Josh Gross
Thursday September 3rd, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Joining forces for a late-notice press conference Tuesday across from the Staples Center, Brazilians Lyoto Machida and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua kicked off a promotion for, what should be, one of the most anticipated mixed martial arts bouts in their nation's history.

Reality paints a different picture.

Rather than being appropriately recognized for their sporting achievements, Machida, the undefeated UFC light heavyweight champion, and Rua, the 2005 Fighter of the Year and one of the top talents across all organizations, are unlikely to generate more than a blip on Brazil's sporting radar when they meet Oct. 24 to headline UFC 104.

For as far as MMA has ventured in North America over the past five years, it remains a surprisingly misunderstood, under-promoted sport in a region of the world that holds as much influence over its development as anywhere else.

That, said the fighters and their handlers, appears to be changing.

"With the way the UFC is growing and as big as the UFC is," Machida said, "I think definitely it will be a huge fight and MMA will grow bigger in Brazil."

How Brazil's best mixed martial artists were forced into foreign venues is a case study in the power of media and the perception they can create. Fighters "are not generally portrayed in the best way," said Eduardo Alonso, a former journalist who now manages Rua.

"People are understanding the sport more," said Rua. "We're getting more famous and recognized in Brazil. We used to get greeted much more abroad. Now it's starting to get even in some sense. I think people are beginning to respect this as a profession, as a sport. In the past when you said you were a fighter, people made faces."

And while Shogun is right to suggest the tide has shifted in terms of exposure and fan acceptance, the atmosphere surrounding Brazilian MMA remains very much like that of the U.S. prior to the explosion that accompanied The Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike TV.

After protracted battles with media and local governments, Brazilian MMA, which like the American version has been buoyed by a rabid online audience, is benefiting from an improved relationship with authorities. In Rio de Janeiro last month, the sport earned a seal of approval as an outlet for youth hailing from the city's notorious drug-infested slums.

Forging new relationships that cast MMA in a positive light demands shedding the media-driven perception that fighters are thugs. And it likely starts with Brazil's television industry.

"We are passing through a turning point now," said veteran Brazilian MMA pundit Marcelo Alonso. "Finally, some big television channels are starting to show the UFC. But we need at least one year, or more, to make MMA popular in Brazil like it is in the U.S."

Rua (18-3) believes that process is well under way.

"The UFC is investing some money now in p.r. down in Brazil to make the sport grow there, which is very good," he said. "I had the pleasure of meeting people from the biggest newspapers, magazines and Web sites from Brazil in the United States covering the UFC. So it goes to show that they are really investing time in that. I think that a fight between Lyoto and me only helps that, and makes it easier for the press to cover it and, hopefully, it will draw more attention in the future."

Machida, 31, and Rua, 27, appear perfectly suited for the task. Neither man talks trash. Neither displays the bravado that defined so many Brazilian competitors over the years. And each is tremendously skilled and compelling to watch.

Tuesday in L.A., the fighters, who shared adjacent seats on the flight to the U.S., stood smiling for photos while exchanging pleasantries. This bout represents a rare case of the appeal of civility, particularly in their home country.

"There are still people down there that think of it as a savage thing, or a wild brawl," Rua said. "With me and Lyoto fighting, because we're two professional guys that try to represent the sport well and we're fighting for a belt, it will draw a lot of attention and people will see it in a positive way."

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