After Vitor Belfort visited a mighty and victorious kick upon Luke Rockhold at UFC on FX 8, the MMAsphere was agog. Voluble debate and bloviation fixated on whether Vitor's Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) treatments had aided his victory. Since numerous other high-profile UFC fighters, like Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir, Rampage Jackson and Dan Henderson have recently fought while on TRT, the attention given to Vitor's regimen was remarkable.
The furore was presumably because fighters on TRT so rarely win any fights, that seeing one actually do so was like a unicorn sighting. When a man bites a dog, and all that. But lost in the maelstrom of pontification was the more intriguing question, which for some reason nobody bothered to ask: how in the world did Vitor Belfort become so good at kicking?
Vitor's first-round KO of Rockhold was his second consecutive KO by spectacular high kick, the first being a second-round destruction of Michael Bisping. This 'new Vitor', with his arsenal of breathtaking high kicks, represents a fascinating transformation.
17 years ago, the young Vitor was ahead of the one-dimensional fighters of his day because he could both grapple and box. He represented the new (at the time) breed of MMA fighter, a species I like to call the 'grappleboxer.' This is a fighter with a base grappling background (usually wrestling or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) who added basic boxing to his arsenal and thus became relatively well-rounded. For a generation, the grappleboxer dominated MMA, and Vitor was renowned throughout his career as a ferocious if limited boxer.
The grappleboxer however, was always an endangered species. While MMA grappling was world-class due to the normal tendency of fighters to train in wrestling, BJJ and to a lesser extent Judo, MMA striking remained a travesty of sloppy looping punches, ungainly kicks and a severely limited arsenal of offensive strikes.
Because most fighters limited themselves to basic boxing and rudimentary Muay Thai, the overall level of striking competence remained well below that found in striking-focused martial arts like Karate, Dutch Kickboxing and Taekwondo. The few strikers from these backgrounds like Lyoto Machida, Ben Henderson, Anthony Pettis and Georges St-Pierre, easily kicked and punched their way to the top, making grappleboxers look impotent in the process.
It was thus inevitable that to gain an edge, a new generation of MMA fighters would raid the traditional striking martial arts for new techniques to raise their game with. In a wildly popular post here on BE, I argued that this was both necessary and inevitable. If a BJJ black belt makes you an excellent grappler, a Karate black belt will make you an excellent striker.
Vitor Belfort agreed. He began studying Shotokan Karate in earnest with Brazil's top Karate practitioners, and his Wikipedia page lists him as having earned a purple belt. His coaches include Brazilian Shotokan Karate phenomenon Jayme Sandall, Vinicio Antony, and K-1 Karate veteran Francisco Filho, who was reportedly in his corner for the Rockhold fight.
Vitor's Karate training has benefited him in two main ways. The first, due to Shotokan Karate's focus on patient timing and devastating counter-attack, is that he has become a much more clinical and patient fighter. 'Old Vitor' was renowned for launching a devastating blitzkrieg on his opponents in the first round, a habit that often saw him gassed and vulnerable if he couldn't achieve an early finish. However, he confounded the analysts during the Bisping fight by fighting at a measured, patient pace, conserving energy until he found his opportunity and took it.
Against Rockhold, he was similarly patient. Despite Rockhold slipping and falling twice early in the fight, Vitor did not swarm or rush to the attack. Instead, he patiently waited for the right opening, and devastation by spin kick was the result.
The second benefit of his Karate training is obviously in expanding his arsenal of techniques, specifically by including Karate's signature high kicks with which he achieved his last two spectacular victories:
When Karate-based striker Uriah Hall terrorised his TUF 17 housemates like a slasher haunting a cabin in the woods, it heralded the arrival of a new generation of striker and the doom of the basic grappleboxer. Vitor's spectacular victory further emphasized the coming of a new and exciting era in MMA striking. After the spin kick heard round the world, Bellator fighter David Rickels tweeted:
He won't be alone. Enjoy these videos of Vitor training with his Karate coaches: