We often use the term "rising phenom" to describe an especially talented newcomer, or query "which fighter will show up?" to reflect an athlete's streaky inconsistency. Vitor Belfort was the first fighter in MMA that perfectly embodied both sentiments. The unforgettable devastation of the classic first-round "Vitor flurry" that vaulted him to stardom and earned him the "Phenom" nickname was eventually clouded by his sporadically disappointing performances.
Wait, hold on a sec ... disappointing? Is that really a befitting way to categorize a fighter who's only lost to all-time greats like Randy Couture, Kazushi Sakuraba, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson and Anderson Silva? Belfort's legacy is often accompanied by frustrated sighs and lamentations of wasted potential, which I find rather unsettling considering how much he's accomplished in the cage and endured outside of it.
However, it was Vitor that set the bar so high for himself -- and that's intended as a compliment. It was impossible not to reserve a seat on his hype-train when, at only age nineteen, he was annihilating all comers with the quickest and deadliest boxing combinations the sport had seen. It made absolutely no sense that his teammates lifted him on their shoulders to incite a celebratory chant of "Jiu Jitsu! Jiu Jitsu!" when he was knocking the crap out of people standing, but we couldn't be bothered with such trivial details -- and Jiu Jitsu was cool too -- so we cheered along anyway.
Presently, Vitor is a well-worn, 34-year-old middleweight who still has his nose to the grindstone at the top level. He'll always be ultra-dangerous and have us on the edge of our seats, anxiously anticipating another highlight-reel addition to his fourteen career TKOs.
More UFC 142 Dissections
Opposing him in the co-main event of tomorrow night's UFC 142 RIO: Aldo vs. Mendes Anthony JohnsonJohnson dusted Reiner in just thirteen seconds with a ruthless barrage of strikes, putting him on the map as a new killer on the block.
Though he would drop two of his next three, one opponent was a wily veteran (Rich Clementi) and the other blinded him with an unintentional eye poke (Kevin Burns), and Johnson had notched another rousing knockout in between (Tommy Speer). From that point on, Johnson would climb the welterweight ladder with wins in five of his next six, only falling short against perennial top contender Josh Koscheck.
I'm stubbornly convinced that Belfort's astounding flurry on Wanderlei Silva at UFC 17.5 is the most epic display of violence I've ever witnessed. This epitomizes the lightning-fast destruction that he's capable of at any time. Barring the Sarlacc Pit he turned Marvin Eastman's head into with a clinch knee at UFC 84, the bulk of Belfort's career knockouts all resemble this sequence. I mean, is there really any way to spin it into some sort of enlightened and technical analysis? This is the threat that Belfort presents and, win or lose, half his fights have ended as such.
Johnson, a two-time state wrestling champ in high school and NJCAA national champion, has wowed fans with his kickboxing prowess more than his takedowns.
With what I feel is his best strike, he flattens Burns with a crisp left high-kick to avenge the eye-poke loss in the rematch. This is the same kick he used to vanquish Charlie Brenneman in his last outing and also the technique that he dropped Dan Hardy with. His boxing has also come along nicely. Johnson always had good instincts and power, but he's now developing a more polished game with better defense and punching technique.
He's also a rangy striker with exceptional height and length, but the kicker is that he's still incredibly explosive and agile for such a large, hulking fighter.
The bloodthirsty fans who were craving a stand up brawl were displeased with Johnson in his fight with Hardy, but he was wise to exploit the UK striker's weakness by reverting to his wrestling to pick up the win.
Vitor is a longtime BJJ black belt but hasn't shown the capability to handle Johnson from his back. His two measly career submissions came against training partner Joe Charles back in 1997 and Bobby Southworth circa 2001.
I think it's clear that, though both are far from amateurs in the realm of their opponent's specialty, this is a virtual striker vs. grappler match. Belfort's hand speed and knockout power are unparalleled, while Johnson's chances increase dramatically with takedowns and stifling top-control.
Belfort has exhibited a solid grasp of takedown defense, such as in his razor-thin split-decision loss to Tito Ortiz, and his recent stint at Jackson's MMA to train with Georges St. Pierre can't hurt. Johnson is probably comparable to Ortiz in the takedown department but sets things up much better with his hands, and Vitor is in for a long night if Johnson can connect and work his wrestling. The key factors will be how Johnson closes the distance while avoiding the whir of leather and how long and effectively he can contain Belfort with control.
I wouldn't rule out Johnson catching Vitor on the feet, but Vitor has a strong beard and I expect him to dictate things standing. I'm taking Belfort here but think Johnson has a clear path to victory in an ugly way: if he can keep Belfort in phone-booth range or underneath him for the better part of two rounds, the pressure will be on the Brazilian to pull off another dramatic stoppage, putting Johnson in the prime position for an upset.
My Prediction: Vitor Belfort by KO
Johnson vs. Hardy gif via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
Belfort vs. Silva gif via MMA-Core.com
Johnson vs. Burns gif via mmagif.blogspot.com