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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returned to Sao Paulo, Brazil, with UFC Fight Night 164. That’s usually a good sign for fans because as the UFC treks the world, it likes to feature fighters from the region in which it is running. That will often mean less-than-stellar undercards when running in areas where interest in mixed martial arts remains low. On the other hand, it frequently means strong and deep cards when UFC runs in an MMA hotbed. Brazil has long been one of the sport’s top markets and has a strong roster of talented fighters.
There was some evidence at Ibirapuera Gymnasium. The card featured major Brazilian names like Ronaldo Souza, Mauricio Rua and Charles Oliveira, as well as the perpetually underappreciated Francisco Trinaldo and the only man to defeat Colby Covington: Warlley Alves. On the undercard, a pair of fighters moving in opposite directions also competed. Ricardo Ramos, 24, deftly submitted Luiz Eduardo Garagorri to score his fifth UFC win, while former bantamweight champion Renan Barao suffered his fifth straight defeat and fell to 1-7 in his last eight fights. The concern for supporters of Brazilian MMA is that the Barao fight is more representative of the current state of MMA in Brazil than the bout in which Ramos partook.
It seems hard to believe now with the Octagon traveling so regularly to Brazil, but the UFC didn’t run a single event in the country from 1998 to 2011. When the UFC finally made that return, it did so in a big way with four pay-per-view events in short order: UFC 134, UFC 142, UFC 147 and UFC 153. These cards served as a celebration of Brazilian MMA and all the great fighters that came from that proud country. The shows featured a who’s who of champions, former champions and future stars: Rua, Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Vitor Belfort, Fabricio Werdum, Demian Maia, Glover Teixeira, Edson Barboza and more. It was reminder of all the star power Brazilian MMA possessed.
Those four cards were built in large part around fights pitting Brazilian fighters against competitors from other countries. Unsurprisingly, given the talent involved, Brazil went a spectacular 21-6. Those cards took place in 2011-12. Since then, many of those elite Brazilian champions have faded. At the time of the UFC Fight Night 164, only one fighter in the UFC pound-for-pound Top 15 was Brazilian: Amanda Nunes. In the Brazil vs. the world fights, Brazil went 3-4-1.
Brazil and the United States have been at different points neck and neck when it comes to producing the best MMA talent. Today, the United States is dominant when it comes to that friendly rivalry. Eighty-six champions and ranked UFC fighters were American, while Brazil was a distant second with 34 champions and ranked fighters. The UFC rankings are of course taken with a grain of salt, but they offer a general overview of that company’s premier talent. It’s certainly not as if Brazil is fading from relevance, but this is a country that surely expects more given its rich tradition.
Across the globe, top-notch MMA fighters are rising up and challenging established fighters from the sport’s traditional power bases. The UFC now has ranked fighters from South Korea, China, Kyrgyzstan, Australia and New Zealand in Asia and Oceania. In the Americas, ranked fighters hail from Canada, Cuba and Mexico to the north and Ecuador, Suriname and Argentina to the south. In Europe, the talent is coming from all directions, with over a dozen nations represented. With such a diverse array of young fighters looking to break into the sport across the world, it’s a challenge to the established powers just like we’ve seen in basketball. That has been a problem in particular for Brazil.
As notable as the numbers are when it comes to Brazilian representation in the UFC rankings, the individuals represented in those rankings are even more telling. So many of Brazil’s top ranked fighters are the likes of Maia, Aldo, Souza, Teixeira, Junior dos Santos and Raphael Assuncao. These are great fighters, but they are all in their mid-30s to early-40s, with peaks that have passed.
There are fewer Brazilian fighters on the rise and coming into their own like Paulo Henrique Costa, Johnny Walker and Ketlen Vieira. Those are the fighters that will carry Brazilian MMA into the future, but they aren’t as numerous. If those prospects don’t emerge, Brazil’s output of top fighters could go down even further rather than rebounding, leading to a cycle of the sport getting less popular and it becoming even harder to create the next generation of fighters. The most unsettling example of that is what happened to Japanese MMA over time. It seems highly unlikely Brazil will sink to that level, but it has long been time for Brazil’s next generation of MMA superstars to rise up.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.