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UFC 198 a Microcosm of Aging Brazilian MMA

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystMay 12, 2016

Former light heavyweight champion Shogun Rua at UFC 198 open workouts.
Former light heavyweight champion Shogun Rua at UFC 198 open workouts.Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

On paper, Saturday's UFC 198 card is a triumph. It's the UFC's first stadium show in Brazil, and it's the promotion's inaugural card in Curitiba, a city with deep roots in MMA.

Curitiba is the home of the Chute Boxe Academy, which spawned legends like Wanderlei Silva, Anderson Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Chute Boxe Academy is also where Rafael Cordeiro got his start before bringing his brand of violence to Southern California, where he now trains champions Fabricio Werdum and Rafael Dos Anjos.

In reality, however, UFC 198 isn't a crowning moment for Brazilian MMA and the UFC's efforts in the country. Instead, it's a swan song for an entire generation of fighters—and stark evidence of the fact that a new wave hasn't risen up to replace the greats of years past.

Vitor Belfort first competed in the UFC in 1997.
Vitor Belfort first competed in the UFC in 1997.Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Rua, who opens the main card against Corey Anderson, is 34. It's been more than five years since he lost his light heavyweight title to Jon Jones and more than 10 since he won the 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. Vitor Belfort is 39, a veteran of nearly 20 years in the sport. His opponent, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, is 36 and almost 13 years removed from his professional MMA debut.

The list goes on. Demian Maia, who headlines the Fox Sports 1 portion of the card against Matt Brown, is 38. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira is the star of the Fight Pass main event, and he's 39. His twin brother Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a legend of Brazilian MMA, called it quits last August.

Anderson Silva was scheduled to meet Uriah Hall on the pay-per-view portion of the card, but a gallbladder issue forced him out the week of the fight. The former middleweight champion is 41, and despite doing his best to evolve as his body falls apart, he has little left in the tank.

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Fabricio Werdum is no spring chicken at 38 years old.
Fabricio Werdum is no spring chicken at 38 years old.Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Even Werdum, the newly crowned heavyweight champion and UFC 198's headliner, is 38 years old.

The geriatric character of UFC 198's Brazilian stars speaks to a broader issue. A generation of legendary fighters came of age in the UFC and especially in Pride, and now they're aging out of relevance. This is to be expected. Stars get old and new ones rise to take their place.

That process of replacement hasn't happened in Brazil.

Jose Aldo was the longtime featherweight champion and as close as the following generation came to producing a true star. Twenty-three million people watched him knock out Chad Mendes at UFC 142 on Globo, the UFC's Brazilian broadcaster, though per Dave Meltzer of MMA Fighting, that number fell to 7.5 million for UFC 179.

Even so, one star with good recognition in Brazil and little drawing power outside—prior to UFC 194 against Conor McGregor, Aldo had never drawn more than 330,000 pay-per-view buys as a headliner, per Meltzer—is a far cry from the prior generation of multiple well-known stars.

Renan Barao never broke through.
Renan Barao never broke through.Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The list of potential talents who never managed to break through is long. Renan Barao came close and won a bantamweight title, but T.J. Dillashaw put a stop to that with two thorough drubbings. Despite Barao's success in the cage, he was never much of a draw outside it. Erick Silva had the looks and the swagger but has gone 6-6 since his UFC debut in 2011. Hacran Dias, a touted prospect, has gone 3-3 in four years.

The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil was supposed to do for Brazil what the inaugural season of TUF did for the U.S. with fighters like Diego Sanchez and Forrest Griffin. Its first season produced Cezar Ferreira and Rony Jason, who have combined to go an underwhelming 9-5 (1 NC) despite favorable matchmaking.

The best fighter to come out of that much-watched show turned out to be the unheralded Francisco Trinaldo.

The second season gave us Leonardo Santos, an ace grappler and surprisingly good fighter, but he's now 36 and not a threat to contend, much less win a title. Ironically, the Argentinean Santiago Ponzinibbio looks to be its most promising product.

This lack of emerging talent comes through clearly in the UFC's rankings. Out of 150 ranked fighters, 28 are Brazilians. Only seven of those 28 are under 30, however, and that includes 29-year-old veterans Aldo and Barao.

Only three Brazilian fighters in the UFC can be considered legitimate potential stars. Thomas Almeida headlines the Fight Night card in Las Vegas on May 29, and Warlley Alves, one of the winners of TUF Brazil 3, fights on the main card at UFC 198. Claudia Gadelha is currently coaching The Ultimate Fighter against Joanna Jedrzejczyk and is blessed with both skills and real charisma.

Thomas Almeida is a potential star in the making.
Thomas Almeida is a potential star in the making.Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Gadelha is the top contender at strawweight, and Almeida is already ranked at 135 pounds. Alves will surely vault into the rankings at welterweight with a fifth consecutive win.

Still, neither Almeida nor Alves is there yet, and a great deal can go wrong in the massive gulf that separates seemingly sure-thing prospects and top contenders or champions with a substantial media profile. Strawweights haven't yet proved to draw in either the United States or Brazil, no matter how talented and charismatic Gadelha might be.

There are a few other names to bear in mind. Charles Oliveira is still only 26 despite nearing the six-year anniversary of his debut in the UFC. Amanda Nunes fights for the women's bantamweight title this summer. The more recent seasons of TUF Brazil have brought forth some interesting talent that might yet develop, including Antonio Carlos Junior.

Brazil is still producing promising fighters, but they're getting lost between the regional scene and UFC stardom. What exactly is going wrong?

Rafael Cordeiro, a Curitiba native, has been involved in MMA for more than 20 years.
Rafael Cordeiro, a Curitiba native, has been involved in MMA for more than 20 years.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Part of the issue could be a lack of world-class training available in Brazil. By my count, only 10 of the 28 ranked Brazilian fighters actually train in Brazil full-time. Werdum and Dos Anjos, the UFC's two current Brazilian champions, both live in Los Angeles and train at Kings MMA under Rafael Cordeiro.

Nunes, Thiago Alves and John Lineker train at American Top Team in South Florida. Edson Barboza is a student of Mark Henry and Ricardo Almeida in New Jersey.

Fighters like Aldo, Barao and Gadelha, who train under Andre Pederneiras at Nova Uniao, and Almeida, who trains at a Chute Boxe affiliate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Essentially, there's a talent drain out of Brazil that takes fighters to bigger, better-equipped gyms in the United States. That could be both a symptom of a problem with the training available in Brazil and simultaneously a cause of transplanted fighters' inability to break through into stardom in their home country.

None of this means Brazilian MMA is doomed and that new stars won't rise. Of the UFC's 507 fighters, 90 of them are Brazilians, and the promotion is dedicated to running shows in the country on a regular basis.

The fact of the matter, however, is that they haven't. The generation that produced the Nogueiras, Rua, Wanderlei Silva, Belfort and Anderson Silva is in its twilight. Nobody has yet shown any sign of replacing them.

Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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