The UFC touched down in Brazil in August 2011 with thoughts of a market primed to explode. The event turned out to be a huge success, with much of the spotlight shining on middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Fighting in his home country for the first time in eight years, Silva was the face of the event and perhaps its biggest individual beneficiary.
But the real roots of his stardom had been planted just months before. In February 2011, he had faced Vitor Belfort in a match that came to be promoted as "The Fight of the Century." At the time, it was Belfort who was the more famous of the two, and Silva's destruction of him made legions of new fans.
His UFC 153 performance against Stephan Bonnar only added to his celebrity. Silva boasts major sponsorships from blue-chip companies like Nike, Burger King and Nextel. He's the pitchman in ad campaigns. He's featured on major TV programs. One fight to the next, Silva has kept the momentum building to the point where he has become one of Brazil's biggest sports stars.
"He’s bigger than Kobe Bryant and LeBron James here," his manager Ed Soares said on Wednesday's edition of The MMA Hour. "He's bigger than that there. It’s crazy. Every time I go there, I don't think it can get any bigger, but he seems to get even bigger."
Soares, who met with one of Silva's Brazilian agents in the last few days, said he's been told that Silva is the second-most popular athlete in the country behind soccer wunderkind Neymar. To give you an idea how popular Neymar is, SportsPro magazine recently named him its most marketable athlete in the world.
Silva has cut a swath through the UFC, winning an organizational record 16 consecutive matches dating back to his June 2006 debut. Perhaps the most amazing part of that streak is that he's finished 14 of those opponents.
That dominance as well as his willingness to move up in weight and take on larger opponents has him considered the greatest pound-for-pound talent in mixed martial history.
It also causes many to speculate about what may be next for him. While there has been a growing swell of support for a super fight between him and Jon Jones, Soares says the plan is still to see what happens in the upcoming fight between Georges St. Pierre and Carlos Condit, with Silva eying GSP as a possible next opponent.
As of now, a fight with Jones seems to be something they're not considering.
"We haven't really talked about it too much," he said. "I think if it needs to happen, it’ll happen. We'll cross that bridge when it comes."
So, for the next month, Silva will await the result of the UFC 154 main event while soaking in his rising stardom. And the latter, it seems, is just as challenging as anything he does in the cage.
"He went from a guy who was a top fighter in the world, a top pound-for-pound fighter to just about everywhere he goes, everybody's like, 'Hey, champ, you’re the greatest. You're the best. Can I get you this? Can I get you that?' It’ll get anybody a little bit tripped out. I think he’s kind of filling into the shoes that he's become. I think he's doing a great job with it. He's really kind of come full circle. I think he's handling it very well. He's kind of back to his roots. It’s very nice to see because there were some times when it started getting a little crazy."