As part of their hugely successful expansion into Brazil, the UFC is partnering with Brazilian charity Instituto Reação to help young Brazilians from disadvantaged backgrounds participate in sports and educational activities. Since returning to Brazil for the first time in a decade at UFC 134, the promotion has looked to engage with the Brazilian people in a proactive manner that goes beyond selling tickets and drawing television ratings.
Despite almost a hundred years of Vale Tudo fighting in Brazil, it's only recently with the success of the UFC that the sport of Mixed Martial Arts has begun to establish any mainstream credibility. In the past individual fighters, mostly members of the Gracie family, have risen above the sport to achieve a level of celebrity in Brazil, but the sport itself has been seen as more of a spectacle with a dangerous underbelly.
The emergence of UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva as a major star in Brazil and the high ratings for his UFC 126 bout with Vitor Belfort and his UFC 134 return to Rio de Janeiro raised the UFC in the public consciousness. Featherweight champ Jose Aldo began to emerge as a star in his native land after UFC 142.
Now he's helping the UFC help poor Brazilian kids, from UFC.com:
Located in Rocinha, south of Rio de Janeiro, the Instituto Reação (Institute of Reaction), which was created by former Olympic judo fighter Flavio Canto, is the first NGO (non-governmental organization) to receive funds from the biggest MMA event in the world in favor of supporting the social inclusion of young people from poor communities through artistic and educational activities and sports.
Present for last week's ceremony were three stars of the UFC who came from humble origins: featherweight champion Jose Aldo, middleweight contender Rousimar Palhares, and bantamweight standout Renan Barao, as well as the UFC's Director of International Development Marshall Zelaznik, and actress and presenter Fiorella Mattheis, who acted as master of ceremonies.
"Obviously we are looking at other projects, however we are 100% focused on the initiative that Flavio and his team have here in Rocinha," said Zelaznik. "What makes the Institute Reação unique is the opportunity to train not only athletes, but the future citizens who can become great professionals. We're talking about education for a lot of young people."
The Institute has been in operation for over 12 years and the UFC's efforts will 400 children and 50 athletes. The story is getting picked up by the Brazilian media and initiatives like this will go a long way toward rehabilitating the image of the sport and the UFC in Brazil.
UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub has also been active with charitable work in Brazil. More on that and Dana White's comments on helping Brazilian kids after the jump.
Schaub, who lost to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 134, was touched by the sight of young Brazilian kids who were aspiring MMA fighters but lacked even the most basic equipement to train, per MMA Junkie:
"You go there, and these kids have nothing," the heavyweight said today at a pre-event press conference for UFC 134, which takes place Saturday at HSBC Arena in Rio. "Literally, nothing, and they're as happy as can be.
"They have heroes like (Antonio Rodrigo) 'Minotauro' (Nogueira), Junior Dos Santos, Royce Gracie, Vitor (Belfort). So they're training in mixed martial arts - jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing - but they don't have the necessary equipment.
"For me, it was a rude awakening. It's stuff I'm not used to in Denver, Colorado - my little bubble - so I got all my sponsors together (to collect) donated gear."
UFC president Dana White also commented:
"When you have these underprivileged areas and they can get involved in a combat sport, it releases aggression - it changes kids' lives," White said. "It changes adults' lives, let alone kids.
"We know this for a fact. I've been doing this since I was 19 years old, and that's really where I came from. It's easy for us to slide into some of these neighborhoods and parts of town that need it and give them some help.
"What a lot of these places do down here is they hand out a few soccer balls, and kids play soccer. You do the same thing. You build an octagon and you give kids some equipment, and you'll have some world champions coming out of here."
There is a long and noble combat sports tradition of reaching out to the poorest kids and providing a lifeline of opportunity and aspiration to children otherwise shut out of society. It's great to see the UFC continuing that tradition in the homeland of MMA.