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Flashback Friday: The Rise and Fall of The Phenom

A Tale of TRT and TKOs

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We’re nine days away from the alleged final bout of a living, competing mixed martial arts legend. I say””alleged” because this isn’t the first time Vitor “The Phenom” Belfort has claimed he was making the walk to the octagon for the final time. His closely contested bout against Nate Marquardt at UFC 212 last June was set to be his retirement bout until he came out the victor and proclaimed he “had five fights” left in him.

Then, in a heartfelt Instagram open letter to his missing sister (who has been missing since 2004 despite the efforts of Belfort and authorities) last month, he said his final bout would be against Uriah Hall in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi.

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Regardless of what Belfort chooses to do after the bout that takes place on January 14th, now is as good a time as any to look back at the storied career of one of the most devastating knockout artists in the history of the sport.  

Early Days

Vitor Belfort began training boxing at a young age and jiu-jitsu in his teens. After seeing him handling the other blue belts in a local tournament, Carlson Gracie invited him to his gym to train with the likes of Mario Sperry and Murilo Bustamante. In 1996, at the age of 19, Belfort came to the United States to begin competing in MMA.

He’d win his debut against the much larger Jon Hess in just 12 seconds.

 

 

The Phenom

In just his second pro fight, Belfort would enter the UFC 12 mini-tournament where he’d defeat Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo in the same night, and become the youngest person to win in the UFC at the time. In his next appearance, at UFC 13, he’d need less than a minute to knock out the infamous brawler Tank Abbott. This would set him up for a heavyweight title eliminator against Randy Couture, which saw Belfort take his first loss against the American wrestler. An outcome that was a major upset at the time. 

He’d drop to light heavyweight the following year and face off against the debuting Wanderlei Silva at UFC Brazil. Belfort needed only :44 seconds to blitz the future PRIDE middleweight king. After the bout, Belfort would return to heavyweight and fight his next five fights in the aforementioned PRIDE organization in Japan.

 

Belfort went 4-1 in his first stint with the promotion.  He lost his debut to Kazushi Sakuraba and then went on a four-fight win streak where he beat the likes of Gilbert Yvel and Heath Herring.

He’d return to the UFC and the light heavyweight division in 2002. After a couple of victories, he was granted a rematch against Randy Couture in his third fight back with the organization. Belfort would avenge a loss and win the light heavyweight belt in somewhat controversial fashion. He threw a punch and his glove caused a cut on Couture’s eye that warranted a doctor’s stoppage. Couture would get his revenge at UFC 49 and take his belt back from “The Phenom”, getting a doctor’s stoppage of his own in the third round.

Belfort would go 2-5 in his next 7 bouts, falling to the likes of Alistair Overeem (twice), Tito Ortiz, and Dan Henderson. After dropping to the middleweight division in 2007, Belfort finally found his footing again and went on a  five-fight win streak that culminated in a title shot against UFC middleweight great, Anderson Silva, in 2011. The highly-anticipated  fight ended with Belfort being on the receiving end of a highlight reel front kick to the face.

After the loss, Belfort demolished Yoshihiro Akiyama and beat Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, who was 16 lbs overweight for the bout by rear naked choke in the first round. In his next match, he stepped up on short notice and went back up to light heavyweight to take on Jon Jones for the title. Belfort locked on a nasty armbar in the first round and it seemed as though he was about to do the impossible and defeat the heavy favorite. Yet, Jones fought through and dominated the fight until the fourth round where he submitted the Brazilian.

TRT Belfort

Belfort returned to middleweight and went on one of the scariest streaks in the history of MMA. He had been granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) from the Brazilian athletic commission. Many were skeptical of this exemption for a multitude of reasons.  Belfort is a national hero in his native Brazil and it seemed possible that he was being allowed a TUE to give him an advantage. He had also previously failed post-fight drug tests, and low testosterone production and endocrine issues can stem from PED use. So even if his body wasn’t properly producing testosterone, it was likely due to his past choices. The  Nevada athletic commission voiced their concerns over the issue and claimed if he tried to fight in Vegas again, there’d be an intense investigation into his medical needs.  

 

(Belfort while on TRT)

Fighting only in Brazil for the TRT period of his career, Belfort would go on to smash Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson each with nasty head kicks and follow up punches. Belfort was looking faster, stronger and more dangerous than ever. 

Soon after his win over Henderson, TRT was then banned in the UFC and there was a drastic change in Belfort’s physique and performances. He’d lose his next three bouts by KO/TKO before picking up the already mentioned decision win over Marquardt in his last bout.

 

(Belfort after TRT was banned)

 

Regardless of the PED and TRT controversies that have marred his career, Belfort has always been a fan favorite. A “jiu-jitsu guy” who rarely used the gentle art and preferred to try and put his opponents to sleep with his striking, he won 18 of 26 victories by knockout. This vicious style has given him the accolades of most knockouts in UFC history with 12 and the most first-round finishes in the UFC with 13. While there is no telling how history will remember “The Phenom”, the fans will always remember him as a destroyer of men even if it was by controversial means throughout most of his career.

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