What is Vitor Belfort’s Legacy?
Another one goes down.
As expected, Kelvin Gastelum defeated Vitor Belfort in the main event of UFC Fight Night from Brazil Saturday night. Gastelum dropped Belfort twice in the first round, and the second knockdown led to the stoppage. The ultimate result, Gastelum hurting and beating Belfort, was predictable; the predictable ones are always the saddest.
A month shy of his 40th birthday, Belfort made it clear afterward that his next fight – the final one on his UFC contract – will be the last of his career. That could just be the disappointment of the loss speaking. Countless past-their-prime fighters have promised impending or outright declared retirement after decisive losses, only for those retirement plans to get lost amongst their own delusion. Perhaps Belfort will many more times, but if Saturday was his penultimate bout, retirement is coming for the former phenom not a moment too soon.
Belfort had an unbelievable career renaissance following a loss to Anderson Silva in the biggest fight of his career. Beginning at age 34, Belfort tore through a series dangerous middleweight contenders. There is a belief in the fight game that just when a fighter finally figures everything out mentally, unlocking the secret of success in the game, their body betrays them. For a brief period, it seemed that Belfort had it all figured out, but unfortunately for his opponents, his body didn’t get the message that it was supposed to decline with that knowledge.
We later received confirmation that Belfort was on testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), and had been issued a therapeutic use exemption in the areas he had been fighting in. Although hardly the first fighter to go that route, Belfort was immediately the most controversial recipient of the sport’s most controversial hall pass. He had failed a drug test for steroids in 2006 in Nevada, and his physique brought about whispers of steroids from the day he entered the sport. While on the docket for a middleweight title match in 2014 – the reward from a head kick-happy 2013 reign of terror – Belfort failed a random drug test for elevated levels of testosterone.
The Nevada Athletic Commission banned TRT as a direct result of Belfort’s failure, and Belfort returned without an exemption for the treatment in 2015. He was never the same fighter afterward, losing four of five fights in lopsided fashion. The most dangerous hunter became easy, big name prey for the division’s best.
Belfort has been stopped by strikes in four of his last five bouts, and didn’t make it out of the first round in three of those contests. There reaches a time for fighters when there is so much to lose and so little to gain, and the past two years of Vitor Belfort’s career have made it clear that he has reached that point.
The waning days of Belfort’s career make a good time for reflection about his legacy.
Vitor Belfort turned the MMA world on its ear when he debuted in the UFC in 1997. The sport, first dominated by Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission grappling experts, had moved into the era of the wrestler – guys that would take you down and beat you up. Belfort entered the UFC a couple months shy of his 20th birthday, reputed as a dangerous striker that was also a Carlson Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. He was one of four in the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament, although Belfort was only a hair above the 200-pound lower limit.
The sculpted 19-year-old breezed through Tra Telligman in 77 seconds in his first-round match, and then starched Scott Ferrozzo (who had bested Tank Abbott at UFC 11) with punches in 43 seconds to win the tournament. Belfort appeared to be the next level of fighter. On the feet, he was powerful and blazingly fast; on the ground, few were keen to take a black belt to the floor to find out what awaited them.
That May, he destroyed Tank Abbott in seconds as nobody else had. The Fighting Sports Newsletter proclaimed Belfort “the Michael Jordan of NHB.” The Wrestling Observer Newsletter pondered whether Belfort would take his talent to boxing, where there was much more money to be made. The UFC began angling toward a super fight between Belfort and seemingly unstoppable heavyweight champion Mark Coleman. If Belfort chose to stick to MMA, the sky seemed closer to the floor than the ceiling. He was so good so fast, and arrived with such an impact in those nascent years of MMA, that Belfort’s potential in the sport was without precedent.
He never achieved that potential. In his next fight after beating Abbott, Randy Couture upset Belfort. That fight was supposed to set Belfort up for a title challenge, but instead became the first of many legendary upsets for Couture.
Over the next several years, fans were treated to only brief flashes of the Belfort that burst onto the scene in 1997 (the “old Vitor”). He scored a famous knockout of Wanderlei Silva and opened an all-time nasty cut on Marvin Eastman’s forehead, but between those bouts were largely unmemorable performances. Still, he remained near the top of the sport, losing only to Kazushi Sakuraba and Chuck Liddell during that time, while beating notables Gilbert Yvel and Heath Herring.
In a weak UFC light heavyweight division with only four real players (Belfort, Couture, Liddell, and Tito Ortiz), Belfort won the only major championship of his career on a lucky break. The seam of his glove sliced the eye of Randy Couture, a freak occurrence that stopped the fight in 49 seconds and gave Belfort the gold. It was far from any championship-winning performance that anybody in 1997 could have conjured in their minds. In an immediate rematch, Couture beat Belfort down to reclaim the gold.
So began a rough patch for Belfort in which he seemed to lose himself. He lost a close decision to Tito Ortiz, then lost to Alistair Overeem in the first round as UFC’s representative in the 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. The next year, he lost to Overeem and Dan Henderson, failing a drug test after the latter bout. It was the lowest point of his career.
In 2008, Belfort signed with Affliction, which had made an effort to sign virtually every big name and top-ranked fighter available. Now a middleweight, he knocked out Terry Martin at the promotion’s first event. He made waves at the promotion’s second (and final) event with a 37-second knockout of Matt Lindland, who was one of the five best middleweights in the world. It was a rare “old Vitor” sighting, and a major turning point that showed he wasn’t a lost cause.
When Affliction shut down, Belfort moved back to the UFC, whose owners had always been major fans of his. He returned in a main event match against Rich Franklin, who, after being dethroned by Anderson Silva, moved into a spot as the perennial number two middleweight. Belfort knocked him out in three minutes, a thunderous return that moved him into a title shot.
Belfort has had multiple world title fights, fought legendary opponents, and knocked some of them out emphatically. However, without question, the biggest, most important, and defining bout of Belfort’s career came on February 5, 2011, against Anderson Silva. There was tremendous animosity between Silva and Belfort, at least on Silva’s side, which was lost to much of the North American audience until an intense stare down at the weigh-ins. Silva had defended his middleweight championship a record-breaking seven times and was promoted as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. This was a chance for Belfort, at 33 years old, to live up to his potential to a significant degree. Toppling a fighter as talented and decorated as Anderson Silva is exactly the type of thing people would have imagined of the 1997 Vitor Belfort. An estimated 725,000 homes purchased the pay-per-view in North America, and 20 million more watched on television in Brazil, a breakthrough for UFC in that country.
Both fighters were tentative, which was to be expected from Silva, but was a bad sign for Belfort. In his best performances, he always had more faith in his abilities than respect for his opponents. Belfort’s slow start against Silva indicated the opposite was true in this fight. There was little action in the opening three minutes, and then Silva front kicked Belfort in the face. The shot is ingrained in the memory of any fight fan that watched.
That fight is the truth of Vitor Belfort’s career. When his confidence matched his abilities, he was spectacular. In the biggest fights of his career against top opposition, he crumbled. Against top opposition just outside of the brightest spotlight, in many cases he shined. In multiple non-title bouts, he soundly defeated championship-level opposition, including the past two middleweight champions.
Vitor Belfort did not live up to the potential that was bestowed upon him within the first four fights of his career. There were no substantial championship victories or reigns, no prolonged periods of dominance. Perhaps the expectations were unfair. He was, after all, a kid when he ran through Telligman, Ferrozzo, and Abbott. He was a kid just the same when he lost to Randy Couture.
However, meeting extremely high expectations hardly makes a career a failure. For 20 years, Belfort fought at the highest level. Almost constantly in those 20 years, he was relevant in the top echelon of the sport. There is no question he was aided by performance-enhancing drugs; he went through an undeniable decline after the Nevada Athletic Commission banned therapeutic use exemptions for testosterone. Although Belfort is a famous example of this, he was not an exception to an otherwise squeaky-clean sport. For the vast majority of Belfort’s two-decade career, by almost every account there was a widespread performance-enhancing drug issue in the sport, particularly at the highest levels in North America and Japan. It makes little sense to vilify Belfort when he is only the tip of the iceberg.
All of those things make up a complicated legacy. Ultimately, Belfort was a very notable fighter for a long stretch during a key period in MMA’s early history. He began just as the sport began to feel a squeeze in North America that nearly choked the life out of it. As the sport was pushed underground in the United States, he went to Japan, where it was a mainstream attraction. He was absent for UFC’s resurgence, but when he returned, he was a major contributing factor to the Brazilian MMA boom. From 1997 onward, he’s been a viable headliner in the United States, and became a big attraction in Brazil.
Without Vitor Belfort, the story of mixed martial arts over the past two decades is different. That’s quite a legacy.