Watch the 1997 heavyweight version of Vitor Belfort and his 2013 middleweight counterpart, and his handiwork is about the same. One clobbers Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo with jackhammer hands. The other whips his leg at the heads of Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold like a shell-less Ninja Turtle. If Demian Maia is art house display of nuance and subtlety, Belfort is a multiplex blockbuster of fireball violence, and one of the virtues of knockouts—for the spectator, anyway—is that you don't have to think too hard to understand their power. And yet if we are actually trying to understand, something doesn’t sit quite right watching these two Belforts, one swelled up like a Thanksgiving parade balloon, the other taut like rope.
This Saturday, Belfort returns in friendly Brazilian territory against surging welterweight-turned-middleweight Kelvin Gastelum at UFC Fight Night 106, more than 20 years after his first MMA fight against a noted eye-gouger. Belfort bristles at the idea that he’s hit a rough patch recently. "When someone loses, they want to bury them," he told Guilherme Cruz at MMA Fighting. "They create the idol, and then wants to destroy the idol. It’s a cultural thing. People need to see difficulties as an opportunity. That’s the way I see it."
But since regulators banned testosterone replacement therapy (TRT)—the once- sanctioned performance-enhancing drug that fueled Belfort's 2013 career renaissance—three years ago, he's gone 1-3, with losses that were never in dispute and often looked ugly. And at 39 years old, Belfort's unrelenting optimism isn't an antidote for time itself. (Hopefully, neither are his plans for a league-within-a-league for the UFC’s aging fighters.
It's not time to write the eulogy for Belfort's career, but it's good time to ask what we might make of it when we do. He was among the first well-rounded fighters in the UFC—he had a jiu-jitsu black belt under Carlson Gracie, but he scarcely used it in favor of his boxing among the best in the sport. His undoing was that he wasn't built for endurance, and quickly, Belfort established a duality: he was either the fast-handed finisher with no known weaknesses, or the head case that folded up after the first round. Save for adding in a few kicks and knees, Belfort never really reinvented himself over the following two decades.
You'd have a hard time finding a more formidable list of opponents than the one attached to Belfort: Randy Couture (three times), Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Tito Ortiz, Alistair Overeem, all in their prime when Belfort fought them. Don't forget that Belfort was eager to save the ill-fated third Affliction event by fighting a peak Fedor Emelianenko, despite fighting two weight classes lower. Since his return to the UFC, Belfort has fought killers from Anderson Silva to Anthony Johnson to Jon Jones. Belfort laments a culture where MMA fighters sidestep opponents in favor of easier match-ups, and he lives by example.
But the perennial question is how many of the high points in Belfort's career started with a syringe. There was essentially no drug testing in MMA during Belfort's late 1990s stint in the UFC. In 2006, he failed a commission screening for 4-hydoxytestosterone but continued to compete abroad. Prior to his 2012 bout with Jones, Belfort received an therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy—problematic considering the intent of exemptions to aid legitimate medical problems, not help past steroid users deal with those drugs' long-term effects.
Belfort has rarely been up front or contrite about his history with performance-enhancing drugs. Fighting in Brazil—away from the prying eyes of stateside athletic commissions—Belfort usually deflected post-fight questions about TRT in favor of talking about the power of positive thinking and giving daps to Jesus. He canceled an interview when he found out TRT questions weren't off the menu. He once threatened to have a reporter beaten up for asking anyway.
When Belfort failed a surprise drug test in February 2014 and regulators decided the same month that TRT was too insane to allow anymore, he became a cautionary tale from the TRT era. Having earned a title shot before the ban, the post-TRT Belfort showed up visibly deflated for a fight with champion Chris Weidman in 2015, and he was good for a half-hearted blitz before getting mounted and pounded out. He beat fellow TRT deserter Dan Henderson before fighting Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, and getting TKO'd in a one-sided first round. He lost again to Gegard Mousasi by TKO in October.
So how much does that diminish the fact that the winning version of Belfort has always been exciting? No matter how moody or guarded Belfort is to reporters, does it erase the awe you felt the first time you saw him perform a lobotomy on Marvin Eastman with his knee instead of an icepick? If you didn’t know or didn’t care about the moral dimensions of the secret sauce that congealed inside his inflated trapezius muscles, could you be anything but impressed by his consecutive head kick finishes of future champions in 2013? How much can you chalk up to Belfort simply adapting to the changing circumstances of his sport? And does the totality of his career leave you, the viewer, wishing for him to get his comeuppance in the form of another one-sided beating, or to show that the old guard can soldier on?
MMA has a complicated, bipolar history: the sport's adjacency to death was an early selling point ("two men enter, one man leaves") before it became a liability to run away from, and performance-enhancing drugs were a thinly veiled custom before they became a plague to wipe out. In a career spanning 20 of the UFC's 24 years, Vitor Belfort has played the young upstart and the young dinosaur, the bulldozer and the bulldozed, the title contender (and, under technical circumstances, light heavyweight title holder) and the veteran veering into a ditch, the fighter who never backed away from the challenge and the system-gamer who had few compunctions about working the blurry edges of the rules. He is made up of truths both remarkable and uncomfortable, like prizefighting itself.
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