I traveled from California to Curitiba, Brazil this week for the historic UFC 198 card. I originally came to support my friend Cris "Cyborg" Justino in her hometown UFC debut, but fell in love with the people in this city along the way.
After a 16-hour flight, after three layovers I had finally made it. Upon arrival I knew how important the UFC and this specific card was to the people of Brazil, and Curitiba in general. The airport was covered in UFC advertisements, including huge posters on the sliding doors with photos of Curitiba natives Shogun Rua, Cyborg and Anderson Silva.
I also noticed that in every shop and restaurant there were UFC 198 programs that were being handed out. They had profiles of each of the fighters and ticket information.
Every person I met from waiters to taxi drivers to the people in my hotel were talking about the fights, but sadly most of them said they couldn't go because the tickets were too expensive (My ticket was R$500 which coverts to about $140 in the states). We were told that students got 50 percent off the ticket price and still couldn't afford to go. There was even a UFC pop up shop in the Patio Batel Mall in Curitiba. This mall is considered very high end and the shop was nestled between Louis Vuitton and Valentino stores. This was a clear indication of how important the UFC is but also how high they value it.
The day of weigh-ins, lines began to form around the stadium at about noon, four hours before the fighters would step on the scales. I arrived at about 1p.m. and was able to snag a spot near where the fighters would enter the stage.
There were also people handing out Fabricio Werdum "Happy Face" masks to people in line to show support for their champ.
After weigh-ins I met up with Cyborg and her crew for dinner at a well known churrascaria called Batel Grill. In case you are not familiar a churrascaria is a buffet where servers bring endless amounts of meats to your table. Apparently this was a popular spot as I ran into Shogun Rua and Uriah Hall eating with their camps as well. Also dining with us was Tito Ortiz, George Lockhart and Jason Parillo.
I was shocked that I didn't run into another American fan at any point. I'm sure there were others somewhere, but I never saw them and I was definitely the minority.
When fight day finally approached the town was buzzing. I speak very little Portuguese (no falo Portuguese) but I could tell what the people were saying as every other word was UFC, Cyborg (pronounced like SEE-borg-eh there) or Shogun (pronounced like Show-goon). I noticed signs on the shop windows with alternate hours to accommodate the fights, and my hotel extended the breakfast hours so that guests could sleep in, as the fights ended well after 1 a.m.
I had been to many UFC fights, and this was the biggest crowd I had ever seen. The streets surrounding the Arena Atlético Paranaense were unofficially blocked off just by the sheer amount of people. There seemed to be a large amount of Brazilians who were just hanging around the venue having fun who didn't have tickets.
Getting inside and to my seat was a HUGE task. The tickets were hard to read and understand as were the signs around the venue. All of the ushers spoke Portuguese and there was a lot of confusion, but I was happily in my assigned seat in time for the first bout.
A few things I noticed right off the bat were the concessions. I am used to the typical nachos, beer and ice cream in helmet-type of stadium food, but they had Acai vendors and the hotdogs came with two dogs in one bun. The beer was served in cans, and they had a choice of sparkling or still water (Agua sem gas for me). The popcorn came with little salt and butter packets and they had some sort of food that looked like deep-fried meatballs (which I had tried at a bar a few days before and were delicious).
I had heard that Brazilian fans could be wild, and sometimes violent so I kept an eye out for what was going on around me. But honestly, everyone was civil. The Brazilians won virtually every bout (I think they lost only two total). When their fighter won it was madness (organized madness if there is such a thing). Loud cheers and chants (I now know how to chant "to the death" in Portuguese now) filled the arena and when their fighters lost there was no booing, which shocked me a little. But what was most surprising was the reaction to the main event shocker. When Werdum was knocked out, and so quickly, I thought for sure there would be booing, or worse yet riots. That was not the case, the stadium was dead silent. I have heard nothing like it before, you could hear a pin drop in the arena. It was completely surreal.
Once the fights were over the 45,000 fans filled out onto the streets again, catching a cab back to the hotel was impossible so I started walking (on a torn ACL no less) and ended up running into Bruce Buffer and Antonio Noguiera. It was well past 1:30 a.m. before the fights ended and another two hours before making it back to the hotel, but the streets were still alive with victory and joy. This fights were one of the best things to happen to Curitiba in a long time.
Overall the Brazilian fans were amazing. They were helpful, polite and so much fun to cheer with. I've been told that seeing the fight in other parts of Brazil might not have been as civil and that's a testament to the type of people who live in this wonderful city.