No matter what happens in the UFC 126 main event on Saturday night in Las Vegas, to many people, 33-year old middleweight challenger Vitor Belfort will always be 19.
He will never shake the mental picture people have of him as the precocious “Phenom”, all flailing fists and devastating speed and power, the likes of which took out Tra Telligman, Scott Ferrozzo, Tank Abbott, and Wanderlei Silva in the early days of the UFC. If you tell him this, he simply chuckles before admitting that he does turn back the clock on his own occasionally.
“I watch them sometimes,” said Belfort of his first UFC bouts. “But I don’t like to see myself on video.”
He doesn’t like to live in the past either. After his 44 second knockout of Silva at Ultimate Brazil in 1998, 20 fights have taken place over the ensuing 12 years. He’s not the same fighter he was back then, and he’s quick to point out that he’s better now, in all aspects of his life.
“I know I’m capable of using my experience now,” he said, making it clear that while the power and speed remains, the reckless part of his personality and fighting style is gone. “It’s part of the job. Sometimes you can score a touchdown, sometimes you can’t. But we always can do better. We have to be a better man, a better athlete, a better father, a better everything every day. We always have to improve.”
Yet sometimes more important than improving is persevering, something Belfort had to do after a horrific stretch from late 2004 through 2006 where he had to deal with the kidnapping of his sister (one of her kidnappers confessed to her murder in 2007) as he lost five of seven bouts. He eventually rebounded, and beginning with his 2007 knockout of Ivan Serati, Belfort went on a five fight winning streak that he will carry into his first UFC title fight since 2004. It’s been a rollercoaster ride to say the least, so when his original bout with Silva at UFC 108 was postponed due to an injury suffered by the champion, Belfort merely shook it off.
“It is what it is, you cannot change the facts,” he said. “I don’t see the bad side, I always try to look at the good side. Here we are again and we’re gonna fight.”
Some would say that this is a reflection of the maturity that comes with being 33, a family man, and someone who has walked through fire and yet emerged intact. Belfort credits his faith.
“Your faith has to kick in every day,” he said. “Our lives are not made by one event. It’s a road, it’s a journey. You have to keep your faith and your discipline every day.”
He will need it all Saturday against one of the most dominant fighters in the history of the sport, a champion with a record number of middleweight title defenses and an unbeaten 12-0 slate in the Octagon. Belfort doesn’t have much to say about Silva, simply cutting it down to “Anderson is a pretty tough fighter. He’s improving every time he steps in the Octagon, and he’s the champion.”
Even when pressed and asked whether he saw Silva slipping at all in a 2010 campaign that saw him lackluster in victory over Demian Maia and forced to dig into his bag of tricks to pull out a last round win over Chael Sonnen, Belfort keeps his cards close to the vest.
“I hope so, but I’m not predicting anything,” he said. “I’m going there to fight and do my best. I’m not going to take anything away from him. I’m gonna go there to fight.”
That humble attitude is in stark contrast to the teenage Belfort. As he told me before his second fight with Randy Couture in 2004, “I was totally out of focus. I wasn’t training, I was thinking I was the greatest and that nobody could beat me.”
Those days are over. Despite a recent change in trainers, with Shawn Tompkins leaving the fold, Belfort remains committed in the Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas, focused on the task ahead of him and the opportunity to join Couture and BJ Penn as the only fighters to win UFC world titles in two different weight classes. And many believe that if anyone has the talent to dethrone “The Spider”, it’s Belfort.
“That’s good to hear that people think that,” he said. “I know I can beat him if I’m ready when I step into the Octagon. It’s just a matter of doing what you’re capable of doing, and I think I’m capable to go there and fight and get the win. I’m very confident and I’m gonna try to accomplish this.”
If he does, it will be an exclamation point on a career that had so much promise, then disappointment, and now promise again. But win or lose, Vitor Belfort isn’t done yet; not by a longshot.
“I always live for the future,” he said. “I’m always looking forward to what is next, and what is next is the title. I’m very happy I have this opportunity, and I’m training hard, I’m doing my job, so on February 5th I can put everything I’m doing now in action. I want to leave the Octagon saying that I did everything I could. I know I’m fighting a champion, a guy who’s one of the best, pound for pound, in the world, and I’m prepared to go in there and do my thing. And that’s the point of life. You have to be better than yesterday.”
Vitor Belfort - Better than Yesterday
“I know I can beat him if I’m ready when I step into the Octagon. It’s just a matter of doing what you’re capable of doing, and I think I’m capable to go there and fight and get the win."