Ben Fowlkes
Thursday August 25th, 2011

RIO DE JANEIRO -- You don't need to actually lay eyes on Anderson Silva to know when he's approaching. Not in Brazil.

All you need do is watch the crowds forming. When you see a swarm of cameramen huddled so closely around a person that you feel claustrophobic just watching them, that's how you'll know:

The champ is here.

All the rhythmic chants and songs about "de Spider" don't hurt either.

In the U.S., Silva's known as a great fighter, at least to the people who know a little something about MMA. Still, most crowds would get more fired up about seeing former heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar than they would about seeing the current middleweight champ Silva.

But that's America, where fame and talent don't always stick together. In Rio, at least during the week leading up to UFC 134 here on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, PPV), Silva is the star around which everything orbits. He's the main reason so many cariocas -- as the city's natives are known -- stood on the beach for hours in a light drizzle on a Wednesday afternoon.

Across the street, outside the famous Cobacabana Palace hotel, a man sold souvenir license plates that advertised Silva himself -- not the UFC's much-anticipated Rio event.

When Silva finally arrived after fighting the afternoon traffic, local media members nearly stampeded over one another trying to get a look at him. While in the states Silva seems to suffer through his media responsibilities in the days before a fight, here he actually seemed to be enjoying it. And why wouldn't he? It's not every day he sees the degree of attention and enthusiasm to match his abilities.

"Anderson Silva, best in the world! Best in the world!" one rain-soaked carioca shouted directly into my face when Silva finally arrived, as if he was doing me a favor by educating me.

After that followed some angry remarks in Portuguese directed at Chael Sonnen, who, perhaps wisely, opted not to come and support his friend and training partner Yushin Okami in the main event after all. As several Brazilians have mentioned already, remarks about this nation may just be harmless jokes to Sonnen, but here they're fighting words.

Nearby, a local reporter clutching a microphone through a pair of boxing gloves went around to several American reporters, asking what they thought of Silva. The consensus was that he was the best middleweight in the world, maybe the best pound-for-pound. What they could just as easily have said is, "He's nowhere near as famous where I come from as he is here."

In a way, this event feels almost like a gift from the UFC to Silva, as well as to all the Brazilian fighters on the roster (there are 14 on Saturday night's card alone). Guys like Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira might get a polite crowd pop at a pre-fight event in the U.S., but in Rio they're royalty. They're the fighters who have been carrying the torch for their country for years in the worldwide MMA scene.

Now, to pay them back -- and sure, also to cash in on the sport's popularity in Brazil -- the UFC has returned to Brazil, which first imported its version of MMA to America back in the mid 1990s. It's given Silva and his countrymen their own little homecoming parade.

Judging by the smiles from the same fighters who are usually grimacing through compulsory media events on fight week abroad, it's a gift that's greatly appreciated. This time, they get to be the hometown stars. Their American and Japanese opponents get to be the ones operating through translators and staring dumbfounded at food labels in their hotels. At this party, it's the Brazilians who are the guests of honor.

Now you just have to wonder if they can keep the celebration going on Saturday night, when they'll be separated from their supporters by a perimeter of chain-link fencing and an opponent eager to get his win bonus and get home. There's a feeling the Brazilian fighters can relate to. At least this time around, and at least for the next few days, it can be someone else's problem.

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