Brazilian Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) legend Royce Gracie, right, jokes with Brazilian MMA fighter Minotauro Nogueira share a light moment before the start of a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday Aug. 25, 2011. The MMA organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), is returning home to Brazil for UFC 134 on Aug. 28. The Brazilians helped bring mixed martial arts to life in the early 1990s, and they remain some of the sport's top fighters. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Forrest Griffin knew things had changed when a group of school teachers approached him as he strolled along a beach in Rio de Janeiro.
"I've been walking around, and now people know who I am," the American fighter said Thursday. "I was surprised, that never happened the last time I was here. You can just tell the sport is much more popular now."
The UFC is returning home to Brazil for UFC 134 on Saturday. The Brazilians helped bring mixed martial arts to life in the early 1990s, and they remain some of the sport's top fighters.
"Back in the United States we know this is the heart of UFC," Griffin said. "We know this is where it came from, we know that here there is soccer and then there is MMA."
UFC still isn't as popular in Brazil as it is in the United States and Canada, but it's making its way into the mainstream.
The sport has been gaining attention across the country of 190 million people, and even retired Brazil soccer great Ronaldo has been involved in the sport. His sports marketing company manages the career of Brazilian fighter Anderson Silva, who will fight Yushin Okami in the main event Saturday in Rio de Janeiro.
"Clearly it's a new phase for the sport in Brazil, and it's a great phase," Silva said. "It's perfect timing now for the UFC to be coming back to Brazil. Kids are starting to look at us as their reference; that's huge."
The nearly 15,000 tickets made available and sold in less than two hours for the event, which also features Mauricio Rua vs. Griffin, Minotauro Nogueira vs. Brendan Schaub, Ross Pearson vs. Edson Barboza and Luiz Cane vs. Stanislav Nedkov.
There hadn't been this type of hype in Brazil over a fight since Acelino "Popo" Freitas was in action. The popular boxer won two lightweight and two super featherweight titles before retiring in 2006 with a 38-1 record.
"Without a doubt it's one of the fastest-growing sports here," said Erich Beting, a sports marketing professor and a sports business specialist in Brazil. "That is clear when you analyze the ratings, the pay-per-view numbers and the popularity of the fighters.
"Brazilians want more than soccer, and when UFC arrived with a good product it wasn't a surprise that it gained a lot of space," Beting said. "It's always a great spectacle, and that makes it a success."
Saturday's event quickly sold out despite hefty prizes for Brazilian standards, with tickets ranging from about $170 to $1,000. Scalpers on Rio streets have been offering them for as much as $3,700.
With the heavy demand, organizers reached deals to broadcast the fight live in movie theaters in six Brazilian capitals for about $30.
"We used to say that when we fought in the United States it was 'pop star week' for us, we were treated like celebrities," Brazilian fighter Mauricio "Shogun" Rua said. "Now that is finally happening here, too; it wasn't like this before. It's really nice to get that feeling here at home, too."
UFC president Dana White recently acknowledged that he underestimated interest for the fight and should have sought a bigger venue for Saturday's event, the first in Brazil since 1998.
"The reception we've been getting here has been great," White said. "It's been awesome. I'm really looking forward to getting into that arena and hearing and seeing the crowd."
In 1998, Frank Shamrock defeated John Lober in the main fight in front of about 8,000 in an event that went virtually unnoticed in Brazil. Only hardcore fans and specialized media paid attention then.
This time, there has been widespread media coverage, with Brazil's top websites and largest newspapers devoting ample space to the sport. Last Sunday's editions of the Estado de S. Paulo daily published a two-page special on MMA and UFC, explaining everything from the basic moves to the history of the sport.
"I wouldn't miss this," said 39-year-old lawyer Marcio Nery, who said he traveled nearly 1,800 miles from the northern jungle city of Belem for Saturday's event. "These fights are great on TV; imagine how it's going to be live."
UFC 134 will be broadcast live on network TV for the first time in Brazil, and RedeTV says it easily sold all the advertising time it had available.
"Saturday's fight will likely break a lot of records. It wouldn't surprise me if the ratings surpass those for the Under-20 (soccer) World Cup final last weekend (in which Brazil beat Portugal in Colombia)," Beting said.
The pay-per-view UFC events in Brazil are broadcast by Canal Combate, which reported a 46 percent growth in subscribers in the first semester of 2011.
The SporTV channel, which has the same owner as Canal Combate but is known mostly for its extensive soccer coverage, has been showing numerous ads for the UFC fight, asking soccer fans to tune in.
The growth in TV numbers in Brazil comes after Silva's memorable knockout of Vitor Belfort in February. Silva's spectacular kick to Belfort's jaw was extensively replayed throughout the country, including in programs usually devoted only to soccer.
It helped that after the fight Silva quickly put on a Corinthians' jersey that sported one of the brands sponsoring him through his deal with Ronaldo's company. Corinthians, Ronaldo's last team before retiring, is Brazil's second most popular club, behind Flamengo.
The middleweight titleholder, Silva hasn't lost a fight in almost six years and is among the most recognized figures in the sport in Brazil. His recent success has given him celebrity status in the country, attracting several popular brands.
This year UFC began offering about 300 licensed products in Brazil, and the goal is to greatly increase that number in the next few years. With its strong marketing strategy, UFC products aimed at youngsters are starting to outnumber those with soccer-related themes in some local stores.
"We want to help expand martial arts in Brazil," White said. "We've been talking to the government, and we are going to do some pretty cool things here in Brazil other than put up fights."
UFC also has plans to bring the event to other Brazilian cities, and there is talk of a fight in the jungle city of Manaus in 2012.
"We don't want to just come to Brazil and do one event big event, pack all of our stuff and leave," said Lorenzo Fertitta, a casino executive who teamed up with his brother, Frank, and White to purchase the UFC brand in 2001. "We want to really build a business in Brazil, become part of the community here and have a number of events every single year."