The story of Vitor Belfort is a well documented one. He was once a member of the legendary Carlson Gracie fight team and was given the nickname "the Phenom" in his first run with the UFC because while he was known as a Jiu Jitsu fighter, he also had incredible boxing. He won the UFC 12 Heavyweight Tournament in a combined time of two minutes and then followed it up with an fantastic showing against Tank Abbott, who he bested in 53 seconds. A star was born and at 20 years old, Semaphore Entertainment Group had a poster child to build the UFC brand around.
He hit his first road block in Randy Couture, who was expected to lose to the young Brazilian fighter. Instead, he utilized a Greco-Roman clinch and collar tie to dirty box Belfort to a stoppage. This fight is the first that demonstrated what many know now: whenever Vitor is given a chance to make the step forward, he mentally collapses. It's become a theme over the course of his career, but more on that later. He bounced back from this loss with a dominant win over Wanderlei Silva, which demonstrated Belfort's hand speed and blitzkrieg style. After this win, he left the UFC for the bigger money in Japan.
His first fight in Pride was against Kazushi Sakuraba. An unfortunate broken hand midway through the first round lead to Belfort fighting off his back for the remainder of the fight. The judges awarded Sakuraba the victory and following the loss Belfort left the Carlson Gracie team for Brazilian Top Team. This move proved to pay off as Belfort got back on track and went on a four fight winning streak which included Gilbert Yvel and Heath Herring. He returned to the UFC only to drop his first fight to Chuck Liddell at UFC 37.5, the headlining fight but due to the nature of the event, it never aired.
A TKO over Marvin Eastman would earn a shot at the UFC Light Heavyweight belt. The same Marvin Eastman fight that saw Belfort open a massive cut over the eye of the Beastman. This win not only earned Belfort a shot at the title but a rematch with Randy Couture. He "defeated" Couture to win his first MMA belt. I say "defeated" because this win was as much of a farce as you can have in sanctioned MMA. A seam from his glove opened a cut on Randy's eyelid and the doctor stopped the fight. There was an immediate rematch eight months later and Couture proved he was the better fighter when he forced a doctor stoppage in the third round.
This loss set Belfort's career in a tailspin. He was battling issues in his personal life with the abduction of his sister and his heart and focus just weren't in MMA. He left the UFC for a second time and joined the Pride roster for another run in the Japanese promotion. He dropped two fights to Alistair Overeem and in his fight against Dan Henderson at Pride: Real Deal, he not only lost but also tested positive for a banned substance. His defense was that he purchased an over the counter supplement that contained the substance and received injections to help rehabilitate an injury. He was suspended by the NSAC for nine months but ignored the ruling only to fight in England five months later.
People have been excited at the possibility that the old Vitor Belfort is back due to his recent run at Middleweight collecting highlight reel knockout wins over Terry Martin, Matt Lindland, and Rich Franklin. Unfortunately, he again failed to meet the expectations when he was knocked out by Anderson Silva at UFC 126. This is partly due to a 17 month layoff and partly due to the fact that he just wasn't in the same league as Silva.
Over the course of his career, Belfort has never met the expectations of fans and media. When he made his MMA debut he was sold as a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and he surprised all with his boxing. He was seen as a fighter who had endless potential as he was more athletic than any fighter in the UFC at that point in his career. Unfortunately, his mental toughness has always been his greatest weakness. Whenever he faces a fighter that pushes back, he collapses and can't fight through the adversity. Even through all of this he still has legions of fans who expect to see the great fighter who debuted at UFC 12 .
That man won't ever return. He's had too many disappointing fights and at this point in his career, I doubt that it's salvageable. In that way he is very like BJ Penn, an extremely talented fighter who has the natural gifts to be one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport. Unfortunately, being a fighter with such natural abilities has translated to both being terrible when dealing with an opponent who is willing to challenge them.
Vitor fights Yoshihiro Akiyama this weekend in a fight that he'll most likely win as the only Middleweight fighter with a more disappointing UFC career than Belfort has been Akiyama. A win will have fans clamoring about how the old Vitor is back, my only question is: aren't we seeing him right now? The fighter that can't make the step forward in big fight situations. That's the old Vitor I know and this weekend I fully expect to see him again.