On Aug. 27, 2011, exactly 10 years ago, 15,000 Brazilian fans packed HSBC Arena to see some of their biggest idols starring in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's debut in Rio de Janeiro, the birthplace of the Gracie family and vale tudo.
Anderson Silva's historic knockout of the most popular Brazilian MMA fighter, Vitor Belfort, at UFC 126 popularized MMA all over the country and opened the doors to UFC make a great debut in Rio de Janeiro six months later, with a historic card and a unique atmosphere that only who were present in HSBC Arena that night can describe. “I’ve promoted events for ten years all over the world, and one thing that was really fantastic was seeing the arena packed before the first fight. If it were up to me, we’d come here every weekend”, said UFC President Dana White right after the show.
"Minotauro" Makes Anderson Silva Cry
UFC spared no efforts bringing a spectacular starring card by three great sports idols: Anderson Silva, who faced Yushin Okami; Mauricio Rua, rematching Forrest Griffin; and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who would face Brendan Schaub, coming of a streak of four wins, the last one being a knockout over Mirko Filipovic. The card was completed by eleven other Brazilian talents, representing teams all over the country.
The local crowd packed the arena and chanted supporting their fighters since the very first preliminary fight. One of the most remarkable moments were when Paulo Thiago entered the Octagon for the fifth fight of the preliminary card against David Mitchell. The BOPE police officer walked in to the song “Tropa de Elite,” the theme of a popular Brazilian movie by the same name, and got the crowd jumping and singing along. Thiago won via decision, but his entrance has always been remembered as one of the best moments of that night.
The only moment that the crowd got silent was the entrance of "Minotauro" Nogueira. Most fans were aware that former Pride Fighting Championships champion was passing through the most difficult moment of his career. Coming off three serious surgeries — two on the hip and one on the knee — he had been walking on crutches for five months. According to the schedule of his treatment, he shouldn't have returned to training until October, but given the possibility of missing the debut of UFC in Rio, he decided to move his return to training up to June.
With the support of his physiotherapist, Dr. Angela Cortes, "Minotauro" spent the months of June and July doing six hours a day of intensive treatment and returned to training with a limp. Even his teammates were full of tension. Everyone knew that, given the limited movement that Rodrigo had been showing, the chances for the UFC's debut in Rio to end with a loss by one of the biggest idols of the sport were huge, which increased the emotional weight of the event even more. This was clear right from the beginning of the fight, as the arena was in tense silence while the Brazilian tried to take down Schaub a few times, without success, almost being caught with two uppercuts.
But "Minotauro" continued to press, feinting a double-leg takedown and connecting with a straight right that hit Schaub's chin, knocking him out, leading to delirium for 15,000 fans who started to chant “The champion has come back,” while Nogueira, seated on the top of the octagon, celebrated his 32nd win. The emotion of the win even “knocked down” Anderson Silva in tears in the locker room. Aware that his master and friend had great chances of being knocked out after badly recover from his 21st surgery, Anderson cried like a child, needing some minutes to recover before he could enter the Octagon for his own fight.
"Shogun" Gets Revenge on Griffin
One of the best light heavyweight fighters of all time, Mauricio Rua, made his Octagon debut at UFC 76, being submitted by Forrest Griffin. Four years later, "Shogun" received the chance to avenge the loss to the former UFC champion in Rio. Fresh off a bitter defeat at the hands of Jon Jones, which cost him the UFC light heavyweight title, "Shogun" moved to Los Angeles in order to train with Rafael Cordeiro, along with a team of stars including Fabricio Werdum, Renato Sobral and Jason Miller.
When the fight got underway, the Brazilian showed his talent and won quicker than most expected. In a wild striking exchange, Shogun dropped Griffin and landed a vicious series of hammer punches to seal the TKO in 1 minute, 53 seconds.
Silva Puts on Another Show
After recovering from the emotion of Minotauro's win, Silva went to the Octagon ready to give another show to the fans for his ninth title defense. The middleweight champion’s strategy confused Yushin Okami. After using the first round to test the Japanese fighter's distance, applying a couple of head and body kicks, Silva decided to finish the combat in the second round. After knocking down Okami, Anderson finished the fight with a brutal series of punches and elbow strikes, forcing the referee to step in and declare the TKO, finishing that historical night for Brazilian fans in great fashion. Eleven months later, Silva would make another title defense that was considered another turning point in MMA's popularity in Brazil, against Chael Sonnen in UFC 148 in Las Vegas.
UFC Helps Brazil's Fifth-Biggest Network Beat No. 1 Rede Globo
Public interest was certainly the greatest legacy left behind by UFC Rio 1. The event was broadcast by RedeTV (the fifth biggest Brazilian open channel) which drew more viewers than Rede Globo, Brazil's top network, during the main event between Silva and Okami. The show averaged 10 points, with a peak of 13. This numbers sparked the interest of Globo, Record (3o biggest) and Band (4o biggest) as well, who looked to engage in a title-worthy fight for the broadcasting rights of the world’s most famous promotion. The most powerful, Rede Globo, owner of cable TV COMBATE Channel, ended up wining the competitions for the UFC rights what was really important to take UFC to another level and raise MMA to the second place among the most popular sports in Brazil, only loosing to the unbeatable soccer.
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