In the namesake of Saturday's UFC on FX 7
35-year-old Brazilian Vitor Belfort (21-10) was MMA's first true phenom. Unfortunately, diluting that honor is Belfort's equal association with the cliche question "which fighter will show up?" that plagues drastically inconsistent performers. Belfort came in like a lion back in 1996, which was a jaw-dropping 17 years ago, and, at age 19, buzz-sawed through 4 opponents with devastation that epitomized the term "highlight-reel finish."
The massively framed heavyweight unreeled his punches with a blinding speed and fearsome power that has yet to be rivaled, which is why it's not uncommon to label a circumstance bearing similar qualities as "Vitor-esque" nowadays. But Belfort's unparalleled debut and magnetic charisma was gradually muddied by lackluster outings throughout his 31-fight career. Personal troubles -- some monumental, like the heart-breaking loss of his sister -- and injuries played a role in his erratic legacy, but his mental focus and fortitude bore most of the brunt.
However, he's returned to the Octagon on a major upswing, as Belfort's flattened 3 reputable opponents in classic 1st-round fashion and the only fighters responsible for his defeats are inimitable UFC champions Anderson Silva (middleweight) and Jon Jones (light-heavyweight). Overall, Belfort boasts 14 career TKO wins, 3 submissions and 14 stoppages in the 1st round, with a list of victims that includes names like Wanderlei Silva, Randy Couture and Rich Franklin.
Michael "The Count" Bisping (23-4) has definitely become a love-him-or-hate-him type of fighter; perhaps with a tad more emphasis on the latter. Though an injury prevented a showdown with the other top gun, Matt Hamill, on season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter, Bisping annihilated all comers en route to capturing the TUF crown, notching demonstrative finishes in all 3 bouts. That trend continued in the Octagon, as Bisping, then competing at light-heavyweight, capitalized on his TKO stoppage of Josh Haynes at the TUF 3 Finale by treating Eric Schafer and Elvis Sinosic to more of the same.
Though it's still considered one of the most controversial decisions in the sport, Bisping would make it 4-straight with a split decision over Hamill, which elevated the Brit to the upper echelon in a bout with future champion Rashad Evans. Despite being on the wrong side of the split decision this time, the surprising level of takedown defense Bisping exhibited against that duo of 205-pound wrestling specialists made his subsequent decision to drop to middleweight a lucrative one.
The outcome was a 12-fight journey up the ranks at 185 pounds that's anchored by 8 wins and 3 respectable losses consisting of Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen, the latter of which were closely contested. As mentioned in the excerpt I penned for T.P. Grant's Judo Chop on Bisping's punching power and takedown defense, stopping 61% of his wins via strikes is not too shabby for a guy many consider to have "pillow hands."
What's intriguing about this match up is that Bisping has made a career out of sprawl-and-brawling wrestlers, but his resume is pretty thin on elite strikers. I consider 5 of his past opponents as befitting of that description: the aforementioned losses to Evans, Henderson and Silva, which are offset by decision wins over Chris Leben and Brian Stann. So, for whatever it's worth, only 5 of Bisping's 27 opponents were top-tier strikers, and the 3 that bested him make up 75% of his career losses.
That's salient because, in the cage on Saturday night, a bikini-clad yeti is more likely to attack Bisping with takedowns than Belfort is. The Brazilian has found himself in Bisping's typical position throughout his career and incrementally developed a fairly sturdy acumen of takedown defense, yet will happily -- even downright joyously -- oblige "The Count" in a stand-up shootout. If anything, in an unusual turn of events, Belfort's defensive wrestling is more of a pivotal aspect than Bisping's.
Standing, there's not a lot of magic to the variables: Belfort will stay coiled like a spring, waiting patiently -- sometimes too patiently -- to uncork the mystical flurry of sheer violence that put him on the map, whereas Bisping will bounce light on his toes and pop in and out of range with a high volume of dynamic combinations. From the fringe, Bisping has a busy jab and a beautifully straight 1-2, and increases his output as he gets closer by adding in hooks and uppercuts, or knees and dirty boxing in the clinch.
Bisping will be faced with the challenge of how and where to apply pressure: in the past, Belfort has wilted under a close range, grinding assault that gradually saps his energy and offensive enthusiasm, yet that tactic will also place Bisping dead-center in the sweet spot for Vitor's explosion of streaking leather, and was typically employed by much larger and physically imposing competition. Bisping has shown excellent capabilities from both out on the fringe and in phone-booth range; generally, he stays outside early while whittling his foe down with a volume-based approach, but moves in closer while amplifying his power, output and pressure as he gains confidence and momentum.
I'm not sure if he'll exercise the option, but dropping levels for a few takedown attempts would serve Bisping well. Even if he fails miserably, the judges will (mistakenly) interpret it as effective aggression and control and it will lurk in the back of Belfort's mind as a looming threat, each of which will diminish Vitor's striking prowess. Belfort has been a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt for as long as I can remember, but I don't think he's talented enough to catch Bisping, whose submission defense is right up there with his takedown defense.
Bisping has never been submitted; in fact, the only time he's been finished was against Henderson, who has the most obscenely powerful and fear-inspiring right hand in the game. Considering the unlikeliness that Belfort will tap Bisping out or exceed his insane pace and work-rate to notch the decision in a 5-rounder, that leaves the good ol' knockout as his best path to victory.
I'll be honest -- I've been leaning toward Belfort doing just that all week but, after having inched through each step of the analysis, I'm not feeling as good about it. I don't think there's any question that Bisping is the more complete and talented fighter overall, with a brighter future as well. And anytime the route of finishing by knockout is the best -- and perhaps only -- chance of winning against a more diverse opponent, the prediction becomes a bit of a longshot.
Regardless, the betting lines for this scrap are razor thin, with Bisping inching ahead by a tiny margin. Any close fight can be construed as a toss up, and the unpredictability of Belfort only leaves more to chance. While Bisping might be a safer and more sensible pick, I'll stick with my original inclination that 5 rounds is plenty of time for Belfort's speed and power to find the mark, and he's still one of the best finishers when he smells blood.
My Prediction: Vitor Belfort by TKO.