Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight champion, Vitor Belfort, takes on Pride FC and Strikeforce champion, Dan Henderson, in a rematch of their Pride FC 32 war this Saturday night (Nov. 19 2013) at UFC Fight Night 32 from Goiania Arena in Goiania, Brazil.
Belfort has had a lengthy mixed martial arts (MMA) career, in which he frequently drifted in and out of UFC. In his third (and likely final) run in the world's premier promotion, Belfort has proven he's still one of the best fighters in the world, only losing to pound-for-pound greats Anderson Silva and Jon Jones.
Since his loss to Jones, Belfort has very much looked the part of his notorious "The Phenom" nickname at Middleweight. Slaying two consecutive Top 10-ranked opponents with vicious head kicks, one of them spinning, in about eight minutes total is an impressive feat.
Does Belfort have the MMA skill to defeat "Hendo?" Let's take a closer look:
One of the most feared strikers in the sports, Belfort owns a well-deserved reputation as one of the best-ever counter punchers to grace the Octagon. In addition to his MMA career, Belfort made his professional boxing debut in 2006.
Belfort has certainly become more technical over the many years of his career, but his success is largely attributed to natural ability. "The Phenom" is incredibly fast and has the necessary reflexes to truly capitalize on his speed advantage. Most of Belfort's opponents just can't handle his natural speed and power, allowing him to overwhelm them with shots.
On the rare occasion Belfort starts an exchange, he likes to lead with a hook or uppercut. After that punch lands, Belfort will follow up with a straight shot, or even a series of them. Belfort often tries to catch his opponents circling out with lead hooks, too.
Belfort is at his best when counter striking. He allows his opponent to step forward with a combination then blitzes him with a flurry of straight punches. While not incredibly complicated, Belfort's ability to ruin attacking fighters is outstanding. He is able to launch dozens of punches before his opponent can react to the first and is often aided by the fact that many fighters retreat in a straight line.
In addition to his infamous flurries, Belfort can plant his feet and counter. After slipping his opponent's punch, he'll respond with a hard left hand. If he feels his opponent is hurt from his counter strike, then Belfort will once again go wild with a burst of punches.
When Belfort began his career, he rarely threw kicks. Now, he has a dangerous array of kicks. He mostly throws low kicks, both to the thigh and calf, but has successfully finished his last two fights with high kicks. The spinning wheel kick of Luke Rockhold was particularly impressive, as Belfort had previously been on the receiving end of spinning kicks, rather than knocking his opponents out with them.
The reason Belfort's head kicks are so dangerous comes from his powerful punches. His opponents are especially wary of his hands, rightfully so, causing them to move their head a bit more than normal. This can cause them to either slip into the kick or have their hands out of position to stop his punches.
The forward momentum that comes from Belfort's flurry often lands him in the clinch. From a wrestling stand point, this can be problematic for the Brazilian, but he's still capable of landing devastating strikes from there. Just ask Marvin Eastman, who wound up with a cut reminiscent of a "goat's vagina," according to UFC color commentator Joe Rogan at least, after one of "Phenom's" knees from the clinch.
One of Belfort's best attributes is his finishing ability. Plenty of fighters have natural power, but few use it as well as Belfort.If "The Phenom" believes he has hurt his opponent, then he'll swarm with an unmatched fury and wail away until the referee saves him. When Belfort finishes a fighter with punches, it isn't thanks to an early referee stoppage or the fighter giving up mentally and balling up into the fetal position.
Rather, it's because the fighter is no longer conscious.
Despite his many accomplishments, Belfort is a flawed striker. He has always had a problem with opponents who want to kick him. Against such fighters, Belfort will stand at the end of their kicking range and wait as he is slowly weakened. From Kazushi Sakuraba to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, Belfort has long suffered at the hands of skilled kickboxers.
However, Belfort's new kicking game may finally be the solution to this flaw. Luke Rockhold was doing an excellent job landing kicks at range, until Belfort stepped forward with his spinning kick and knocked him into the ground.
Belfort has a very extensive Brazilian jiu-jitsu background, but rarely seeks to bring the fight to the mat. He's too focused on landing knockout punches to attempt such nonsense. Nonetheless, Belfort will seek a takedown if he's facing a very talented striker.
Belfort showed back in Pride FC that he can grind fighters if necessary. Gilbert Yvel was known as a dangerous kickboxer, so Belfort repeatedly double legged him for a unanimous decision victory. Overall, Belfort prefers to use his incredible reflexes to catch kicks or knees and sweep his opponent to the mat.
Takedown defense is a critical skill for strikers, and Belfort is above average in that area. Thanks to his preference for counter striking, Belfort's opponent's are often forced to shoot from fairly far out, allowing Belfort to easily sprawl out on them.
Belfort's takedown defense is not perfect. He often effectively sprawls yet allows his opponent to still hit a takedown. As he impatiently attempts to return to his feet, he leaves openings that determined wrestlers can capitalize on. If instead of trying to quickly escape to his feet, he circled as he pushed down on the head, this would not happen so often.
For example, Anthony Johnson repeatedly took down Belfort after it appeared that Belfort had defended the shot. Notice in the below .gif how Belfort is in complete control of Johnson, yet still ends up on the bottom after two successful sprawls.
Another issue with Belfort is his defense against the cage, where he tends to freeze up. Both with takedowns and the clinch, the cage neutralizes Belfort's counter wrestling. Couture proved this twice, grinding Belfort against the cage before finishing him with strikes. The sad thing is there was seven years between fights, yet Belfort showed very little improvement.
Before his reputation as a vicious knockout artist, Belfort earned his jiu-jitsu black belt from the legendary (and now deceased) Carlson Gracie when he was just 17 years old. Additionally, he earned a bronze medal in ADCC 2001's absolute division, where he out-pointed notable grapplers like Genki Sudo, Ricco Rodriguez and Ricardo Almeida.
Belfort has never truly demonstrated his elite jiu-jitsu skills inside the Octagon. This is likely because he is focused on returning to his feet, not attempting submissions. That said, Belfort has always shown solid jiu-jitsu from top position, including good positional awareness and guard passing. He's also very aggressive with the rear naked choke once he takes his opponent's back.
Belfort has a simple but aggressive guard game. If he's not attempting to get back to his feet, he's searching for the arm bar. First, he'll latch onto an overhook. Then, In the middle of his opponents' ground-and-pound, Belfort will grab an arm, swivel his hips and throw his legs over their heads. "The Phenom" has very quick hips, making this especially dangerous.
In his championship bout with Jon Jones, Belfort nearly secured an arm bar in the first round. Jones was being lazy with his arm place, wrapping one of his arms around Belfort's head. The Brazilian capitalized by rotating quickly and cranking on his arm, nearly snapping it.
Best Chance For Success
Belfort needs to center his game plan on defense. Avoiding Henderson's big right hand should be his primary goal rather than looking for an early finish. Overall, he's a better striker then Henderson, so if he can avoid the overhand, he's golden.
Lateral movement is key for Belfort. In addition to helping him dodge Henderson's overhand, it will keep him off the fence, a place he desperately needs to avoid. Once Henderson misses a few overhands, he will get a bit frustrated and may overextend himself, giving Belfort the counter opportunities he desires.
There's a good chance Henderson's game plan involves an abundance of wrestling. Belfort can't afford to wrestle with the Olympian because his cardio has historically been a weakness ... and old age is not a likely solution. As long as "Hendo" goes to clinch, Belfort should look to land a shot or two and circle away.
Will Belfort hold his grip on top contender's status, or will Henderson once again steal victory from Belfort?
For a closer look and "Complete Fighter Breakdown" of Henderson be sure to click here.