With all due respect to Greece and the art of Pankration, it can be almost universally agreed upon that Brazil is the birthplace of modern mixed martial arts (MMA).
Since the early part of last century, vale tudo fights have engrained themselves in the combat sports culture of the South American country. Not content to develop its own style of martial arts -- like it had with Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) -- the country's best fighters began incorporating techniques from Japan -- like judo -- and Thailand's particular brand of kickboxing in an effort to win accolades at home and across the world.
When thinking of the sport's elite in the past decade, names like Mauricio Rua and Wanderlei Silva immediately come to mind. When discussing who the greatest pound-for-pound fighter today is, you'd be remiss not to mention Anderson Silva. And when the future of MMA is brought up, Jose Aldo and Junior dos Santos are always at the forefront of the conversation.
Tonight (Nov. 12, 2011) at UFC on Fox 1, dos Santos has a chance to make history for his native land, the country that gave life to the sport we all love. Never before has a Brazilian been crowned the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion in the title's long and sordid history. It's an enormous opportunity for "Cigano."
The UFC returned to Brazil this past August after a 13-year sabbatical from the country. Hosting UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro, the company broke all sorts of records while the fights themselves provided enough fireworks to light up the Rio skyline.
Current middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva did what he does best and made the latest challenger to his 185-pound title look foolish when he easily knocked out Yushin Okami in the second round. "Shogun" finally got his revenge on Forrest Griffin after the American spoiled Rua's Octagon debut. And Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira fought off Brendan Schaub -- and Father Time itself -- when he put the young The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) runner-up to sleep in three minutes.
Brazil was eager to see its favorite sons in action and sold the show out in record time -- 14,000 rabid fans filed into the arena after being denied for well over a decade live Octagon action. And the fighters made sure to repay them in kind with action-packed performances that had every fan -- Brazilian or not -- beaming by night's end.
That night was a lot of fun and a big part of that was the crowd. It just seems that Brazilian's love fighting. They just LOVE it. There are very fews locales that that can be said about. Canada is in the same boat. Anytime the Octagon travels to the Great White North, a great collection of fight fans show up. Brazil welcomed the UFC back into his country so warmly and excitedly that Dana White and company have already made plans to return in January for UFC 142.
So what does any of this have to do with Junior dos Santos?
Since the heavyweight title was introduced in 1997, no Brazilian has worn the belt around their waist. Yes, "Minotauro" defeated Tim Sylvia, but that was for an interim title and solely a legal maneuver by the UFC to keep its current heavyweight champ Randy Couture from jumping ship to Affliction Entertainment.
Simply put, Nogueira didn't beat the man to become the man. The belt was a holdover until the legal mess "The Natural" caused was sorted out. And it's not like the Brazilian reign was long and fruitful. A couple months after submitting "The Maine-iac," Nogueira shipped off to Las Vegas to film a season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) opposite Frank Mir.
Mir would then go on to shock the MMA world by stopping "Big Nog" for the first time in the Brazilian's career at UFC 92. That's the closest a native of Brazil came to one of the most important titles in the fight game. In fact, only two other Brazilians have even challenged for the title before dos Santos gets to tonight. Pedro Rizzo at the turn of the century and Gabriel Gonzaga back in 2007. Both were coincidentally stopped short of their goal by Couture.
Tonight "Cigano" has a chance to change all that. He has a chance to become the first undisputed Brazilian heavyweight champion in UFC history. By defeating Velasquez, he helps his country check off a long overdue accomplishment on its MMA resumé.
If the UFC's history is measured in versions, tonight could be the beginning of 4.0. The first being the early days of the promotion, the second being the Dark Ages when the company was facing bankruptcy and getting squeezed by political pressure. 3.0 of course would be the post-TUF era that we have been enjoying for a little over half a decade now.
But, UFC 4.0 promises more than any longtime fan could have ever imagined. The deal with Fox is monumental and tonight's heavyweight title fight on broadcast television is something I never thought I would ever see. At the forefront could be Junior dos Santos representing Brazil, the country that started the whole thing.
There's a lot of people -- a LOT -- who don't want to be disappointed tonight.
Dana White and the rest of the UFC, millions of fight fans across the United States and the world, and heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez represent a majority of them.
But then there's "Cigano" and the country of Brazil who want something to cheer for possibly more than anyone else.
Will they be dancing in Rio tonight?