Like Water: Vitor Belfort

Vitor Belfort is a 21-year MMA veteran and a former UFC light-heavyweight champion. This Saturday (June 3) he fights Nate Marquardt at UFC 212.

*** This feature originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Fighters Only ***


By Gareth A Davies

 

When a fighter describes his or her journey as less of a road and more of a river, it’s natural for anyone within earshot to administer a curious, skeptical glance. But when that fighter happens to be Vitor Belfort, the comment becomes less curious, less obscure.

Rather, it seems the perfect description for the career of a man who has often followed good with bad, devastating with disappointing and conclusive with controversial.

“The river makes the water flow,” says the Brazilian. “And that’s how I live. I just let everything flow. I just go with the river.” It is a fascinating analogy.

The response was to a question about the recent controversy surrounding his use of Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) and his attempts to come off the treatment in light of the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s (NSAC) decision to ban it.

Belfort’s detractors, of course, believe his use of TRT was responsible for decisive wins over Dan Henderson, Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping, all of whom were finished in almost comic book-style fashion – head-kicks, spinning heel-kicks, heavy strikes. You name it, Belfort has done it.

Suddenly, he was being viewed, and described by UFC president Dana White, as among “the most dangerous finishers” in the UFC. Close your eyes and picture his attacks. You can see and feel the destructive energy emanating from the veteran former champion.

Not a smooth, flowing transitional fighter, but an explosive ball of energy. Stop him, tire him, corner him, and he may well be beaten. Fail to do so, and he will tear through you. But the Brazilian himself believes his recent run of form owes more to his steadfast belief in God and the daily improvements he makes in the gym.

“The people who start that criticism are just looking for excuses for things that happened with them,” Vitor explains to Fighters Only. “If you go in the river, the river will take you to your place. I’m the river and I’m always looking for victory.

“The way I’ve been victorious recently raised a lot of excuses and a lot of hate. But I don’t really care. I’m just going with the current. I listen to the right voices and that’s all that matters. I have my wife, my friends, my counseling. I have people who can talk me through my life and they talk the truth.”

It takes little time for Belfort to refer to his faith. It is instinctive with most of the metaphors he uses to explain his position, his outlook. “I think it’s the grace of God,” he states. “That’s something I understand today – the will of God.

“God gives opportunities for every man, but not every man gives opportunities to God. I’ve asked that question to myself. I can see perfectly that my will is important. If you don’t let God do the work, you’re nothing. He will let you do whatever you want. God is perfect. He gave us the free will. I choose to work hard and never stop growing and learning and improving. I just thank God for this opportunity.”

For anyone who has followed Belfort’s career, especially of late, the love shown for his lord and savior will come as no surprise. He has, frankly, chosen to speak more of God than his opponents in recent years.

That, too, in the face of impending criticism from the other middleweights in the UFC stack known now as ‘murders’ row’. Bisping likes to have a go at him, raising the issue at every opportunity; so, too, Rockhold, who seems hellbent on a rematch.

But that doesn’t mean the words of others don’t register. Belfort hears them. He hears former opponents criticize his use of TRT and he hears future opponents, not least of all UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, ponder whether his run to the title has been, shall we say, aided by exterior forces. 
Belfort simply ignores what Weidman has to say about his use of TRT use and has instead focused solely on training.

The time to settle any debate, he believes, will be on December 6th, when the two leading middleweights square off at UFC 181. Belfort will be off TRT for the fight, meaning victory will give him more than just the title. It will also validate his recent upturn in form.

“I’m still around after UFC 12,” says the 18-year veteran, amongst the longest-serving fighters in the world’s leading fight organization, “and people can’t believe it. They’re scared. People are fighting a hungry lion. I’m looking to rule the jungle.”

His longevity, of course, is beyond dispute. 
One suspects that he will be in the Hall of Fame at some point, a question posited to him. 
“You cannot choose to be in the Hall of Fame, you have to earn it. When you earn, you don’t need to ask. My time will come. I believe I am a Hall of Famer. I was the youngest champion ever and I held two titles and am going for the third one. It’s all very exciting.”

The point here is that who isn’t looking forward to his contest with Weidman in December? It has opened debate, and the chatter is endless. From this perspective, if he defeats Weidman, there are any number of opponents lining up in a thrilling series of matches. Not least, ‘Jacare’ Souza, who believes, nonetheless, after his recent win over Gegard Mousasi, that his compatriot will lose to the American in Sin City.

Whatever anyone says about Belfort, he does seem to have an imperviousness about him that allows his to rise above the claims of others. 
The Brazilian has never claimed to be perfect, nor has he been a stranger to bad decisions. After all, upon losing to then Pride welterweight champion Dan Henderson in October 2006, he tested positive for an illegal substance, 4-hydroxytestosterone, and was subsequently suspended for nine months and fined $10,000. The mud stuck.

It’s why the vultures tend to circle these days. Perhaps he will always be fighting that tag, and it has been more than virulent as a form of criticism of late. 
“I have repent so many things, man,” he explains. “I’m not a guy who lets pride get in the way. I have a lot of regrets.

“The word repent means change direction. You can only evolve in life when you repent something. That’s the way I live. If I can repent, I can change direction. Life is about repetition.

“We do things over and over again. It’s good to have a certain amount of pride, but if you don’t repent, you can become arrogant. It grows and grows. I’m glad that I have repented of so many things in my life. When I eat something too sweet, I repent. That’s the beauty of life.”

Able to find comfort in his ability to forgive and forget, Belfort now seems to be operating with a greater power behind him. At least in his world. It’s more than any banned substance. It’s more than just hard work and dedication. Belfort, after years of searching, has found a kind of performance enhancing spirit no amount of money or sweat can deliver.

“I use the psychology of Jesus Christ,” he says. “He has saved me and redeemed and rescued me. That’s my psychologist.

“It’s just a matter of how committed and how hungry you are. You can have will and not have ethic, and you’ll never accomplish anything. People are looking for fame in our sport. They want to be a pop star. You can see them change. They get the title, they change their personality, and people talk about. I know how it is.

“My will is different from these other guys. My motive is different. It’s like another dimension. I’m fighting in another dimension. I’m living in another world right now – that’s just how I feel. That’s the way I live.”

More than just bluster, Belfort talks with a conviction that forces even the staunchest cynics to acquiesce and believe. His faith is not only strong, it’s admirable. It has enabled him to become a better father, a better husband and, it would seem, a more content and stable fighter. His words.

“I’m choosing to be a better person. I believe if I can be a good husband and a good father, then I can be a good fighter. If I’m true to myself, I’m unbeatable. If I’m faithful to my wife and faithful to my family, and faithful to God, nobody can beat me.

“You cannot take anything away from me. If you have ethics, you have a different type of performance. It’s not about money or a title. Ethics cannot be taken away.”

One of many turning points in Belfort’s life occurred the night he so nearly submitted UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in September 2012. Seconds away from winning the belt via arm-bar in round one, Belfort eventually found himself submitted in the fourth. So near, yet so far.

“That was the trigger,” he recalls. “My wife said, ‘Is that what you want to keep doing?’, and I said, ‘Yes, this is what I want. I’m not going to let it slip again.’ I’m very committed to my mission.”

It is a mission that has seen him spread the word of God and embark on a three-fight unbeaten run since losing to Jones. Now he prepares to fight for the UFC title again, almost 11 years after first winning the UFC 205lb belt back in January 2004.

Belfort says: 
“I’m so focused on December 6th. Sometimes I even forget the day that my children were born. I’m so into right now and today. I live in the present moment like it’s the only day I have.”

Weidman, his next foe, has yet to lose as a professional mixed martial artist and has recently defeated both Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida in title fights. Suffice to say, the hard-nosed American looks to make it a hat-trick of Brazilian former champions to close out the year.

“I think he has a great way of exchanging the games – going from boxing to wrestling,” assesses Vitor. “That’s what I think he’ll try to do. He’ll mix his games up. My fear is what I have to do to stop him. Wherever it is, on the ground or on the feet, I’ll go through and stop him. I’m prepared to fight in every area.”

It’s a battle between unpredictability and consistency. Belfort brings the former, Weidman the latter. It is also a fight in which many truths are likely to be told. And fans, the kind who have stuck by Belfort throughout his various ups and downs, will learn a little more about their visceral fighting hero from Rio de Janeiro.

“I believe that my fans really appreciate what I do for them,” Belfort says. “I have real fans. I don’t just have fans when I’m winning. I have real, legit fans who have stuck by me. I am thankful for the type of fans I have.”

The green light to fight Weidman only arrived in July, when Belfort was summoned by the UFC to attend and administrative hearing with the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) to render verdicts for both him and Chael Sonnen, another who’d recently had issues with TRT and consequently flunked a test. After being awarded a conditional license, an emotional Belfort broke down in tears.

“I am who I am,” he reflects. “When I’m emotional, I’m emotional. We all have our days. Nobody’s perfect. I’m not scared to show my emotions. I’ll always be true with everything. I’ll never hide anything from anybody. Justice was done and I felt great about it. I got what I deserved. It was a good moment for me.”

Sonnen wasn’t quite so lucky. In addition to the pink slip he received from both UFC and Fox Sports, he was suspended for two years. 
“Who am I to give advice to Sonnen?” Belfort says. “People make decisions. When you point fingers, and you judge and criticize people, that’s not a good harvest. My advice for everyone is just be true to yourself. That’s what I’ve been working on myself.

“Sometimes you have those moments when you get mad and you think it’s an eye for an eye. You’re only human, even though you’re a Christian. What we’ve got to realize, though, is that repentance and forgiveness is the best thing in anybody’s life. When you can repent and forgive, that’s like discovering you’re the wealthiest guy in the world.”

The one-time wild child of the UFC now possesses and eerily mature way of diffusing fires. He can wriggle his way free from controversy. He can ignore the taunts of opponents. Maybe he has simply grown up, and is ready for any challenge, public, private, or personal.

Belfort adds: “A lot of people make their mark in history. They might be a great father or a great husband. I’m more concerned with my fighting life than my public life right now. A lot of people out there are telling the public something that’s not real.

“I know I have a lot of things to improve, and I’m working on that every day. But, if I can leave a legacy in my private life, with my wife and my kids and with God, I don’t need to impress anyone else. If I can make God happy, and my wife and my kids happy, you can’t ask for anything more.

“I’m the same person I am in public as I am in private. That’s just me. I don’t pretend to be anything else. I am who I am – that’s what will be written on my stone in heaven.”

The biggest danger for Weidman, aside from Belfort’s ferocious punches and kicks, is to be lulled into a false sense of security come the opening bell at UFC 181. Perhaps talked into taking it easy. Bamboozled by Vitor’s sermons, even. Or worse still, falling into the trap of thinking TRT is solely responsible for the Brazilian’s considerable threat.

It’s then that ‘The Phenom’ will creep up on you. It’s then that he’ll pounce. 
“The first word you learn in martial arts is ‘respect’,” Befort says. “Today you see champions who don’t respect people. They bring hate and they bring trash talk to the sport. I don’t agree with that. I understand it, because we’re all human beings, but it’s not something I want to see.

“’Love’ is a big word. But without repentance and without forgiveness, you’ll never learn what love is. Some people learn this at a young age, like my kids, but others never learn it. For my kids, love will come naturally. It’s so much easier that way. It’s the dimension I’m living in and it’s the dimension they live in, too.”

On hearing that a family member has been ill, Belfort switches. He takes an immediate interest. He wants to know their name, their illness. Extraordinarily, he switches from his personal mission to uniting those around him in prayer: his training team, his manager, his wife. His children fall silent. They are silent, in a circle.

He says a prayer which goes on several minutes and asks The Lord to deliver my sick family member from the illness and it is genuinely a touching moment. The man is different from the fighter, as he has been explaining.

It says much about how he has managed to rise above the criticism and barbs. Intriguing. 
He sounds like the nicest guy in the world, but don’t be fooled. He’s also one of the deadliest. We may just find out why when he collides with Weidman in Sin City on December 6th.