Fighter manager and marketing executive Hector Castro knew that people were beginning to take Mixed Martial Arts seriously in South America, but until he recently traveled to Colombia he had no idea where they stood.
“It was unexpected and surprised the hell out of me,” Castro, 34, told Fox News Latino.
What started out as a business trip to market an MMA clothing brand ended up with Castro signing three fighters who he saw had potential to fight some day in the big leagues, maybe even the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Castro, who has family in Colombia, manages UFC's Louis Gaudinot and John "The Bull" Makdessi. He initially thought the sport would need more time in the country to develop talent, but after watching some of the aspiring fighters, he realized that he could get a jump on some of the best mixed martial artists available.
“It kind of surprised the living daylights out of me. [Their skills were] better than I expected,” Castro said. “They’re not well-rounded fighters yet but they have strong potential.”
The first person Castro signed was Fredy “El Profe” Serrano, a 33-year-old Olympian wrestler in the Beijing games.
“I signed him because he held his own against top U.S. talent,” said Castro, who also signed fellow Colombians Dumar Roa and Alex Torres.
Castro brought Serrano up to New Jersey to train with some American MMA fighters for a few weeks. With only six months of real of training in Colombia, Serrano developed faster than expected due in part to his wrestling background.
“That high-level wrestling is amazing,” Castro said.
United States fight organizations are beginning to tap into the South American market to increase their brands' viewers and develop new fight stars.
Bellator MMA’s Bjorn Rebney told Fox News Latino recently that Latinos and South American fighters are important to their brand.
“We’re always looking for new fighters out of Argentina, Costa Rica and Mexico … South America,” Rebney said. “Hispanic consumers have an amazing connectivity to fighting sports.”
Historically, Brazilian fighters have a strong connection with MMA. The members of the famed Gracie family, who teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu throughout the U.S. and Latin America, are credited as the forefathers of MMA and the UFC — where Royce Gracie was the first-ever champion.
The UFC has elevated its profile in recent years abroad. It can now be seen throughout the world, it’s held multiple events this year in Brazil and recently signed a deal with Televisa to broadcast in 20 Latin American countries.
“The partnership between these two leaders, Televisa and the UFC, is in response to fan demand throughout Latin America. Today, in Mexico alone, the UFC fan base exceeds 33.4 million people,” the UFC touted in a press release this past May.
Just last month it signed a deal with Colombia's Caracol TV to air UFC programming.
“I think a lot of fighters are coming to realize the UFC is looking at this area,” MMA manager Irvin Rey told Fox News Latino. “Fighters are slowly moving from hobby to profession.”
But as far as the sport has come, that doesn’t mean you can live off it in Colombia just yet.
“In Colombia you can’t make a living off of fighting, we don’t have a fight every month,” said Roa, who learned about MMA from watching videos on YouTube.
With Colombians now being able to watch the sports' best on television, fighters have something to look forward to.
“The UFC programming is showing guys that train MMA that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Castro.
Follow Victor Garcia on Twitter @MrVicGarcia