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'Old lion' Vitor Belfort jumped at chance to face another phenom in Jon Jones

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Accepting a fight with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones with benefit of a full training camp and with the greatest coaches, trainers and sparring partners available is a daunting task.

Jones is a physical freak, perhaps the most gifted fighter ever to compete in mixed martial arts. He's tall, with an incredible 84-inch reach that is the longest in UFC history. He's got great reflexes, good power, first-rate conditioning, outstanding wrestling and, well, everything else one needs to be a superstar in MMA.

Fighting him when everything is set perfectly is no bargain. Meeting Jones without time to properly prepare, without the opportunity to get into elite condition, is almost masochistic.

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Vitor Belfort works out in preparation for his title fight against Jon Jones. (Getty)

"Jon is an incredibly talented, gifted guy," UFC middleweight Brian Stann said, echoing the opinion of just about everyone who's ever seen Jones fight.

When UFC president Dana White learned last month that Dan Henderson would have to pull out of his fight with Jones at UFC 151 because of a knee injury, he knew he was in deep trouble.

White didn't have a line of guys at his door begging to take on Jones with just eight days of preparation. Only two, both of whom had been competing at middleweight, said yes.

And in White's view, Chael Sonnen, the first to accept, almost didn't count.

"He's a lunatic," White said of Sonnen, whom White noted is now in full blown training camp just to be prepared if he's needed to fight Jones again on short notice.

[Related: Keeping up with the Joneses will be a task this weekend]

But when Jones wouldn't fight Sonnen with only three training days to prepare, UFC 151 was canceled. And that deeply bothered the other fighter who was willing to accept the challenge of meeting the burgeoning superstar.

"I've been around for a long, long time, and I can't accept that no one would step up," former light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort said. "I'm from the old school, I guess. When Dana told me he was going to cancel 151, I couldn't believe it."

Belfort quickly became part of the mix. On Aug. 23, the date of the cancelation of UFC 151, White announced that Jones would fight Lyoto Machida at UFC 152 on Sept. 22 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

There was only one problem: He'd failed to speak to Machida. When Machida was finally reached hours after White had made his announcement on a media conference call, he declined. He'd lost to Jones in December and, though he felt he could reverse that outcome, wanted the benefit of a full training camp to do it.

"I [expletive] that up," White said of failing to talk to Machida first. "But he'd been terrorizing me for a title shot and I thought after talking with his manager [Ed Soares], there was no way he'd say no. That's on me. … But he should have taken the fight."

There weren't many other options. Despite all of the fighters who have blasted Jones on a near-daily basis since Aug. 23, few, if any of them, were willing to put their names on a contract and get into a cage with him.

[Related: Reason for UFC president Dana White’s ridiculous work ethic]

White said his phone was strangely silent as he was looking for someone to take on Jones at UFC 152.

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Anderson Silva (R) finished Vitor Belfort with a video-game style kick in the main event of UFC 126.

"Well, I can tell you this, people talk a lot of [expletive], but nobody is too excited to jump around and fight Jon Jones right now," White said. "You know, guys were out there saying, 'I want the title shot next, I want the title shot next.' When it came time for them to get the title shot, they turned it down. Vitor Belfort is the only guy who called. He was calling up [UFC chairman] Lorenzo [Fertitta] and said, 'I want this fight with Jon Jones so bad.' And we respect that. We like that. So Vitor got the fight."

In pairing Jones and Belfort, the UFC pitted its current phenom against the original. When Belfort came into the UFC amid much hype in 1997, he was known as "The Phenom," and was seen as invincible then as Jones is now.

Belfort won the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament when Jones was not yet 10 years old, showing incredibly fast hands and intimidating knockout power.

He took the match against Jones at UFC 152 out of a sense of duty, calling himself the "old lion."

There was, he said, never a hesitation in saying yes.

"I'm not going to criticize Jon Jones for [not fighting Sonnen at UFC 151] and I'm not going to criticize anyone else for not fighting him [at UFC 152]," Belfort told Yahoo! Sports. "I'm not an angry person and it's not my place to judge what is right and wrong for someone else in their career.

"But when I came up, that's how we did things. We took fights. We did what was right for the sport.”

[Also: Michael Bisping: I respect Brian Stann, but that doesn’t mean anything on Saturday]

And he swears he didn't take it just to absorb a beating so the show would go on.

Belfort vows he's coming to win. White wasn't outright predicting a Belfort victory, because he never makes predictions before a fight. But as he was mocking Jones trainer Greg Jackson – a frequent occurrence these days – he made it clear he thinks Belfort has a legitimate shot.

"Jackson said it would be 'the worst decision he ever made,' for Jones to fight Chael Sonnen on eight days notice," White said. "He said, 'He's a southpaw.' Are you kidding me? Chael Sonnen has been fighting at middleweight, he hadn't been training and basically he's a lesser version of Dan Henderson.

"And guess what you [expletive] idiot? Vitor Belfort is a southpaw. And he hits way harder than [Sonnen]. Are you [expletive] kidding me? Vitor Belfort has knockout power in either hand."

Belfort insists that the 13-1 odds against him don't faze him. He raves about Jones' talent and sees what everyone else sees.

But Belfort has been around long enough to know that no one is unbeatable.

"If I didn't think I could beat him, I would never have taken the fight," Belfort said. "I didn't say it would be easy to beat him. He is very talented, very good at what he does. But I see openings.

"It's a 50-50 fight because when they close the door, it's just either him or it's me. And I believe with all my heart that I can beat this man."

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