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The UFC is finally going to Belem — but why did it take so long?

Lyoto Machida Photos
Lyoto Machida headlines UFC's first trip to Belem.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC Belem will be the company’s 30th card in Brazil since the company returned to Brazil in 2011, but only the first event in the Northern region.

That’s despite the fact that almost 13 percent of the Brazilian fighters currently signed by the UFC are from that area (that’s more than the South [9.3%] and Central-West [7%], which already held four UFC events each).

If you include names like Lyoto Machida — who headlines UFC Belem against Eryk Anders — and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, both of whom were born in other states but carry big connections to Belem and Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, it’s a wonder why it took so long for the UFC to finally go there.

The answer is quite simple, actually.

Despite having huge stars campaigning for events in Para and Amazonas for a long time, such as former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, a combination of various factors kept the Octagon away from the area for many years.

The first reason is geography. Belem and Manaus are too far from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the two biggest cities in Brazil. The second, and most important one, is the lack of modern arenas in Belem and Manaus. The UFC has held many events in old gymnasiums in Brazil before, but they were not as primitive as the ones in the North.

The Guilherme Paraense Arena, also known as Mangueirinho Arena, was finished in Oct. 2016. It’s a modern arena, fully prepared to host a UFC event.

The people from Para and Amazonas watched the UFC travel to Brazil 29 times since 2011, and had to patiently wait for their chance to host a live event. They are passionate about fighting, and not being able to watch a UFC event close to home didn’t drive them away from mixed martial arts.

For more than a decade, local promoters held dozens of MMA events in Belem, Manaus and many, many other cities in the North. In little gymnasiums and arenas, thousands of fans would line up and watch two men or women enter a ring or a cage to do battle. Those talented fighters would often get paid little money to do so, it’s true, but their desire to live from fighting was bigger than anything else.

Iuri Alcantara, Deiveson Figueiredo, Michel Prazeres, Douglas Silva de Andrade, Polyana Viana, and Alan Patrick are slated to compete at UFC Belem, and they all started their careers in those local promotions.

“It was hard to do MMA events due to a lack of support and sponsors,” said Samir Nadaf, who runs the organization Mr. Cage. In 2004, Nadaf promoted an event called Eco Fight, which saw Aldo make his MMA debut. “With the UFC’s growth in Brazil and several fighters from the North being signed by the UFC, that made Mr. Cage the main MMA promotion in the North,” said Nadaf.

“It’s really hard to promote events, especially in this crisis that the country is going though right now,” Coalizão Fight promoter Aureo Junior said. “The sport is still seen as something new by the local media in Belem, but I believe that UFC Belem will make it stronger.”

Iron Tomaz was one of the most important promoters in the North for years. He helped stage 21 Iron Man Championship Fight cards in Belem from 2008 to 2016, and invested in marketing to bring the attention from MMA media, located mostly in Rio de Janeiro, north.

Tomaz paid UFC icons like Machida and Vitor Belfort to work as referees, and brought stars like Mauricio Rua and Ricardo Arona as VIP guests.

“That opened the eyes of the media, like Portal do Vale Tudo and Tatame, who asked to cover the event and see how MMA was in the North, and we became more known nationally,” Tomaz said. “Many people in Belem didn’t know the sport, thought it was too violent, said it would bring criminals to the city, but we wanted to change that image. I was doing events focused on the riches, so they could understand that it was not something violent or too radical as many of them thought.”

The number of events in the region has decreased over the past few years, mostly due to the current political and economical situation of the country. Tomaz is no longer based in Belem, but plans on bringing his promotion back to other cities. Junior recently held a Coalizão Fight card in Para, but is not there as often as he once was. Still, six of the 31 editions of Nadaf’s Mr. Cage took place in 2017, four of them in Amazonas, and Nadaf is not slowing down.

One of the alternatives used to continue to provide a platform for local fighters to build their records, and eventually have a chance on the international circuit, is to promote events inside gyms. Silmar Nunes, a 36-year-old veteran with more than 50 fights under his belt, is taking that route.

“We have no sponsors or help,” said Nunes, who is preparing for the sixth edition of Sombra Fight Championship, which he also fights for. “The Secretary of Sports doesn’t give us financial support as they used to in the past, with Iron Man and Amazon Fight. I’m promoting events to help athletes. I’m trying to help the sport here, helping myself and other fighters, too.

“There are guys with 70 fights, but they don’t even have a record on Sherdog. Nobody pays attention to the events here. I hope the local government will start to invest more now that the UFC is coming.”

With the UFC returning to Belem 97 years after Carlos Gracie left the city to spread jiu-jitsu around the country, maybe the time has finally come for the country’s Northern talents to earn well-deserved attention from the MMA market.

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