Lefko on UFC: The heart and soul of MMA

Defending featherweight champion Jose Aldo. (AP/Felipe Dana)

If it’s true, as UFC president Dana White once said, that Canada is the mecca of mixed martial arts, then Brazil surely has to be its heart and soul.

The Brazilian people love their fighters, recognizing them as champions or merely fighters who have had to overcome incredible and often insurmountable odds purely to participate in the biggest MMA promotion in the world. The fans cheer as if they are watching a soccer event and celebrate with more passion than any other part of the planet.

As the UFC comes to Brazil with more regularity, the fans are treated to quality cards because for the most part the competitors come to fight, realizing their purpose and the opportunity that putting together a string of quality performances can result in financial reward.

On Saturday, in the searing heat of Paola Sarasate Arena in Fortaleza, Brazil, the crowd roared as one Brazilian after another ramped up the UFC on Fuel TV 10 card with stellar performances.

Collectively the card produced a UFC record with eight fights won by submission. And each time, the loud and proud crowd, which numbered 6,286 but seemed much larger because of the sheer volume of noise it elicited, cheered wildly.

Sometimes it seems like watching a UFC card in Brazil is like viewing a soccer event because of reactions of the crowd. Three weeks ago in Brazil at Arena Jaragua in Jaragua do Sul, a slightly larger crowd watched legendary countryman Vitor Belfort knock out American Luke Rockhold with a devastating spinning heel kick and punches and the crowd broke out in song.

Inasmuch as Belfort is one of the greatest fighters to ever emerge from Brazil and the former light-heavyweight champion is hoping to reclaim a UFC title nine years after he lost his belt, he is one of many of his celebrated countrymen who have cobbled together storied careers but still display the warrior passion.

Brazilian heavyweights Fabrecio Werdum and the legendary Antonio Rodrigo (Minotauro) Nogueira battled in the main event, one hoping to move closer to a title fight, the other looking to maintain his standing in the top-10 in the division.

The two had battled seven years before at different points in their career: Nogueira had been among the best in the world fighting in the Pride Fighting Championships, in which he had been a champion and had fought more than 30 times to that point, while Werdum had only about a third of that total. Big Nog won via unanimous decision in the three-round fight, but the rematch and the end result pointed to where the two now are in their careers.

Werdum forced his opponent to verbally tap out with an armbar in the second round of the five-round fight and afterward displayed true class when asked how it felt to beat his idol.

“He is, in fact, an idol for all Brazilians,” Werdum said.

Werdum bowed to Nogueira before they touched gloves and raised one of his arms at the end. He honoured someone truly deserving of that respect, as did the crowd.

At age 37, Nogueira might not have that many fights remaining, but it is the body of his work that will be remembered long after his last fight, whenever that may be. If Werdum is able to reach his goal of a title fight and win, he will surely look back on his two fights against Nogueira that played pivotal roles.

But perhaps the most emotionally-moving moment of the night happened in the co-main event featuring welterweights Leonardo Santos, a grizzled 33-year-old veteran facing undefeated 21-year-old William (Patolino) Macario in the final of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 2.

Patolino had risen up the ranks of the tournament despite being picked second-last overall. Santos lost via unanimous decision in one of the semifinals, but advanced to the final because the winner had broken his hand. Amid all the hype of the potential of Patolino, the third-youngest fighter in the UFC, Santos scored a submission victory via arm-triangle choke in the second round.

Santos bolted from the cage when the door opened before he had even been declared the winner and ran over to his friend/training partner Jose Aldo, the longtime UFC featherweight champion, and hugged him. Moments after they returned to the cage for the official decision, Santos spoke passionately about Aldo, who began to weep.

The crowd cheered because that’s how highly it regards Aldo. It brought to mind the victory by Aldo against Chad Mendes with only one second remaining in the first round of their main event match at UFC 142 in January, 2012. It took place in Rio de Janeiro and after winning Aldo jumped into the crowd, which held him aloft.

It is that type of emotional moment that separates the Brazilian audience from any other. It understands and appreciates the sport and revels in the wins by its countrymen while still respectful of those who lose.

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