In the weeks leading up to his highly anticipated bout with middleweight king Anderson Silva, the world was in the palm of Vitor Belfort's hands. The UFC did their part by running sharp promotional commercials that showed a young "phenom" as he stormed across the octagon and battered an up-and-coming Wanderlei Silva. The short but effective clip also included Belfort knocking MMA veteran Matt Lindland unconscious, a tool used to combine Vitor's era-spanning career and show he was just as dangerous in his 30's as he was at 19 years old. Belfort became very accessible to the media, giving solid interviews, putting his confidence on display and helping set the tone for what was to come at UFC 126.
After being taken to the wire against Chael Sonnen, the Silva bandwagon was a very unpopular place to be and, with the return of the "Brazilian Mike Tyson", all signs pointed to an epic changing of the guard come February 5th. A once great champion who had steadily lost favor over the past two years was supposedly submitting his famed speed and agility to Father Time. This would be the tipping point as Belfort 's most notable attribute was his swarming speed and pin point accuracy.
Vitor came out of his corner keeping his hands tight and his eyes sharp. While some critics declared Silva wouldn't survive the first round swarm of the former champion, Vitor ultimately offered a handful of offense in the fight. No sooner than Belfort hit the ground did reality snap back into place. Here was Anderson Silva, the supposedly vulnerable and aging champion, taking his normal position atop the octagon in celebration while the fighter many expected to take his throne was brought back to consciousness.
Perhaps the biggest question of all in the following press conference was "What is next for Vitor Belfort?"
Standing in the aftermath of what happened at UFC 126 we are now forced to take a closer look at what Vitor Belfort has left. Perhaps the appropriate question is more along the lines of what he is capable of accomplishing. The first round knockout suffered (also the first of his career) this past Saturday draws speculation about how suited to handle the challenges that wait for him in middleweight division.
Only time will tell if Vitor can handle top contenders like Chael Sonnen, Okami or Nate Marquardt. Each of the fighters bring a different style, and, even if those fights are made, will Belfort be able to remain healthy long enough to find out? The collision between Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort was actually scheduled on two different occasions before this past Saturday. The first time around Silva pulled out of the cursed UFC 108 card with elbow surgery. Next it was Belfort who withdrew from UFC 112 due to an injury . When Belfort stepped into the octagon Saturday night it was a solid 15 months since his last bout against Rich Franklin and while he'd knocked "Ace" out in the first round, Rich Franklin is a good ways away from being the caliber of fighter Silva destroyed twice. In fact, it could be argued that Vitor's last fight against a relevant opponent came when he fought Dan Henderson at Pride 32 , but with the suspension that followed due to a failed drug test, marketability had us looking elsewhere.
If Belfort wants to find success in the division he will need to stay healthy enough to fight at least two times a year. The weight class currently displays a wide variety of fighters who have all managed to stay healthy enough to keep the division moving. If Belfort entered the divisional grind he would face challenges from perennial contenders like Maia and Marquardt to fighters on the move like Rivera and Bisping, all who would happily jump in line to face a name like Belfort. Granted, there are always high profile fights to be made but with Vitor's showing at UFC 126, he is going to have to be tested at least against one notable contender before the UFC settles on a direction for him to travel.
The next question would fall on how quickly he bounces back from being knocked out for the first time in his career? When a fighter loses consciousness it is the equivalent of a light switch flipping and the older a fighter gets, the easier it becomes to flip that switch. Belfort is 33 years old and while he is still a far younger man than Randy Couture, when Chuck Liddell turned "Captain America 's" lights out, it made him far more susceptible to the knockout. Much in the same light that Belfort flattened Matt Lindland, it is possible that Vitor will now question how much he can take physically. In the right circumstances having to question the physical limits could compound the mental doubt which in this volatile equation could spell disaster.
Another issue that was thrown around during the build up to UFC 126 came in regards to Vitor's cut to 185 lbs. It had been years since he actually hit the mark choosing to fight his most recent battles at a catch weight of 195 lbs. All reports indicate a smooth cut for the fight against Silva but if Vitor doesn't see the middleweight division as a suitable option, does he rule out a possible return to the division he once dominated?
The quick answer is yes.
The light heavyweight division has been the long reigning competitive jewel of the UFC and it's as hotly contested as it's ever been. With the title being handed off at a record rate (6 different champions in 3 years), a handful of champions have emerged since Chuck Liddell was dethroned, with everyone one of them still hovering around contention. Not to mention new additions like the Jon Jones and Thiago Silva are in the mix so the chances of Belfort moving to 205 lbs. would be slim. Granted, he defeated Rich Franklin in his return but Rich's performance Saturday at UFC 126 shows proof that Franklin is in divisional limbo.
Even with all of this evidence presented it doesn't take away from the fact that Vitor Belfort has the talent to be one of the top middleweights in the UFC. His punching power is the stuff of legend and the aura he brings to the cage evokes the possibility of a brutal battle to come. With that being said, today's UFC is far different from the one he once ruled and for Vitor to hold rank or better yet climb back to contender status he is going to have to show fire, determination and durability. These are the tasks of a younger, hungrier fighter and we will have to wait and see how quickly Belfort goes back to the lab to make the necessary adjustments. Can Vitor Belfort regroup, put the past away and commit to fighting for his surivial? If he fails to do so...I have a hard time believing fighters like Alan Belcher or Chael Sonnen will provide him much sympathy as they usher him to the exit door.