fourteen Brazilians -- including middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who defends his crown against Yushin Okami in the headliner -- will compete at the historic event, as the UFC returns to the South American country for the first time since 1998.
“It’s very important for us. Obviously, Brazil has exploded in popularity for mixed martial arts and the UFC, and the guys we have fighting in the UFC are icons in the sports world down there,” UFC President Dana White said during a pre-fight teleconference. “It’s a big deal. We’re very excited about it. It sold out fast. It’s one of those situations where we think ... we were a little gun-shy down there.
“I don’t know how many people know this, but we have, like, a 14,000-seat arena down there and 350,000 people were online looking for tickets,” he added. “So, we probably could have done a little bigger arena, but we played it safe the first time down there. I think that the energy in Brazil is going to be insane. People have been so fired up for the UFC to come back.”
UFC 134 could serve as a staging point from which the ambitious promotion can enter nearby markets. White has had his eyes on the Mexico for years.
“It’s big for Latin America,” he said. “We’re making that move down there. We keep talking about coming down to Mexico and all these other places in Latin America, and Brazil is our first big step.”
According to White, each new destination provides its own set of tests.
“As you go into every market, it’s different,” he said. “We faced a lot of different challenges in the United States than we did in some of these other countries. There were different things that we had to face in Europe -- and mainly in the UK -- than in Brazil. They’re all different in their own different ways. You’re dealing with different governments, different business styles. It’s pretty interesting. You learn something new every day when you get out there into these different countries and try to do business.”
White expects a much smoother transition in Brazil, which has launched some of MMA’s most beloved figures, Wanderlei Silva, Royce Gracie and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira among them. Moreover, the economic climate there figures to be far more fertile.
“There’s no doubt about it. Brazil will be a zillion times easier than the U.K. and Europe has been,” White said. “I think their economy is, like, the fifth-largest in the world or projected to be very soon. Things are booming over there. There’s so many talented guys that come out of there -- not just talented guys, literally icons of the sport come from Brazil. It’s the country where this whole thing started. It’s a fighting culture down there. People really get it and like it.”