UFC 134: Rio journal -- Part 1

UFC fighters and media members alike are pinching themselves about being in Rio de Janeiro. Ed Mulholland/ESPN.com

Rio de Janeiro -- Wednesday, 9:35 a.m. BRT: Just about everyone I’ve talked to who coming down from the States is having a hard time processing that they’re in Rio -- red-eye flights tend to mesh normal and dream states -- but it’s nevertheless a fact. At yesterday’s open workouts at Copacabana Beach, Forrest Griffin said he only accepted it when he landed. There’s a refrain going around that is strictly existential, which goes like this: “Wow, I am in Brazil.” Not sure why, but for a lot of people in the U.S., countries such as Brazil seem theoretical. Until they get there. Then they themselves seem theoretical. Until they sleep.

But there is plenty of reality around. Rio is excited to host UFC 134, as thousands turned out for the open workouts in a torrential downpour. The waves crashing on Copacabana were menacing, and more than just a couple media members openly wondered if the surf lessons involving Jose Aldo, Junior dos Santos, Royce Gracie and a couple of Octagon girls would be called off. The reception that Anderson Silva got when he took the platform and banged Pedro Rizzo’s mitts was lively. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who has become that much more distinguishable from his brother with new ink on his arm, is also an iconic figure out here. So is Amaury Bitteti for that matter, and Roan Carneiro. Brendan Schaub? Not so much. And Yushin Okami was happy to have escorts through the sands of Copacabana and back to his shuttle. Talk about a man with odds stacked against him, Okami is fighting the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world, and doing it in the champion’s backyard. It’s shades of Rocky IV, or Matt Serra versus Georges St. Pierre.

New York to Brazil

Sitting at JFK waiting to head to Rio the afternoon before, there is an earthquake, something very novel for people on the East Coast, and that’s what everyone was talking about -- people want to know if that’s an aftershock they just felt. Folks are very green when it comes to seismic activity in New York, but oddly giddy to be included in something Los Angeles has held over its head for so long.

Once in Miami for the connecting flight, Hurricane Irene is circling up from the coasts of Cuba. A meteorologist is showing its path along the Floridian coast. People at the Islander Bar in Terminal D barely notice. In New York they embraced nature’s discord, and in Miami they barely notice when hurricanes are barreling in. Either way, the earth seems very unhappy with my selected route to Rio de Janeiro.

9:45 a.m.: It’s a long flight into Rio, but we’ve just landed. Is that marine layer or is it smog? It’s the old Los Angeles query (and just as the case there, I suspect I know the answer). There are a lot of cranes, perhaps building up for the 2014 World Cup or 2016 Olympics -- Brazil is about to become the world’s stage. Otherwise, South America looks a lot like the Cleveland outskirts and Ensenada cobbled up. At least initially.

11 a.m.: For a country that required a consulate visit and so much forethought to get in to, Brazil is fairly lax at customs. It’s a long immigration line, but once through there the customs officer is just waving us through. Exchanging American money for the Brazilian real is easy, and there are toucans on the 10 real notes. A nice touch. The UFC is shuttling North American media from the Praia Ipanema to the open workouts at 11:45 a.m. I will not make it. Besides, I am staying at the Sol Ipanema, a distance away.

11:45 a.m.: Favelas to the left of me, favelas to the right. The favelas have become just about as famous in Rio as the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking the city. It’s a strange juxtaposition in a city that juxtaposes all over. While it may be possible to describe the favelas aesthetically upon first glance, it’s much more difficult to bring out the feelings they give you. It’s something akin to curiosity, but to come from the U.S., where so much is privileged and comprehensible, there’s a quiet gulf of empathy in play. It’s like a child’s creation, bricks stacked in precarious ways and leaning as if they’ll fall over any second. It’s impossible to understand what goes on in those labyrinthine corridors. Many of the favelas have been pacified and are now under surveillance by police. The ones out near the airport haven’t been. Drug dealers still rule. The Brazilian freeway gleefully goes right by them. What a strange immunity to build up that the favelas should pass by and register no differently than, say, a Wal-Mart in the northerly America.

12:05 p.m.: My bathroom has a bidet.

12:30 p.m.:The hotel bar serves Brahma beer. That looks inviting. They also have gumdrops on the reception desk. The concierges play like voyeurs over it all.

1:15 p.m.: It’s drizzling and the skies are gray. There are throngs of people being partitioned off from the fighters at the open workouts at Copacabana Beach. In fact, you can’t see the fighters upon approach. The police are out in force and heavily armed. Very few people speak English, so when I speak to the security detail about being part of the media inside, it takes a lot of broken Portuguese and hand gesturing to convince them to tug the sleeve of an event coordinator. Once inside, it’s like a fighter bazaar. Okami and his faction, Silva and his, Schaub et al. The Brazilian media are out in mass. It’s a free for all with the little digital recorders. There’s a designated scrum area where you can find media regulars such as MMAFighting's Ben Fowlkes and Ariel Helwani, and in another tent are Lorenzo Fertitta and Mike Goldberg. It’s organized chaos. I am assured that everything in Rio is organized chaos. Besides, MMA Junkie’s John Morgan is typing on his computer as if nothing is going on around him. This detail suddenly makes it all feel normal.

2:50 p.m.: There’s Burt Watson, the UFC’s babysitter to the stars. Dude is everywhere. “I logged 144,000 air miles last year,” he says. “I know pilots who didn’t fly 144,000 miles in 2010.”

2:51p.m.: It’s interesting that the city of Rio is sponsoring this UFC, monetarily, just as with Toronto. The Rio insignia is everywhere. Fertitta estimates that the UFC event will bring in millions of dollars for the city, similar to Toronto. Hearing a bunch of tickets that were bought up by scalper types are being sold at 800 real apiece.

Welcome to Rizzo's world

3:55 p.m.: Pedro Rizzo is stuffing the lot of us into his Land Rover like we’re on a guerrilla mission. We are headed to a favela where he heads a social project for underprivileged and problem children. Photographer Ed Mulholland and ESPN correspondent/former Fighter’s Only editor Hywel Teague are in the back with me. Driving lanes are largely hypothetical in Rio. Everybody drifts from one to the next, just as in New York City with the cabs. There are more motorbikes, though, and they beep their horns while zigzagging through. There’s an overturned vegetable camper that is delaying things, and a man standing arms akimbo like it’s the damndest thing he’s ever seen. Rizzo’s shotgun passenger is a man they call Juarez, who is tall, lanky and soft-spoken. He’s a former boxer, and he’s half-Cuban. He’s also Anderson Silva’s father.

5 p.m.: Rizzo’s project is back out near the airport, and it’s expansive. Check out the ESPN.com column on that later today for details. Saw a lot of different birds en route, waterfowl and fat, yellow birds that were as bold as French Quarter pigeons. Also saw what looked like a pipit with a showy crest, though I can’t confirm because my Rio bird book from Amazon didn’t arrive in time. What is the point? What. Is. The. Point.

7:42 p.m.: One thing about Rizzo is that stop signs don’t mean anything. He sees a “pare” sign and he doesn’t hesitate, just rolls right through. This makes him a cliché in Rio. Nobody cares about stop signs. Back in Ipanema for dinner, Rizzo drops me off in a place he calls the “Rodeo Drive of Rio,” a street (Rua Garcia D’Avila) with an Amsterdam Sauer and other shops. Above one shop is an ad with George Clooney sipping a liqueur of one kind or another. The farofa is like eating cornbread mix, but it grows on you (and in you).

8:52 p.m.: No sleep on the red eye to Rio makes for a hallucinatory experience while there. So, it’s back to the hotel for sleep. Thursday, the press conference is set to happen. Hearing tale of a reconstructed rain forest near the Christ the Redeemer statue, where wild sloths live in the tree canopy.

9:25 p.m.: The bidet is the elephant in the room.