"The old Vitor."
That's a phrase any long-standing MMA fan has heard time and time again, and it's one we are likely to hear this Saturday night when Vitor Belfort challenges Chris Weidman for the UFC Middleweight title at UFC 187. The words conjure up images of an enigmatic and mercurial figure akin to the Tooth Fairy or MMA's other great enigma - a motivated B.J. Penn. But what exactly does the term mean?
To understand, you have to go all the way back to 1997 and the birth of "the Phenom". When Belfort made his UFC debut at UFC 12, he took the organization and the entire sport by storm. Here was a Gracie jiu jitsu black belt who ran through everyone he faced with his hands. He was wildly dominant in those early fights. But then, over the years, his performances became frequently inconsistent. Sometimes he would show those lightning fast hands, sometimes he would ground and pound out a dull decision. Sometimes he would win and look like a world champion, sometimes he would lose and look completely ineffective. Through it all, there was always the call for "the old Vitor" - that man who had stepped in and emphatically declared himself the best in the world through the lightning and thunder in his hands.
Now for the reality check: the old Vitor is a myth.
Yes, he did look impressive in his first UFC fights. But that was 3 fights in 2 UFC shows - hardly a legacy. In just his 3rd UFC appearance, Belfort refused to come out to the cage to fight Randy Couture, and when he finally did take the cage, he was thoroughly dominated and mentally broken.
After that, he won a rebound fight that teeters right on the edge of being fixed, and then scored one of the most iconic wins of his career still to this date - his blitzkrieg KO of Wanderlei Silva. The old Vitor! So what next? Another mental lapse and humiliating defeat, this time at the hands of Kazushi Sakuraba, who ended the fight completely clowning and embarrassing Vitor.
And so it went for Vitor, again, and again. He crushes Marvin Eastman - the old Vitor is back! Only to lose to Couture again. But wait, a 36 second KO in Pride! And then a completely uninspired performance against Dan Henderson. Every time people loudly proclaimed that "The old Vitor is back!", the tables quickly turned and Vitor found himself on the losing side once more.
That seemed to change in 2009 when he returned to the UFC for this, his third run with the company. Starting with his win over Rich Franklin, he's KO'd fighter after fighter in spectacular fashion. Yes, he's lost in that time, but neither were the kind of broken, embarrassing losses we had seen from him previously. Now it appeared the old Vitor was back, but back for good.
And that brings us to today. For the first time, Vitor Belfort steps into the cage since the NSAC put their ban on TRT. And the truth is, we just don't know what to expect. Will he have that KO power he showed against Bisping, Rockhold, and Henderson? Or will he be the last of the old guard to go down in flames? We can speculate, we can make an educated guess, but we have no way of knowing.
And ladies and gentlemen, THAT is the true "old Vitor." The old Vitor is not a wild KO machine who rules the sport. Far from it. The old Vitor is an inconsistent fighter who can dominate a world class opponent one day, then walk into the cage mentally beaten the next. What defines Vitor Belfort is that inconsistency, that uncertainty of what we're going to get. His run from Rich Franklin to Dan Henderson? That's wasn't the old Vitor. The old Vitor never scored KOs like that on a consistent basis and against that level of competition. This was the new Vitor - the Vitor who could find the consistency that had so often been lacking. Now, that Vitor is gone.
So will we see the old Vitor Saturday night? We absolutely will. Just don't be fooled into thinking that means a Belfort KO.