Mixed martial arts (MMA) veteran and former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight champion, Vitor Belfort, takes on long-time Strikeforce Middleweight king, Luke Rockhold, this Saturday night (May 18, 2013) in the UFC on FX 8 main event, which takes place at the Arena Jaragua in Santa Catarina, Brazil.
One of the most violent fighters in the history of the sport, Belfort has always been inches away from a major championship. Barring the freak accident that sliced open Randy Couture's eye, he has yet to successfully defeat a world champion.
Against Rockhold, the 185-pound division's old lion will fight for another chance to dethrone Anderson Silva. Belfort adamantly claims that Silva's victory at UFC 126 back in 2011 was a fluke. And if he can finish "Rocky," he might earn an opportunity to prove it in the near future.
Let's find out if there's anything to support the Brazilian's claim.
Blessed with knockout power, Belfort's affinity for throwing heavy leather is infamous. In fact, Belfort won his professional boxing debut in 2006 by first round knockout. The keys to Belfort's striking ability are his speed and reaction time, which allow him to overwhelm most opponents.
And while his flurries still make up most of his attacks, Belfort is slowly adding new tricks to his arsenal.
When Belfort leads with punches, he relies on both hooks and uppercuts. He'll often follow up these shots with straight punches, but when leading, he likes to coil up before unleashing a crushing blow like he did to Terry Martin under the Affliction MMA banner in his Middleweight debut.
Since the mid 1990s, the Modus Operandi of "The Phenom" has been to wait for his opponent to attack with punches then explode forward with a lightning fast 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.
When it comes to boxing with his opponent, Belfort is exceptionally good at closing the distance and doing damage. Even against the much larger Jon Jones at the recent UFC 152, Belfort was able to occasionally get inside and land punches.
In the last few years, Belfort has refined his counter striking ability. Instead of simply flurrying at any moment, Belfort puts more emphasis on countering with a single, accurate shot like the one that set up his brutal finish of Matt Lindland.
From his most recent UFC return to now, Belfort's kicks have improved. He mostly throws leg kicks, to the calf and thigh, but has always mixed high kicks into his game. Years of working on his kicks culminated in his last fight, where he countered Michael Bisping's right hand with a thudding head kick that put "The Count" to sleep.
When Belfort's flurry fails to finish his opponent, he'll often seek refuge in the clinch. If his opponent thought he'd be safe in the clinch, he'd be wrong, because Belfort is more than capable of wreaking havoc to his opponent's skull with a quick knee.
Belfort is a very dangerous striker, but that doesn't mean his striking is flawless. The main hole in Belfort's stand up is that he is content with standing at the end of his opponent's kicks. Even with his developing kicking game, he is still willing to stare at his opponent as they slowly kick him into the mat.
Belfort's two most recent losses came to fighters who could work him with kicks. Jones and Silva were able to dominate the Brazilian with kicks, as "Bones" forced Belfort to repeatedly pull guard, and "The Spider" front kicked Belfort into dreamland.
Looking further back, then-light heavyweight Alistair Overeem was able to successfully kick Belfort for a decision victory and Kazushi Sakuraba repeatedly slammed the Brazilian's body with spinning back kicks.
Despite a grappling background, Belfort rarely looks to drag the fight to the canvas. However, against dangerous strikers such as Silva and Gilbert Yvel, Belfort was willing to mix up his attack. While he has a solid double leg and can certainly grind for takedowns, Belfort likes to use his impeccable timing to catch leg kicks and dump his opponent.
Belfort has good, not great, takedown defense. Thanks to his counter striking preference, he is often able to see the takedown coming at a distance and has enough time to react. When he recognizes his opponent's shot, Belfort's above average sprawl is enough to stop most takedowns.
Unfortunately for "The Phenom," two flaws in his technique have held him back for most of his career. The first is his inability to finish the sprawl. Belfort is often able to sprawl and comfortably escape his opponent's grasp, but he doesn't fully complete it. As he anxiously attempts to return to his feet, he leaves openings that skilled wrestlers can capitalize on. 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.
The second flaw is that Belfort doesn't react well when pinned to the Octagon. Either with takedowns or the clinch, Belfort seems to freeze up when forced to grapple against the cage. Couture proved this twice, grinding Belfort against the cage before finishing him with strikes. The sad thing is that it was seven years between fights, yet Belfort showed very little improvement.
Belfort received his Brazilian 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 2011's absolute division, where he out-grappled notable jiu-jitsu players Genki Sudo, Ricco Rodriguez and Ricardo Almeida.
Despite Belfort's credentials, he has never demonstrated elite grappling skills in MMA competition. Most of the time, Belfort is too focused on dropping bombs to attempt a submission. However, from top position, he has shown a solid guard passing game, tight control and is aggressive with the rear naked choke.
Belfort's guard game is simple, but quite dangerous.
Throughout his career, Belfort has shown that his go-to submission from the bottom is the arm bar. In the middle of his opponents' ground-and-pound, Belfort will grab an arm, swivel his hips and throw his legs over their heads. Before nearly tapping out Light Heavyweight Wunderkind Jon "Bones" Jones, Belfort threatened "Rumble's" arm a couple of times.
In addition, his ability to maintain overhooks and control his opponents' posture is very good, meaning he can avoid damage.
Belfort is one of the more unique fighters in the sport's young history. When he burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old jiu-jitsu ace, few expected him to knockout his first four opponents in about four minutes, but that's exactly what he did. Further separating him from the pack is the fact that he is a counter striker, one of the first in MMA.
But, it's Belfort's incredible killer instinct that makes him a true rarity.
There is an argument that Belfort is the best finisher in the history of MMA. Of his 22 wins, mostly against the top competition of their respective eras, 18 are finishes. Of those 18, 15 are in the first round.
Additionally, Belfort is an incredibly violent fighter. 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.
Best chance for success
In this fight, it's in Belfort's best interests to move forward. That doesn't mean he has to throw first and abandon countering, but he simply cannot allow Rockhold to establish his kicking range early. Kicking is much harder when moving backward, and if Belfort can cut off the cage and trap Rockhold, the Californian is in serious danger.
Since Belfort's best chance to win this fight is to finish Rockhold early, I'd recommend that he let the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) standout get confident in his boxing. Make sure to check/block any kicks, but allow a few punches to connect. Rockhold is not a one punch knockout artist, and Belfort has historically had a solid chin, so he can afford to eat a few strikes to get closer to the knockout.
When Rockhold gets confident in his strikes, he'll begin to loosen up and lengthen his combinations. Every time Rockhold throws a punch, there's a chance Belfort can capitalize and finish the fight. There's no benefit to spending two rounds analyzing Rockhold's game, finding the holes and then being too tired to expose them. Therefore, Belfort puts himself in a better position by allowing Rockhold to land, simply because his punches are so much more devastating.
Will this elderly lion's particular brand of old school MMA prove to be too much for the young up-and-comer or will Rockhold demonstrate the skill and talent that earned him the Strikeforce strap?
For a closer look and "Complete Fighter Breakdown" of Rockhold be sure to click here.