LAS VEGAS – For years, there were always two things one could count on about Vitor Belfort: He was talented enough to defeat any fighter in the world, and he was apt to lose his concentration at the most inopportune times.
Belfort, by most standards, has had an enormously successful career. He's a former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion and has wins over elite fighters such as Randy Couture, Wanderlei Silva and Rich Franklin on his 19-8 record.
There has always been a sense, though, that what you got from Belfort wasn't all you could get. He oozed with talent, suggesting there was another level he could reach when he was so inclined to push himself.
"Sugar" Ray Sefo, one of Belfort's coaches at Xtreme Couture, conceded that Belfort was an enigma early in his career, when he entered the UFC at 19 and made jaws drop with things he could do in the cage.
"He was a very young guy and he went through life a lot like any other youngster, and his life took some turns and he wasn't focusing 100 percent on his fighting," Sefo said. "There are a lot of people in Brazil who doubt him because of his past. But he's a changed fighter. Look at his last three or four fights. He's knocked out everybody."
But if he knocks out the next man he faces, Anderson Silva, when they meet on Saturday in the main event of UFC 126 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, he'll capture the UFC middleweight championship and complete one of the great riches to rags to riches stories in mixed martial arts history.
He's the youngest man to win a UFC fight and he won ithe heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 in 1997. He captured the UFC light heavyweight championship when he stopped Couture on a cut in the first round of their bout at UFC 46, only weeks after his sister, Priscilla, was kidnapped and believed murdered.
But after the Couture victory, Belfort went into a downward spiral. He was just 2-5 in his next seven fights and culminated that streak by not only getting dominated by Dan Henderson at PRIDE 32, but being caught for using anabolic steroids.
Belfort said his turnaround, which includes wins in his last five fights, began when he accepted God into his life.
But he's no longer the distractible, coasting fighter he once was. He made not have the same blazingly quick hands that he did when he came into the game, but at 33, he's far more understanding and far more dedicated.
"I know what I can do, I know what I can't do and I know what I have to do," Belfort said. "I'm comfortable with who I am now. That's a big thing for me."
Retired former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, who earned a decision victory over Belfort at UFC 37.5 in 2002, conceded that Belfort had a reputation in those days as a man who would wilt under pressure.
Liddell, though, said he saw no signs of Belfort breaking mentally when they fought. And Liddell, now a UFC vice president, doesn't believe Silva is intimidating Belfort.
There was a long and intense staredown at Wednesday's news conference, as Silva put his face within an inch of Belfort's and snarled angrily at him as the photographers fired their cameras.
"If Anderson sees something, maybe he is trying to (intimidate Belfort), but at this level, I don't think guys are bothered by that kind of thing," Liddell said. "That's all for the fans."
But the fight on Saturday is for bragging rights in their native Brazil, where each man is a star. A large contingent of Brazilian media has arrived in Las Vegas to cover the fight.
That adds another layer of pressure to Belfort, who hasn't convinced everyone that he'll be able to handle that kind of pressure.
Silva definitively proved his ability to cope with pressure at UFC 117 in August when, just minutes away from losing his title to Chael Sonnen, he saw an opening for the finish and ended the bout with a stunning triangle choke.
Asked if Belfort had the presence and composure to pull a similar move should Silva beat on him for 22 minutes, one person close to the fight laughed out loud.
"Really? Do you even have to ask that?" the person said.
Sefo, though, has no doubt that Belfort could, and would, and defiantly said, "Absolutely, 100 percent," when the same question was posed to him.
Belfort will have his opportunity on Saturday to convince the masses that he's a changed man, but he has long since made a believer out of Sefo. Belfort has more or less trained at Xtreme Couture under Sefo, Couture and Neal Melanson more or less full-time for the last three years.
And while Sefo insists that there are still flashes of the fast-handed, powerful teenager who took the UFC by storm in 1997, he's more impressed by the way that Belfort has morphed into a solid, consistent veteran.
"I first saw him years ago when he was still very young and I said, 'That guy is the best standup striker in MMA,' " Sefo said. "Of course the game has changed a lot in the last 10 years and there are a lot of guys who are able to put the whole thing together. For example, Jon Jones, who's a great fighter. (Ryan) Bader, who is a great fighter. Anderson Silva.
"The game has evolved in the last 10 years and come a long way. But you know what? So has Vitor. He's a reliable guy now. You know what you're going to get from him. He wants to be the best he can be, so he trains very hard. And I believe that whatever the best he has, we're going to see that when he fights on Saturday night."