For Vitor Belfort, the tables have turned. A fighter crushed by the weight of lofty expectations for much of his career, Belfort now finds himself on the other end of the equation. As he prepares to fight Jon Jones Saturday night at UFC 152, it is the light heavyweight champion Jones who is expected to dominate each and every fight. The heavy underdog Belfort can come out ahead in many fans' minds simply by keeping the fight competitive.
Dubbed "The Phenom" when he broke into the UFC at the age of nineteen, Belfort's explosive punching power and black belt in jiu jitsu made him one of the most talked about fighters in the sport. At a time when fighters generally specialized in one discipline, Belfort was dangerous both on the feet and on the ground. He was also very young and had years to grow into his ultimate potential. Many expected him to dominate for years to come.
That didn't end up happening. Belfort suffered what was then a shocking loss to Randy Couture and left to fight in Japan. When Belfort lost five of seven fights between 2004 and 2006, he appeared to be a spent force. His career was certainly respectable, but it was ultimately disappointing given the promise he showed at such a young age.
A funny thing happened after a listless loss to Dan Henderson at Pride 32 and a failure for performance enhancing drugs: Belfort start winning again and kept winning. Belfort is 7-1 since with the only loss to pound-for-pound kingpin Anderson Silva. All that's missing is one big win that could redefine the entire career narrative of the Brazilian fighter.
That opportunity presented itself under unusual circumstances in the lead-up to UFC 151. Dan Henderson was scheduled to fight Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight title but suffered an injury and had to pull out. Belfort texted UFC decision makers Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, offering to take the fight on short notice. The UFC instead settled on Chael Sonnen and told Belfort he wasn't needed. However, Jones declined the short notice fight with Sonnen. Jones' title defense was moved to UFC 152 and Lyoto Machida was targeted as the new opponent. When Machida turned down the fight, UFC came back to Belfort. Belfort accepted.
Like Belfort over a decade ago, Jones is now the top young fighter in the sport. Jones made his UFC debut at the age of 21, won the UFC light heavyweight title at age 23, and is now still only 25. Inside the cage, he has maintained a level of dominance few have ever matched. But outside the cage, he has stumbled. His decision to decline the fight with Sonnen was roundly criticized, as was a DUI arrest and the perception that he is arrogant. The pressure in this fight is firmly on Jones, with Belfort in a no-lose situation.
To prepare for the fight, Belfort joined the Blackzilians camp in Florida and worked most extensively with Jones nemesis Rashad Evans. Belfort feels that Evans brings a lot to the table well beyond his familiarity with Jones.
"It's not just because he knows Jon Jones," Belfort says. "There are many other things he brings to training. He's a guy with a lot of knowledge and I'm learning every day. It's a pretty cool experience."
One of the big challenges for Belfort in the fight is Jones' size advantage. Belfort won't have fought at 205 pounds for an even five years when he takes on Jones. Belfort has been competing at 185 pounds, while Jones is one of the biggest 205 pound fighters in the sport and possesses a massive length and reach advantage over just about all opponents. Belfort says that the size difference isn't an issue, but that remains to be seen.
"I'm not focused on weight," Belfort says. "I come from the old school where guys fought at any weight. I'm more focused on being ready, being happy, being right in my relationships and enjoying the journey."
That Zen attitude reflects the maturation of a fighter who is no longer a prospect on the rise. It remains to be seen whether Belfort's relatively tranquil recent journey will provide an advantage over the turbulent ups and downs that Jones has experienced. But at the least it provides peace for a fighter who has been through much and now approaches the final chapters of his career.
"The way I see life is that we're all here on Earth for a short time. The journey is going to end. So I live as strong as I can today. No matter how prepared you are, life can hit you hard. So I enjoy the process and am thankful for today."