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UFC's Rio Event Not Without Challenges, but End Result Is Smashing Success

Ian Loveland

could probably fight his whole career and never again walk out to the kind of ovation that he got from the same Brazilian crowd that would be booing him moments later.


event usually enter to a mostly empty arena and an indifferent crowd. In Rio, the HSBC Arena was packed to the rafters well before the first entrance song blared over the speakers, and fans erupted in cheers as soon as they got a look at the night's first fighter, which just happened to be Loveland.

Then, during the introductions, it sunk in for them that Loveland was American, and the boos came raining down. Such was the double-edged sword of the passionate Brazilian crowd for UFC 134, which UFC president Dana White dubbed "the loudest crowd ever."

"The first fight of the night sounded like a title fight," White said, adding, "We might be here every weekend. It was a successful event before it even happened."

David Mitchell

did when he entered to the Jimi Hendrix "Star-Spangled Banner" intro portion of U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky", was embrace the hate.

Paulo Thiago

-- a soldier for the BOPE special forces squad in Brazil -- entered a few moments later to the theme from Elite Squad, a popular Brazilian film about BOPE, the boos quickly turned into the kind of raucous cheers Thiago never hears for his fights in the U.S.

Stanislav NedkovLuiz Cane

, thus silencing the crowd for a few shocked seconds) on a fight card that was essentially Brazil versus the world, it doesn't seem like a little hometown love hurt anyone's chances on Saturday.

They cheered. They chanted. They sang songs that, at least according to my bilingual seatmates, were sometimes profane, sometimes funny, and sometimes just downright weird (naturally, several Americans were also warned that they were about to die, and no one seemed to think this was a strange thing to chant in unison at a professional fight).

But though the crowd was among the most vocal and inspired the UFC has ever had, putting on an event in Rio wasn't without its challenges. Earlier in the week rumors surfaced that the UFC had run into problems with the venue, that it was understaffed and required the promotion to provide everything from electricity to security, putting the set-up dangerously behind schedule at one point.

When asked about those difficulties following the post-fight press conference, White flashed a knowing but weary smirk.

"No matter how much support you get from the city, let me tell you what, when you go to another country to put on an event, there are a lot of obstacles and a lot of hoops to jump through," White said. "We did it. We got through it, man, and here we are."

By early indications, White and the UFC didn't just get through the first Brazilian event under Zuffa ownership -- they killed it. From the lucky fans who managed to score tickets to the fights before they sold out, to the scores who watched on free TV at home, this soccer-mad city was fully focused on the UFC for at least one night.

According to White, early polling numbers indicated that UFC Rio garnered a whopping 20 percent TV share in Brazil on Saturday, which would put the total estimated viewership here at about 30 million.

"Huge," White said. "It was a big night."

Inside the arena, at least, it was also a night for Brazilians by Brazilians. It wasn't just that they dominated the fight card, winning eight of the nine fights in which a Brazilian took on a foreigner. It was that they expressed such unified disdain for anything non-Brazilian, even booing their own fighters when one of them dared to speak a bit of English in his post-fight remarks, then immediately reverting to cheers when he gave in and switched to Portuguese.

And when it was announced that Raphael Assuncao, who hails from Recife, Brazil, was now fighting out of Jupiter, Florida, well, you can probably guess what the crowd response was.

The Brazilian unity vibe was put into words at the post-fight presser, when Anderson Silva was asked about the mixed crowd reaction to seeing him in a Corinthians jersey -- a Sao Paulo soccer team and rival of the local Rio clubs.

"I think what we need to make clear and what we need our fans to understand is that we can and we should improve a lot of things about our country," Silva said via an interpreter. "We're not here to defend the jerseys of our team but instead to defend Brazil so that we can have a better future for the sport."

Try to imagine for a moment a scenario where Brock Lesnar calls for putting personal allegiances aside in favor of national unity and goal-oriented improvement across the country, and you start to get a sense of how the general mood of this night differed from the feel at a fight in the MGM Grand.

Anyone could see that this was a special night for Brazilian MMA, but where does it go from here? It's one thing to get a huge response when it's a novel event, as the UFC received on its recent trip to Toronto, but what about the next time?

What are the UFC's future plans for the country that embraced it with an almost terrifying fervor on Saturday night?

"We're going to take this thing everywhere," White said after being asked about rumors that the UFC plans a return to Brazil in a 100,000-seat soccer stadium. "We believe there's a lot of cities [in Brazil] where we can be successful, and we're coming back to Rio too."

When it does, the UFC might want to warn its Brazilian fighters to save the English for the post-fight presser. And maybe don't advertise the fact that many of them do their training camps in the U.S.

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