The affair between the UFC and Vitor Belfort has been long and lovely. Like all relationships it has had amazing highs and the lowest lows. They have tried spending time apart, like when Vitor plied his trade overseas for Pride or stateside for Strikeforce. But they were destined to be back together again. That's how true love works. It started out like a true storybook romance or perhaps a cut rate porno.
Belfort was like a Semaphore Entertainment Group wet dream. The UFC loved his chiseled physique, loved his knockout power, loved his good looks. With Royce Gracie gone and Ken Shamrock bordering on the insane, Belfort looked an awful lot like the future. In a sport that had only seen one dimensional stars, in walked a man who was both a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blackbelt and a knockout artist with the fastest hands anyone had ever seen. He was expected to reign for some time. Sure he hadn't actually won championship gold, but it was just kind of assumed that he would. Randy Couture, an older, balding wrestler, was supposed to be a stepping stone to UFC champion Maurice Smith. Instead, Couture derailed the Belfort express.
Things were tense for a time. After the loss to Couture, Belfort couldn't quite hold it together. His fight with Joe Charles at the first UFC Japan was a disaster. The two men refused to actually fight, instead engaging in a less than competitive grappling contest that Belfort won via armbar. It was a low moment, not just for the Brazilian star, but for the enitre promotion.
They say, however, that you're only as good as your last fight. Of course, all was forgiven when Belfort returned at UFC Brazil to punch Wanderlei Silva approximately 97 times in a 45 second fight. It was his last appearance in the Octagon for years. Money is the short answer to the question "why." PRIDE had it, the UFC didn't. Belfort was just one of many departing fighters, shifting the balance of power in the MMA business overseas for years.
Belfort's PRIDE tenure is best forgotten - I'll forgive you if you didn't realize he had ever fought in the legendary Japanese organization. Sure he won four of five bouts, but all but one went to a boring decision. It was in Japan that the "Old Vitor" was born. That was the Vitor who could walk through walls, could knock out Mike Tyson, and would not only tap Rickson, but would call his shot before he did it. He was fictional, a mere product of fans' imaginations. They were so underwhelmed by a former favorite that they created this mythical creature to fill the void.
It was this old Vitor that Dana White and Zuffa had fallen in love with too. When the promotion finally got clearance to return to nationwide pay per view, Dana and the gang knew just who they wanted front and center:
UFC 33 was the promotion's coming out party. The man chosen to headline this show was Vitor Belfort. A favorite of UFC President Dana White, Belfort was (and is) an explosive striker. His battle with Tito Ortiz for the light heavyweight title was crowning not only a champion, but a face for the entire company. Instead, Belfort cut his arm to shreds while training, apparently missing a punching bag and putting his arm through a window at his gym. "We are devastated by this news," Dana White said at the time. "However, I want to assure the fans that we are doing the best we can to replace Vitor with a credible opponent."
More Vitor after the jump.
Karma is a son of a bitch though, and the UFC paid a heavy price. Belfort didn't so much win the light heavyweight title, as slice it free. Literally. The edge of his glove caught Couture on the eyelid, ripping it to shreds and leaving the champion unable to see. By rights it should have been a no contest, but UFC judging wasn't super sophisticated yet (cue sniggers at the word "yet").
Belfort was the proud champion of the sport's top weight class, but it was a title he was just keeping warm for Couture. It was a tough time for Belfort. His sister Priscilla had been kidnapped earlier in the year. He fought Couture with his real life trauma in the back of his head (his sister was later found dead, a victim of drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro). A loss to Couture in a return bout, a fight the wrestler dominated from start to finish, started a downward spiral. After winning the title in 2004, he was just 2-5 in his next seven fights. It seemed like his career as a serious fighter was over, that he was perhaps MMA's first victim of "too much, too soon." Not only was he losing, he was using, testing positive for steroids after a PRIDE 32 loss to Dan Henderson.
But something funny happened after we all wrote him off: the "Old Vitor" reappeared. First witnessed in mere glimpses, against lesser opponents like Terry Martin and Ivan Serati, there were full fledged sightings at UFC 103 in Dallas. It was there Belfort knocked out the UFC's ultimate company man Rich Franklin in the very first round. The win earned Belfort a title shot against Anderson Silva next month in Las Vegas. Sure he hadn't really earned it. It was his first UFC fight in more than four years and not even at middleweight. But this is Vitor Belfort we're talking about. No one was particularly surprised.
What is surprising is a number of fans jumping on the Belfort bandwagon once again, speculating he has the handspeed and power to knock Silva into next week. Again, this is Vitor Belfort. If past is prelude, he's more likely to withdraw from the fight citing injury than he is to do a champion like Silva harm. Right now Belfort is in his honeymoon period with MMA's new fans. They haven't learned not to trust him. Me? I know better.