The stage is set for UFC on FX 8 in Brazil with two middleweight challengers, both knowing what it's like to be champion, and both looking to be one step closer to a shot at Anderson Silva's throne.
At this point, the self proclaimed "young dinosaur" needs no introduction. Belfort's description of himself, as a youthful and relevant 200 million year old non-extant species, is just bizarre and counterintuitive enough to make sense in the context of Vitor's career.
Here's a guy who destroyed men in his UFC debut back in 1997, lost to Randy Couture, unsuccessfully fiddled about in Pride, and then wandered around in Cage Rage after making a failed pit stop in Strikeforce before it was infiltrated by the 209. That was all before returning to the UFC a third time, earning two title shots in two different divisions as of 2011. By all accounts, Vitor's return to the living should have been as a pool of feijoada-scented oil.
It's hard to say how he's done it. His game hasn't changed much. He still looks to uncork a big left hand, and swarm when necessary. The only thing that has changed is his age, and the scientific touch to keep his testosterone levels up.
Opposite Vitor is Luke Rockhold. Rockhold's career is more promising than it's been. A fighter in the vein of the Alpha Male prototype (sturdy wrestling, and a dynamic all around game), his career has been hindered by injuries, having only fought once in 2010, and once in 2011.
What both men can do: Rockhold is similar to a select few American wrestlers who have taken to the mat in jiu jitsu tournaments to sharpen his submission skills, with a few trophies from the IBJJF in 2007 to prove it. Not content to simply shoot for the takedown to score points, Rockhold has excellent instincts when it comes to scoping out the submission, and it's not inconceivable to consider a scenario where Luke submits Belfort in a scramble. Not that I'd bet on it, but still.
I mentioned Alpha Male, because I think Luke draws comparisons to their style on the feet as well. He's not afraid to throw unorthodox strikes, nor is he afraid to headhunt. His fight with Tim Kennedy turned into a brawl on a few occasions precisely because Rockhold would just wade in with combinations (perhaps to a fault).
As for Belfort, well...we already know. His combinations aren't as blazing as they used to be, but his speed is still supernatural for MMA. It's difficult to say what has kept him relevant all these years despite being essentially the same fighter, but he seems to time his punches better, rather than toss a three-piece haphazardly liked he used to. He fights a more measured pace. Despite what we saw off his back against Jon Jones, he's still mostly inert as a grappler. He's incredibly quick with his hips, and not someone you can simply ignore from top control, but Rockhold would be wise to put him on his back.
What both men can't do: While much is made of Belfort's renaissance, I still can't get passed the fact that he's had a lot of favorable matchups. He hasn't looked terrible on his title fights, so I think that allows observers to overlook the fact that Franklin, Akiyama, Johnson, and to a lesser degree, Michael Bisping, were all mostly tailor made for him. Bisping didn't have the power to threaten Vitor, and I don't even have to explain the Akiyama and Johnson bouts.
Belfort hasn't historically handled the pressure of a Rockhold type. Vitor still isn't especially sturdy when it comes to takedown defense, and his cardio hasn't been tested all that well.
What makes this fight dynamic is that Rockhold's aggressive nature on the feet will put him on tilt if he's not careful. He seems to have a pretty good chin, as Kennedy landed some bombs in their fight, but obviously Vitor is a different carnivorous beast when it comes to punching power.
This is my prediction in a nutshell: Rockhold will be a bit tentative, and calculated on the feet at first, but won't stop looking for takedowns. Vitor will have a hard time shifting from one phase to the next until he's worn down, and Rockhold will incrementally gain the advantage in the fight.
Prediction: Luke Rockhold by Decision.