Only two years ago, Vitor Belfort was set to challenge for the UFC Middleweight title. Four fights later and 'The Phenom' is just days away from fighting to save his illustrious career. Rapid declines aren't really all that rare in a sport as chaotic as MMA but on the surface Belfort's is undeniably a stunning one. However, when you unpack the reality behind the last few years of Belfort's career, it really isn't all that surprising. Nonetheless, at the time there was a genuine appeal to Belfort's 2015 title fight with champion Chris Weidman. The Brazilian is a unique fighter in that his greatest moments have almost all occurred in an instant.
One flash of brutality. A single brilliant Belfort blitz. For twenty years if you blinked you often missed it. Behind that romanticism though, there was a sense that this wasn't quite the fight we had hoped for eighteen months prior. As 2013 came to a close, Vitor Belfort had suddenly re-emerged as one of the world's scariest fighters. After losing to Jon Jones as a short notice replacement, Belfort had returned to Middleweight to score two spectacular knockouts over future champions Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold. Undeniably now a top contender, Belfort kept active whilst the belt was preoccupied by going back up to 205lbs to become the first man to stop Dan Henderson, doing the job in under 80 seconds.
It had been three straight stoppage wins for 'The Phenom', all of which came via some form of kick, an aspect that Belfort had never really shown before. With more momentum than ever behind him, Belfort would be unable to capitalize though, failing a random drug test due to elevated testosterone level. That coupled with a ban on exemptions for TRT kept Belfort out of the cage and prohibited him from challenging Weidman. A couple of other cancelations on the champions end would delay the bout and by the time it came around in May 2015, lots felt like it had changed.
Not only had Belfort been out of action for eighteen months, a time only worsened by the fighter's age and already substantial miles on the clock, but his physique had dramatically changed. Belfort didn't look like the man that had vanquished three revered fighters in 2013, not at all. Regardless, though the shine had been slightly taken from the title clash, the romantic attachment to Belfort's knack of knockouts maintained some interest. To his credit, Belfort tried to close the show early with all his might, chasing the champion with a trademark barrage. Despite that, Weidman weathered the storm and Belfort quickly faded leading to a ground and pound finish after just under three minutes of wild drama.
It was fun while it lasted but Belfort's rapid tiring was still disappointing, even if not all that surprising at this point. Belfort is nothing if not persistent though and returned before the year’s end. On that night, Belfort would get back in the win column, once again finishing Dan Henderson and winning their trilogy's rubber match. The questions surrounding Belfort's future still remained though with many focusing more on the decline of Henderson. Nonetheless, Belfort was back to winning ways after two years of struggles. However, it would soon become clear that Belfort was no longer quite the top contender he had once been as he was next matched with compatriot Ronaldo Souza.
On paper the matchup looked tough but in reality it played out in brutally one-sided fashion. Souza secured the top position and battered the former champion, forcing a merciful first round stoppage. It had been a revealing defeat for the fading ‘Phenom’, a year following his title fight setback he’d been dominated by another elite fighter. Still undeterred though, Belfort would jump back in to fight one more top contender in Gegard Mousasi. Visibly desperate to maintain his own contender status, Belfort had some brief moments early that were somewhat reminiscent of those not so distant glory days. Soon though Mousasi’s pressure would pay off as he stunned Belfort with a head kick before closing the show with vicious ground and pound.
After celebrating a renaissance year in 2013, Belfort’s career progression had come to a screeching halt since. Not fighting for eighteen months before winning just one of his next four, Belfort now fights for his career this Saturday night as he takes on Kelvin Gastelum at home in Brazil. There was talk of retirement following the Mousasi loss but with another defeat here the end may be forced on the once phenomenal prodigious talent. To his credit, Belfort’s shortcomings have come against only the best and at 39 there’s absolutely no shame in that. Either way it’s been a wild, turbulent journey but one filled with genuinely memorable moments and this Saturday night we find out if ‘The Phenom’ has some more brilliance left in him.