A Brazilian journalist's poignant reflection on covering UFC 237
I sat cageside for the final three fights of UFC 237 this past Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. I watched them as a journalist, of course, but I also watched as a Brazilian.
And, as a Brazilian who’d just seen a sold-out Jeunesse Arena deflate like a balloon with the losses of former champions Jose Aldo and Anderson Silva, one thought occurred to me as Rose Namajunas seemed well on her way to hand Jessica Andrade that same fate.
I caught myself right then and there. “I shouldn’t be saying uh-oh,” I thought. I’m a journalist. Personal feelings don’t play into this. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be against Namajunas. If anything, I became a big admirer of hers in the lead-up to the fight. I didn’t want her to lose. I also wouldn’t have been upset if she won.
I put the same amount of study and care into my interviews, whether they’re with Brazilians or not. I put the same amount of passion into writing their stories, whether they’re Brazilian or not. In fact, those who know me often joke about how un-Brazilian I am. I consume U.S. culture. I write for a U.S.-based website. I consume mostly music in English. I sure didn’t get this unhealthy obsession with peanut butter and true crime documentaries from my Brazilian counterparts.
But on nights like Saturday, I guess you might say my Brazilian-ness sneaks up on me.
It’s hard to explain what that means and how it correlates to my life, my work and my decade-long involvement in this sport. It’s hard mostly because I can’t understand it myself. But what I can say is that it doesn’t come from a place of personal preference. It doesn’t mean that I like Brazilians better, or that I think a Brazilian victory will be more beneficial for me or my work.
It just means that I have a different type of understanding of not only who a lot of these Brazilians are, but what they represent. And that might be different for others, but I don’t think I will ever be able to completely detach myself emotionally from certain situations.
Although the loud and potentially inebriated people surrounding me in the stands had a much different experience and outlook than mine, I can hear them in a very particular way when Aldo walks out to the octagon to their roaring chants. And when the “King of Rio” walks out of it head down, as his victorious, elated opponent addresses his crowd, I can’t help but feel some of that sting, too.
When Silva collapses in pain, I am brought back with them to that fateful UFC 162 night. I didn’t watch that one in person. I was, though, in front of my television the day after as Brazil’s most traditional Sunday show popped into the screen with incessant live hits updating us on Silva’s status.
At the time, I complained about how exaggerated that coverage was. It was just a broken leg, I thought. But it spoke to what Silva means to the country. I already worked in MMA at the time, and I couldn’t escape questions about how he was doing or what would happen.
I’m not Silva’s friend, I’m not Silva’s family, and in fact I have only interviewed him a handful of times. But as a person who’s been involved in MMA in Brazil for so many years, and who’s been so passionate about it throughout, Silva is a big part of who I am, too.
Everyone knows how much people like Silva, Aldo and Andrade have had to overcome to be where they are. They know because, for years, so many of us have told their stories. But while it’s easy to put their narratives into words, it’s not that easy to put them into perspective.
As universally relatable as “pull yourself by the bootstraps” narratives are, theirs are so typically, profoundly, painfully Brazilian in nature. The issues of social mobility in Brazil – or in the world, really – are complex and will be discussed differently depending on your political views. That’s not what I’m trying to get at here. My points is that, when it comes to beating the odds, these people are winners.
Just how big in a country like ours? I wish I could explain. But, as a privileged person who has never had to experience any of it, I don’t think I fully understand. Sometimes, I don’t even think they do.
When Andrade sits on that dais, laughing as she talks about those times when she just wished she had enough money to afford a box spring bed and a big TV to watch fights, I’m left thinking about all the alternative universes in which that girl, who grew up on a farm and delivered medicine for a living, never got to celebrate having her own house to share with her wife and her dogs.
I’m reminded of that time two years ago, when Andrade sat in front of a handful reporters to talk about her first UFC title attempt, and said that she’d always told her mom that she’d not only be rich, but that she’d be the “poorest rich person ever” because she really just wanted to share what she had with others.
I wasn’t part of those conquests. I didn’t help any of these people accomplish the amazing things that they have. But I’ve written about them, produced segments about them, pitched stories about them for so many years that I can’t feel unaffected by them.
Especially not when there’s an entire arena full of very enthusiastic people yelling their names in unison.
On nights like UFC 237, I am reminded of how much of who I am is Brazil. Of how much of my life has been MMA. And of how grateful I am, despite all the times I’ve been disappointed by both, for all the lessons they’ve taught me.