Caged combatants.                                                                  

Pele Wannabes Take Up Ultimate Fighting

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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When the Ultimate Fighting Championship came to Rio de Janeiro, in mid-2011, some aficionados were skeptical. This was the land of futebol, after all, where the idols glissaded on grass. Would anyone turn out to see men in spandex go at each other in a wire cage?

Silly question. When tickets went on sale for UFC 134, the house sold out in 74 minutes. Rio's HSBC Arena was packed with 14,000 fans -- four in 10 of them women -- who hooted and heckled from before midnight almost until sunup. Now mixed martial arts is as Brazilian as the caipirinha and about as potent. While Brazil's footballers were getting their shorts kicked by Germany in the World Cup in July, the toughs in the octagon were busy training for four home tournaments on the calendar this year and a half-dozen more abroad.

Smack-down artists have come to rival soccer greats for star power, said Lorenzo Fertitta, one of the UFC's co-owners, and the sport's promoters are pouring money into Brazil. Audiences for pay-per view matches jumped 14 percent last year compared with just 3 percent for overall cable subscribers, Grace Tourinho, chief of UFC Brasil, told me. That's the sort of money note that most CEOs only dream of hitting and one of the reasons Tourinho ditched a rewarding career in finance (at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and the Brazilian brewing giant, Ambev) to become the first woman to run the fight club. "We are on track to overtake Canada as the No. 2 market for mixed martial arts, right behind the U.S.," she said.

More than a bull market, mixed martial arts has touched a national nerve. Once, stardom in soccer was seen as a poor boy's meal ticket, just as the fashion catwalk was the ramp to glory for girls. Now fight gyms bloom like storefront churches in the favelas of Rio and Sao Paulo, but with the promise of more earthly rewards. Said Tourinho: "Once a mom would give her son a soccer ball. Now it's a pair of gloves."

All of them want to be the next Anderson Silva, a quiet kid who went from flipping burgers for McDonald's to become the Pele of the octagon. Coming back from a crippling leg injury last December, the former middleweight champion (33 wins, 6 losses) still boasts 5.4 million followers on Twitter (twice the haul of ubermodel Gisele Bundchen), and fat advertising contracts to garnish his handsome winnings in the cage.

With fight fever spreading, billing alpha brawler might be just the ticket to rescuing the white elephant stadiums Brazil hurled up for the World Cup in the middle of nowhere, such as the 44,000-seat, $291 million Amazonia Arena, in Manaus, where native son José Aldo will defend his lightweight title next year .

Such enthusiasm isn't new in Brazil, where slaves invented capoeira, a kicking, whirling, deadly martial art disguised as a dance to fool the master. Later there was Helio Gracie, a wiry, 170-pound jiu jitsu master who earned a name calling out brutes half again his size for freestyle slugfests that would end only when someone surrendered or collapsed. With his deft moves and more angles than Archimedes, Gracie invariably won and started a dynasty.

Gracie's sons took the genre, known as Vale Tudo (Anything Goes), to America, where it became a closet success. Las Vegas got wind, added rules, gloves, glitz, energy drinks (though some prefer anabolic steroids), and reality TV, and rebranded it as mixed martial arts. It's fitting that the show is coming back to emerging Brazil, not just for the gladiators, but as a big fat, hugely profitable entertainment franchise.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net