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Spider comes a long way through MMA

Rio de Janeiro -- Anderson Silva's celebrity status is hitting fever pitch in Brazil, making him one of the first MMA fighters outside of America to really make it into the mainstream.

"The Spider" is by no means the first mixed martial arts fighter to have transitioned from cage fighter to celebrity. Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell have both made forays into Hollywood, with “The Natural” picking up a part in Sylvester Stallone’s guns ‘n glory extravaganza, “The Expendables.” Liddell’s appearance in a music video for Nickleback and repeated prime time TV interviews have made him one of the UFC’s most instantly recognisable representatives.

Outside of the US, only Japanese MMA fighters have managed to make it into the public consciousness in a major way. Retired fighter Genki Sudo is known by Japanese fans more for his works of literature, pop music, acting career and regular appearance on variety TV shows than for his near decade-long MMA career.

Judging by his current swell in popularity, Silva looks set to be the first South American fighter to become a true public sweetheart.

Need evidence? He was recently named one of the "men of the year" and was featured on the front cover of Alfa, a Brazilian GQ-style publication. He was pictured between a superstar Latin-American actor and one of the most prominent businessmen in the country.

But this is nothing too out of the ordinary. Athletes get selected for these honors every year. What really sets his star apart seems hard to swallow at first.

Two weeks ago, Anderson Silva shared a stage with the unlikely dancing partner of Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber.

Seriously.

Silva has always been known for his grace and enthusiasm as an amateur dancer, but until now his moves have always entertained fans that pay to see him fight.

The Bieber concert in Rio was the most extreme example, but is one of a string of high-profile media appearances that filled his agenda of late. He was also featured -- dancing, of course -- in a pop music video with Marissa Monte, a Brazilian superstar singer.

Add to that an interview on Programa do Jo (a David Letterman-style prime-time talk show), a series of commercials for Burger King (one of his major sponsors) and an ESPN Brazil magazine front cover, and it’s plain to see that Silva’s star power isn’t just growing – it’s already stratospheric.

“It’s actually incredible; I’ve been coming to Brazil with Anderson for the past five years, and it’s absolutely amazing the stardom that he has,” says Ed Soares, Silva’s manager. “For me he’s not becoming a superstar -- he is a superstar.”

All this makes Silva the hottest property in Brazilian MMA. Only Vitor Belfort or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira could claim to be as well known among the public, but neither are part of the local zeitgeist; their stars are very much on the wane.

Interestingly, Soares actually points to the win over Belfort as one of the catalysts for his client’s current fame. Belfort was a media darling in Brazil thanks to his marriage to Joana Prado -- a well-known model and dancer -- who he met while participating in a celebrity-driven reality TV show. It seems that when Silva’s foot met Belfort’s chin, he stole some of his celebrity in the process of knocking him out.

At 36, Silva's already made plenty of noise about retiring. He says he’s still focused on fighting, but it’s feasible when done he might pursue a career in light entertainment. And he deserves every opportunity that comes his way, according to Soares.

“I think nobody, not just in Brazil but in the world or the history of MMA, has been able to do what Anderson has done in the sport,” says Soares. “I don’t think anybody deserves the recognition like Anderson at this point.”

Wherever you go in Brazil, it’s hard to escape The Spider. UFC posters in the entrance of stores across Rio bear his visage, newsstands are full of Silva magazine covers, and the 2011 documentary “Like Water” is in the process of securing a national distribution deal.

The Brazilian premier of the movie on Wednesday -- a showcase event as part of the Rio Film Festival -- was a typical red carpet affair and Anderson handled both the media scrum and frantic calls from fans with aplomb.

“The great thing is he’s been able to keep his humble ways about him,” says Soares. “Whether the cameras are on or off he’s still the same old Anderson. Being in the public eye demands more from a human being, and at times he just wants to be left alone, which is understandable. But as far as changing his personality, I don’t think that’s happened at all.”

Should this trend continue, Silva has the potential to join Brazilian sporting idols such as Pele and Ayrton Senna.

What’s unlikely is that anyone else will replicate Silva’s success story. Fighters such as UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo and former UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida are relatively well known and enjoying an increasing level of fame thanks to the UFC’s recent return to Brazil.

But until they’re invited to boogie with Bieber, Silva will still be No. 1.