Probably the biggest surprise of Saturday night's UFC event in Brazil, were all the visible empty seats and the attendance, announced at 3,500 fans, at the Goiania Arena in Goiania, Brazil.
UFC's new Brazilian General Manager, Giovani Decker, was quick to blame the local economy for the drop from the 10,565 fans that came to the same arena on Nov. 9, 2013, for the Vitor Belfort vs. Dan Henderson fight. Part of that decline in the second time in the market and that Belfort is a far bigger star in Brazil than anyone on Saturday's show. But that's an unusually small number for Brazil.
"We know Brazil is going through an economic crisis," said Decker at the press conference after the show. "That reflects in all areas of the economy, so also reflects here in the events. On the other side, in terms of pay-per-view numbers on Combate, we're reaching historical numbers. If we didn't do good numbers today, MMA continues to do historical numbers in other sides (revenue streams). We're doing fine, thanks."
Quietly, the UFC moved in June 27 show in Sao Paulo, to Hollywood, Fla., but it is sending its biggest star, Ronda Rousey, to Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 1, to headline UFC 190.
When one is running a business with shows just about every week, there are going to be shows that do well, and shows that don't. The UFC business is hardly dependent upon live gates as their biggest source of income. But live gates do often tell a tale of how much interest there is in the product.
But more ominous to UFC is the fear of an economic collapse in Brazil, which is the company's second-biggest market behind the U.S. Saturday's show saw one of the country's most popular fighters, Rony Jason, talking to the fans in Portuguese about the problems with the government. Last week, Brazilian reporters at UFC 187 noted issues as different fighters have mentioned.
While most of the time when a show doesn't draw well, it's because a main event was booked that people don't want to see, a promotion can't escape from an economic collapse. Economic problems have ruined live event business in parts of the U.S. during bad stretches, as well as in foreign countries. Brazil isn't a traditional pay-per-view market for the UFC. The company makes money off television deals and subscriptions to the Combat Channel, a subscription television service that broadcasts all UFC events live. Such a collapse could have devastating effects on the market.
Brazilian currency has lost 25 percent of its value in the past year, and there is concern that is just the tip of the iceberg. In deals where UFC gets income based on local currency, that's a major hit already. In deals where UFC is paid in American dollars, it's a major hit to the business partner and thus can threaten the future of such deals. In recent years, the Brazilian market has enabled UFC to post strong economic growth at a time when the U.S. market was getting tougher.
About 20 years ago, something similar happened in Mexico, and it led to the collapse of what had been a thriving Lucha Libre economy, as well as the club boxing scene.
Right now, the UFC plan is to run one less show than previously expected in Brazil in this year.
Saturday's show inside the cage was a mixed bag. There were some dull fights early on, but the show ended strong, with a tremendous featherweight battle with Charles Oliveira beating Nik Lentz. Carlos Condit seemed to have no ring rust or problems from major knee surgery, in finishing Thiago Alves. There were also some interesting debuts, most notably welterweights Nicolas Dalby, Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and Darren Till as well as putting an exclamation point on the hype for featherweight Mirsad Bektic.
Let's look at how fortunes changed for five stars of Saturday's show:
CARLOS CONDIT - After Condit (30-8) stopped Alves after giving him a horrific nose break in the second round, he immediately called for a shot at the winner of the July 11 welterweight title fight with champion Robbie Lawler vs Rory MacDonald. The problem is that prior to Saturday, Condit had lost three of his four previous fights, to Georges St-Pierre, Johny Hendricks and Tyron Woodley.
Granted, he gave GSP a scare. He was also giving Hendricks fits late in the fight. And it was a torn ACL in the second round that cost him the Woodley fight. But there is no way Condit can get the shot ahead of Hendricks, the former champion, who beat him, and who is coming off a win over Matt Brown.
But if Hendricks is hurt, Condit would be the most best contender among those remaining. Going under the impression that injury doesn't happen, Condit could go next with Woodley (15-3) in a rematch, Demian Maia (20-6) or Brown (19-13, provided Brown beats Tim Means on July 11 in Las Vegas). The Woodley fight, should he win, would probably get him a title shot. A Maia win could do that as well. But a Brown fight possibly could, and is one of those fights that on paper looks like it could be something special. Even though Brown is coming off a loss, that would be the direction I'd go unless they need a fight sooner.
CHARLES OLIVEIRA - Oliveira (20-4, 1 no contest), has a very good shot at setting a UFC record for most submissions in a career. He's only 25 years old, and now has won seven times by submission. He trails only Royce Gracie (10), who competed in an era where most of his opponents were clueless to the game, Frank Mir (8), who is 36 years old, and Nick Diaz (8), who is 31.
As far as a next direction goes, Chad Mendes (17-2) and Max Holloway (13-3) are both in need of opponents, but could end up facing each other. Oliveira could also face either of them, and he vs. Holloway makes for an intriguing fight. If Mendes vs. Holloway is to take place, Clay Guida (32-15) or Ricardo Lamas (15-4) could be a next direction.
Oliveira started in the UFC at the age of 20, and has an 8-4 record with 1 no-contest, but has yet to get a big signature win. He lost in the first round on his way up, to Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone as a lightweight. After moving to featherweight, he's lost to Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar. Lentz and Hatsu Hioki have been his biggest wins thus far. Thus far, he's proven as a top 10 guy, but unproven as a championship contender level fighter.
JUSSIER FORMIGA - With a solid decision win over Wilson Reis, Formiga (18-3) joins Joseph Benavidez (22-4) and John Dodson (18-6), who both won a week earlier at UFC 187, as fighters in the argument for a shot at Demetrious Johnson's flyweight title.
A fourth fighter, Henry Cejudo (8-0), could join that group if he does as expected, and beats Chico Camus on June 13 in Mexico City.
Benavidez has lost twice to Johnson, but has been considered the consensus No. 2 fighter in the division consistently from its inception. Dodson lost once to Johnson, and took two rounds off him, but he had about outing in a close win last week against longtime training partner Zach Makovsky. Formiga has never faced Johnson, nor has been knocked out by both Benavidez (2013) and Dodson (2012). Cejudo is unbeaten and clearly has the athletic potential, but has only fought twice in UFC so far and once as a flyweight, so it feels early for him.
Dodson still seems the favorite for the next shot, and a Formiga vs. Benavidez rematch should then be made to determine the following title match participant.
THIAGO ALVES - Alves (26-10), at 30, has struggled in the past five years, going from facing Georges St-Pierre in what was considered a major title match at the time at UFC 100, to battling medical problems and only going 4-4 in the cage during that period.
Most of the fighters at his level are booked up already. And Alves, who may need nasal surgery after a badly broken nose, isn't likely to fight that soon either, so there will be a lot of movement by the time he's ready. But Erick Silva (18-5), who faces Rick Story on June 27, is someone who stylistically makes for a good next opponent.
MIRSAD BEKTIC - Bektic (10-0), was the most impressive undercard winner on Saturday. Bektic ran through Lucas Martins (15-3) with nonstop intensity, scoring with takedowns, a knockdown, a near submission and finally finishing with relentless ground and pound :30 into the second round.
A good next test would be Lentz, who while coming off a loss, with his strong wrestling, matches up in a stylistic way to see how Bektic handles someone with that wrestling skill and whether he's viable as a top level UFC fighter.