Will soccer endorsements harm Brazil's MMA image?

I can see it coming, and I’m certainly not the only one.

MMA in Brazil has reached the pinnacle of popularity in recent years. Fighters are becoming celebrities and, most importantly when it comes to building stars in the sport, the best fighters keep winning. The 2012 campaign kicked off with three UFC Brazilian champions and the potential for more.

But there is a shadow creeping over the sport. It isn’t a matter of winning or losing inside the Octagon, but a matter of security for fighters, fans and citizens.

It all started with the marketing ploy to mix soccer, the most popular pastime in Brazil, with MMA, the country’s new passion.

Anderson Silva was the first to engage in this sort of relationship. “The Spider” started to show his support for Corinthians -- a club he once tried out for, but failed to make the cut -- before and after UFC fights by waving flags and donning jerseys and hats with the club’s insignia. It wasn’t long before he was hired by the team for promotional purposes. Since August’s UFC 134 event, the middleweight champion is officially considered an athlete of one of the most popular clubs in Brazil -- with all the collateral effects that it brings.

During the buildup to UFC Rio, Silva was heavily booed during an open workout session on Copacabana beach. The workout was meant as a way to promote the upcoming event and have Silva’s star shine. Instead, supporters of other soccer clubs flocked to the beach for the sole purpose of cursing the UFC champion.

The booing is “not a problem,” Silva said at a news conference the day after. And, at the time, it probably wasn’t.

Then, as Chael Sonnen kicked his antics into high gear, the club rivalry issue emerged again. Soccer club Palmeiras, considered Corinthians’ most traditional rival, became the topic as Sonnen declared himself a team supporter of the rival outfit.

The results of that second example remain to be seen. But talk of a bout between Silva and Sonnen at Morumbi Stadium in São Paulo have brought a taste of what can happen. The quotes below are from a Palmeiras supporter, posted on a MMA discussion forum:

“I foresee a tragedy at the TUF Finale in São Paulo if Anderson Silva fights Chael Sonnen at a soccer stadium. I’m from São Paulo and a member of Mancha Verde [a Palmeiras soccer gang]. The former vice-president of Mancha Verde, Janio Carvalho, is a Jungle Fight competitor [the biggest MMA event in Brazil]. All members are MMA fans.

And there is a guy from Gaviões [a Corinthians soccer gang] that is also competing in Jungle Fight, called Bruno Capeloza. If Silva x Sonnen really happens at a soccer stadium, the tickets for bleachers will be at an affordable price [around 50 USD]. There will be lots of Palmeiras fans supporting Sonnen, and Corinthians fans will do the same for Anderson, with plenty of mad MMA fighters among them. A melee would [ensue in] a matter of minutes.”

The potential scenario described by this fan might be overly dramatic. But it wouldn’t be the first time something similar broke out in Brazil. You have to go back only as far as November 2010 when a brawl between Cruzeiro and Atletico fans -- the two most popular teams in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais – resulted in a fatality. The altercation came not after a soccer event, but on the heels of an MMA event in which one of the fighters wore a Cruzeiro jersey.

The next chapter, unfortunately, might come sooner than expected. At UFC 142 on Saturday, José Aldo will wear the red-and-black colors of Flamengo. The UFC featherweight champion is a longtime supporter of the team and usually bears a flag of one of the club’s soccer gangs while in the Octagon.

If the relationship between soccer and MMA is of concern to Aldo, he certainly isn’t showing it.

“I like this relation between soccer and MMA,” Aldo said during a conference call last week. “Soccer came to help us. Of course, the fans of a club can be frustrated because a fighter signed a contract with a rival. But I don’t see it that way. I see Flamengo standing for [all of Brazil] in the Octagon.”

Unfortunately for Aldo, soon after his deal with Flamengo was announced, a group of Vasco fans threw their support behind American Chad Mendes. Still other Brazilian fighters, including Vitor Belfort, share Aldo’s optimism. In fact, Belfort sees this as an opportunity for fans to pledge allegiance to entirely different “teams” based on who they back in the Octagon.

“Those deals are not with soccer,” Belfort said. The [fighters] are signing with clubs, and they will be representing those clubs in the UFC. It is an opportunity for a Vasco fan to turn into a Flamengo fan in the UFC.”

To most sports fans, Brazil is synonymous with soccer. But bringing the rivalries that come with soccer from the stadiums to the MMA arena isn’t a great idea, no matter how much money and interest it generates. Solutions like designating separate areas for fans in large stadiums (to avoid brawls) aren’t feasible at an MMA event.

It took years before MMA was recognized by the Brazilian mainstream audience. To associate the sport with gang violence would put it several steps back. MMA doesn’t need to associate itself with soccer to be validated as a popular sport -- it already is.