Mixed martial arts returns to roots with UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro

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The birthplace of mixed martial arts.

That's the distinguished portrayal the UFC affixed to Brazil in a press release sent out earlier this summer to trumpet Saturday night's fight card in Rio de Janeiro (9 p.m. ET, PPV).

You can quibble with the factuality of the "birthplace" label. The Ultimate Fighting Championship actually was first contested in 1993 in Denver, the which-martial-art-is-toughest? event dreamed up by a family living in southern California. But that family has deep roots in Brazil, where for decades the Gracies built their renown in underground "anything goes" fighting events known as vale tudo.

And when they showed up in Colorado on an autumn night 18 years ago and threw a skinny, baby-faced family member named Royce into the cage to take on a boxer, then a submission wrestler, then a kickboxer, it was Gracie jiu-jitsu that reigned supreme. Royce Gracie was the ultimate fighter that night, then four months later, and again less than a year after that.

So if Brazil isn't the birthplace of MMA, it's certainly where its DNA is rooted.

It's fitting, then, that the UFC is continuing its globalization -- fight cards in Germany, England, Australia and two Canadian provinces over the last year alone -- by returning to Brazil for the first time since 1998. If you're a longtime MMA fan, you'll remember that UFC Ultimate Brazil event in Sao Paolo not so much for the two championship bouts as for Vitor Belfort's explosive 44-second KO of Wanderlei Silva.

This weekend's UFC 134 will be a stage for no less noble Brazilian names. All but one of the evening's dozen bouts will feature at least one fighter from Brazil, among them an undefeated up-and-comer (Edson Barboza) and a former contender trying to right the ship (Paulo Thiago). But three names stand out above all others. The Spider. Shogun. Minotauro.

Anderson Silva, Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira represent MMA royalty, with Silva being king of kings. The UFC middleweight champion has won 14 straight bouts, most recently a spectacular front-kick KO of Belfort in February that apparently earned Silva the kind of celebrity in his home country usually reserved for the Seleção during a World Cup run. Upping the ante recently was UFC president Dana White, who proclaimed Silva not merely the top pound-for-pound fighter in MMA, as many do, but the sport's best ever. The Michael Jordan. The Babe Ruth. The Pelé?

"It's very emotional to think about fighting back here in my home in Brazil," Silva said during a conference call with members of the MMA media last week. This was just days before thousands of his countrymen showed up at a beach in Rio to watch him work out in preparation for Saturday's rematch with Yushin Okami, the last man to own a victory over The Spider -- in a 2006 bout that ended in a controversial disqualification. "It's great to be fighting in my home country and to be recognized for the work I've done."

Shogun Rua is feeling much the same emotion, remembering the love of combat sports he developed while growing up in Curitiba, some 400 miles south of Rio. "I always followed MMA/vale tudo as a kid," he said during the conference call. "I loved fighting movies like [Jean-Claude] Van Damme and action movies like Rambo. The sport didn't used to be accepted when I got started, and it's great to see the reaction now."

Like Silva, Rua is also seeking redemption. His fight with Forrest Griffin is a rematch of a 2007 bout in which Shogun was making his UFC debut amid much hullabaloo after his glory-filled time in the Pride Fighting Championships. Griffin gave him a rude welcome, wearing down the Brazilian and choking him out with just 15 seconds remaining in the bout.

Rua has more than that defeat on his mind. He is coming off a demolition at the hands of Jon Jones, who in March took away the UFC light heavyweight belt Shogun had won 10 months earlier. It was not merely a loss. It was a destruction. So it's redemption times two that Rua seeks.

"Ultimately, we always get sad from the losses that we suffer," he said. "But as athletes, we have to deal with it." He's happy to have the opportunity to overcome both losses in front of his home fans. "I think this is a great fight for the fans," he said, "because Forrest loves to fight and he's very tough. I think this will be fantastic."

For Nogueira, Saturday night is an unprecedented kind of fantastic. He lives just a few miles from Rio and often drives right past HSBC Arena on his way to his training camp. However, in a storied MMA career that dates to 1999 and includes 40 bouts, he's never once fought in Brazil. Big Nog is expecting a lot of family, friends and jiu-jitsu students to be in the building. "The expectations are high," he told the Brazilian magazine Tatame. "There's that pressure of fighting at home and representing the Brazilian people. ... I'm super motivated."

He'd better be, because he'll be facing two opponents. One is Brendan Schaub, who has been on an upward tear through the heavyweight division, with knockouts in seven of his eight career victories. Nogueira's other opponent: Father Time. He has not fought in 18 months, a period in which he's undergone three surgeries ... and in which Schaub has posted wins over Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Gabriel Gonzaga and two others.

But Nogueira's resume takes a back seat to no one's. He's beaten Randy Couture, Josh Barnett, Fabricio Werdum ... and Filipovic back when Cro Cop was really Cro Cop. His last fight, in February 2010, was a UFC heavyweight title eliminator against Cain Velasquez. He'll be ready.

So will Brazil. Perhaps it was the thousands in attendance at this week's light workouts on the beach that prompted CEO Lorenzo Fertitta to reveal that the UFC plans to return to "the birthplace" four times in 2012. As the fight promotion extends its reach around the world -- a long-awaited return to Japan is scheduled for February -- Brazil is set to become not just the place where the UFC's history is rooted but a place where it has a future.

This was a point driven home recently by a Brazilian fighter who's not on Saturday's card. Vitor Belfort fought earlier this month at UFC 133 in Philadelphia, and following his fiery KO of Yoshihiro Akiyama, the man known as "The Phenom" declared at the post-event news conference, "Brazil, get ready. The UFC is coming. Today was like the World Cup. ... We're going to overcome soccer. Listen to this: I know it sounds crazy, but we're going to overcome soccer in three years. I know that for a fact. Because wherever the UFC goes, [it] overcomes everybody. I'm not a crazy dreamer. This is reality."

Ronaldinho, Robinho and some other guys who kick a ball around will have something to say about that. But at the news conference, an uncharacteristically quiet Dana White simply looked over at his fighter with a smile and intoned, "Well said, Vitor."