LAS VEGAS – Vitor Belfort has been one of the most perplexing athletes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's nearly 16-year history.
The Brazilian is so naturally gifted that he was dubbed "The Phenom" in his first stint in the UFC, which ended with a dominant first-round knockout of a prime Wanderlei Silva.
He's held the UFC's light heavyweight championship and won the heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 in 1997 at the age of 20.
Yet, as he begins his third stint in the UFC, it's hard to escape the notion that for all he's accomplished, he could have done much more.
Belfort, who meets former middleweight champion Rich Franklin in a catchweight fight at 195 pounds Saturday in the main event of UFC 103 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, was once to mixed martial arts what guys like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre are now.
He was once regarded as virtually unbeatable, a devastating striker who was well-rounded enough to win no matter the opponent. Even now, as a graybeard of nearly 33, he's working to add Machida Karate to his game.
The results, though, haven't been what one would expect of a fighter with his talent level. Since that 44-second demolition of Wanderlei Silva in 1998, Belfort has faced what can be considered five A-plus. In that span, he's gone 1-1 against Randy Couture and 0-1 against Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Dan Henderson and Kazushi Sakuraba. The win over Couture was a total fluke, as the seam on his glove sliced Couture's eyelid and forced stoppage of the bout for the light heavyweight championship in the first minute.
Since a loss to Henderson at PRIDE 32 in 2006, Belfort has reeled off wins over Ivan Serati, James Zikic, Terry Martin and Matt Lindland, but Belfort has struggled every time he has stepped up to the highest level.
He now trains at Xtreme Couture and vaguely asserts that surrounding himself with the wrong people in the past hurt. At Xtreme Couture, he has the ability to train on a daily basis with many of the sport's most gifted men.
"I made some bad decisions before," Belfort said in a voice barely above a whisper. "I had fighters managing my career before. I made my own mistakes and it all kind of added up. But I'm back and I'm happy and I've still got the ability to do this.
"Being the youngest champion ever and having everyone talk about me, it was hard, but it is what it is. I made a statement in the sport early and because of that, there's always going to be pressure to be that man again. People are always going to a little more from me, but I think I've learned to deal with it. That's my cross I have to carry."
He's coming off a crushing victory over Lindland at the final Affliction show, a bout in which he knocked Lindland out so hard that many in the audience were fearful for the one-time Olympian's safety.
But guys like Couture, Liddell, Henderson and Ortiz all seemed to be mentally tougher than he was at the time and were able to grind out victories over him.
And though Belfort has the pop in his hands to compete with the best at light heavyweight, he insists he's come to the UFC to make a run at middleweight. Belfort said UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta personally asked him to fight Franklin on Saturday at 195, but his goal is to chase the middleweight title.
If Belfort is able to live up to his potential, he may solve a problem for UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva at middleweight.
Anderson Silva has been the most dominant champion in company history and there's no logical opponent for him to fight now. He's already beaten Henderson and Nate Marquardt and doesn't have a tremendous amount of interest in facing either of them again.
Though he's fighting at light heavyweight, he and manager Ed Soares haven't decided if they want to simply surrender the middleweight belt.
If Belfort can fight his way into contention, he'd at least be a viable opponent for Anderson Silva at 185 pounds.
White has spoken publicly of the possibility of a Silva-Belfort title match, comments that didn't escape Belfort's notice.
"I am very proud to be a guy Dana would think about to fight a guy like Anderson," Belfort said. "I was kind of stoked to hear that Dana has the kind of view about me."
But he has to get past Franklin before he even thinks of Silva and that's not going to be easy.
He realizes that he's not take full advantage of his immense physical gifts, but a win over a guy like Franklin would be a good way to start.
"You know, to me, that would put me on the right path," Belfort said. "You're talking about a guy who is right up there (among) the best in the world. A win over Rich is a big deal, it really is.
"I'm at peace in my life now and everything around me is settled. I'm in a good camp and I'm working hard. There are no excuses now."
- Vitor Belfort
- Anderson Silva
- Wanderlei Silva
- Randy Couture