When people talk of Jon Jones and Jose Aldo Jr. as the young stars expected to dominate mixed martial arts for years, it brings back memories of the sport’s first-ever young phenom.
Vitor Belfort burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old using the ring name of Victor Gracie, billed as the adopted son of Vale Tudo legend Carlson Gracie (the son and nephew of fighting pioneers Carlos Gracie and Helio Gracie, respectively). He demolished a giant, John Hess, in 12 seconds on a show in Hawaii, and then moved onto UFC where he won his next four fights in less than 90 seconds each, showing hand speed and accuracy the likes of which were never scene before in the Octagon.
Belfort and then-heavyweight champion Mark Coleman were the two last superstars created during the first era, and the plan was hatched to eventually match the two. But the UFC may as well have dropped off the face of the earth when pay-per-view providers pulled the plug.
It was a very different world then. UFC wasn’t covered by mainstream media. The Internet was in its infancy, and most of the people who watched UFC with their friends a few times per year never had the chance to see it again, and didn’t know where to get information on it. They moved on, vaguely wondering whatever happened to that teenage Brazilian with the fast hands.
Belfort and Coleman never had their showdown for the heavyweight title. What happened, in fact, was the lesson taught to promoters of the sport that has been a staple for 14 years: When you have a money match, you make it when it’s ready.
Belfort was instead booked in 1997 with someone thought to be a safe opponent, an aging wrestler, with no stand-up and little experience in the sport, named Randy Couture. And somebody came out of that fight to become one of the dominant fighters over the next decade, but not the one anyone would have expected.
The Belfort phenomenon was derailed, and for years, whenever he would fight, people would reminisce for the days when "The Old Vitor" would return, like some rookie phenom ballplayer who won an MVP award out of the gate but never had another killer season. When UFC resurfaced years later, and became bigger than ever, it was on the backs of a group of new stars: Couture, Chuck Liddell, and Tito Ortiz.
But in 2012, Belfort is the last survivor of his generation, almost like a key cast member of a hit TV show brought back as a supporting member a generation later when they do a remake.
At 34, the native of Rio de Janeiro never did dominate the sport as expected. And now he’s possibly entering the final act of his career trying to live up to the promise the highlight reel of his youth showed. In doing so, Belfort (20-9) faces a new-generation fighter, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson (10-3), when he fights for the first time in his career in his hometown Saturday night at the HSBC Arena in the No. 2 bout at UFC 142.
Johnson was a giant welterweight, a 6-foot-2 former national junior college wrestling champion who would cut from 220 pounds down to 170, a mark he didn’t always make. He’s moving up to middleweight for the first time Saturday. And even days before the fight, Johnson said he was still 215, the weight he would be cutting from.
Because of his size, and the combination of his stand-up skills and strong wrestling [he was 2004 national champion at the junior college level], Johnson also at one point was expected, just through sheer size and reach, to be the future of the welterweight division and at some point be a threat to Georges St. Pierre. But that didn’t happen, and he’s seeing if middleweight is more to his liking.
"It’s not a bodybuilding contest," said Belfort, who learned through experience, given that he looked like and trained with bodybuilders early in his career. "It’s not who has the best body. You can’t judge a fight based on size, and if you think size will win, you’re in the wrong sport."
Belfort has had a good career, including a run as UFC light heavyweight champion. On any given day, the "old Vitor" can resurface. In fact, the "old Vitor" taking apart top foes with his fists almost immediately has been the story in three of his last four fights, wins over credible opponents Matt Lindland, Rich Franklin and Yoshihiro Akiyama. But even so, oddsmakers have this fight as almost a dead heat.
Most fighters who start as teenagers, are likely to move up in weight class as they mature. Belfort started out as a muscular heavyweight when his speed was taking out everyone in his path.
"I never was a big heavyweight," said Belfort, coming off a training camp that started in Las Vegas but finished in Brazil. "When I fought as a heavyweight, my heaviest was 215 pounds. I figured I can drop weight, so I dropped to 205. Then I found I could drop more, to 185. When I started in UFC, I was 204 pounds. But then there was only one weight class then, open weight."
Belfort, who has former fighter and current diet guru Mike Dolce in his camp, was cutting from 205 to 185 pounds in the final 36 hours before Friday’s weigh-ins.
But whether he lived up to what people said he would, Belfort said he spends little time looking backward and seems thankful for what fighting has brought him.
"My biggest fight is now, that’s just how it is," he said.
"Oh man, it’s a blessing, a great opportunity," he said about being one of the headliners on the UFC’s second show in Rio de Janeiro. "It’s great to be see where the sport is, and I’m so happy to be part of it."
Belfort was a big part of the UFC’s explosion in popularity in Brazil. While the sport had various peaks over the last 80 years in the country considered its birthplace, it’s last really big popularity run ended almost 50 years ago. Still, Belfort believes this run will be the biggest, and that the sport is currently No. 2 behind soccer when it comes to popularity in his native country, and will be No. 1 before long.
"The last five years, we have overcome the [popularity] of Brazil and Argentina in soccer," he said. "So I think we’re proving that. I think it’s already happened right now, as we’re talking, as we’re speaking."
Belfort is a big part of the reason. He garnered a degree of celebrity status in Brazil for being a famous fighter, but also marrying a well-known model and television star, appearing in a reality show and for the tragedy of a heavily publicized national news story in 2004 when his sister was kidnapped and murdered.
UFC then started getting popular on Brazilian television, and the Feb. 5, 2011, fight where Belfort challenged Anderson Silva for the middleweight title was billed in that country as the "match of the century." Since then, MMA has became a mainstream sensation in Brazil. Belfort was knocked out by a front kick in 3:25, suffering his first loss since 2006.
"It was a good night for him, but you know, kind of a good night for me, and it was a good night for the sport," he said, looking back with the benefit of almost a year of hindsight. "That’s the way it is. You don’t always win. You have to know how to deal with it, to grow as a man, to grow as an athlete and to improve your skills."
The interest that fight created led to UFC’s debut in Rio last August, a spectacular event that Belfort was part of, not fighting, but doing the Portuguese language commentary.
"It was amazing seeing the fans cheering for UFC the way they did."
But in the end, he admits the location is not nearly as important once the door shuts.
"For me, it means just as much to fight anywhere," he said. "It doesn’t matter where you go. The Octagon is an octagon. It has eight sides. It’s the same size."
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