Vitor Belfort. The name alone is enough to conjure up various highlight reel images in the minds of most MMA fans. He's one of the last remaining "old guard" fighters left standing, a former UFC tournament and Light Heavyweight champion, and one of the sport's most enduring figures. Yet for all of this, he's also a man shrouded in myth and mystery.
This weekend, at UFC 152, Vitor Belfort challenges Jon Jones for the UFC Light Heavyweight crown. Jones is a massive favorite in the fight, and for good reason. But with Vitor, there's always this lingering feeling that anything could happen. Why? Because at any point, we could see the mythical "Old Vitor".
T.P. Grant already offered an excellent breakdown on Vitor's rocky past, so I won't rehash his history here. But when people refer to this idea of an Old Vitor, they're talking about his earliest days in the sport. Those are the days that saw him mow down his first UFC opponents and blitz Wanderlei Silva. His KO of Rich Franklin? That was the Old Vitor - a KO beast with machine gun hands who could end any man's night in an instant.
Yet somewhere along the way, there developed this idea of a New Vitor. And this New Vitor was not pretty. The New Vitor, at first, referred to the man who seized up against Randy Couture and Kazushi Sakuraba, dwarfed by the moment in these big fights. Then the New Vitor was the man who produced plodding ground control victories in Pride over the likes of Gilbert Yvel and Heath Herring. Finally, the New Vitor became the man who was crushed by personal tragedy and simply could not hang at the top of the sport anymore. In short, the New Vitor was everything that the Old Vitor was not - he was boring, he lost, and he wasn't dangerous.
For years, every Vitor Belfort fight boiled down to one question - which Vitor would show up? It was a convenient storyline. The problem? It wasn't entirely true.
The truth is that there was not one Old Vitor and one New Vitor. There's just Vitor Belfort, a brilliant but flawed fighter who showed both great skills and crippling weaknesses. After all, it was just his 5th ever fight, only 1 year into his career, when he first faced Randy Couture and wilted under the pressure. The so-called New Vitor was part of him from day 1. So, we can debunk the idea of an Old and New Vitor, right?
Not so fast.
For years, Vitor was a particular fighter - a man with those rapid hands and an underused (but far from deadly) ground game, who couldn't be trusted to push through a fight when the going got tough. That was Vitor Belfort. Then, in 2008, Vitor made a change. He dropped down to Middleweight. At the same time, he began to change his style. The fast hands were still there, but now he was more patient, willing to set up the flurry with a more technical striking game. He added knees to his arsenal, improved his boxing fundamentals, and started looking for openings instead of forcing them. In short, Vitor evolved. He became, dare I say it, a New Vitor. The result? A 5-1 streak at Middleweight, which caps off a current 7-1 streak. Vitor has never been on a 7-1 streak ever before in his career. At Middleweight, he's found the consistency he lacked for so many years.
Of course, this weekend, he doesn't fight at Middleweight, the division of the real New Vitor. He fights at Light Heavyweight, his old home. So the question I am left wondering is this - will he hold onto the changes he made at Middleweight when he moves back up, or will we see him fall back to his old habits?
In short, we're right back to that same old question: which Vitor will show up, the Old Vitor or the New Vitor? Except this time, the roles are reversed. The Old Vitor? He doesn't stand a chance against Jon Jones. The New Vitor? Now that's an intriguing fight.