So what are we to make of Vitor Belfort? That he’s to be lauded for reinventing himself by changing the way he looks, trains, acts around his competitors and adding new moves to his arsenal, making him an even more complete mixed martial artist? Or that he’s to be censured for using testosterone replacement therapy that has made him the subject of negative criticism from people inside and outside the industry who are against drugs in sports?
The polarities are products of his success in his last two fights, both of them stunning victories and concurrent with using TRT.
With his breathtaking knockout over Luke Rockhold via a spinning heel kick in the main event of UFC on FX Saturday night in Brazil, Belfort shows no signs of stopping, similar to fellow countryman Wanderlei Silva.
Silva’s fight against Brian Stann on UFC on Fuel TV 8 in March is the early pick (in this corner anyway) as the best bout so far in the UFC this year, but Belfort’s decisive win over Rockhold isn’t that far behind. While Silva manhandled Stann with sheer punching power, Belfort accomplished his victory with a spinning heel kick, the second one in the bout, which to that point had been the first time he had ever done it in his MMA career that began in 1996.
It was, in some ways, reminiscent of the dramatic front face kick that Anderson Silva landed against Belfort in their main event fight at UFC 126 in February 2011. Silva dropped Belfort and then finished him off with a barrage of punches that resulted in a knockout. After Rockhold fell to the ground, Belfort let loose with a variety of left and rights shots that eventually resulted in a knockout.
Rockhold brazenly (or perhaps naively) suggested before the fight he had studied Belfort's career and knew what to expect and wouldn't make the same mistakes as Michael Bisping, who faced the Brazilian back in January and was stopped in the first round by a leg kick to the head and punches.
"Nothing's going to change this much in the game from him," Rockhold said. "I know exactly what he's going to do, when he's going to do it."
He couldn't have been more incorrect in his thinking. He never anticipated the second heel kick even after Belfort connected with it earlier in the round.
"He continues to evolve and become better as a mixed martial artist late in his career," Rockhold said.
Rockhold, 28, is new to the UFC following a career in the now-defunct Strikeforce in which he was a middleweight champion. He'll have time to rebound from the loss. Belfort turned 36 in April; the clock on his career should be moving closer to the end than further away from it. The same is true for Silva, who turns 37 in July. It's like the two of them refuse to wilt despite the wear and tear on their bodies. Just ask Bisping, who has suffered losses to both fighters and was forced to eat the verbal crow he dished out in hearty amounts before the bouts.
Following his first win over Bisping, it was revealed Belfort had used TRT. It has become somewhat of a sticky subject in the UFC, which is taking a hardline stance against its competitors who test positive for marijuana but are accepting of TRT if the athletes receive approval from the regulatory commissions overseeing the fights. Belfort has fought the last two times in Brazil, which has approved his use of TRT.
Belfort tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone following a loss almost seven years ago to Dan Henderson in a fight in Las Vegas. Combined with the revelation he is now using TRT, which he refused to publicly admit before the Bisping fight, Belfort has had to address why he is using performance-enhancing drugs.
"TRT doesn't win fights," Belfort said leading up to the Rockhold fight. "A lot of guys on TRT are losing fights. It's a lot of hard work. People that know me know how hard I work. I'm just following the rules and doing everything legal."
A video showing some of his workout routine portrayed a driven individual, who by his own admission is a "radical," albeit the term had more to do with the Mohawk hairdo he has sported in his last two fights. But his demanding workout schedule is also a product of his radicalism. He is working harder than ever and has surrounded himself with a team to elevate his game to a new level, one he hopes will stretch out his career, possibly provide him with another title shot. His legs kicks are a product of his work and willingness to embrace new things.
"I've never felt in such condition in my life," he said. "No sacrifice, no glory … I'm just learning, just as if I'm starting from scratch"
He also seems to have developed a nastier demeanour since the Jones fight, which he welcomed with a spiritual/warrior passion that touched upon Christianity, existentialism and love. He spoke with enlightenment, almost as if he was re-born. He hasn't abandoned that, but his attitude is grittier.
"He's getting angrier, he's rough, he's irritated, he's edgy," fighter and TV analyst Chael Sonnen remarked in the pre-fight telecast.
Belfort is doing everything he can to squeeze every ounce of his talent, making subtle changes which are clearly working. Who knows if any of this is a product of what happened to him after the Jones fight, which he came close to winning in what surely would have been the greatest and most meaningful victory of his career. To come so close and lose had to have grated away at the inner core of his being. This is how much the sport means to him.
He has built up a career, similar to Wanderlei Silva, and has come a long way since the two fought in the first-ever UFC card in Brazil in October 1998. But where will Belfort go from here? Could the onetime UFC light-heavyweight champion become a champion again? It would be a great story. His popularity is immense. Fans cheer and chant his name. But not everyone sees it that way, claiming he has benefitted from fighting in his homeland in his last two bouts and has benefitted from the relaxed attitude of the Brazilian commission toward his need for TRT. It is something that could become an issue in the U.S., particularly because he's tested positive in one jurisdiction for steroid use. His defence is he is operating within the rules, which is accurate, but whether it is ethically right is something that has created discussion, in particular whether he really needs to use drugs to accomplish his goals.