With the dust settling in from the fallout of the cancellation of UFC 151, UFC fans were greeted with a surprising result. It would not be Chael Sonnen or Lyoto Machida to challenge Jon Jones, but rather long time MMA veteran Vitor Belfort. While many fans are likely aware that Belfort held a UFC Light Heavyweight title at some point in his career, others might not be aware of the special, and sometimes dubious, place Vitor holds in history.
Often, when a heralded, young fighter steps into the cage for the first time the cliches fly fast and thick. “He is a new breed of fighter”, “the first of a new generation” or “a different kind of athlete” have been used to describe everyone from Guy Mezger at UFC 4 to Jon Jones at UFC 100. When it came to the start of Vitor Belfort’s career however, these were not simple hyperbole, as he possessed a level of talent not yet seen in the sport.
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Vitor came from a privileged family in Rio de Janeiro and began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with Carlson Gracie at a young age. Head of one of the premier fight teams at the time, Vitor’s talent was obvious to Carlson and he steered Belfort towards professional competition. In 1996, at the age of 19 Vitor made his professional debut against UFC veteran Jon Hess and won with a :12 knock out.
Not only did Vitor possess excellent grappling, but his boxing was crisp and powerful. After that one fight he was then invited to take part in the UFC 12 Heavyweight tournament. Still just 19 years old, Vitor ran roughshod over the competition, finishing first Tra Telligman by doctor stoppage and then knocking out Scott Ferrozzo in under a minute. Vitor became only the second man to win a Heavyweight tournament in UFC history and remains the youngest fighter to win inside the UFC.
Just a few months later Vitor was given a Superfight against hulking brawler David “Tank” Abbott, which again he won in under a minute.
This win put Vitor at 4-0, with a Heavyweight Championship and a Superfight win all before his 20th birthday. The excitement around him as a prospect at this point was likely unmatched by UFC fans until the rise of Jon Jones. But unlike Jones, his rise would not continue on the same meteoric track on which it started.
Vitor was matched with another rising star, Randy Couture, with the winner promised a shot at the newly formed UFC Heavyweight championship. In the moments before the fight, Vitor suffered a bout of nerves and refused to go into the cage. He finally did join the fight and the then 33-year-old Couture used his clinch based grappling to negate Vitor’s speed and boxing and defeat the Brazilian.
After a heavyweight armbar victory, Vitor was scheduled to face Chute Boxe star Wanderlei Silva. Chute Boxe had an intense rivalry with jiu jitsu fighters, including several Carlson Gracie fighters. So when Vitor knocked Silva out in just forty seconds, his corner famously chanted “jiu jitsu” to celebrate their team’s victory over their hated rival.
In the early 2000’s Belfort followed the element of Carlson’s team that broke away to form Brazilian Top Team and then fought in Pride. Between 1999 and 2001 Vitor went 4-1 in Pride, defeating future UFC fighters Heath Herring, Bobby Southworth, and Gilbert Yvel. His lone loss came to the legendary Japanese catch wrestler Kazushi Sakuraba. On top of that, Belfort entered in the 2001 Abu Dahbi Combat Club Submission Grappling World Championship, the most prestigious no gi grappling tournament in the world. He competed in both the Heavyweight weight class and the Openweight class, where he took the Bronze medal.
In 2002, Vitor returned to the UFC, where he promptly lost a decision to Chuck Liddell. But Belfort bounced back with a TKO win over Marvin Eastman and then was given a title shot with his old nemesis, Randy Couture. Heading into 2004, things were lining up for Vitor, but on January 9th a true tragedy struck.
Vitor’s sister, Priscila Belfort, disappeared when on a lunch break and was never seen again. Years later it would be discovered that she had been kidnapped and murdered, her body buried in an unknown location. So it was with a heavy heart that Vitor entered his match against Couture. Early in the fight, Belfort caught Couture with a right hand that grazed the eye, which caused a corneal abrasion that stopped the fight.
Vitor was the Light Heavyweight Champion, but struggled with grief for his sister. Those struggles began to spill over into his fighting career, as Belfort went 2-5 over the next four years. Even early in his career Vitor had a reputation for nerves, but odd events began to pile up. Belfort injured his hand before a UFC fight and submitted a note from his mother excusing him for the fight, he tested positive for steroids in 2006 after a loss to Dan Henderson in Pride, and then “forgot” to serve his suspension for that positive test. Serious questions were being raised about how seriously Vitor was training as he moved between camps.
Belfort turned to religion to help find direction in his personal life. He married Brazilian TV star and model Joana Prado and started a family. He found similar direction for his career when he started training with Randy Couture and Shawn Tompkins at Xtreme Couture in 2008. Since he began his training there, Vitor has won five of his six fights, including three wins in a third run in the UFC.
The chaos that followed UFC 151 has given Vitor a chance for redemption. While his title shot against Anderson Silva went array and his chances of defeating Jones are slim, it is a classic comeback story. Belfort’s physical gifts are depreciating quickly as his prime has well and clearly passed, lost during a time of personal turmoil. But he has one last chance to recapture the glory of his youth.
Thanks to Jordan Breen and Kid Nate for their help in researching this article
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