At just 19 years of age, Vitor Belfort made his UFC debut all the way back in 1997 when mixed martial arts was a much different sport.
The fledgling promotion only had a few years under its belt, and the UFC was still running one night tournaments in an open weight format to declare who truly was the “ultimate fighter.”
Belfort burst onto the scene and quickly picked up the nickname “The Phenom” for his lightning quick hands and ability to blast through much bigger and more experienced opponents.
Now, 15 years later, Belfort once again stands on the precipice of greatness with a chance to dethrone the new “phenom” in town, this time in the form of UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
Belfort took the fight with Jones on just a few weeks notice and despite his training regimen geared towards a fight in October against a middleweight, the always game Brazilian didn't hesitate to say yes.
“It was right away when I received the invitation,” Belfort told MMAWeekly.com when asked how fast he accepted the fight with Jones. “I just saw it as great opportunity for my career. I said to Lorenzo (Fertitta) and Dana (White) that I was ready if they needed me, and then they requested me.”
It's a fundamental change from the fighters that started in Belfort's time in the early days of the UFC to the mentality nowadays where fight camps have developed into finely tuned machines.
While Belfort believes that proper training, health and business always have a place in MMA, he's afraid the idea of a fighter just fighting has changed dramatically over the years.
“I believe the fight world became a little complicated and fighters today have this mentality that things run on their time. Can you imagine in my era, they just throw you a pair of gloves and put you in an open weight tournament. Today you need a strategy, a camp, based on the opponent that you fight, and this way they are never ready for short notice fights,” said Belfort.
Looking at the way the sport works today, Belfort sees comparisons between MMA and race car driving where the onus used to be on the driver to be more skilled, and now it's about who has the better mechanic and design team for their car.
“I'm not denying that the level and the techniques have improved, but we have to be careful to not become like a Formula 1,” Belfort explained.
“In the beginning, it was the driver that was important. Today is the car and technology that wins the race. The driver is secondary in the process. Fighters have to be ready to fight any time. Of course the ones who are in a recovery process from an injury are an exception, and this is acceptable.”
At the end of the day, Belfort understands that fighters do this to make a living, pay bills, and provide for their children. So there is always going to be a business aspect to MMA, but Belfort is quick to point out that when it's all said and done, a fighter fights and that's his true business.
“I believe it is a balance,” Belfort stated.
“You cannot take away the business part because we make our living off of the fight but we need to have our roots in what we are: fighters!”
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