Rio Experiencia

If you want to feel both better and worse about your own physique, go to the beach in Rio de Janeiro. The time of year doesn’t matter. Even in the dead of winter, it’s still 75 degrees, and the beach is still the place to be. That’s where you’ll find the “cariocas,” as Rio residents are known, in all their many forms.

Zipping past on rollerblades is the most stunning woman you’ll ever see, sporting a thong, of course, and getting the eye from the guy in a Speedo with six-pack abs. On the sand stands a portly, middle-aged mother, also in a thong, kicking a soccer ball for her young son, who is also in a Speedo.

Thong, Speedo. Thong, Speedo. Whether you’re model material or the hairiest thing on two legs, so it goes in Rio. It’s as if the greatest shame lies not in having expansive, sagging, or dimpled flesh, but in being too embarrassed to show it off. The person who keeps his or her ass under wraps—cariocas seem to believe—is the saddest person of all.

The fact is, I hadn’t come prepared. I’d come all this way, logged more than 5,000 miles on an airplane, and I hadn’t even brought a pair of form-fitting Speedos. What was I thinking? Probably that I was here to work—to cover the madness surrounding the UFC’s first trip to Brazil in more than 10 years—and that I wouldn’t have much time to spend on the beach. And, sure, nobody needed to see a pale, uncomfortable American embarrassing himself in an effort to fit in.

I received all kinds of advice before heading to Brazil. It ranged from the useful (from a globetrotting friend: “Try the caipirinha, which is the national cocktail, but more than two and it’s migraine city.”) to the reactionary (from my father: “Don’t walk anywhere alone, ever.”) to the vaguely unsettling (from Vitor Belfort: “Respect the people, and be safe.”).

Guidebooks warned me about the crime. The lady at the airport ticket counter warned me about yellow fever. But no one, it seemed, had prepared me for the cariocas, who just might be the world’s most passionate sports fans. I first learned this just a few hours after touching down in Rio. After waking up in a different hemisphere following an all-night flight, I was perhaps not all that prepared to rush immediately to the UFC’s open workouts on the famed Copacabana beach, where I suddenly found myself in the middle of a singing, dancing throng of several thousand Brazilian fight fans.

This was around noon on a Wednesday. It had been drizzling off and on all morning, which the UFC apparently hadn’t planned on, since the workout mat was uncovered and had to be dried by people shuffling across it with towels under their feet, the way you might clean up spilled milk on your kitchen floor if you were especially lazy. Still, the rain did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd, some of whom were in costume, and all of whom seemed to think they were at a beach party.

“Some guy just told me I was going to die,” Forrest Griffin says just a few minutes after arriving on the scene. “But he said it in very poor English, so I was able to ignore him.”

Of all the Americans on the fight card, no one seemed less pleased with the sentiment and more open with his displeasure than Griffin. Slightly grumpy may be his default setting, but when he’s forced to leave his home country and his pregnant wife behind, he moves into full-scale cranky.

“Why didn’t you workout?” asks a member of the enthusiastic Brazilian media after Griffin did about three minutes of stretching and shadowboxing before calling it an afternoon.

“I don’t know,” he shot back. “Why didn’t I?”

“What do you expect from the fight with Shogun Rua?” another reporter asks.

“Well, I don’t expect to die,” Griffin smirks.

Behind us, the crowd breaks into a new song heralding the arrival of Rua himself, which is Griffin’s cue to leave.

BRAZIL VS. THE WORLD

“In America, you have many heroes,” a Brazilian kindly explains to me when I ask about the level of fame enjoyed by MMA fighters here. “Football players, basketball players, rappers. In Brazil, we only have soccer players.”

On every level, soccer dominates the Brazilian sports culture. All around Rio, you see soccer goals of both the official and makeshift variety. They’re on vast fields and on the blacktop of inner-city courts. They’re in public parks and on the beaches. No matter where they are, cariocas are never far from some form of soccer venue, and they take great advantage of this fact.

The flip side is that if you’re one of Brazil’s many successful MMA fighters, you’re still a second-class sports star. Or at least, that’s been the conventional wisdom for years now, although it’s starting to change ever so subtly, and Anderson Silva is a big part of it.

When Silva finally showed up at the open workouts, he did so with a bevy of aggressive reporters and photographers surrounding him. The crowd saved its loudest songs and chants for his arrival, and the normal entourage that Silva travels with in America, which is sizable, seems to have tripled.

At the pre-fight press conference later that week, the Brazilian media was abuzz with news that Silva would be wearing a Corinthians soccer jersey (a Sao Paulo team) when he made his walk to the cage at UFC 134. This seems to plunge the local Brazilian media into a bit of a crisis. On one hand, it’s evidence of crossover between MMA and soccer, which they love. On the other hand, Corinthians is a league rival of Rio squads like Flamengo. Isn’t Silva worried about the reaction of cariocas, who might not take too kindly to seeing the Corinthians logo on his chest?

The champ will get asked this question many times and in many forms, but his answer will always be about the same.

“We have the opportunity to change the heroes in our country and change the heroes in Rio,” he says at the pre-fight presser in a luxurious ballroom of the historic Copacabana Palace hotel, which was the go-to destination for movie stars of the 1930s, and which still clings to the style of that era. This is “a new phase” for the sport in Brazil, Silva says, and when that doesn’t put an end to the question, he reminds reporters that the real struggle isn’t between Brazilian soccer teams, but between Brazil and the rest of the world.

He’s not the only one who shares that mentality, apparently. It helps that the UFC has structured the Rio fight card so that almost every bout features a Brazilian taking on a non-Brazilian. The only exceptions are the first fight of the night, where American Ian Loveland meets Canadian Yves Jabouin, and the three subsequent fights which feature Brazilian-on-Brazilian action. Other than that, it’s all Brazilians versus foreigners, with Americans feeling the brunt of the heat.

“I thought the response at the workouts was actually really good,” a surprised Brendan Schaub says after Thursday’s press conference.

When he stepped on the scales at the HSBC Arena the following afternoon, he was greeted by several thousand Brazilians shouting, in unison, “Vai morrer!” Translation: You’re going to die!

It isn’t just Schaub who hears this chant. Every foreigner on the fight card gets it, though there’s notably less intensity behind it for guys like Stanislav Nedkov of Bulgaria and Ross Pearson of the U.K. When they come on stage, the chant feels almost mechanical. Like, you’re going to die…eventually.

For Schaub and Griffin—the Americans taking on Brazilian legends— the threat seems more urgent, as if they may die as a direct result of Saturday night’s fight.

“It’s not really like that,” one Brazilian in attendance explains to me in shockingly well-spoken English, shortly after apologizing for how poor his English is (this is a recurring theme among Brazilians with impeccable English, and let me tell you, nothing could make you feel worse about visiting their country and speaking zero Portuguese). “It’s more like, you’re going to lose or you’re going to get beat up,” he says.

“So why not just say that?” I ask.

He shrugs sheepishly. It’s as if, while Brazilians don’t actually want to see American fighters dying in the cage, they might not totally mind it if the Americans went to bed that night worried about it.

WHEN IN RIO…

In Brazil, normal rules about fighter popularity don’t apply. You may think that you have a good grasp on which fighters fans worship, which ones they detest, and which ones they merely tolerate, but it’s an entirely different ball game when you’re dealing with the fiercely nationalistic fight fans of Brazil.

Take Paulo Thiago, for instance. In the U.S., he’s known to hardcore fight fans, but he’s not exactly a household name. In Brazil, where he is a member of the feared and respected (but mostly feared) elite police squad known as BOPE, he gets an ovation that shakes the floor. All this, and he’s on the undercard of UFC 134.

When you show up before an event in Las Vegas, there’s hardly a soul in the arena. In Rio, the start time is several hours later than in the States, and the arena is filled to the rafters well before the first fight. As Ian Loveland makes his entrance, kicking the night off, the crowd explodes with the kind of cheers usually reserved for a major title fight back home. It’s not until the introductions that they remember Loveland is an American, and then the cheers turn into equally enthusiastic boos.

It goes on like this all night. Every Brazilian gets treated like a star, complete with his own special chants, and every foreigner gets an immediate reminder that he’s in hostile territory. Does it make a difference in the actual fights? It’s hard to say for sure, but it can’t hurt. The Brazilians win the first three fights against foreign opponents, and with each one, the crowd’s passion swells just a little more. If they’re here for an us-against-them kind of night, us is clearly winning. Then comes the Luiz Cane-Stanislav Nedkov bout.

At first, it looks good for Cane. As usual, he fights like he considers stepping backwards to be a shameful act, and it’s all offense and aggression in the opening minutes. Soon, the smaller, doughier Nedkov is bloodied and in retreat mode. He flings out a looping overhand right and it lands, which seems to catch him by surprise. Moments later, he throws it again, and this time it really hurts Cane, who reels back with Nedkov in pursuit. The crowd goes quiet for the first time all night. Nedkov turns up the volume with a punch flurry, and suddenly Cane
is dazed, bloodied and beaten, with the referee standing over him and waving it off.

An eerie, shocked silence sets in. It’s almost as if the Brazilian crowd didn’t realize this was possible. Then the boos start, followed by a polite, apologetic clap, followed by more boos as Nedkov poses in the center of the cage, putting his hand to his ear Hulk Hogan-style.

If this is the reaction to a Brazilian losing an undercard bout, it occurs to me that we will be unlikely to get out alive if Anderson Silva loses.

He doesn’t, of course. Neither does “Shogun” Rua, and most surprisingly, neither does Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who upsets the heavily favored Schaub with a first-round knockout and prompts the first of several bouts of celebratory beer-throwing from the Rio crowd.

At first, it seems like an anomaly. Seconds after Big Nog knocks Schaub unconscious, a half-full plastic cup of brew lands near the Octagon. Okay, so there’s one angry Schaub fan out there. Then it happens again when Rua wins, only this time with many more beers involved—one even landing directly on a Brazilian reporter’s laptop on press row. By the time Silva finishes Okami in predictable fashion, we’re all closing our laptops and/or covering them with our bodies.

Brazil has clearly won this battle against representatives from the rest of the world (except Bulgaria) and has decided to celebrate by throwing away perfectly good beer. Chalk it up to cultural differences, I suppose.

In the post-fight press conference, everyone wants to know when the UFC will come back.

“We might be here every weekend,” jokes UFC president Dana White.

Funny. But seriously, the Brazilian press wants to know: When? Where? Who?

Unfortunately for them, the UFC hasn’t figured that one out yet. Next time, at least we will know better what to expect. Next time, we’ll all bring our thongs and Speedos.

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