There has been so much talk this week about UFC 152 headliner Jon (Bones) Jones — and rightfully so. He is the UFC light-heavyweight champion. He’s the youthful face and the future of the UFC.
He is the ironically polarizing figure, who never means to say or do divisive things like one Michael Bisping or Chael Sonnen, yet often comes out looking more like the villain than those who seem to embrace the role.
He’s also the one responsible for the fact that he’s headlining this weekend’s UFC 152 card in Toronto as opposed to being in post-fight mode from what was his originally scheduled date earlier this month in Las Vegas.
As a result of all the attention given to him, many have been overlooking his opponent Saturday night, Vitor Belfort, who in many ways is the antithesis of Jon Jones.
Belfort, as he called himself, is the “old lion” while Jones is the “young lion.” He was first competing in the UFC in the time of legends Dan Severn and Mark Coleman. When he was winning a UFC heavyweight tournament with multiple victories in one night and going 4-0 to start his MMA career, Jones was nine years old.
Belfort is an old-school fighter, using more of the pure martial arts approach dependant on instinct. Jones is new-school, a pure mixed martial artist with enough athletic talent that could have seen him take on other sports — heck, his brothers are both NFL players, who incidentally will face off against each other on Sunday.
As Jones talks all about his brand and being a businessman — the “new breed” of professional athlete who must care about his financial future for both himself and his family — Belfort instead talks about the love of fighting and doing it all for the fans. That’s why he heard his name chanted time and time again at Friday’s weigh-ins, while Jones heard mostly boos. While Jones is afraid to put personal records on the line at the expense of entire fight cards, Belfort is willing to put his much older body on the line to save them.
Belfort has very little chance against Jones on Saturday — age, speed, and even skill level, are against him versus the man 10 years his younger. But those who will be at the Air Canada Centre Saturday should all feel very privileged to see him fight live, and those watching on pay-per-view should recognize the significance of him fighting for a UFC title at this point in his career.
Nevermind the odds that are against or the fact that he only got this opportunity by virtue of nobody else being available — or willing — to challenge Jones on such short notice. The overmatched Belfort will give it his all against Jones, and if that ends up lasting a full 25 minutes or a mere 25 seconds before Jones gets his hand raised, we will all appreciate Belfort’s effort as well as the enormity of the moment.
Belfort, the man who once defeated Randy Couture eight years ago to become the youngest champion in UFC history at the time at the age 26 — a record now held by Jon Jones, who was 23 when he took the title last year from Mauricio (Shogun) Rua — is fighting perhaps for his last chance at another piece of UFC gold.
Before capturing a championship title, Belfort won the UFC heavyweight tournament at age 19, in just his third pro fight, which is pretty remarkable. Even more amazing is that earlier that same night on Feb. 7, 1997, he won in his UFC debut, making him the youngest to ever win a fight in the Octagon.
Everyone is marvelling at what the 25-year-old Jones is doing now at such a young age, and they should be considering how much deeper and more competitive the UFC is due to the sport’s tremendous growth. But before Jones, there was the original “Phenom,” who was doing everything Jones is doing now back when the UFC was just beginning to blossom.
Belfort was one of the sport’s pioneers, an overused term for sure, but very appropriate considering the amazing battles he put on for years before a small losing streak and a lack of focus turned him into a journeyman for a few years until he finally got himself back in the UFC and has now won seven of his past eight fights.
Jones is riding those coattails of success, enjoying the benefits of the MMA boom that was due in part thanks to the efforts of guys like Belfort. Jones’s tremendous ability and execution are certainly helping to further the cause of the UFC’s popularity, but when we can have guys like Belfort step up and step in on short notice for high-profile fights in major markets like Toronto, that’s something that cannot and should not be forgotten.