Postcards from Rio, Part III: Fight Night Musings from Beer-Soaked Press Row

RIO DE JANEIRO -- They don't charge enough for beers at the HSBC Arena. I never thought I'd lodge that particular complaint against any venue, but as I watched the hailstorm of half-full plastic cups that came down from the rafters after Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira beat Brendan Schaub, I was forced to admit that there was at least one upside to gouging event-goers on beer prices.

In the USA, fight fans would never throw away that much beer. Not after they paid nine dollars for it.

The most confusing part about the beer-throwing that went on at UFC 134 was the timing of it. Instead of chucking their brews in angry protest, as American fans might, Brazilians did it in celebration. Seconds after Big Nog's upset victory, the first cup hit the apron surrounding the Octagon.

Splash. The UFC's ringside officials looked up with baffled expressions. What kind of jerk throws a beer when their guy wins? you could almost hear them thinking. Then came the rest of the cups, sailing down like confetti.

After Mauricio "Shogun" Rua's win, one Brazilian reporter on press row watched as a nearly full cup landed upside down directly on the keyboard of his laptop -- an impressive throw, really, and one that taught the rest of us an important lesson. After Anderson Silva's victory, ESPN.com reporter Chuck Mindenhall and I both immediately closed our laptops and covered them with our bodies, just in time to feel the foam sprinkling the backs of our necks. Didn't these people ever drink any of their beer? I wondered.

For the American media members, the event might as well have been dubbed UFC 134: Cultural Differences. We knew they did things differently in Brazil. We just didn't know how differently.

It wasn't just the fans either, who were more vocal and more passionate than any crowd I've ever seen at an American MMA event. The reporters had their own style as well.

In the U.S. it's generally accepted that you don't cheer from press row. In Brazil, it's no big deal to give a standing ovation to your favorite fighters, to shout encouragement during their fight, or to begin your questions at the post-fight presser by saying, 'You've always been one of my idols..."

For the foreign press, just getting into the building that night had been a struggle. Since the HSBC Arena is a good hour outside of Ipanema, where the host hotel was, the UFC was kind enough to offer us a shuttle to and from the venue. A little over an hour before the first fight the shuttle dropped us off behind the arena, leaving us to wander the perimeter of the building looking for a way in. No one wanted to tell us that they didn't know where we were supposed to pick up our credentials, so instead they just pointed to the next open door and said, 'There.'

As in, go bother someone else.

By the time we finally found the Zuffa Will Call sign we'd been instructed to look for, we immediately understood how we'd managed to miss it for so long. Not only was the sign about the size of the top of a pizza box, it was obscured by the thousands of fans milling about in a festive mood on the sidewalk out front. Behind metal bars, and through a window that was barely bigger than a peephole, we received our credentials. Then an armed gentleman in a suit escorted us inside, and any illusion that this would be just another night of work in the MMA media was fully erased.

By the time the first fight began at 7 p.m., there was hardly an empty seat in the joint. Any reporter who's ever tried to interview Thiago Alves knows all about 'Brazilian time,' but apparently it doesn't apply on fight night.

I guess if you tell a Brazilian to meet you for lunch at noon, he shows up at 12:45. If you tell him to meet you for a fight, he's there ten minutes early, staring impatiently at his watch.

Ian Loveland had the distinction of being the first fighter to walk out among this madness, and the raucous reception must have surprised him. This might have been the one fight the fans cared least about, since it was the only one lacking a Brazilian fighter, and still they cheered louder than some crowds did at WEC title fights.

At one point during the Loveland-Jabouin fight, a chant started up that seem to really tickle the Brazilian reporter sitting next to me.

"It's the name of a soccer player," he told me when I asked what it was all about. "He's black, like Jabouin."

"That's it?" I said. "No other similarities?"

"No," he said. "They don't even really look alike."

The chants would prove to be almost as much a part of the show as the fights. From the simple (David Mitchell probably didn't realize an arena full of people was calling him a son of a...well, you know) to the unsettling ('You're going to die,' set to the tune of 'Whoomp! There It is,' which was supposedly an even bigger hit in Brazil than in the U.S.), the Brazilian fans were never at a loss for words.

When they weren't singing or chanting, they were doing the wave or else shouting along in unison with Bruce Buffer's announcer schtick (sidenote: when a crowd knows every word of Buffer's routine, even if they don't speak English, you know they're hardcore fans).

You wonder how much that kind of frenetic crowd support can really help a fighter, or hurt his opponent. It's not like football, where crowd noise can directly contribute to penalties, so who cares if the fans are cheering for the other guy? At the same time, when Ross Pearson would tag Edson Barboza with a solid kick, the fans acted as if nothing had happened. When Barboza landed a glancing blow, they roared. Maybe that didn't affect the judges' decision, but in a fight that close it couldn't have helped Pearson any.

The lone disappointment on the night for the Brazilian crowd was Luiz Cane's knockout loss to Bulgarian light heavyweight Stanislav Nedkov. At first they were stunned into a brief silence, then they booed, as if Nedkov had cheated somehow or else simply failed to follow the script. Then they apparently felt bad about booing, so they clapped politely. Not one to accept polite gestures gladly, Nedkov taunted them by putting his hand to his ear, Hulk Hogan-style, and the boos made an instant comeback.

If I was the beer-throwing type, here's where I might have most tempted. But no. The Brazilians were apparently saving their cups for Nogueira's win, which seemed to both surprise and exhilarate the entire arena.

For Nogueira, the party was just beginning. For Schaub, who made his way out of the cage sporting an eye that was already changing colors and an expression that seemed more confused than upset, the realization was just setting in.

Watching a losing fighter make his way past press row and back toward the locker rooms is always a touchingly sad moment, and so it was with Schaub. Just a few minutes earlier he had strutted into the cage like a giant, chest out and chin up in calm defiance. In defeat he seems to shrink inside of himself. You can almost see him looking for a way to disappear into the floor, to become invisible so that he might be alone with his own pain and disappointment for a little while.

Instead he has to make that long walk, where exuberant Brazilians gesture madly at him and shout in a language he doesn't understand.

Suddenly it all seems like such an obviously bad idea. What was he thinking, coming to Rio to fight a Brazilian? Didn't he know that this nightmare of a walk was waiting for him? Didn't he know that they had come to celebrate his suffering, to baptize their heroes with beer, to sing him out of the arena with incomprehensible songs he would never hear again and would never forget?

Read Part I and Part II of Ben Fowlkes' Postcards from Rio.

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