Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight strap-hanger, Vitor Belfort, will step into the Octagon opposite rising star, Kelvin Gastelum, this Saturday (March 11, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 106 inside Centro de Formacao Olimpica do Nordeste in Fortaleza, Brazil.
In his 21st year as a professional fighter, it seems that things may finally be coming to an end for Vitor Belfort. “The Phenom” has lost three of his last four fights via knockout, and there’s little chance of him returning to past glory via testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) now that drug testing is so stringent. However, there is still some hope for Belfort. Each of those three losses came opposite Top 5-ranked Middleweights, whereas his upcoming opponent is an elite Welterweight with a diet problem. It’s a small step back in competition, but perhaps it’s one that will allow Belfort to shine again.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Belfort burst onto the scene in 1996 with a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, but he quickly proved his ferocious knockout power by lighting up his first four opponents in just about three total minutes. Belfort has changed around from charging bruiser to patient bruiser and more lately to high kicker across his career, but his vicious knockout power has always been a constant.
Over the years, Belfort has definitely developed a more technical side to his attack. However, much of his success still comes from his natural speed and power, which carried him through his early career. "The Phenom" is incredibly fast and remarkably accurate, which has allowed him to overwhelm many tough fighters over the years.
Belfort is very uncomfortable leading with his own punches. When he does initiate exchanges, the Southpaw rarely throws more than a couple strikes (GIF). Normally, Belfort gets outside with a right hook or uppercut before bring home the straight left hand.
Even early in his career, Belfort was at his best when countering his opponents’ strikes. Back then, his best attack -- one he'll still rely on to this day -- was to step back, get his opponent moving forward, and then explode with a flurry of straight punches. It's simple, but seeing as how many fighters back straight up even today, it's nonetheless an effective tactic (GIF). Nowadays, Belfort is more likely to plant his feet and attempt to line up a single counter blow. Usually, Belfort looks to slip his opponent's strike and crack him with the usual straight left. Then, if his opponent seems hurt, Belfort will follow up with a flurry of strikes.
In his first victory over Dan Henderson, Belfort demonstrated this ability in nasty fashion. As Henderson shuffled in with his head ducked low, looking for his usual overhand, Belfort hunkered down and absolutely crushed Henderson's jaw with a left uppercut (GIF). Henderson, known for his absolute iron jaw, somehow managed to survive initially, but a follow up high kick put him down for the count.
Unfortunately, Belfort’s patience in waiting for that left hand is not a great match for his deteriorating durability. In his last couple fights, Belfort has stood on the outside and waited for his moment, only to get battered and finished in the meantime.
Speaking of high kicks, they're the most significant addition to Belfort's game in years. Prior to his 2013 run, Belfort had never shown an answer to fighters who looked to keep him at range and kick at his legs and body. Then, Belfort flipped the script by earning three straight knockouts via some form of head kick. In this week’s technique highlight, I took a look at the relationship between the Southpaw cross and left high kick, and why they’re so effective for Belfort.
For the most part, Belfort has little interesting in taking fights to the mat and utilizing his jiu-jitsu black belt, as his focus has always been on landing the knockout blow. However, when faced with a dangerous striker, Belfort will occasionally turn to his takedowns.
Even when Belfort is looking to throw his opponent to the mat, he doesn't usually look for a standard double- or single-leg shot. Instead, Belfort will rely on his reaction time and comfort on his feet to catch a kick or knee before dragging his opponent to the mat.
Obviously, takedown defense is far more important to the knockout artist. While Belfort has never truly mastered defending the shot, he's certainly an above average wrestler. A large part of this is because of his counter punching style, as Belfort's opponents are often forced to shoot from fairly far out, allowing Belfort to easily sprawl out on them. Still, Belfort's takedown defense historically has had some issues. For one, he often sprawls effectively yet will allow his opponent to wind up on top regardless. As he impatiently attempts to return to his feet, he leaves openings that determined wrestlers can capitalize on (GIF). Where he’s a bit more patient in returning to his feet, Belfort would be able to separate entirely from the takedown.
Another issue with Belfort is his defense against the cage, where he tends to freeze up. Regardless of whether it's clinch work or defending a deep double leg, the cage often neutralizes Belfort's counter wrestling. Couture proved this twice, grinding Belfort against the cage before finishing him with strikes. There may have been seven years between fights — and 13 years until modern day! — but some things simply don’t change.
Finally, Belfort's major wrestling issue is not a technical one. Wrestling is as much a mentality as it is a martial art, and Belfort has long been a front runner. Simply look back at his most recent title bout, in which Belfort barely defended himself as soon as Chris Weidman survived his blitz and scored a takedown. In another recent example, Belfort wilted under “Jacare” Ronaldo Souza’s offensive wrestling, eventually pulling guard opposite the jiu-jitsu master.
As mentioned, Belfort simply doesn't have much of an interest in taking his opponents to the mat or hunting for submissions. On paper, however, Belfort should be one of the finest grapplers in the division, as he's a long-time black belt and medalist in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC).
While most of Belfort's jiu-jitsu ability remains unused inside the cage, he has shown a dangerous enough top game. Belfort is a solid guard passer and very aggressive from back mount, where he'll hunt for the rear naked choke. In addition, Belfort's guard has historically been rather solid. Normally, he's just looking to escape back to his feet, but Belfort will get aggressive if he can manage to lock onto an overhook. Then, while his opponent looks to land some ground strikes, Belfort will quickly swivel his hips around and throw up his legs for the arm bar. Once again, this is a simple technique, but Belfort's speed makes it quite dangerous.
Of all the men Jon Jones has faced, Belfort came the closest to finishing him. In that bout, Belfort nearly capitalized on Jones' lazy arm positioning, quickly latching on and cranking the arm. "Bones" managed to escape, but Belfort did manage to do some real damage (GIF).
Win or lose, Belfort’s time as a title contender appears to be over barring some kind of miracle. However, there’s still a chance that Belfort can hang around as a ranked fighter and serve as a gatekeeper to the elite. A loss may send Belfort into retirement, but a win definitely opens up some solid match ups for the Brazilian.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.